THE SONG OF SONGS

Have you read the Song of Songs or Song of Solomon lately? It is unique among all the Books of the Bible. The uniqueness of the Book has often caused people to wonder and even challenge its place in the Bible. Through much of history even those who accepted its place in Scripture couldn’t believe it could possible be taken as really about the love relationship between two people that often involved very sexual scenes and descriptions. The result was that for many years the Jewish scholars taught it was an allegory of God’s love and relationship with Israel. When the church was established, most early scholars among the Christians took the same interpretation but applied it to the love of Christ for the church. If you look at some of the older songs that were popular years ago such as “The Lily of the Valley” or “The Rose of Sharon” you see the application of some of the love poems in this book applied to Christ and the church. The point of being called the “Song of songs” is that it is the epitome of what a great song would be.

I often encourage married couples or those getting married to make a habit on their anniversary of reading the book together with the husband reading the parts that are spoken by the man and the wife reading the parts spoken by the woman. Why would God put such a graphic set of love poems in the Bible? I’m sure I don’t know all the reasons, but one thing for certain is that God wanted us to know he wanted us to see love, marriage, and sex in the marriage as something He is for and is part of his plan for those made in his image and likeness. While this book is unique the message about the love and sexual relationship in marriage isn’t unique at all. God made the woman and brought her to the man and they were both naked and unashamed. The plan of God was that they would become one flesh. It was sin, that caused them to begin to see something about themselves that needed to be hidden. God’s command to them and to the generations after them was to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. I don’t know of a way that could be done without there being sexual relationships going on. In the New Testament Paul told the Christians in Corinth that marriage was God’s plan to prevent immorality and that the wife’s body belonged to her husband and the husband’s body belonged to his wife and they were not to withhold themselves from one another. In Hebrews 13:4 it says, “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure.”

One huge lesson every Christian needs to get is that while sexual sin is a huge problem in the world and that we need to keep ourselves away from such sin, that sex in the marriage is holy, right and good and meant for the pleasure of the couple to pull them closer together.

Song of Songs is a series of love poems most of which were written by the young woman who says of herself that she is dark and lovely. While Solomon is mentioned in the book and the first verse declares it to be “Solomon’s Song of Songs” it is questionable if he is the actual author of the poems attributed to the man in the book or if it is of the type poems that Solomon wrote. It is very much about a young couple expressing their love for each other in powerful ways. It isn’t given in chronological order so one can’t simply read it and think it is telling the story of the couple from dating to marriage to their life together.

We should certainly learn that love needs expressing. It is obvious this couple knew how to tell each other how beautiful, handsome, and desirous each was to the other. They described the fragrances of each other and their longing for each other. In these poems it also described how the brothers of the young woman wanted to protect her from going too far in her affection before the marriage. They sent her out to take care of their vineyards to the neglect of her own. Later it mentions them attempting to build a wall around her. This is about the family trying to be sure the girl doesn’t become sexually active before her marriage. She ultimately tells them that she has a wall of her own.

It also describes two different instances when the couple had arguments, after their wedding and both involved the sexual relationship. He wanted to have sex at one point when she didn’t and he gave up and left then she became interested and sought to find him. It is a way of describing what goes on in any marriage and that even when people love each other dearly it doesn’t mean that everything goes smoothly or that their sexual relations always go right. But the poems emphasize their coming back together each time making up and their love growing even more.

It is far too easy in marriage to get into our routines and stop taking the time to tell each other of the love we have, describing the beauty of each to the other and allow the love to grow dim. Read the Song of Songs one more time and think about how to express your love and devotion in marriage.

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IT’S ALL ABOUT ME AND MINE

“What’s in it for me?” This seems to be the question that drives so much of life today. I sometimes wonder what has happened from the times when I was growing up when everyone knew their neighbor and if word got around the area that someone was in need people came together to take care of the one who was struggling. I remember the day when if a farmer near us was sick or having problems it was normal for others to gather to plow his fields, plant his crop and take care of it until he was better. It wasn’t seen as something to get credit for but of what it meant to be a friend or neighbor to others. In such times churches were ready to go out of their way to meet people’s needs even when they didn’t have big bank accounts to work from. It usually involved people coming together to work rather than offering a contribution and thinking I had done my part.

There is a small two chapter book in the Old Testament that deals with this very point. The children of Israel had completed their seventy years of captivity under the Babylonians and the Persian Empire, under God’s influence was offering for the people to return to Jerusalem, rebuild the walls of the city and rebuild the temple so that people might again gather to worship and serve the God who led them out of Egyptian bondage and had blessed them as a nation until their sin and idolatry led them completely away from the Lord. There were different waves of Israelites to return to Jerusalem to build homes, establish new lives and with the full intent of rebuilding the city of Jerusalem with its temple. But, as with anything one wants to do that is right and good, there was opposition to them doing what God wanted them to do. The people around them raised opposition. They accused them of wanting to destroy the people around them and raise up a king to rule the whole area. Construction stopped on the temple even though God offered them tremendous blessings to carry out his mission.

Haggai the prophet was sent to them with a strong message that they needed to trust God and carry out the mission he had given them. In verse 2 of chapter one, Haggai said, “This is what the Lord Almighty says, ‘These people say, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s temple.” I suppose they had tons of reasons why this wasn’t the right time to do what God said, but notice Haggai’s message, “Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains in ruin? Now, this is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Give careful thought to your ways, you have planted much, but harvested little. You eat but never have enough. You drink but never have your fill. You put on clothes but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.”

One thing is certain about the work of the Lord in our time and any other time. When God’s people become selfish and lose concern for both God’s will and the care for others who are having troubles we are in for some tough times. Far too often we don’t have the time to help others who are struggling in some way in life because we have filled our schedule totally with our own family and our needs, wants and dreams. When our whole lives become centered on providing for our family and our things, we move into our paneled houses with great jobs making lots of money but can’t figure out why our plans never seem to work out as planned, we may be like Israel putting our money into a bag with holes in it.

His answer for them was to get back on the task he had sent them to accomplish so that His blessings might fall on them again. He told them to go to the mountains and bring down timber and build the Lord’s house, the temple of the Lord. Expecting God’s blessings on our lives when we put our personal desires ahead of His work and his will is always like having money and putting it in a bag with a large hole in the bottom and then trying to figure out what happened to it all

God’s love is overwhelming for his people and his blessings pour on us abundantly when we put him first in our lives and our first thought is what does the Lord want from me rather than asking such a question way down the line after we have accomplished all our own things. The people did follow Haggai’s teaching and came back and rebuilt the temple as he wanted. As long as they served and followed his will his blessings were on them as his people.

Maybe it is time for us to think seriously about what it means to “Seek first, the kingdom of God and his righteousness so that the other things of life might be added to us by his generous heart.

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RUNNING THE LAST MILES

Great beginnings are extremely important. But if you run well to begin with and then either give up the race near the end or turn to run in a whole different direction at the end, it won’t matter much how well you did at the beginning. King Saul had such a great beginning. He was chosen by God, partly becasue of his humility and willingness to trust God. When Samuel had anointed him to become the first king over Israel, he was God’s chosen king for the people. Yet when the time for coronation came, they couldn’t find him. He was hidden among all the stuff and they had to seek him out to bring him before the people. Some thought he wasn’t up to the task, but God’s Spirit came upon him and he prophesied along with the prophets and was a great leaeder as long as he followed the Spirit’s lead. When he led the people at the beginning against the Philistines and they had God fighting on their side, he was seen as a great king and the right choice from the Lord for the people. But it didn’t take long for a different pattern to appear. Samuel the prophet told him to gather his men and wait for seven days for him to come and to offer the sacrifice to God and seek his blessings and guidance for the mission. Saul waited, the men began to complain and some even started to scatter as they waited for Samuel to arrive. On the seventh day when Samuel still had not arrived as he had promised, Saul became afraid that he would lose all his men and took it on himself to go ahead and offer the sacrifice that Samuel was to offer. Just as he finished his offering, Samuel arrived and asked Saul what he had done. He told him then that God’s plan to establish a dynasty around Saul’s family had been changed and he would raise up a king after his own heart.

But things got worse, as Saul grew older, he became horribly jealous of David because the women sang, “Saul has killed his thousands and David his ten-thousands.” A man who had been loyal to him to the hilt became his enemy that he sought to have destroyed. He sought in every way he knew to kill David.

Perhaps the worst time came when God told Saul and his army to go down against the Amelikites and utterly destory them because of the idolatry, the horrendously sinful behavior of the people. Saul went down in battle. He defeated the Amelikites, but failed to obey God’s command to utterly and completely destroy them. He brought back the best of the sheep and oxen and king Agag, alive. When God sent Samuel to talk to him, Saul acually came out to meet Samuel in a jovial way declaring how he had obeyed God. Samuel’s response was, “What then is the noise of bleating of the sheep and the lowing of the oxen?” Saul began with excuses that they had utterly destoryed the Amelikites but the men wanted to save the best of the animals and wanted to bring back the king. Samuel informed Saul that to obey is better than to sacrifice and to listen to God is better thant he fat of rams. He demanded Agag be brought before him and immediately put him to death. Saul still sought Samuel’s blessing so he wouldn’t look back among the people.

A life of promise turned into a life of tragedy when he actually sought out a medium to call up Samuel to ask his advise. He died along with both his sons on the hill of Gilboa at the hands of the Philistines.

A great start, but pitiful ending to his life. Another man named Saul, whom we know better as Paul had a lousy beginning as a man wanting to destroy the church and anything that had to do with Jesus, but God changed his life and set him on the right course. Even though that course involved lots of hard, persecution, jail, prison and rejection by his own people, Paul remained faithful to the Lord to the very end of his life. As he reached the end of life his plea was, “I am now ready to be offered and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight. I have finnished the course. I have kept the faith. Henseforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord the righteous judge shall give to me and not to me only but to all those who love his appearing.”

Great starts are important. But a great finish is vital. There is no place to stop in our service to God until we reach that home with him in glory. Tell me something, are you getting closer to God, more on fire for him and more dedicated to doing his will as the years pass? The end hasn’t been written yet.

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GOD HELP ME WITH MY PRAYERS

Prayer is without question one of the greatest blessings God gives us as his people. When I read commands like “Pray without ceasing” or “in everything give thanks for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus” it is challenging. It is even more challenging to read “Don’t worry about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be made known to God.” But I have to admit it isn’t the commands to pray that challenge my thinking the most. It is in reading the recorded prayers of Jesus or the apostle Paul about the churches that he worked with that get to me the most.

Think about a couple of prayers closely tied together in Philippians 1 as Paul prays for them. “I thank my God every time I remember you, in all my prayers for all of you. I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Then a few verses later he picks back up on his prayer, “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ filled with the fruit of Righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God.”I would like to think my prayers for people I love and for the church would always run along those lines but to be honest, that isn’t always the case. One of the easiest things in life for us as Christians, I think, is for our prayers to become quite selfish, thinking mostly about us, our health, our family and our needs. Perhaps it helped Paul to keep the focus on things in the church and with fellow Christians that he wasn’t married and didn’t have children or grandchildren as fas as we know. But think about your prayers when you do pray for the church. Are they about everyone that has asked prayers for sickness in the family or about ones that have lost loved ones in death? Are they about growth in the church or special needs in the local body? If our public prayers are any indication then these things tend to dominate our prayers. They certainly aren’t bad things for us to pray about.

But wouldn’t it be refreshing to hear or even to pray a prayer that mentioned how we always remembered the church in our prayers and thanked God for the partnership we felt with the body. Wouldn’t it be great to hear a prayer that God will carry to completion the good work he has started in us and that we aren’t left to our own devices to figure out the best way to handle things in the body? I would love to have a public prayer prayed where the plea to God was that our love would abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so we might be able to discern what is best and be pure and blameless in the day of Christ. It would even be good to hear the prayer that we would be filled with the fruit of righteousness to the praise and glory of God. This kind of prayer definitely moves beyond the physical side of life in the church and moves to the spiritual things that we all need to be the people God calls us to be.

The huge question that needs to be answered by all of us is do we really believe that our prayers can make a real difference in what happens in the life of the church or even in our family or ourselves. If we do, surely our prayers can move deeper and involve more than just the physical hurts and challenges of our life.

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A MINISTRY OF RECONCILIATION

We hear tons of things in life about reconciliation, but I’m not so certain it is reaching past the hearing stage most of the time. The idea of reconciliation is to be made friends again. How difficult is it for you to restore a broken friendship and it actually become stronger after it has been fractured than it was before? Too many times we mend a broken relationship and stay somewhat friendly to each other but the real bond is never re-established. One of the primary points of the gospel of Jesus Christ is reconciliation. It begins with our being reconciled to God. We come into the world as little children whose ties with God are close. Jesus would even say that unless we are converted and become like children we can’t enter the kingdom of God. Later in blessing children, he said, “Of such is the kingdom of heaven.” But there comes a time in a child’s life when they become accountable to God, sin is marked up against them and they need to become friends with God all over again. The remarkable thing about our God and His overwhelming grace is that no matter how far we may have gone away from him and how many laws of his we may have broken he is ready to have full reconciliation with us.

When God forgives our sins, they are totally forgiven and remembered against us no more. In 2 Corinthians 5:17-18 he said, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ.” No many how many ways we break our ties with the Lord, he stands ready to forgive and restore the relationship. This is perhaps best illustrated as Jesus was on the cross, with the crowd shouting for his blood when he hadn’t done a single wrong against them, he prayed, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.” It never mattered what one had done or how far they had drifted away, when they came back to the Lord, forgiveness was full and free.

But the story doesn’t end with our being reconciled to God. As vital as that point is in our life Paul’s point in 2 Corinthians 5 continued with the application of what it now means to us that we have become a new creation. He noted in verse 16 that there was a time when he judged everyone from a fleshly standpoint, But that such wasn’t the case anymore. As he continued the message in verse 18-21 he said, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

When we become God’s friend through forgiveness, it puts us in the position of one who is to be reconciled with others around us. If I think I can be in a right relationship with God while hating my fellow man then I’ve been fooled. Even in the Lord’s prayer, he said to pray “Forgive our sins as we also forgive those who sin against us.” But it reaches much further than that. In having that relationship with God, I’m given a ministry, a service that God intends for me to carry out. It is the ministry of reconciliation. As an ambassador for Christ, one of my missions in the world is to bring about reconciliation between other people and God and other people with each other. The whole concept is built on the foundation that God made Christ, who was without sin, to be sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God in him. Sin is one thing that pervades all of humanity. John said if a person said they didn’t sin they were only fooling themselves and that in the process they made God a liar.

When people are reconciled with God, there ought to be a natural result that we are then drawn into a closer relationship with every other person, without regard to race, color, background or political standing. When I refuse the close ties of love and friendship with another person, I am at the same time pushing myself away from the Lord. In Ephesians 2 after talking about how his overwhelming grace has made it possible for those who are dead in sin to be reconciled to God, he continued by making the point that now by that grace he has broken down the wall between people so that everyone can be reconciled to God in one body by the cross. He said Christ had slain the enmity by dying on the cross.

We live in a fractured world where people accept or reject, love or hate, help or kill based on where someone is from, what color their skin may be or what religion they profess. If we are waiting for some political party or some movement to solve the problem we are waiting in vain. God is the answer and his people are intended to be the ones who are his ambassadors to carry the message, to be the ministers of change and reconciliation in the world. Far too often rather than being ambassadors for such reconciliation we stand as the example of folks that can’t get along with each other much less the people around us. God help us.

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YOUR HANDS IN GOD’S HANDS

God is all powerful and nothing is impossible with him. Think of the times when God would make a promise to someone and they would struggle with doubt. When God told Abraham and Sarah when he was right at 100 years old and she was right at 90 that they would have a son whom they were to name laughter,(which is what Isaac, means). She couldn’t believe it and Abraham questioned it. God’s answer was, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” On two occasions he asked Isaiah when he was struggling with doubt over some promise of God, “Is the hand of God too short to save or his ear too heavy to hear?” When Gabriel told Mary she would have a son and call his name Immanuel meaning God with us, she couldn’t understand how it could be since she hadn’t ever had sex with anyone. But God’s power is unlimited.

Yet what stands out about God’s power is how often he works through our hands to accomplish His mighty deeds. He could easily have performed every one of the ten signs performed in Egypt to convince Pharaoh to let Israel go. But over and over again it involved Moses and the rod in his hand. Even when the Israelites stood on the banks of the Red Sea and the Egyptian army was fast approaching from behind, the people were trembling in fear, God’s answer was for Moses to stretch out his hand with the rod he held over the Red Sea and the waters separated so the Israelites could cross on dry land.

In our present time, God could easily shout the message of salvation down from heaven to all humanity for them to hear in their own language how he loves them and that Jesus died on the cross so their sins can be forgiven, that he was raised from the dead in power and now reigns as king on David’s throne as the one who has all authority on heaven and in earth. But God’s choice was very different from that. He chose to have Jesus choose twelve ordinary men, men with weaknesses, flaws, problems, and failures, to train them to become his ambassadors into the world to make disciples of all the nations. They were able to preach the gospel to the entire known world in one generation. People said of them that they were “turning the world upside down.” How could they do such a thing? Because God hands are constantly working through our hands to accomplish the work he has given us to do.

I often think of the disciples gathered with Jesus as it is described in Acts 1 when he had spent the time between his resurrection and the ascension back to the Father telling them about the kingdom and that they were to wait in Jerusalem until they received power from on high when the Holy Spirit would come upon them. They asked if this was the time when he would restore the kingdom to Israel and he said it wasn’t for them to know of the times and seasons. But listen closely to what he told them of what they were to do when he ascended to the Father and the Holy Spirit was sent to be with them and with all who become followers of Jesus in the time following. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria and to the uttermost parts of the earth.” One intriguing point to remember is that the word translated “witness” and the word for “martyr” are the same.

Notice, he laid out for them a plan. Start where you are then spread out to the area around you, then reach out to the people with whom you have some similarity but you must plan and work from the start to share the message with everyone, everywhere, during every time. Obviously, he was speaking to the apostles there but his message, like that of the great commission, was one for every person who becomes a follower of Christ for all the ages. When Jesus sends us out on our mission to the world, he never sends us alone. In the great commission, his promise was, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” In telling them about the plan of action they were to wait for the Holy Spirit to come to be with them forever.

From creation itself, God has been moving through our hands to accomplish his work. He made man and woman and put them in charge of the creation. Adam was to dress and keep the garden. All things David said were put under his feet. God’s longing today for people everywhere is for them to hear the good news of Jesus and come to know him as Savior and Lord, to turn from their sinful ways to live for him and be baptized into Christ, into his body to become a part of his mission and plans for the universe.

Far too often those who have made a commitment to Christ are waiting for someone else to do the job, to be the witness, to share the message that God is calling on them to carry out. When our hands are yielded to God’s use and no holding back it is amazing what God can accomplish through us. When our mouth or ears or money or things are totally laid at the altar of God with the readiness for Him to use us and own us as part of his body, there will be no limits to what God’s people can accomplish for Him in the world. But it must start with readily offering ourselves on the altar of God, giving our bodies as a living sacrifice to him. Then, see where God leads and what He does through you.

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GETTING INTO GOD’S STORY

I enjoy devotional books where some small segment of Scripture is given and some thoughts about it often followed by a story and application. I think they are worthwhile. I also enjoy searching Scripture to find answers to questions that are concerning me. It is worthwhile for me to look at God’s word in times of stress and trouble in life and see that God has answers to our emotional and spiritual problems that haunt us day by day. Let’s face it the world is filled with people struggling with stress, grief, depression, frustration, anger, disappointment and discouragement that just gets them so far down they don’t know where to turn. All of these methods of searching the Bible for answers are worth something valuable and have a definite place in our study of God’s word.

But, none of these type studies should take the place of reading God’s word to simply understand the story of His word, to see how God’s plan has been at work from the beginning and to see where we fit into the whole message of God’s Book. I understand that one can read the Bible from cover to cover many times and never really understand how it all fits together. It is helpful to remember some basic truths in reading Scripture that will help me both in understanding and applying its truths to my life. The Bible is far from a single book written in chronological order so that if I begin in Genesis and read through to Revelation everything will be part of the story in the right place for me to see. The Bible is grouped together based on the kind of literature that is involved. In Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy we have the books of the law that tell of God’s creation of the universe, the plan for mankind and the wonderful opportunity for them in the Garden of Eden. But sin entered the world and was devastating in its effect. Murder, mistreatment, every thought of their imagination became evil. Yet God had a plan to redeem humanity and bring them back to a saved relationship with Him. He chose Abraham and his descendants to be a special nation and ones through whom He would send a savior to lead people from darkness to light. These five books develop that story with the giving of the law, building the tabernacle and preparing the Israelites to enter the promised land as God’s people.

From Joshua through Esther is the story of what happened to the Israelites after they crossed into the promised land. It tells of prosperity, of falling away, of redemption through different judges until they wanted a king like the nations around them. Saul, David, and Solomon all reigned over the empire. But sin brought the division of the tribes. Ten tribes became known as Israel and two tribes as Judah. In time sin led to the fall of the ten tribes through the Assyrian captivity. Then a couple of hundred years later the two tribes were conquered by Babylon and remained in captivity for seventy years. Afterward, God delivered them by having the Medo-Persian Empire conquer Babylon and allow Judah to go back and rebuild Jerusalem, the temple and the walls of the city. Esther tells of one Jewish girl becoming queen in Persia for a time and saving her people. The history of the Old Testament ends at that point. It is followed by five books of poetry, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. They largely related to the period of the United Kingdom, except for Job that likely took place during the time of Genesis.

These books are followed by the Books of Prophesy from Isaiah through Malachi and the first five are called Major prophets because they are longer and the other twelve as minor because they were shorter. They all had to do with different times and problems that related to Israel and Judah before, during and after the captivity.

There was a four hundred year break between the Old and New Testament. The New Testament, like the Old isn’t in chronological order. The first four books are called gospels because the tell the story from different angles of Jesus life on this earth. The Book of Acts is the history book of the New Testament telling how the Holy Spirit led the work of Christ through his spiritual body, the church after Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. Many of the letters, especially those written by Paul were written during the story of the Book of Acts and deal with churches and problems they faced. His letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon were written later after the completion of Acts. The General letters each dealt with very specific challenges facing churches and individuals as they strived to live for God. Finally, the Book of Revelation dealt in very figurative language with challenges facing the seven churches of Asia and answers God wanted them to see about their future when it seemed that persecution and problems were overwhelming them. It is extremely fitting that both the first chapters of the Bible and the last chapters of the Bible deal with people in the Garden of God, with God, Christ and The Spirit in our presence and the tree life and river of life available for all.

God’s word is an amazing story but needs to be read and seen as a whole story rather than just bits and pieces that I turn to when I am dealing with particular challenges or issues. “All Scripture is inspired of God and profitable for teaching, for correction, for reproof and for rebuke so the man of God may be perfect, completely furnished unto every good work.”

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