Monthly Archives: January 2010

A Cold, Cold Plunge I’ll Never Forget

Team FUMCL Special Blessings: Jeremy, Matthew, me, Kathryn, and Blairlee

On Saturday afternoon, it was not quite 20-degrees and bitingly cold on the beach of Sandy Point State Park. The snow was steadily coming down, occasionally buffeted by the winds blowing off of the Chesapeake Bay. I stood in a very large propane-warmed tent with several hundred other men where together we stripped off our winter jackets, hats, gloves, shirts, and pants to nothing but a bathing suit and water shoes. Accompanied by my other team members, I exited the tent to stand on the beach with thousands of other people, most of whom wore similarly dressed in nothing but bathing suits and water shoes.

I remember thinking to myself, “Hey, I’m not as cold as I thought I’d be!” The snow was falling even harder now on my head, bare back and shoulders. I looked down to see several inches of snow churned into the sand.

In a few moments, my wife Blairlee, our daughter Kathryn, and our aunt Debra joined us from the women’s changing tent. They joined up with Matthew, Jeremy and me. Our team was assembled and ready to go.

Stretched out in front of us loomed the ominous, shadowy dark, frigid waters of the Chesapeake Bay, waving and lapping, effortlessly absorbing the sheets of snow that fell into it. It was like a deep watery abyss swelling and rolling just yards from where I stood. In a matter of minutes, all of us standing on the beach would be plunging ourselves into those icy cold waters of the Bay.

The crowd was as raucous and as pumped with fear and adrenaline as I’d ever seen. They were cheering each other on and running and dancing in place. Music and a countdown piped in behind us on a large sound system propped up on a stage. In mere moments, all of us would walk out waist-deep into the water, and if we dared, plunge underneath for a wintery baptism by fire we’d never forget.

But why were we doing this?

We were a part of the 14th annual Maryland State Police Polar Bear Plunge to benefit Special Olympics Maryland. It’s a large, widely sponsored event that attracts thousands of people every year who have worked to raise their own funds for themselves and their plunge teams. Our team is on pace to raise nearly $3,000, but the event itself, once all receipts and donations are in, raises well over 3-million dollars to benefit the athletes of Special Olympics Maryland. It’s one of the most well-organized, phenomenal fundraising events I have ever seen.

Of course, for my family, the Polar Bear Plunge has become a very personal event. Blairlee and I are proud parents of Jacob, who is almost 2-years-old and has Down syndrome. We’re really looking forward to the years down the road when Jacob will be old enough to become a Special Olympics athlete. All of Special Olympics events are free for their athletes.

Looking around on that beach, I was so grateful to be surrounded by people who make it possible for someone like my son to be a Special Olympian. I guess you could say that we were there helping to “pay it forward” in our own small way.  I wondered what all these other people were thinking as they were ready to plunge into the Chesapeake Bay. Was it anything other than, “I’m gonna be sooo cold!”

But as I stood there, waiting for the magic moment to arrive, I thought to myself, “Isn’t this the strangest spectacle I’ve ever seen?” I mean, what does this say about the culture in which I live that thousands of people would do something like this, which borders on the purely idiotic, all the while telling ourselves and others that it’s for a good cause?” I’m sure some social psychologist could write a thesis on social phenomena like these where crowds of humanity organize themselves to plunge into a large body of water in the dead of winter in nothing but their bathing suits, all for charitable purposes. What does this say about us?? I may not want to know…

Then the moment arrived! Our Polar Bear plunge team made our way down the beach towards that cold, watery abyss. Blairlee and I stayed together and lost our other team members to the crowd. We hit the water, and immediately sharp, cold pain hit my feet and ankles. We kept wading on in, driven by pure adrenaline, passing people who were running out, shivering, yelling, “I’m so cold!” This didn’t seem so good, but Blairlee and I kept going out. We got to our knees, then hips, then up to our navels. State divers created a perimeter to stop us from going further out than that.

Blairlee and I looked at each other and laughed. I think for us, it was a moment of fierce, celebratory victory. We had been through so much together raising Jacob, through nearly two years  of joy and pain, laughter and tears, hospitals, surgeries, therapies, doctors and specialist visits, and a whole lot of tender fun, too. Now, we couldn’t stop laughing and smiling. Blairlee asked, “Do you want to go under?” I yelled back, “Yeah! Yeah!”

So under we went. The water was so cold that as it enveloped my chest and head, it snatched the breath right out of me. I have never been so stunned by coldness is my life! I think that if I had been in the open water, I easily could have drowned. But instead I came back up, pumped my fists in the air and gave a loud victory cry. We had done it!!

Blairlee and I made our way back up to the beach, grabbed our towels from Aunt Debra, and scurried off towards the heated tents. My feet were so numb that if felt like walking on stumps. It took me probably fifteen minutes of standing, soaking wet in the cold and snow to get back inside the tent. The only grace I had were the warm bodies that surrounded me. I could see a light cloud of steam lifting off our bodies as we inched closer to getting inside that warm, propane-heated tent.

Several times, the music over the speaker system got interrupted by medical emergency calls. At least five different people who were standing outside required emergency medical care. I found out later that one of them, a girl who suffered a severe asthma attack, collapsed right in front of Blairlee. That evening, we learned that over 100 people were treated for hypothermia. The cold had gotten so bad that the event’s medical staff insisted on canceling the 3 PM plunge.

Finally, I was able to weave myself inside to change my clothes. As our team gathered again from dressing, we decided to high-foot it back home. We all needed a good thawing out!

So, the obvious question is: would I do this again. Without reservation, I say yes!! As a lover of people, parent of a child who will be a Special Olympian, and someone who has it in him to go out and do borderline idiotic things like these, there’s no question. As long as I’m healthy and able, I’ll be back next year. I thank God for the opportunity!!

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Smashing the Jesus Idol of Churchianity

In my last post, I pointed out that the Church in its present state hosts many false idols of Jesus that need to be called out and smashed. In so doing, my intentions are not to bad-mouth the Church, but rather to help the Church reform and recover a more authentic, effective, and sincere discipleship under Jesus Christ. By naming and smashing these false Jesus idols, we can move closer to the real Jesus and to the abundant, eternal life he calls us to share in community with him and with each other. Some of these idols are glaringly obvious. Some are far more elusive. But all are equally damning if we worship them.

So in this post, I’d like to call out and smash one of the more elusive, difficult-to-understand false idols of Jesus. It’s the Jesus idol of “churchianity.” This idol has been created and paraded around to bless and propagate the traditional, institutional church structure in which most all mainline denominations and churches fit. This idol props up and spiritualizes the goals, agenda, and values of the institutional church.

Admittedly this is smart ploy! I mean, if the institutional church can claim that it’s only doing what Jesus commanded them to do and carry it out in his name, then who can argue with that? But this tactic is what makes this false idol of Jesus so crafty; the institutional church puts the most sacred words and commands of Jesus into this idol’s mouth and drags it out into the open when they need its justification.

But to properly describe this churchianity Jesus idol, we need to better understand the condition of the institutional church which created it.

Roman Emperor Constantine

The institutional Western Church as we know it today has enjoyed a long history of power and prestige from the time of Roman emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 AD until nearly 50 years ago. The Church thrived in a state of Christendom in which Christianity of some form was the official religion of every Western nation. The Church stood at the center of such a society and by virtue of having its doors open and services conducted, it maintained Christianity as the civil religion of the land. Church and State became virtually synonymous, and the Jesus of this Church stood as the patron of their union.

The last century saw seismic shifts in society and culture which drastically affected the Western institutional church. The rise of democracy in the 18th and 19th Centuries gradually eroded away Christendom. But in the last century, with the influx of post-modernism’s deep skepticism towards all things central and institutional, the last vestiges of Christendom crumbled away completely, leaving behind a crippled institutional church. From the early 1960’s until now, the church has continued in a state of denial, believing that its ornate buildings, traditions, grand worship services, and programs would continue to attract and keep its adherents. But instead, most mainline institutional churches have suffered an accelerated decline in membership and worship service attendance.

So what do once-powerful, threatened institutions do? They throw themselves into survival mode. They ramp up their efforts to become productive again. They uplift institutional identity and fidelity as a chief value for all its members. And, in the case of the institutional church, they dig into the wellspring of biblical and theological treasures they’ve inherited to find ideas, slogans, and self-serving principles they hope will make them vibrant again. This sludge is what I call churchianity.

The United Methodist Cross and Flame

For example, I’ve too often heard my own denomination and Conference promote the following institutionally-minded goals:

  • increasing worship attendance and professions of faith, i.e. boost our flagging institutional membership statistics
  • increase stewardship and giving for the spreading of the gospel, i.e. bringing in money to keep our programs going, staff paid, and buildings operational
  • do more evangelism and faith sharing, i.e. attracting people back into our church institutions so that we can convince them to become members of it
  • making disciples of Jesus Christ, i.e. recruiting good, giving, serving church members who will uphold the church institution

Are you seeing a trend here? Every one of these goals has been couched in theological and missional language in order to keep the church institution afloat. Numbers of people and amounts of money are tantamount to this institution’s self-credibility and existence.

Then comes the Jesus idol of churchianity. Forged by the institutional church, its purpose is very simple: to speak and act in a vain effort to salvage what’s left. Now here’s the dangerously elusive aspect of this false Jesus. It very clearly speaks the Great Commission and the Great Commandment, so convincingly, in fact, that its utterances could easily be mistaken for those of the  real Jesus… except for one small but fatal difference. It pronounces the Great Commission and Great Commandment with the singular intent of numerically adding to the rebuilding of the institution who created it.

When the real Jesus commanded his disciples to go into the world to baptize and form new disciples (the Great Commission) and to love God and love others (the Great Commandment), he was not at all interested in creating and fostering an institution. Jesus’ prime and only motivation was relational and connective. In other words, Jesus sought to reconnect people back to God the Father in a community of disciples of his who would then build the kingdom of God’s shalom and righteousness in this world. There’s not a breath of institutionalism or self-preservation in any of this!

Jesus intended his Church, his living and holy Body, to be the catalyst and example for this kind of holy connectedness and transformation. But the Church was never intended to be the ends or even the focus of Jesus’ mission in the world. Jesus’  focus is the world he died to save with the purpose of raising all of creation to life in the wings of his resurrection. So whether or not the Western institutional church as we know it survives is of no ultimate consequence.  What God has accomplished and will accomplish in Jesus Christ will always stand. His Church, in whatever form it takes, will stand with him.

So, in the name of Jesus, we smash the false Jesus idol of churchianity and we strive to dissemble the last remnants of churchianity.

In their place, we worship the Jesus who reconnects people back to God through his work on the cross. We worship the Jesus who connects these same people to him and to others to form a vital community of fellow disciples called the Church who, empowered by God’s Holy Spirit, enliven the world around them for eternity, inviting and teaching new disciples of Jesus, never for their own sakes, but for the sake of all others.

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Smashing Our Jesus Idols

From inside the dense cloud on top of Mt. Sinai, the Lord met with Moses and gave him two stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments. Both Jews and Christians have come to adore these commands as the epicenter of God’s will for us. We even find them adorning the walls of the United States Supreme Court.

In my experience, the second commandment has been one of the least understood by most Christians. It reads,

You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,  but showing love to a thousand {generations} of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:4-6)

I believe there are three reasons for this prohibition against idols.

First, for ancient Israelites, it kept them from adopting and worshiping the idols from surrounding cultures. They were not to worship multiple gods of their choosing, but the one Lord God who delivered them from bondage in Egypt. Consequently, God would later exile the Israelites to Assyria and Babylon precisely for their idolatry.

Second, this commandment keeps Jews and Christians from containing God to a singular image. God’s vast greatness cannot be limited to any image, form, or description. That’s why very rarely will you ever see a picture of God. The only exception I can think of is Michelangelo’s iconic Sistine Chapel fresco depicting God reaching to touch Adam.

But there’s also a third, crucially important reason why God prohibited idols of any kind. Idols tend to be the projected wants and needs of those who make them. If someone is suffering a fertility problem, they would create and petition fertility idol. Anticipating a harvest, a village would make a harvest god to please with offerings and gifts. Through the ages, there have been idols for literally any need and want. Idols also tend to be projections of ourselves, too. People worship idols that represent their own aspirations and ideals in a well-meaning yet insidious form of self-worship.

For all these reasons, and for the sake of our souls, we must always call out and smash the idols we make.

Jesus idolThese days, the church is filled with plenty of idols that compete with our faithfulness to God. There are idols of material comfort, power, self-righteousness, traditionalism, and even the idol of religion itself. Since becoming a Christian, I have heard Christian leaders call out and attempt to smash these idols.

But I think there are even darker, more dangerous idols in our midst. These are the idols we forge of Jesus. These idols are our own self-projected needs, prejudices, and ideals that we shape into our version of Jesus. These idols come to shape innocently enough, but once they take full form, they turn Jesus into a singular thing that serves our own self-interests.

Scattered throughout my next several posts, I’m going to call out and smash some of these Jesus idols in my effort to point us to a more authentic, biblical understanding of Jesus. For non-Christians and post-Christian Agnostics, I fervently hope this might heal some of the wounds and deep misgivings you’ve had at the hands of  the church’s Jesus idols. For Christians, I hope to move us to a more faithful discipleship as we embody a truer semblance of the Jesus Christ of Nazareth whom we read about in the Scriptures.

Here are some of the Jesus idols I’ll be sledging apart:

  • the prosperity/Santa Claus Jesus
  • the get-out-of-hell-free/one-way ticket-to-heaven Jesus
  • the Jesus of blind love
  • the Jesus of great political causes
  • the Jesus of churchianity

There are undoubtedly many more of these Jesus idols, and there may be others you’d want to mention, too. I’d encourage you to call out and smash your own. However, I leave us all with one warning: don’t smash one idol just to make room for another!

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Another Look at John 14:6– What Does Jesus Really Mean?

In my last post which wrestles with the difference between Jesus and Christianity, I gave some attention to John 14:6. This is a loaded verse, and unfortunately, because of my lack of clarity and the preconceived notions many people bring to this passage, there’s a lot of confusion about what I was trying to say.

In response to Thomas’ question,

“Lord we don’t know where you are going so how can we know the way,”

Jesus responded by saying,

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Now, I want to restate some things I said before and perhaps make them a bit clearer:

1) Jesus was primarily addressing his disciples. His disciples had yet to fully realize that Jesus himself is the only way, truth, and life they need. There is no other way to God but by him. He goes on to say in verse 7, ” If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” To put it another way, coming to Jesus is the same thing as coming to the  Father because Jesus is the fullest expression of the Father. To know one is to know the other.

2) Jesus was more deeply explaining his seamless connection to the Father. In John’s Gospel, the central message is that the Word, God himself, became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. To know Jesus is also to know the Father. Right after Thomas’ question, Phillip asks, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus responds with, “Don’t you me Phillip, even after I have been among you for such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” In other words, to see Jesus is to see the Father. That’s why Jesus says that no one comes to the Father except through him. He and nothing else is the fullest expression of the Father. As Paul puts it, “He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Colossians 1:15).

Now the sticky question is whether or not John 14:6 is applicable to all people, including non-Christians. Certainly, Christians have used this verse to try to convince their non-Christian neighbors that Jesus is the only way to the Father. So, the logic goes, they’d better turn to Jesus and become a Christian or risk damnation. Now, I firmly believe that Jesus is the one through whom God has fully revealed himself. Jesus is the one through whom God has saved the whole world from power of sin and death. He is the hope of the world.

My concern, however, in holding out Jesus Christ for all people, is that we wrongly insist that the religion of Christianity is the sole means through which people come to Christ and are saved. We tell people to come to such and such church or church event, believe such and such words from a preacher, convert and then become a Christian and church member in the mold of who we are.

We’ve made the religion of Christianity the exclusive claim of salvation, not Jesus himself. Now that may sound like splitting hairs, but it’s not. Just ask any non-Christian. We hold up church life and membership, a set of doctrines and rules, traditions, a certain church culture, religious expectations and other norms, package it all up and call it Jesus. That simply will not work for a very large group of people, many of whom are deeply suspicious of the religion of Christianity and Christians.

I think Paul would argue the same from his experience of bringing Jesus to the Gentiles. Jesus was Jewish, his earliest disciples were Jewish, and his message and teaching were from a Jewish foundation. But Paul argued that Gentiles (non-Jews) are not required to be both a disciple of Jesus and Jewish, specifically with regards to the Jewish rites of circumcision, kosher eating habits, and the observance of Jewish holy days and synagogue worship. Yes, Gentiles abandoned their idols to worship and follow Jesus, but their discipleship took on a very different shape than their Jewish neighbors who also followed Jesus.

So… I’m arguing here that we Christians need to be careful to only hold out Jesus as the means of peoples’ salvation. I suspect that people of other faiths, those previously agnostic or atheist, or those from radically different cultures than our own will come to know, trust, and follow Jesus in ways that will not resemble Christianity as we’ve come to know it. They will create communities of the Church that will be very different. But that’s okay. Conversion is to God through Jesus Christ, not our religious system called Christianity.

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The Difference between Jesus and Christianity

a Jewish JesusOn the night before he was crucified, Jesus said something to his disciples so beautifully profound that it changed their lives. Ironically, this same statement has also been badly misused by future generations of Christians. It began when Thomas, one of Jesus’ disciples, asked him this question: “Lord, you say you’re going back to God. How can we find our way back way to God, too?” [John 14:5, my paraphrase]

In response, Jesus said,

I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:6-7).

To put it another way, Jesus was trying to say, “Thomas, I am the way to God, and the truth and the life you seek. I’m the way because when you know me, you know God, and when you look at me, you’re also looking at the face of God. Since I am he, don’t look anywhere else for what you seek. You’ve found him already.” That was Jesus’ way of assuring Thomas and countless other disciples, myself included,  that in Jesus is the way, the life, and truth we’ve always been looking for.

But many Christians have taken hold of this beautiful verse and have used it to say quite emphatically to our non-Christian neighbors, “Jesus Christ is the only way, the only truth, the only life, and the only way to the Father. You can’t come to God unless you come to him and convert to Christianity.” I join a lot of people in shuddering at the way some people misuse Jesus’ statement about himself.

As a disciple of Jesus, I believe he is God who has come in the flesh, both fully God and fully human. So I believe what Jesus is saying about himself when he invites his disciples and anyone else to come to him and to discover the life, the way, the truth and the fullest expression God. I mean, just give a fresh read to the gospel accounts of Jesus from the biblical books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and you’ll find the reason why billions upon billions of people through the ages, both Christians and non-Christians alike, have flocked to this man and love him.

But many, very understandably, have stopped short at the doors of the Christian church and have said, “No, thank you.” One such prominent example was Mahatma Gandhi who once said,

I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ. The materialism of affluent Christian countries appears to contradict the claims of Jesus Christ that says it’s not possible to worship both Mammon and God at the same time.

The problem is Christianity has often done Jesus a great disservice. Some of you reading this post already have a bad taste of suspicion or even disdain in your mouth because of the ways Christians have betrayed the true spirit and person of Jesus. (I have to admit that my life has at times betrayed him, too. I’m very much a work in progress!) Christianity is a diverse culture and organization which has a long history of being both faithful and unfaithful. Christianity has spawned and revolved around God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, but Jesus Christ is not Christianity.

So, I want to make a very clear distinction for both my Christian and non-Christian readers. There is and always has been a clear line of demarcation between what God has accomplished in Jesus Christ and the religion of Christianity. If Christianity can remember this principle, then it will always remain in a constant state of reform in order to be more faithful to Jesus. If non-Christians can understand this, they might have the freedom to explore and believe in Jesus without the worst of Christianity to to contend with. Perhaps non-Christian believers in Jesus can be Jesus Christ’s Church (the community of his disciples) in a way that might shine the light of Christ into the Christian world and into their version of the Church. Wouldn’t that be a sight to be behold??

I’m not saying here that Christianity is all bad or that it’s wrong to be a disciple of Jesus as a Christian. Christianity and Christians come in all different shapes and sizes. Some are more faithful to Jesus than others. There have been and continue to be Christians who are model disciples of Jesus. Without deceiving myself, I hope to be one.  There are wonderful Christian congregations out there who truly embody what it means to be the Church, the community of Jesus’ disciples and his Living Body and presence in the world. As a pastor in a Christian church, I work to make my congregation more faithfully one of those.

But let’s be clear: there is a major difference between believing, trusting, and giving our lives to Jesus and converting to the religion of Christianity. The former may happen within the later, but it doesn’t have to and it won’t for a great many people, including, in many instances, people of other faiths.

Will much of the world come back to its Creator through Jesus Christ who died and rose for the salvation of the world? I believe so, yes. The grace of God leaves out no one. Admittedly, I don’t know how that will happen; I simply believe it will. And yes, some will inevitably reject God and his Son and lose out on life. However, not all those who come to know and follow Jesus will be of the Christian religion, and that’s fine by me! I welcome them as my brothers and sisters in one common faith…

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An Upcoming Post You Won’t Want to Miss

In the next couple of days, I’m going to post a blog that looks at the difference between Jesus and the religion of Christianity. I’m sure it will rattle the cages of many Christians, but… so be it! No matter your faith background, I hope you’ll find it to be both challenging and liberating.

Keep your eyes peeled, and thank you again for reading and leaving your comments. I do read and value each one!

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A Sure Way to Offer Help to Haiti

For those of you visiting my blog, I want to thank you for checking it out. I also invite you to leave your thoughts and comments anywhere you like. I strive to keep my posts thoughtful, sincere, and as authentic as I possibly can. I find that when people think and write that way, they leave the door open for some honest conversation, even between people who disagree.

I’ve had enough of talking about Pat Robertson, so I want to turn to something far more positive.

Undoubtedly, you have already heard pleas from many different relief organizations who are already collecting funds for Haiti relief. I know how difficult and overwhelming it can get,  deciding who to give to, how much, and all the while wondering how your hard-earned money will be spent. Will those funds really be used wisely?

UMCORI’m a United Methodist pastor and part of the United Methodist “tribe”. (Tribe is a much better word than “denomination” .) I don’t support everything that most of our UM agencies do, but one whose work I always fully support is the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). UMCOR is often among the first relief agencies to arrive at a disaster area, and they are always among the last to leave. For example, four-and-a-half years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, UMCOR is still there working with the community, government, and other agencies to continue the rebuilding process.

UMCOR’s values are simple. They value all human life and form partnerships with the people they serve in order to make their lives more sustainable and healthy. They’re not there to proselytize or to convert people to Christianity. They’re there doing what the world expects Christians to do– to serve with love and humility, expecting nothing in return except the satisfaction that they are doing Christ’s work with people who need it the most. UMCOR already has a strong relationship with Haiti and has been an ongoing presence there already. So, they are already hard at work in the relief process.

And the other incredible thing is that every dollar given to UMCOR goes directly to the ground and becomes the resources people need to rebuild. All of UMCOR’s administrative costs are covered by the United Methodist Church. They don’t run slick advertisements and commercials. They simply hunker down, do the work they were called to do and rely on a website and word of mouth. That’s it!

If you’d like to make a donation to UMCOR’s relief work in Haiti, simply click here.

I also realize that many of you might not be so sure about giving to a religious organization. Maybe that’s too uncomfortable, no matter how good and honest their intentions may be. I can understand that. So, if you’re uncomfortable giving to UMCOR, the American Red Cross is a also a fantastic organization to give to.

For those of you who pray, please do. I firmly believe that God works through the prayers of people everywhere to bring healing and help. I’m not sure how that works. I just know that the prayers of God’s people can accomplish so much.

I hope you’ll join me in being a blessing to the people of Haiti!

Thanks for reading and sharing…

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