A Taste of Heaven in the Holy City

Photo by Marcia Lee Laycock

We had been in Israel for some time and I was getting a little tired of visiting all the cathedrals and churches our tour guide led us too, but on this particular day he stopped at the entrance of St. Anne’s Cathedral and turned to us.

“If you like to sing,” he said, “this is the place to do it. The acoustics in this church are remarkable.”

I stepped over the stone threshold of the building and immediately my eyes lifted to the vaulted ceiling. The architect and builders had done their work well. The dome above seemed to float, every beam and arch leading the eye up toward heaven.

Then I heard the singing and for a moment I thought I was there. The sound seemed to come from everywhere at once. I could not understand the words but I recognized the hymn. As our tour group crowded in behind me I stepped forward and saw that the source of the beautiful sound was a quartet – four Korean men standing in the centre of the sanctuary, directly below that magnificent dome.

Almost as though we had been directed by a choir master, we all began to sing. “When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation, and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart. Then I shall bow, in humble adoration, and there proclaim: “My God, how great Thou art!”

We had just begun the chorus when another group, from South America stepped in and joined us, singing in Portuguese. Then another group, this time singing in Spanish. My heart and soul swelled as I envisioned that day when we will all stand before our Messiah.

To see His face; Oh, to see His face! To be in heaven in the presence of this kind of pure and powerful unity – the longing was overwhelming, and I began to weep.

As we quietly left that place, the scripture I had read that morning, Hebrews 12: 22 -29, sang in my mind – “But you have come to Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”

See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven?

At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” The words ‘once more’ indicate the removing of what can be shaken – that is, created things – so that what cannot be shaken may remain.

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”

Finding Your Way Home

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I was returning to Canada, on a plane somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean when I had the first dream. As most dreams are, it was confusing, full of images and scraps of sound that, though vivid and realistic were disjointed and without logical sequence. I had another similar dream on the bus taking me to my hometown back in Canada, then another on the train north, taking me to the isolated fishing lodge where I was to work for the summer. The dreams were full of foreign scenes – orange-tiled roofs and dark-skinned children from Spain, cheese shops and narrow streets from France, soaring mountains and towering cathedrals from Switzerland.       

The trip from Lisbon to my destination in northern Ontario took about 36 hours. By the time I arrived I was disoriented, but had no time to think about it. I went to work immediately and didn’t have a chance to relax until later that day when I went for a swim. Floating on a small raft, I soon was dozing in the warm sun. Again, dreams filled my mind with disorienting images and sounds. Then my foot slipped off the raft into the icy water. I woke with a start, staring at a landscape that shocked me. There were no red-tiled roofs or foreign languages, no Gothic cathedrals or cobblestone streets. My eyes opened to rugged cliffs and swaying pines. I knew I was not in Spain, but where was I? Then I realized, “Oh. Canada. I’m home.” Home – the place where I was safe, where everything was familiar – the landscape, the culture, the language.

We all need that place called home. We need to know we are safe and surrounded by what is familiar. But sometimes we can feel as though we are living in a foreign land, surrounded by strangers speaking words we can’t understand. Sometimes we feel so out of place that every day is a struggle, a battle to believe we belong. The battle is real because the truth is we don’t belong. We weren’t made to live in this world of corruption and chaos. We were made to live in a climate of joy and praise, in the presence of God. Anything less will make us feel disjointed, out of place. Anything less will leave us with a longing for home.

Our home is not a place, not a city nor a country field, not a valley nor a mountaintop. Our home is with God.

“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1,2,NIV).

Peace with God brings us home, no matter where we are, no matter what our circumstances. Jesus brings us to that place. Follow Him and He’ll lead you home.

Juxtaposed

Photo by Inspirationfeed on Unsplash

I’m struggling to understand.

It was an ordinary day. Actually, it was a bit unordinary because my husband wanted to go shopping. For clothes. Clothes for himself. That, my friends is a rare occurrence. He was wearing a pair of shorts he’d purchased at a store we don’t often go to, but he said, yeah, he’d like to get another pair just like them. So we found ourselves there, shopping. He in the men’s and I in the women’s department. Fingering the sales racks. Maybe a dress would be nice. Haven’t worn a dress in a long time. Yes, a nice breezy summer dress, I was thinking when I heard a man’s voice.

“Somebody just attacked a doctor at the clinic next door, with a hammer. Stay inside.”

The clerk asks if she should call 911. The man is leaning out the front doors. “No, the cops are already here.”

I follow the clerk onto the sidewalk in front of the store. I’ve never seen so many cop cars, ambulances, fire engines, lights flashing, no sirens.

I go back inside, walk to the men’s fitting rooms, call my husband’s name. “Do you want a different colour?”

He emerges, shorts in hand and a Tshirt. I grin at the bright colour. “Nice,” I say. We make our way to the front counter. No one there. They are all still outside on the sidewalk. I tell my husband why there are police cars in the parking lot. He asks one of the clerks if he can pay, please.

She rushes back in, face white. “One of the cop cars just hit a pedestrian but it looks like he’s okay, just bumped him I think,” she says. Her hand shakes a bit as she offers the debit machine.

We pay, walk outside, watching the EMS guy tend to a man. His dog is pacing as we drive away.

I pray the doctor will be okay.

It’s not until about two hours later that I read on my phone that he died from the wounds inflicted by the hammer and a machete. There are a few more details, how two other patients tried to intervene, a description given by a mother who pulled her eleven-year-old daughter to safety and hid in her car.

I close my phone and stare out the front window of my home, my safe home, that looks out onto a still small pond. I replay our time in the store, the ordinariness of our words, our movements, while just 200 metres away a man was crying out, “help me! Call 911!” Perhaps those were his last words on this earth.

While I wondered whether or not I should buy a summer dress.

And I don’t understand. Why this juxta positioning of our lives with his? Why were we there, at that exact time?

Of course, it makes me think of the fragility of life, the seeming randomness of events that, in a matter of seconds change everything. And yet, nothing. Nothing has changed for us. Except that we paused for a moment to pray, to wonder, and then perhaps to ponder the bigger questions, once again.

Delayed reactions are normal for me so I’m aware of a heaviness that is slowly descending, with thoughts of the doctor’s family, the trauma suffered by a woman and an eleven year old girl who were there, instead of shopping for a summer dress.

I’m aware there are things I need to learn because we, too, were there. Or perhaps, more to the point, I am just more aware. Aware of the gentleness in my husband’s eyes, the goodness in his heart, the warmth of his body lying next to mine at night.

Perhaps that is reason enough.


Assurance

There have been times when I have feared that I’ll die before accomplishing the things I dream about, before writing what I really want to write – that great novel, the perfect devotional, that poem that sings and that article that changes a life. After all, death is the final interruption. It always comes at an unexpected time and often in the middle of something.

I hope my death doesn’t come for a very long time, but I know it could be sooner than I want. It could be today. That’s why I love what it says in 2 Timothy 1:11,12:

“And of this gospel I was appointed a herald … I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day” (2 Timothy 1:11-12, NIV).

When I read that verse recently it reminded me again who I work for. He’s the kind of boss everyone wants. He’s organized and efficient, He knows all my weaknesses and strengths and exactly what direction I need to go to develop my skills. He constantly encourages me and provides ample opportunity for me to learn those skills and learn more about him in the process. He knows the beginning and the end of my life and my career. He has it all mapped out so that it will give me everything I need, bless others and bring him glory.

I have committed my life and my work to Jesus Christ. I can rest in the assurance that I won’t die until He has accomplished all that he intended through me. I don’t have to fear an “untimely death.” Neither do I have to fear that death is the end of it all. To the contrary, scripture tells us it is just the beginning. We will have all of eternity to accomplish what God intends – singing his praises, glorifying him forever by using all the gifts and skills he has taught us along the way.

After all, death is only an interruption. The novel might be half finished, the poem only begun, but the words will continue to flow in that new reality. I know whom I have believed and am convinced that he is able.

Graduated? Or Just Entering Kindergarten?

Photo by Honey Yanibel Minaya Cruz on Unsplash

Some time ago a friend said it seemed to him that when a person became a Christian they believed they had arrived, graduated from College, got the cap and gown, and now they knew it all. He admitted he just didn’t feel like he was ready to graduate yet.

As he was talking, I thought back to that time in my life when I became a Christian, and I couldn’t help but explain how it was for me. Contrary to thinking that I had graduated from College, I felt like I had finally entered Kindergarten. It felt like I had been held back for a long time, unable to learn, unable to see what was all around me. I felt like a small child who enters the world of learning for the first time and begins to discover the wonders of the world, the wonders of language, science and math, the wonders of interacting with other people.

I remember going for long walks along the Klondike River and marveling at what I was seeing. I had walked there many times before, and enjoyed it, but somehow everything seemed fresh, everything had more color, more life. I was seeing the world for the first time, not just as a beautiful place, but as a beautiful place created by a loving God, created specifically for those upon whom He wanted to shower that love. I wrote this short poem to try and express my feelings:

FIRST YUKON SPRING          

Green.
Green so fills my eyes
I sway
with spring
a song
alive and swelling
out of winter grey and white
the colour
in fields and ditches
dances
and I wonder
was there life
before this day?

Truly, there was no life before that day. Life had dried up and blown away long before, leaving me like a dry husk, alone and miserable.

But on that day, the day when I asked Jesus to forgive me and to be the centre of my life, the dry husk drank in the living water of Christ’s love and I came alive again.

I began to see there was something much more amazing than just the surface of things – there was mystery, infinite pattern, purpose and wisdom behind it all. Even the things I read had a depth to them I had not seen before. My interaction with people slowly became not just a game of relationships, but a meaningful exchange of lives.

1 Corinthians 1:5 says, “For in Him you have been enriched in every way – in all your speaking and in all your knowledge …” When a person accepts Christ, he is enriched in every way, because the source has been revealed. As we acknowledge the Source, turning to Him for understanding and knowledge, we become aware of the depth of His love as he grants us a measure of these things. He grants us a sense of wonder and awe that brings the world to life.

The excitement lies in realizing there will never be an end to it, never a point when we will know it all, until we come face to face with the One who has created it all. 1 Corinthians 13:12 says – “Now we see but a poor reflection; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

Graduated from college with nothing more to learn? Oh no, not even close, but rather, just entering Kindergarten with an infinite world of knowledge and understanding yet to be discovered.

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Soon, But Not Yet

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Unleavened bread and roasted grain. That was the first meal the Hebrew people ate in the promised land.

We in North America are used to embellishing our food with spices and sauces or condiments, anything that makes it more salty or sweet. It seems the goal is almost to disguise the real taste of the food. Take away the embellishments for a while and our taste buds begin to adjust. I realized this while canoeing on the Yukon River many years ago. We were paddling to Dawson City from Whitehorse, a trip that should have taken about ten days. It took us three weeks. We spent a lot of time sitting still, waiting for the wind and rain to stop, and we ran out of food.

Well, almost. We had some Red River cereal, which consists of a blend of cracked wheat, rye, and brown flaxseeds. More than a little bland for my North American pallet. But after a while, I started to notice that it did have a pleasing flavour, especially after a long cold day on the river.

The Hebrew people had been used to eating Manna. We don’t know what that tasted like, but I imagine it might have been a little like Red River cereal. Basic and bland. They grumbled about that manna. (see Numbers 11:5,6). It wasn’t at all what they had been used to in Egypt. And they had been promised milk and honey – a euphemism, I think, for rich foods of all kinds, spiced and made sweet and salty. I think the thought of it probably made the Israelites drool just a little as they ate their manna every morning, noon and night.

So why did they only eat unleavened bread and roasted grain on that first day in the promised land?

We have no way of knowing, but perhaps we can be allowed to speculate. Perhaps there was a lot left over after Passover. Perhaps they did not want to waste time and energy creating a lavish feast until they were more settled in the land. Perhaps they realized the time had not yet come for celebrating, for the promised land was not yet entirely theirs.

Or perhaps that meager meal was a wonderful feast to them, as that Red River cereal was to me after a long cold day on the Yukon River. Their feet were now on the land God had promised to them and soon, they would indeed feast upon its bounty. Soon, but not yet. First, there were wars to fight, barriers to overcome and much to learn about trusting their God.

I imagine that first meal was almost like the meal the apostles shared with Jesus just before He went to the cross. We call it the last supper, but perhaps it would be better to refer to it as the first supper. That too was a time of new beginnings, a time of a new relationship with their God, a time of promises being fulfilled.

But first, Jesus had to die. First, they had to remember all the things He had taught them. First, they had to trust and obey.

The Hebrews were, after all, no different than the disciples of Christ – a people promised much, not the least of which was an abundant life and a life lived forever with God.  We, too, are no different. We too have been promised these same things.

For now, we are eating unleavened bread and roasted grain. But someday soon, perhaps very soon, we will feast.

Luke 14:15 says – “Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.”

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Marcia Lee Laycock is the author of five novels and four devotional books. Click the link to subscribe to her devotional column The Spur

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Beyond Circumstances

   God is still God

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Photo by the author, Marcia Lee Laycock

The group was gathered for one purpose, to pray for one circumstance. They had been praying earnestly for some time. As I listened to their words, ranging from praise and thanksgiving to pleas for help, I considered the situation we were praying about and did not feel very hopeful. When silence fell for a moment, I added my voice to those of the others, pleading for God to intervene, but even then I realized I did not have confidence that our prayers would be answered in the way we hoped. The end result of the situation, though it was unjust, seemed to be a foregone conclusion, one that could not be avoided. I went home that night with a heavy heart.

The next morning, before praying again about that same thing, I looked up a scripture verse that I’d heard quoted earlier in the week. It was in one of my favourite books in the Old Testament, the book of Isaiah, so I found the passage easily, then began to scan other parts of the book. I stopped at chapter 41, verse 10 – “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

I knew that verse had been written during a very difficult time in Israel’s history, a time of fear and uncertainty, a time when God’s people had become complacent and turned away from Him. Yet, that promise, that comfort.

Suddenly I had complete confidence in God, complete assurance that our prayers had been heard and answered, no matter what the outcome. Then I realized the outcome was not really the issue. The issue was the very character of God. Job recognized this as he suffered the loss of all he owned. He says – “Though He slay me, yet will I hope in Him.” Job knew no matter what happened, God was the same, God was there, God loved him. He knew all he had suffered was nothing compared to the joy of knowing God, the assurance of knowing God was showing Himself to him. Some of his last words in the book reveal that understanding – “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you.” (Job 42:5)

That is the basis of our confidence when we pray; not that the outcome is assured, that circumstances will change and always go our way, but that God is God and His primary concern is that we know Him. The issue then becomes what God wants to teach us, each one individually, through the circumstances and the experience of prayer. When we are assured of His character, His goodness, we can be assured that he wants one thing for us – the best thing – a closer relationship with Him.

I don’t know if the circumstances about which we were praying will change, if a “victory” will be won, in the way we desire it. But I know God will continue to reveal Himself, no matter what the outcome. I know He will continue to strengthen and guide and love each one involved. It is up to us to decide if we will continue to receive His love and grace and continue to know more of Him.

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In Such a Time as This

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It was a few weeks into the term in my pottery class and I was having trouble. I still wasn’t able to create a decent piece of work using the potter’s wheel. I was getting tense about it. Most of my classmates had by now managed the skill of throwing on the wheel and were producing perfect cylinders. My cylinders were not working. Either I tried to bring them up too quickly and their walls grew too thin, or a jerk of my hand would put them off centre and a wild wobble would result in nothing more than a pile of goo. Every time my instructor walked by, I got more nervous and tried harder. The harder I tried the more I failed.

Then one day my instructor came up behind me as I was attempting to centre the lump of clay. He was a big man with huge hands and he towered over me. I looked up, ashamed of my incompetence, but instead of a scowl, I saw him smile. “Relax,” he said. “Trying too hard just causes more failure.” He put his large hands on my shoulders and kneaded my tense muscles. “Now, take a deep breath and try again,” he said.

I positioned my hands on the clay but the lump continued to wobble. I slumped back on the chair and looked up again. “Will you show me?” I asked. My instructor nodded and told me to try again, then leaned over me and placed his hands over mine, guiding them gently until the lump was spinning at perfect centre. When our thumbs pushed down into the centre the lump gave way and formed a perfect donut shape. Then he took his hands away. “Gently,” he said, and stood back as I slowly drew the walls of the cylinder up. He laughed with delight when I clapped my hands at the finished product – a perfect cylinder. I had no trouble producing them from that time on.

I’ve thought about that day many times over the years, when I’ve become stressed about one situation or another. I’ve found myself there lately, with the whole world shutting down in the face of an unseen yet insidious virus. I have come close to allowing myself to get tied up in knots over the situation, forgetting that God is standing with me, waiting to guide me, waiting to give me the peace that seems so elusive.

Then I remember my pottery instructor’s large skilled hands and I remember to ask for God’s help.

It comforts me to know that even Jesus’ disciples sometimes failed to understand that, when they are with Jesus, there is no need to worry. There was that day they sailed across the Sea of Galilee, for instance. The wind began to rage, and it looked like their boat would sink. Jesus was sleeping through it all until they woke Him.

Their words show the depth of their fear and confusion –

“Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” (Mark 4:38, NIV).

Jesus stood up and commanded the wind and the waves to be still and they obeyed Him. Then he turned to his disciples and said –

“Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (Mark 4:40, NIV).

Their response was to wonder, “Who is this?” At first I groaned when I read that. Didn’t they know by now? Didn’t they understand who He was? But, in pondering it, I think that is the perfect response. When we see the hand of God move, it is fitting to ask who He is, to seek Him in a deeper way and recognize His power and sovereignty. And to relax in it.

Yes, these times are hard, but I remember the words of Job. After he had gone through all the difficult times of sickness and loss, when God showed Himself, Job responded –

“My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” (Job 42:5, NIV).

I pray that, like Job, we will look up to Jesus, seek to know Him more, ask His help and acknowledge that whatever might come, if it gives us a clearer picture of Him, it is worth it.

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Yielding to God is the Only Way to Victory

By Marcia Lee Laycockwoman-1566154_1920

My frustration level was hitting the ceiling. I’d been emailing with a support person for several days but getting nowhere. The technical problem on my computer was still there, those nasty error messages still blinking at me every time I went into the platform designed to do a specific job. Every time I did, I could not understand how to fix it. The support person kept advising me to do the same thing, but that thing did not make sense, nor could I see how to make the change she advised. After many hours of trying, she finally suggested I contact the source and access their chat feature.

It kind of irked me that I had to seek help at all. I chided myself that I wasn’t smart enough to figure this out on my own. But I did so. The support person there was very sympathetic and asked for permission to go into the back end of my account and have a look. I reluctantly gave permission. I was reluctant because I like being in control of things and I feared what she might see in there. Had I made other mistakes? Was the whole thing just one big mess? She asked me to give her some time to do what needed to be done. I groaned. I wanted this fixed now, immediately if not sooner. But, again, reluctantly, I said yes, stressing that I was on a timeline. She assured me she would be in touch as soon as possible.

About an hour later my computer dinged. The email told me to contact that support person again. I went back into the chat forum and connected with her. She told me the problem was an easy one to fix and explained, with step by step instructions, how to do it. I went into my account, followed those instructions and voila! the error messages disappeared. I gave a whoop of victory. Then I went back into the chat forum and thanked that support person profusely.

That evening a friend reminded me of a scripture verse and when she quoted it, I had to smile. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.” (Proverbs 3:5-6, NKJV).

How many times have I ignored those verses and tried to plow ahead on my own. How many times have I failed to acknowledge His sovereignty over my life? Just like that episode with having to seek the help of a technical expert, I am reluctant to admit that I need help and allow God to take control.

I pondered why. I had to acknowledge that I am reluctant to ask for help because I don’t want to appear incompetent. I had to admit that I desperately want to be in control of my own life, and I had to admit that sometimes I fear what God might see if he examined me too closely.

Just like that episode with my computer, I could have saved myself a lot of frustration and anguish if I had just swallowed my pride and gone to the source in the first place.

“Now do not be stiff-necked, as your fathers were, but yield yourselves to the Lord; and enter His sanctuary, which He has sanctified forever, and serve the Lord your God …” (2 Chronicles 30:8, NKJV).

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Marcia Lee Laycock is the author of five novels and four devotional books. Click the link to subscribe to her devotional column The Spur

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Three Things

by Marcia Lee Laycock

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It’s somewhere in Africa. A young woman sits cross-legged on the ground, surrounded by tall grass. She has been told to sit very still. She can hear snuffling noises and now and then a grunt. When the massive head of a gorilla pokes out between the grasses, she is tempted to leap up and run. But she has been told that would be disastrous so she sits quietly. The gorilla approaches, moves around her, touches her hair, sniffs her shoulder. She remembers the instructions she was given: “No sudden movements. Don’t make eye contact.” She tries not to think of what those massive hands and arms could do to her. She tries to relax her shoulders. Slowly.

Another gorilla approaches, then another. They investigate her, sit close by, grooming one another before slowly ambling away. The young woman lets out her breath. The adrenalin coursing through her body makes her laugh out loud. She knows she has just won a great victory over fear.

I have spoken to many Christians lately who seem to be afraid. The world is changing around them and many of the changes go against their own beliefs and morals. Chaos seems to reign on all sides. They feel helpless, unable to control what is happening.

But Jesus has told us that He has “not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). It is these three that will help us overcome: power that comes from One who defeated death itself, love from One whose very nature is full of it, and a sound mind from One who has given us His own wisdom through His Holy Spirit.

Jesus Himself never fell prey to fear. He was willing to walk into the darkest of places, confront the darkest of enemies, because He knew that the One who was in Him was greater than all the world. We have the absolute assurance that that same One is in us, working through us and that nothing can stop His purposes from being accomplished on this earth.

God has promised to redeem His creation and one day all of it will be made whole again. There is the possibility of redemption of all that is ugly and evil and all that fights against God in this world, because of what happened on a cross at the base of a hill in a tiny country then called Palestine.

The good news is that He has given us a part to play in that redemption, given us work to do for His kingdom. That work cannot be done in a spirit of fear. 1 John 5:4 says – “for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.”

This is the work we have been given to do: “Go, therefore and make disciples… and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19,20).

May He find us faithful.

“Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” (Psalm 46:10).