The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 8

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Astonished and Afraid.

“They were on their way up to Jerusalem with Jesus leading the way,” continues the Gospel writer John Mark, “and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. (Mark 10:32).

The road following the Jordan River valley southward toward Jericho and Jerusalem was little more than a narrow path tacked onto the side of a rocky hillside. Jesus was leading the way because it was single file width here. There was little talk. One misstep and a traveller would be slipping and tumbling down the steep rubble toward the riverbed and it would be a long hot climb back up to the path. So there was time for reflection.

Jesus was reflecting on His journey’s goal: Jerusalem, where the necessary step of His redemptive plan for humanity would take place—His painful, wrath-absorbing execution. The disciples were perhaps reflecting on Jesus’ words at their last rest stop, “the first will be last, and the last first.” What did Jesus mean by that? He was an astonishing teacher and they forever seemed to be one step behind Him in understanding what He was all about. His view of the kingdom of God was almost impossibly opposed to everything they had been taught. If religion, wealth, and ambition were barriers to entering God’s kingdom, how did one enter it?

The crowd following behind the disciples was the last in line, and we’re simply told they were afraid. What fears motivated their reflections? Were they afraid of the consequences to Jesus returning to Jerusalem where the religious leaders had made it clear they would kill Him? Were they afraid of the implications of being associated with this wanted man? Were they afraid of their own inner turmoil as they thought about their own failings, and of Jesus’ statement that it is impossible to save oneself from the eternal consequences of those failings? They were afraid, yet they followed, perhaps from a distance, both attracted and repelled by the teachings of this strange man.

There must have been a widening in the path, because we’re told Jesus now stopped to say something to His twelve disciples. Perhaps the path rose up to a plateau from which the temple mount of Jerusalem could be seen in the distance, and on this wide plateau the disciples could gather around Him and hear what He had to say. Perhaps the following crowd had slowed its pace back on the narrow path and had fallen far behind. This message was for His twelve close friends only.

Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise

This wasn’t the first time Jesus had predicted His own execution. The gospel-writer John Mark records at least three other times when Jesus had revealed to His twelve disciples the traumatic twist His death would take. He had used words like ‘suffer’ and ‘rejected’, and one of those times His close disciple Peter had tried to rebuke Him—to say, ‘Impossible! You are the Messiah! You are the promised Leader of God’s glorious kingdom!’

Yet Jesus was again repeating His prediction, adding this time the betrayal aspect that would shock at least eleven of the twelve disciples. And for a third time Jesus also revealed that His death would be only Part A of the great redemptive act God’s love had planned for humanity; Part B would be Jesus’ resurrection—His conquest of death’s mortal grip on life. But it all seemed to go over their heads again this day. They were silent.

And that is often how we are when Jesus wants to speak into our hearts and lives. We’re astonished or we’re just silent. We’re distracted by visions we’ve created in our own minds about how life will unfold, how success will come our way, how things will pan out. But Jesus still speaks. He takes you and me aside and speaks into our hearts through His Word, the Bible, telling us what we need to know for today to give us hope and strength. There may be suffering in our day, but there is always the rising out of the dust of that suffering because of Jesus and the life He offers. So let’s step aside with Jesus today; let’s read His Word and hear His voice. Let’s respond to Him through prayer and then step back onto the path with Him as our leader. That’s what Jesus is offering.

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The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 4

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Impossible?

Picture the largest indigenous land animal in your country—on the west coast of Canada it would be a grizzly bear. Now picture the smallest hole which technology of our day has devised—that would be the apertures made by UC Berkeley’s semiconductor laser that are smaller than a single protein molecule. Now, imagine you want to communicate a hyperbole to make a point. You might say something like, “That’s as likely as a Grizzly squeezing through a semiconductor laser aperture!” It would be unusual enough that you would be making your point (no pun intended).

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record Jesus making a similar comment—a first century Middle Eastern version of it. Jesus uses hyperbole to make a point, to catch His disciples’ attention, to correct a firmly held cultural belief. Jesus’ comment follows His interaction with the rich young man who has turned away, unwilling to redistribute his wealth, precursor to softening his heart to following Jesus.

“Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:23-27).

The problem was that Jewish culture equated wealth with spiritual blessing. It read Moses’ words, “God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to” (Deuteronomy 15:10) and made it into a holy grail. Wealth became a defining sign of God’s reward. The wealthier the Jews became, the more they ignored God’s words fore and aft of the ‘blessing.’ The commands, “do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother” (v.7), and “be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land” (v.11) had been disregarded. It is human nature to twist God’s words in such a way that it benefits oneself rather than obeying the true spirit of the command.

Jesus’ hyperbole was meant to bring that mindset to a screeching halt. The disciples are “amazed” and then “even more amazed” at his words. He is clearly explaining that we can neither earn our way to eternal life nor presume that our wealth, social status, or ethical standards give us a foot in the door to paradise. There is nothing we can do to position ourselves to deserve God’s blessing. No one can be saved.

Exactly, confirms Jesus. “With man this is impossible.”

But Jesus continues. There is hope because God turns the impossible into the possible. As in creation when He speaks His Word and everything from rainbows of light to species of life are created, His Word must be spoken for humanity’s salvation to occur. Jesus is the Word of God in the flesh, and it is He who makes salvation possible for each of us. He is the one who has spent the wealth of His perfect sinlessness to pay with His life-blood the debt of our moral bankruptcy. They unpayable bill has been paid in full.

No matter where we are at today—long-time followers of Jesus, cautious explorers of this thing called saving faith, or hard-nosed atheists—we are all on common ground. Not one of us can access any real paradise on our own. It’s impossible. But Jesus can and does. Jesus makes the impossible possible.

Be amazed an even more amazed. He has made eternity available to us.

The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 3

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Love.

We left the rich young man after hearing Jesus give him the terrible diagnosis of his life: in order to follow Jesus he must discard his competing loyalties. In his case it was wealth. In our case it can be any one (or more) of a vast number of things: anything that puts something else before our loyalty to Christ.

But let’s go back one step in this story. The young man has just claimed he is living what he considers to be a good enough life; he maintains he has kept all the requirements of the Jewish Law. He wants confirmation from this rabbi that he can claim eternal life as his just deserts.

How does Jesus respond? Here in Mark 10:21, Mark describes Jesus’ reaction from a point of view that invites us right into Jesus’ heart. It is a moment that deserves our full attention, because it is the story of humanity in a nutshell. We, too, each live our lives by an ethical scale of sorts; we have either transposed it from the principles that our families, our traditions or our society have established, or we have created it from an eclectic collection of any of the above. We may even claim we reject any concept of right and wrong, but honestly, we don’t live that way do we? We all live by some internal classification system of right and wrong.

So here is Jesus, God in the flesh, the One whose character is the basis for all moral excellence —listening to this young man’s proud assertions that he has followed moral law to the letter. How will He respond? –By congratulating the young man? –By slamming him for his pride? –By laughing at him?

We’re told, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.”

This is how Jesus looks at each of us. We may prattle on about how good we are, or we may keep silent about our personal convictions. We may regularly leave hints for others to observe and come to the conclusion that we are pretty good people. Or we may march in parades proudly displaying our ideologies and daring others to contradict us. It doesn’t matter. Jesus still looks at each of us and loves us. Does that mean He condones our self-made rules for living? No.

Jesus knew that not many days after this meeting with the rich young ruler He would be walking the path from Jerusalem’s Praetorium, his back in bleeding shreds from a scourging, his scalp dripping from the piercing, humiliating crown of thorns. He would be walking toward the most egregious form of execution the Roman Empire could devise, and He would be taking the punishment the totality of humanity deserves for the crux of our moral flaw—our hatred of God and His sovereignty. He would be buying our freedom from an eternity of self-destruction each of us face upon our own deaths. And it was in this knowledge that Jesus looked at the rich, self-satisfied young man and loved him.

What do we do with this? How do you and I respond to this same Jesus who even now looks at you and me, and loves, loves, LOVES us? This is the quintessential issue of life. Nothing else matters but this. Jesus knows about our foolish attempts at morality (mostly used by us to earn a sense of self-esteem). He knows only His ransom-paying death and death-defying resurrection can supply us with the eternal life we all ultimately long for. And He longs to love us into His kingdom of eternity.

But it comes down to this: Do we look at Him and love Him in return?

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)

Twenty-eight Days with Jesus, Day 4

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OBEDIENT.

“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit,” documents Matthew in his fourth chapter of the gospel named after him. We’ve encountered Jesus a chapter earlier explaining His life purpose to the sage, John, that He must “fulfill all righteousness.” There He was active and intentional. The integrity that would come to characterize everything we know about this amazing Man was first revealed there.

But now we see Jesus allowing Himself to be led. This is an important concept, and Matthew does not flinch from recording it. To be led is to follow the direction and orders of another. It is to deliberately put oneself at the mercy of another’s plans, to fulfill their purposes for you. This is what Jesus did.

Now, we ought to take note that His obedience was not a weak passivity that allowed Himself to be used by any and all. His obedience was focused wholly on the Father’s will as communicated to Him by the Holy Spirit. He was purposing to accomplish the task that He, as one of the three members of the triune God, had determined before time needed to be accomplished.

But His role of Immanuel, God with us in the flesh, meant that this determination to fulfill what He intended would come crashing head first against a barrier. He would need to personally experience the daunting interference of the devil—fallen angel, disobedient messenger and tempter of humans.

The ‘temptation of Jesus’, as recorded here in Matthew’s account is famous. We know the devil presents to Jesus three opportunities for a quick fix for Jesus’ situation as earthbound God-man: the tempter points out that stones could become warm bread at a word from the fasting Jesus—why should the Son of God (said with a sneer) be hungry? He then challenges Jesus to fling Himself off the peak of the temple of Jerusalem whereupon obedient angels would surely rescue Him—why should His minions not serve the Son of God? Satan’s grand finale is to offer Jesus the wealth and splendor of the world’s kingdoms if only Jesus would worship him for a moment—why should the creator of all not enjoy the wealth of His creation?

Yet Jesus is not daunted. He walks through barriers with an ease that belies the strength it takes to remain obedient to a true cause when every voice seems to point the other way. His answers to the tempter reflect His commitment to obey His Father, Truth itself. He points back to the Word of God, truths and commands recorded in Scriptures. And with that, the devil sullenly leaves Him.

C.S. Lewis offers us a useful thought on what this temptation would have meant for Jesus: “A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness — they have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means — the only complete realist.”

So as we observe Jesus in this record of the devil’s attempt to tempt Him, we may recognize the epiphany we’ve been given. It’s a two-fold revelation. It’s an epiphany in terms of it revealing a moment when ‘you suddenly feel you understand or become conscious of something that is very important to you’ (credit to Cambridge Dictionaries Online for this definition). We realize that even when we are weakened by the strongest reasons tempting us to disown Him, the strength to remain true to God is accessible to us through Jesus’ own strength living in us. There is no temptation that is beyond Christ’s ability to help us spurn. Because of His obedience, we can be obedient too.

And secondly, it’s an epiphany in the more literal sense: a manifestation of the divine nature of Christ there in the dust and dirt of life on troubled planet earth. It wasn’t the end of the story, though. The writer of another segment of Scripture tells us about the attitude of Jesus, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

That is what obedience results in when rightly placed. This is Jesus. And this is what God wants for us.

(Photo Credit: “Jules Guérin. The Wilderness of Judea . 1910” by Jules Guérin (1866-1946)Book author: Robert Smythe Hichens – Robert Smythe Hichens, The Holy Land, 1910 p.175. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jules_Gu%C3%A9rin._The_Wilderness_of_Judea_._1910.jpg#/media/File:Jules_Gu%C3%A9rin._The_Wilderness_of_Judea_._1910.jpg)

What’s to be Thankful For? Part 7

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Counsel.

Supply must meet demand. The universities across Canada and the United States that have responded to the demand are simply humming. They are busily producing graduates of Counseling Psychology programmes because of a growing need out here among us Western ‘grab the world by the tail’ people. What is the need? What is the demand that is causing such feverish activity and producing so many jobs?

We need counsel. More than that, we need counseling. Whether it is our fast-paced culture, the loss of a supportive community, or unknown influences upon our mental health, the insecurity of life as we know it is getting to us. We’ve lost our identity and our sanity feels not far behind. We need someone to help us find our way, someone to give us hope that life can be joyful, occasionally happy, or at least bearable.

Living three millennia ago, the psalmist David manages to pen words contemporary to our situation. His concern is not that he grapple with the high-speed changes of technology and culture. He has other worries on his mind, primarily invading armies from without, and insurrection from within. Yet David knows the human condition. He experiences the mental upheaval of wrestling with life’s dilemmas, and he points us in the direction of their resolution.

“I will praise the LORD who counsels me,” he declares; “even at night my heart instructs me” (Psalm 16:7).

God counsels, day and night. That piques our interest. Your first question, if you are like me, is to ask, “How does He do that?” We don’t hear His voice; we don’t sit in an overstuffed chair in an office with “God, Registered Clinical Counselor (RCC)” on the door, describing to Him the stressors in our life and our feelings regarding them, while he takes notes.

Isaiah, God’s mouthpiece in the eighth century B.C. prophesied, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor…” (Isaiah 9:6). Those words speak of Jesus, the promised redeemer of everyone who looks to Him for recovered relationship with God. And Jesus has a wealth of information to tell His followers about the counseling role not only He, but also the Father and the Holy Spirit perform. Pour over the gospel of John, chapters fourteen through sixteen to hear many references to the counseling work of God.

“And I will ask the Father,” explains Jesus to the twelve disciples who would watch His crucifixion hours later, “and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16).

“He lives with you and will be in you,” Jesus continues, opening His disciples’ minds to this means of counsel they had never before experienced; the Holy Spirit would indwell the core of each of their beings–and not only theirs. He is ever-present today in those who allow themselves to be indwelt by Him. He is endlessly and unfailingly urging and encouraging right thoughts, right responses, and right actions in us.

Not to belittle the important job RCCs accomplish in providing a listening ear and sounding box for us to get some traction on problem solving techniques. But God goes deeper. He has access into our heart and soul and is able to lead us from despair to hope. “Search me, O God,” adds David in another psalm (139:23,24), “and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” I need that good counsel and I’m thankful for it. How about you?

(Photo Credit: “Harpers ferry by moonlight” by Robert Hinshelwood – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3a51235.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Harpers_ferry_by_moonlight.jpg#/media/File:Harpers_ferry_by_moonlight.jpg)

REVELATION: Part 10

Meriam Ibrahim in Sudan

Confronting Mediocrity (Rev. 3:14-18)

She was sentenced to 100 lashes and death by hanging for her faith in Christ. Hours before the lashes were to be administered, Mariam Yehya Ibrahim’s sentence was revoked. She, along with her toddler son and newborn daughter, were free to return home where her husband waited. Hours later, authorities again detained Ibrahim as she and her family attempted to leave the country. That was three days ago.

There is nothing passive, lukewarm or mediocre about Ibrahim’s faith. She is willing to die for it, be tortured for it, or leave her home and land for it.

Jesus’ letter to the last of the seven churches mentioned in the book of Revelation is a handbook on this kind of faith — and the lack of it. Have we read it?

“These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.”

That’s it. No consolation. No pats on the back. No excuses for passivity and mediocrity. Jesus is appalled at the juvenile attitude and behaviors His people in the church of Laodicea are displaying. They are happily complacent with material wealth, social acceptability, and various other sorts of immediate gratification. Like drinking tepid coffee or warm iced-tea, there is no pleasure for God in communing with laissez-faire followers.

Fortunately, Jesus offers counsel to remediate the problem, because the problem sounds strangely familiar. It’s not familiar to people like Mariam Yehya Ibrahim who is willing to give up everything she holds precious to stand up for Jesus, but maybe it’s familiar to us in the West. We are not likely to admit it aloud, but most of us have slipped into a level of mediocrity, haven’t we? It is so comfortable to be a Christian in these parts. We have our own schools, our own radio stations and music, even our own political party (at least the atheists think so).

Let’s be honest for a moment and ask ourselves if we are maybe even a little bit lukewarm in our faith. Would the Sudanese government consider us Christians if we lived where Ibrahim lives? Or have we become so adept at camouflaging our faith that we’ve evolved to become more like the culture around us than like Christ?

These are the clues: Are we poor in daily relationship with God, more comfortable on social media than in prayer? Are we blind to the unseen spiritual kingdom of God our lives are designed to promote? Are we naked of the love of Christ He longs to pour out on those with whom we come into contact?

His solution confronts the miserable mediocrity of our lives and replaces it with robust vitality: Admit that Jesus can do more for you than wealth can (“…assign your nuggets to the dust…then the Almighty will be your gold.” Job 22:25). Apply the salve of meditating on His Word to the eyes of your worldview (“Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” Col.3:2). Dress each day in the garb that gives you His identity (“…faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” I Cor. 13:13).

A loved one recently cautioned, “Don’t be a self-righteous fool!” While the words sting, we who are truly followers of Jesus must be willing to accept the diagnosis, fill the prescription, and apply it daily. The flame of the Spirit is ready to heat up our lives to a temperature none could call mediocre, if we let Him.

Come, Holy Spirit. Revive us.

(Photo Uncredited)