GRACE AND GODLINESS

Grace is truly amazing. It shines out as the very blessing of God that demonstrates his love and compassion for people. Without grace, no one would be saved from their sins. If we receive what we deserve we would all be lost since the wages of sin is death and the gift of God is eternal life (Romans 6:23). Put beside that the fact that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) and you see how vital it is for us to have grace from God. It is also extremely important for us to understand what grace really is and what it does for us.

Probably no Scripture gives a clearer picture of grace than Ephesians 2 that begins with the point that we were all once dead in our trespasses and sin. “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:4-9).

While grace can be defined as Unearned or unmerited favor, a gift, a thing of beauty, poise or kindness, it has more shades of meaning than any definition can cover. It is God dealing with us according to our needs rather than what we deserve. Grace isn’t just something that God has toward us but something we are to learn to practice toward others. The Book of 2 Peter ends with the challenge for us to grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We have no means by which we can earn or deserve our salvation. I remember hearing a man pray some years ago, “Lord, if we merit, may we inherit the glory of heaven.” It sounds good in that it rimes, but it is totally wrong. If we get what we merit we will be lost forever. But God’s grace that brings salvation has appeared to all people (Titus 2:11).

Grace not only gives us initial salvation but it is constantly available in our lives for God so that we can remain in his favor all the time. But, notice this reality. As wonderful as God’s grace is, it is not a license to go on living the same sinful life I’ve lived before being saved. Too often in reading Ephesians the second chapter we stop reading too soon. Verses 8-9 are powerful in pointing out that we are saved by grace through faith. But the rest of the chapter gives great insight into what is involved in living by grace. In verse ten, he said, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Good works won’t save us. But if we are saved we will practice good works. God formed and made us as his children for us to do good works for him. He even prepared these good works in advance for us to do.

In the second half of Ephesians two, he showed that grace that brings salvation also tears down walls between people. God is our peace who took the two groups, Jews and Gentiles and tore down the wall between them so that in Christ they could become one. He took away the law and its commandments to give a New Covenant that invites all people, everywhere to come to him for a new life. He reconciled us to each other and to him in one body by the cross, putting to death the hostility that had been there between them he came and preached peace to you who were afar off and peace to those who were near, for through him we both have access to the Father in one Spirit.

If I claim grace for salvation but refuse the grace to reconcile me to people who are different from me then I am missing the point of where grace was meant to lead. You can’t reject people because of their race, color or background while still clinging to the grace of God for salvation. Grace is intended to flow from God to us and to flow through us to others around us. To simply cry out for grace for me individually and not offer it to others misses the point entirely. It is certainly out of this heart of grace that God calls on us as his people to have a ministry of reconciliation, preaching his message of reconciliation, while we are reconciled to God ourselves and plead with others to be reconciled to God today, since Christ who knew no sin, became sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God in him (2 Corinthians 5:18-21).

Praise God for his amazing grace. Thank God he has shared grace with us so we can share it with others all of our lives and become family with people of all backgrounds in the body of Jesus.

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WHAT IN THE WORLD

Do you ever when reading the stories of Jesus life and ministr in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, run across those statements Jesus made and think to yourself, “What in the world did he mean by that?” I was talking with a new Christian a few days ago and I had recommended to them that a good place to start in their Bible reading was the Gospel of Mark. They had been reading and came across some things that Jesus said that just blew their minds and it just didn’t seem to fit what they thought Jesus taught. Jesus certainly was as unique as a teacher as in any other aspect of his life on earth. He often said things that seemed hard to the people who heard him and still seem difficult to us as well.

In Luke 14 Jesus told several stories that had to do with the nature of his kingdom. After those, he began a discussion on what it means to be a disciple of his. The word “disciple” means to be a learner or student, but not in the sense we usually think of the student in our time. Probably our closest word to describe the disciple is the word, “apprentice” that shows a person in training for a job. They not only learn the information provided but learn the techniques of the trainer. They are learning as much or more by watching the person training them than any instruction being given. Jesus calls us, not just to sit in classes where we learn things he said and did, but to be an apprentice of his that is committed to knowing and imitating him in our daily lives. So, his teaching about what is involved in being a disciple is vitally important to us.

Three times in this segment Jesus makes the statement if anyone comes after me and does not do some things they cannot be my disciple. The challenge is that the three things mentioned are not a simple or easy task. The first one is, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – such a person cannot be my disciple.” What in the world did he mean? Surely, Jesus doesn’t want us to hate anyone. He is one who loves and teaches us to love, God, our neighbor and our brothers and sisters in him. Surely there is something in this that gets below the surface. Jesus often used very graphic language and hyperbole to make the point stand out and be remembered. He isn’t teaching us to hate those who are closest to us in life in the sense of despising them. His point is that our love and devotion to him ought to be so strong that any other love, by comparison, would seem like hate. Our love for God is to be with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. He isn’t wanting us to divide these up and determine what it means to love God in different ways. It is to make the point that we are to love God with everything in us. Our love and loyalty to Jesus should go deeper and further than our love for parents, children, spouse or siblings. Matthew’s account of this same lesson didn’t use the word hate but said, “If a person loves father or mother more than me they cannot be my disciple.” No relationship in all the world should be strong enough to pull us away from Jesus and following him. We are to seek his kingdom and righteousness first before anything else in the world.

His second absolute statement was, “And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” I sincerely doubt that we can grasp the way this statement would have come across to the people of that day. Carrying your cross meant you were headed to death by execution. We tend to read it and it is so far away from us that we naturally spiritualize it and see it as following Jesus. But Jesus point, which would have been far more familiar to them was that unless we are willing to die with him on the cross we can’t be his disciple. Paul gave a tremendous illustration of this point in Galatians 2:20 when he said, “I have been crucified with Christ, yet I live, yet not I but Christ lives in me and the life that I now live in the flesh I live by faith in him that loved me and gave himself up for me.” Later in Galatians 6:14 he said, “God forbid that I should glory, except in the cross of the Lord Jesus, by which the world is crucified for me and, I to the world.” Taking up our cross means that we are dying to our old way of life and being born again into a new life in relationship with Jesus. We turn from the old ways of life to be new in him. “If anyone is in Christ they are a new creation. Old things have passed away. Behold all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

A few verses later in Luke 14 Jesus offered the third such statement. “In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciple.” Again we are moved to ask, What in the world does he mean? Must we become beggars to follow Jesus? Can we not have any possessions and be a disciple? His point is that everything we own or talent we possess in life is His. We sign the deed of our possessions over to him when we give our lives to him. Remember Jesus stories about the kingdom when he said one who found a treasure in a field and went and sold all he had to purchase the field and then a man was searching for beautiful pearls when he found one pearl of great price. He went and sold all he had to purchase that pearl with tremendous joy. When we find the kingdom of Christ, it means so much to us that we are ready to lay everything we have on the altar of God to have the kingdom. Now the truth is that what we give up for him he returns to us so that we can use them in his service all our lives. But the title belongs to Jesus. We are his and what we have is his. If I try to hold things in life back from him and my commitment to him, I end up losing him in the process.

Being a follower of Jesus is demanding, but the price we pay for the benefit of being his disciple is extremely small in comparison. We give up a dollar to posses a million more as his servant

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WHO TO LIFT UP

We live in a hurting world where multitudes of people feel knocked down, crushed and deeply injured. Sometimes the hurts come as a result of our own failures and sins. Many times they come from the sin and failures of others. In either case, we need someone to offer us a lift, a helping hand, and a listening ear so we can deal with our hurts and rise from them to be helpful to others. One of the common statements made of Jesus during his ministry on earth was that He reached down and lifted them up. Most of the time it was tied to someone who was injured or handicapped and Jesus healed them, but even after they were healed he would reach down to lift them up. The writer of the Book of Hebrews offers this challenge in Hebrews 12:12 “Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. Make level paths for your feet, so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.” He had been talking about enduring hardship that comes to us in the form of discipline, knowing that when God disciplines it is because of his deep love for us and longing for us to grow through the hurts. Yet no discipline ever seems pleasant at the time, but painful. It is afterward that the benefit comes in the form of righteousness and peace.

In John 12:31-32 the picture of being lifted up is used in an entirely different way. “Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all people to myself.” John goes on to say that this was telling how he would be put to death. It certainly fits his means of dying by crucifixion. He was nailed to the cross then lifted up from the earth to die an agonizing death so we can be saved from sin. But there seems to be more to this than just pointing to the means of his death by crucifixion. The words translated “lifted up” also mean “exalted.” Jesus in dying was also being exalted from the place he had filled on earth to become the king of kings and Lord of lords. Earlier in this chapter, Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey that had never been ridden before. People were putting down their coats and branches and crying out hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. After this Jesus was with the disciples when some Greeks approached Philip asking to see Jesus. He went to Andrew who took them to Jesus. Jesus took their coming as a signal of what was about to happen. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their in this world will keep it for eternal life.

So, Jesus saw his death not just as being lifted up but as the planting of a seed that would produce a harvest and he saw it as being like our own death to self and sin that we may grow and have a harvest of righteousness in life.

There is a practical point I want to make on this. Jesus was lifted up on the cross. He was raised and he ascended to the Father and now reigns as our king. But it is also true that when we as his people lift him up, it has the result of drawing people to him. Paul made the statement in 2 Corinthians 3 that he didn’t preach himself but Christ Jesus. He said he and Apollos were ones that planted and watered the seed but it was God who gave the growth or increase. It is impossible to both lift up ourselves or other people while still lifting up Jesus. It is so easy in life to put the spotlight on ourselves and think everything is about us. When we do the focus turns from Jesus to us. We may end up drawing a few to us who think we are great and special but we won’t draw them to Jesus. When we get out of the spotlight and constantly push the attention onto Jesus who showed us how to live and how to die, who is the pattern for us as his people, who is the hero, the winner against Satan and our only source of salvation, we draw people to him.

Anytime we focus on ourselves or our human heroes we are focusing on people with a sin problem, with weaknesses and failures. We need a savior, a rescuer to pull us from the death of sin. So, lift up Jesus, every day, with everyone I have the opportunity and it will change everything.

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SHARING IN THE DIVINE

One of the marvels of the Bible is the whole story of Jesus becoming one of us. Even though he shared equality with God, he willingly gave up that privilege to become a man and even as a man he humbled himself to become a servant, a servant who would pay the highest price for us by going to the cross. In Hebrews 2:14-15 it says, “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” Jesus retained his deity while living among us as a man, but he took on the fullness of humanity and felt our pains, fears, weariness and hurts. As a result, he can sympathize with our weakness and be a faithful and merciful high priest in service to God. Because he suffered, he is able to help those who are suffering or being tempted.

But there is another side to this whole point that is amazing. In 2 Peter 1;3-4 God had Peter to share this truth with us: “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world caused by evil desires.” It’s phenomenal just to think of the divine power giving us all that we need for living a godly life in this world. Far too often we allow our desires or wants in life to cloud our grasp of the reality of God’s provisions for us. Notice he gives those through our knowledge of him, who called us to glory and goodness. The more I know the Lord in my life the more secure I am in facing the cares and struggles of life. God has a calling for us all. It isn’t just some work he wants us to accomplish. He calls us to glory and goodness. Too often, it seems to me, our feeling of God’s call centers totally on our actions. We have some mission we are being called to. Wouldn’t it be great if we could feel God’s call to be good and to share in his glory as his child?

It’s through that goodness and glory that he has given us his great and precious promises in this life. If you read through this whole chapter you would quickly see tons of great promises God has given to us as his children. I suspect all of them, including being fruitful, never falling and an abundant entrance into his eternal kingdom is in view. But closer than these is the promise, that through his promises we can participate in his divine nature.

The truth is there are tons of ways one might consider what is involved in this divine nature that we can be participants in. But, I suspect Peter is more focused than that. It seems far more likely that the divine nature he is discussing is the graces that we are challenged to make every effort to add to our faith in Jesus. God’s nature or Jesus nature is one of goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, mutual affection, and love. That divine nature isn’t just something poured down on us from above when we turn from the ways of sin and corruption. It is what we are motivated to keep on supplying in our life by remembering his tremendous promises to us.

His point isn’t that we should get as much faith as needed then to work on goodness until we have it accomplished, then to seek knowledge. It is that we are constantly adding or supplying these things in our life for God. As we develop these traits we are participating in the divine nature, becoming more like Jesus all the time and developing godliness. If we begin to struggle with our growth in these aspects of God’s nature, we need to remember his promises that should forever move us to become more like him. God had Jesus to take on our nature. Now he encourages us to take on his nature so we can be more like him all the time and share his glory and presence constantly.

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WHAT’S THE PROBLEM

Have you noticed in your own life how difficult it is, when you have a problem with someone, to tell them clearly and specifically what the problem is? It is almost impossible to solve a problem if it isn’t clear what the problem is that we are trying to solve. Even in the home with husbands and wives or with parents and children we too often become frustrated about something that has happened during the day that sets us on edge and then when our spouse or child does something that isn’t really bad at all but a little irritating we go off the deep end to attack them for the mistake. They are wondering the whole time why such a small thing brought on such a huge response, but many times will never really understand what the real problem was. It is the same in the workplace. It is natural in such an environment for there to be disagreements. Honest disagreement may actually lead to a better decision or action for the company. But, most of the time the disagreement isn’t honest. We have such a difficult time stating the real issue that we move around it and argue about something that may not even be related but is an easy target. The situation can’t improve because the real problems aren’t even being dealt with.

Remember Jesus charge to us when someone does something wrong. In Matthew 18:15-17 he said, “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

Notice some extremely important points in this reading that can apply to just about any disagreement. First, go to the person that did the wrong. When we see a wrong done at work or at home or anywhere and we get on social media and tell the world what has happened, it does nothing to solve the problem. The very person that could have changed the whole thing doesn’t even know about it. Even if they read that post, most likely they will not ever think it was about them. Even if they do, the likely response will be anger that you told the world rather than them or frustration that it was handled so poorly. The real test is, do we want to solve the problem or do we just want to complain about it to the world or whoever is listening.

Second, Jesus said when you go to the person to share between you and them the problem, “POINT OUT THE FAULT.” Take a moment to read Revelation chapters 2 and 3 as Jesus wrote letters to the seven churches of Asia. In each letter, he clearly stated the things that were going on in the church that were good and commended them. But he also clearly stated the wrongs being done and demanded they correct them or suffer the consequences. Jesus was never evasive about what was wrong in a person’s life, whether it was Peter who wasn’t minding the things of God or James and John who had the wrong spirit, he clearly told them what was wrong so they could make it right.

Third, notice that if they listen you have gained your brother or sister back. Let’s face the fact that if we followed this teaching to the letter, most problems between brothers and sisters in Christ or even in the home would be solved quickly. We will seldom be moved to the next step if we follow this one to the letter. But it takes courage and clarity to carry this command out. But what a blessing it is when a problem between people is solved and no one else needs to ever hear that the problem existed.

Fourth, notice that if you have to take one or two with you it is “So the matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” It isn’t to pile on but to make certain the person is actually hearing the nature of the problem. Maybe, if they wouldn’t listen to me, it was because I didn’t make the concern clear to them and they couldn’t see themselves doing such a wrong.

Finally, even when the matter is taken to the church it is still on the theme of getting the person to listen. “If they refuse to listen even to the church then treat them as a pagan or tax collector.” It is assumed in all the charges that if you can get the person to listen and see the nature of the problem they will change and turn back to the right way. If a person involved in a wrong just won’t listen, no matter how clear we are in making the statement, then we must move on and let them come to themselves or face the judgment of God.

But, be clear that if they really aren’t told the exact nature of the problem, then we set the whole thing up for failure.

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LET’S GO FOR A WALK

There is no question walking is good for you. I recently added one of these apps to my phone that tells how far I walk each day and just knowing it makes me want to walk a little further. Perhaps it has something to do with age that it is vital that I have light when I want to walk any distance. If I wake up at night and decide to get up and go to the living room, I’ve learned that I must grab for a light before taking a step. In the dark, I’m going to run into something, stumble on something or just miss a step and hit the floor.

It intrigues me that the Bible so often uses walking as a way to describe our life for God. Paul, in Ephesians 5 challenges us to walk in love, walk in the light and walk in wisdom. One of the most powerful statements about walking is in I John 1:5-7. “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him, there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.”

Focus on the phrase “walk in the light”. The concept of walking is that we are in an on-going kind of thing rather than just a one time action. It is describing a way of living. We can either make our way of life one of walking in the darkness or one of walking in the light. To walk in the darkness is to live a lie and be outside the fellowship of God and Jesus. To walk in the light means we have fellowship with each other as fellow followers of Jesus and we have fellowship with God and Jesus. It also means that we are being constantly purified by the blood of Jesus that flows through us as part of his body. Notice that John didn’t leave us to figure out what he meant by walking in the light since he started the section with the statement, “God is light.” Remember when Moses spent time with God on the mountain he came down with his face aglow. God’s presence gives light. To walk in the light is to walk in the presence of God. To walk in darkness is to be on our own course or the course the devil sets for us, away from God’s presence.

John moved from this to talk about sin in our lives and notices that no one lives without committing acts of sin. To think we do is to lie to ourselves and God. But sin is no longer our way of life (2:1). We no longer live as a sinner. We have changed our direction and our focus in life. Later in chapter two of I John he moves back to the theme of our walk. In verses 9-11 he said, “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother or sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.”

Obviously, God ties living in his presence with being in fellowship with our brothers and sisters in God’s family. He also ties having hateful feelings toward our brother or sister with walking in the dark or living in the dark. He paints two pictures of the person living in the darkness. First, he said of them that they stumble. Second, he said they don’t know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them. Did you ever play games as a child or youth where you blindfolded a person and then gave them some task to accomplish? It is a very helpless feeling to not be able to see what is right in front of you. Of course, you will stumble and fall multiple times if you are walking in the darkness, Have you ever been out at night and gotten lost? It may have been as a young person in the woods with friends or it may have been as an adult in your car in a strange part of the city on a rainy, stormy night when you can’t see where you are going.

What is amazing about this whole thing is that we can be in such darkness spiritually simply because we have wrong feelings about a brother or sister in Christ. Perhaps it goes back to the fact Jesus said it was by our love for each other in Christ that caused others to know we belong to him. Maybe it is tied to Peter’s command that we “Love the brotherhood.” Maybe it even goes back to the greatest commands being to love God with all our being and our neighbor as our self.

I don’t want to go walking in the dark. God, let the light of our love shine upon me always.

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BUILDING A WALL

With so much being said right now about building a wall, it caused me to think of the Book of Nehemiah and God’s call for him to lead the people in Jerusalem to rebuild the wall around the city. God had also sent people to Jerusalem like Ezra and Zerubbabel to rebuild the temple. If the temple was to be rebuilt there needed to be a wall around the city to protect the people inside it and to protect the temple of God that was being rebuilt. When you read Nehemiah it is amazing that without any professional builders the wall around the city is rebuilt in less than two months in spite of tons of opposition. It is a witness to the difference good leadership can make in any job and a witness to what amazing things can be done when everyone works together.

When Nehemiah and his companions arrived in Jerusalem they first took the time to go through the city and look at the need for themselves before mentioning anything to any of the people there about what should be done. When He did meet with the people he made two things very clear. First, he made it clear that God was behind the whole plan, that he had been called by God to come and lead in this mission and that he had spent time in prayer asking for God’s help. Second, he made it clear that it was a job that everyone was needed to be able to accomplish. It couldn’t be done by Nehemiah and the handful of people who had come with him but would need every one of the people to get involved and work hard to get the wall built. When the people heard this they replied, “Let us start rebuilding.’ So they began this good work.” When the opposition arose from Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official and Geshem the Arab, Nehemiah answered them, “The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it.”

One of the most important things that happened at this point was that people began to rebuild the wall that was near to where they lived. They weren’t professional. But they could build near their home and get that section put back together. People were involved in building from all kinds of background and social standing. Many of the workers were extremely poor and because of their taking time from their work to do the job, their family got into trouble and many were going hungry. Nehemiah had to reach out and help them and tell the ones who were wealthy to stop charging interest to the poor among them and hurting their own people. God makes all of them know their place mattered. They were able to rebuild the wall because they had a mind to work.

There were constant efforts from the enemies to intimidate, spread rumors, ridicule and spread fear among the people. Yet Nehemiah and the people kept on working. Some of the time they worked with the sword at their side and tools of work in the other hand. They crossed all kinds of lines to help one another and to complete the work.

When the wall had been completed they brought all the people together for a time of worship to God. A platform was built and Ezra the scribe stood on the platform and read to them from the Books of the Law. As he read about God’s love and the commitment the people had made to follow God’s law in everything and saw how they had really failed in their commitment to God over and over again, which led to the destroying of the temple and the wall and the seventy years of captivity. Many of the people began to weep. They were broken hearted over their sin and rebellion against God. Nehemiah stood before them and pleaded with them to stop the crying and said it wasn’t the time for such weeping or sorrow. He told them instead to eat, drink, be merry that the wall was built, “For the joy of the Lord is our strength.” It is true that many things in their lives needed to change. Many were involved in marriages with foreigners and their children were mixed up in what they thought and spoke the language of the foreign nations and their gods as much as the language of the Jews and the faith in God Almighty.

But it is vital that we see that while there are times when we need to see the sin in our lives and be broken because of it so we turn from the sin to God in repentance. It is also vital that we rejoice in our God, that we praise and honor his name and that we tune into His word and the glory of His name. In every age, there has been the challenge to do both the repentance and the praise, to be broken because of our sin and rejoicing that God loves and accepts us anyway. It is vital to remember that it is the joy of the Lord that is our strength.

When it comes to walls they can be either good or bad based on their purpose and their use.

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