19 June 2017

Narrative Preaching

Yesterday morning I tweeted this, reflecting on the style of sermon I was offering:
This was somewhat confusing to some, so I'll clarify its meaning. And share the experience of trying out a new format for sermons: Narrative preaching. Yesterday was the first Sunday of a new sermon series on Genesis. I am a Lectionary preacher, so I am following the outline of the texts listed there, for the most part. The Sunday before last, June 11, was Trinity Sunday. Genesis 1:1-2:4 was the assigned Old Testament reading for the day, but Pastor Leon preferred to preach from the Matthew and 2 Corinthians texts. The next Sunday, June 18, the Lectionary jumped to Genesis 18:1-15. Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood... skipped. And several vital interactions with Abraham, specifically Chapters 12-17, were skipped. So we jumped from Creation to Sarah laughing from her tent in one week. Okay.

After June 18, the sermon series based on Lectionary texts goes to:

  • Abraham and Sarah sending Hagar and Ishmael away (who are these people? Their origins aren't included.) Genesis 21
  • The choosing of Isaac's bride (who is Isaac? Not included.) Genesis 24
  • The birth of Isaac and Rebekah's twin sons Genesis 25
  • Jacob's dream of a ladder between earth and heaven Genesis 28
  • Break from the Lectionary to address sexual violence in Genesis 34 & 38
  • Introduction of the Joseph cycle Genesis 37
  • End of the Joseph cycle Genesis 45
The Lectionary texts this summer do not introduce Abraham, one of the key characters of the Old Testament; instead it relays one story and moves on to his sons, grandsons, and great grandsons. I can't deal with that. In a conventional sermon on Genesis 18 I would have to introduce Abraham and Sarah and the Promise which made both of them laugh. The Promise of an heir to Abraham is one of the central tenets of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Skipping those stories, as the Lectionary does, robs Genesis of one of its underlying pillars-- the covenant between God and Abraham and Sarah. Then moving on to an adult Isaac's marriage to Rebekah skips the horrendous tale of Genesis 22, the completion of all the talk of the Promise in the previous ten chapters of Genesis. No, No, No.

For sermon planning, I was stuck in a difficult place: many church goers know the Abraham story. But many do not. Or they know only the highlights: Abraham followed God, Sarah went with them, they had a baby when they were both in their 90s, Abraham believed in God, God is faithful to God's promises. It's all good stuff, but it misses so much. Thankfully last week I pulled off the bookshelf a book I hadn't read in a while: Preaching Old Testament, by my former preaching professor and colleague in ministry Dr John Holbert. Here's one of the advantages of narrative preaching Holbert shares:

All ears prick up when the advent of a story is announced. Just say, 'Once upon a time,' and watch your hearers' anticipation play across their faces and surface in their eager movement toward you. If the first aim of preaching is to be heard, then a narrative, almost inevitably, will gain a hearing. If a second aim of preaching is to involve the hearers, then a narrative wins high marks on this score as well. 

Based on my own observations of the congregation during the sermon, plus the feedback following worship, I absolutely agree with John. People were engaged and listening, including many who normally become distracted during a traditional exposition/teaching sermon. Here are some of the comments I heard from people after worship:
"I loved that story."
"What a great way to share the whole story."
"I loved the narration approach."
"I really enjoyed that today."

Holbert even offered a sample narrative sermon on the sacrifice of Isaac story (Genesis 22) in Chapter 4 of his book. He used a metaphor of laughter throughout his sermon. In mine, I used a metaphor of a "well-worn leather suitcase," since Sarah and Abraham were life-long travelers. I brought my father-in-law's old leather suitcase, which I pulled out at the beginning of the sermon:

As I planned the sermon, I felt it was important to give a full context to Genesis 18. I briefly told the stories from:
  • Genesis 12: Abram's original calling to follow God and his plan to trick Pharaoh into believing Sarai was his sister
  • Genesis 15: The original covenant between Abram and God
  • Genesis 16: Sarai's plan for Abram to have a child with Hagar
  • Genesis 17: Circumcision and Abraham's laughter at the renewed Promise (God changed their names in this text)
  • Genesis 18: The assigned text of the day; Abraham and Sarah welcome guests, plus Sarah laughs at the Promise renewed
  • Genesis 21: They name their son Isaac, which means "laughter"
  • Genesis 22: Abraham nearly offers Isaac as a sacrifice
I began and ended the sermon with some exposition, so it was not 100% narrative; there was one takeaway for the congregation. I don't know how often I will use narrative preaching, but it is perfect for books like Genesis, Exodus, the Gospels, Acts, which are almost entirely narratives. I know those stories well, and I was comfortable preaching in this way. Honestly, it was the best sleep on a Saturday night before preaching in a long, long time. 

So preachers: give it a shot! It's fun. Buy John's book: $18 on Amazon. Layfolk: encourage your preachers to try a new method. Summer is a fun time to take a risk in worship. Take a listen to the sermon and let me know what you think:

03 June 2017

Wonder Woman

The days between Mother's Day and my wife Christy's birthday are called "Christymas" in our home. It's a time to celebrate her. According to the calendar, that range of days can be anywhere from two to eight days. I buy her little trinkets for each day. This year since I was traveling I lined out the gifts for her to open each day. One of the days included a Wonder Woman plastic water cup, some WW car fresheners, and... five tickets to take the boyos to see the new film on opening day at the Alamo Drafthouse, one of my favorite places on earth! We went yesterday. The whole experience was incredible.

Christy has loved Wonder Woman since she was a little girl. She wore her WW t-shirt. She posed front of the Metropolis background flying the invisible jet while wearing WW's crown and bracelets. I have great pictures but she banned me from sharing on social media.

Wonder Woman is not our first exposure to Gal Godot. She appeared in last year's otherwise disastrous Batman vs Superman movie (read my theological review here). She was by far the best part of that movie. Here's I said about her fifteen months ago:

And in a nod to the future JUSTICE LEAGUE movies coming soon, they partner with Wonder Woman, who is all kinds of awesome. She is a strong woman not defined by her looks or the men around her. Her powers to deflect Bruce Wayne's flirting are just as strong as the tools she uses against Doomsday. She'll get her own solo film next year.

And that solo film is a smash hit, one of the best of 2017. Debate is already happening online as to whether WW is the best DC, or any comic book, film of all time. I'll reserve comment on that; The Dark Knight has a solid hold somewhere in my top 5 all time.

This movie takes place (at least the prologue and epilogue; the actual setting of the film is during WWI) after the events of BvS. Bruce Wayne obviously knows her. Her first words (narration) are, "I used to want to save the world." And I thought: oh no, DC has gone and done it again. They've already made two depressing Superman movies, where he reluctantly identifies as a hero. His own father would rather die in a tornado than have his son reveal his powers to the world (what???). But the sentiment about saving the world doesn't mean that Wonder Woman has become jaded. It refers to the mindset she had when she first left Paradise Island to fight the battle she believed would end war forever. By the end of the movie (she repeats the same line again) she understands her place in the world differently. Here are a couple of lines that speak to her mission:

I loved this movie. It has all the action you want in a summer blockbuster/tent pole movie. It is hopeful and optimistic. Unlike Clark Kent, Diana Prince is not afraid to own her power. When it is time for battle, her focus in not where the others aim. She wants to save the hungry and the lost. When everyone else gives up on the innocent because the risks are too big or the outcome is not guaranteed, she leaps into action-- not needing the approval of the men or the experts around her. In fact, she publicly shames their laziness, cowardice, and complicity in the killing. Likewise, when they act justly she lauds them. Her example and bravery inspires the same in others. I wanted to jump out of the cinema and into battle alongside her as well.

There are also many sweet, funny moments in Wonder Woman. One of her companions, talking about his life before the war, says he wanted to be an actor, but was unable to because of the color of his skin. Another, an American Indian, says his people lost all they had to the ancestors of the Chris Pine character. The fifth member of the group is a Scotsman who was once a sure shot with a long range rifle. After years of war and violence he has lost this gift. But one night after a victory he's heard playing the piano and singing in a local pub-- the first time in years. The next morning, Wonder Woman encourages him to remain part of the group despite his doubts in himself: "You can sing for us."

The central theme of the movie is about the human character-- or the human condition, as we say in the church. Are we inherently good or evil? Are war and violence the result of the actions of a few individuals or is there something imperfect in all of us that leads to destruction-- the opposite of which could be our redemption? I would love for Justice League to pause the fighting (it's not going to happen, but roll with me for a second) and have its heroes and shero sit around a Thanksgiving table and debate their understanding of the human story: Batman, whose parents were murdered when he was a child and who grew up seeking vengeance; Superman, whose home planet was destroyed, growing up here as an alien in every sense of the word; and Wonder Woman, whose understanding of the world evolved with each step she took away from her insulated home.

But enough about Batman and Superman. There have been so many films about those guys, some good, some transcendent, some dubious. Today is the 75th anniversary of Wonder Woman. It's her day. #WonderWomanDay is trending on Twitter. I tweeted this out a coupe of hours ago-- check out the number of favorites and retweets vs. the tweet I listed above:

That's a ton of social media interactions! Go see the movie this weekend if you can. Boost the numbers. It's important. Take your girls, obviously. Also take your boys. I have three (15, 12, 9). We all loved it. We went as a gift for Christy (she was blown away, BTW). It turned out to be a gift for everyone. Have fun, share your experiences on social media, and embrace a more positive view of the human condition in these difficult days. We all need it.

31 May 2017

Three Invitations

Dear Grace Family:
We have lots to celebrate around Grace! I just returned from a volunteer appreciation luncheon where nine Grace members were honored for serving at Wakefield Elementary: Tom and Vicki Busby, Le Lange, Ron Woodworth, Rodney Ward and Sue Ann Spencer, Rhonda Luckett, and Christy and me. It was a very moving occasion. The Wakefield Blitz has been a tremendous success for the school and us. Thank you to everyone who supported it. School starts again August 16!


Speaking of celebrating, we have several receptions happening at Grace in the next ten days: Joan Douglass, who has taught children's Sunday school here for 37 years, is retiring from teaching. We're honoring her with a reception June 4 during the Sunday school hour. There is a memory book and cards near the Celebration Center if you'd like to leave a note or well wishes.

That same day is Confirmation Sunday. You’ll have a chance to hear from our three confirmands: Erika, Miles, and Amanda, at both services this week. Following 11:00 worship we’ll have Confirmation SUNDAEs (get it?) for our confirmands. Stay after for a few moments, enjoy some ice cream, and hang out with these amazing kids and their mentors.

The following Sunday June 11 at 9:45 you are invited to an appreciation reception for Pastor Leon and Dee Ann Veazey. We'll enjoy light breakfast food and contribute to a love offering. Please make plans to join in the celebration of this great couple as we thank both of them for their ministry at Grace. It has been a privilege to serve alongside both Dee Ann and Leon this past year.

Saying thank you is an important part of ministry. Serving is a joy and we do it as a response to God’s grace, not for the attention. Sure. But it’s important to recognize folk who make an impact on the lives of others. At Grace UMC we are privileged to have so many who serve in so many various places. Thank you for exercising your faith in the community!

15 May 2017

A Prayer to Welcome the Sabbath

I concluded my sermon yesterday with this prayer, found in Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. Only $6 on Amazon! What a steal for an amazing daily devotional.

Lord of Creation,
create in us a new rhythm of life
composed of hours that sustain rather than stress,
of days that deliver rather than destroy,
of time that tickles rather than tackles.

Lord of Liberation,
by the rhythm of your truth, set us free
from the bondage and baggage that break us,
from the Pharaohs and fellows who fail us,
from the plans and pursuits that prey upon us.

Lord of Resurrection,
may we be raised into the rhythm of your new life,
dead to deceitful calendars,
dead to fleeting friend requests,
dead to the empty peace of our accomplishments.

To our packed-full planners, we bid, "Peace!"
To our over-caffeinated consciences, we say, "Cease!"
To our suffering selves, Lord, grant release.

Drowning in a sea of deadlines and death chimes,
we rest in you, our lifeline.

By your ever-restful grace,
allow us to enter your Sabbath rest
as your Sabbath rest enters into us.

In the name of our Creator,
our Liberator,
our Resurrection and Life,
we pray.

12 May 2017

Progress in the Healthy Church Initiative

Grace UMC recently decided to continue in the Healthy Church Initiative. If that doesn't ring a church bell for you, click here. It's been a very exciting process. The layfolk at Grace leading us through the Healthy Church Initiative are Tom Busby, Janet Chester, Stephen Clayton, Frank Holcomb, Carol Kennedy, John Murphy, Carolyn and Jim Nicholson, Cindy Pressley, and Jim Williams. These are amazing, dedicated people who love Grace. It's been wonderful just to listen and learn from their various perspectives. We've read six books together and met once a month to discuss how they apply to Grace. The lay team meets monthly with a similar team from Leonard UMC. Likewise, I meet monthly with a clergy group of pastors of several churches, each with very different histories and experiences. Both of those groups are led by a trained Healthy Church Initiative facilitator.

How can you get involved? Thanks for asking! Join in the conversation. Ask questions of the people named above. They are eager to share. Buy one of the books we read and form your own thoughts of how the ideas there may impact Grace UMC. Here's the reading list:

Renovate or Die- Bob Farr
Clip In: Risking Hospitality in Your Church- Jim Ozier and Fiona Haworth
The Externally Focused Church – Rick Rusaw & Eric Swanson
Get Their Name -Doug Anderson, Bob Farr, Kay Kotan
Simple Church
 -Thom Rainer & Eric Geiger
Bearing Fruit: Ministry with Real Results– Lovett H.Weems, Jr. & Tom Berlin

You can also join the prayer team we are forming for the Healthy Church Initiative. You can email Carolyn Nicholson to sign up! (I think she's the contact person; if not, she'll point you in the correct direction.) 🙂

To get an idea for where the process may lead us (it's not set in stone; who knows where the Holy Spirit will move Grace?), here are some sample guidelines for the prayer team to pray over:

  • The congregation embraces an outward-focused mission that puts the spiritual needs of those in the community above the need of the congregation.
  • For a compelling vision that will motivate and drive the congregation to great acts of ministry.
  • That the congregation sees the urgency for such a mission and vision.
  • The pastor and one or two key lay leaders should communicate this type of purpose each time the team meets.
  • Pray for the community needs and officials. Be specific if there are clear issues that are part of the community conversation or agenda. Pray for the community leaders by name (i.e. Fire Chief so and so, Chief of Police so and so, etc.). List as many officials as possible.
  • Pray for the changes that are needed, that we might “embrace” them and be willing and able to make these changes. Pray for the community to be impacted by the church like never.
  • Pray for unchurched. Pray in general that unchurched people in your community can find Christ through this church. Pray specifically for unchristian friends you know. Pray that you and your church will find ways to invite these people and to make it comfortable for them to explore what Jesus and God and church are all about.

I am very excited about where this process will lead us as a church. I have already seen changes in how these leaders are engaged with the congregation. Multiply that by everyone who worships here and we will be much more effective in reaching a new generation with the love of Jesus Christ!

11 May 2017

Put Your $$ Where Your Faith Is

I want to take a moment to brag on Grace UMC. Our church is known as a missions-oriented place. There are abundant opportunities here to serve God's people in our local community and around the world. It is one thing to say we believe serving others is important; it's a better thing to do it. One of my favorite verses is James 1:25: "But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act-- they will be blessed in their doing." So thank you to the folk here who serve in a hands-on way: Share: Taking It to the Streets brings food directly to those in our area who are hungry. We have members who volunteer with organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Meals on Wheels, and Grand Central Station. Our monthly Legal Clinic will celebrate its 30th anniversary this year. And as we come near to the end of a school year we received a note from the Wakefield Elementary staff thanking us for partnering with them through mentoring, reading, and donated supplies.

We also give money to support vital missions. Last Sunday for our communion/Bean Pot offering we received over $1000 for Blue Sunday, supporting kids in foster care in Grayson County. Check out our other Bean Pot offerings this year:

  • January: Grayson County Habitat for Humanity $435
  • February: Child and Family Guidance Center $405
  • March: United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR; disaster relief): $860
  • April: Sherman Interdenominational Ministers Alliance (SIMA): $413. This money is used for Thanksgiving baskets, scholarships for local kids, and emergency needs

On Christmas Eve we received an offering to benefit Syrian refugees through the global ministries of the United Methodist Church. We raised over $800. None of these funds are provided through the budget. This is extra giving, beyond what we contribute in the plates or online each week. Thank you for your generosity.

Our annual church budget has funds built into it to help others. Recently I have used money in my Pastor's Discretionary Fund to help three Grace households with rent (about $1200 total, some of which was helped by a family contribution and a gift from one of our Sunday school classes). Our Missions Board has dispensed two $1500 gifts to support local efforts. Family Promise of Grayson County is a new ministry to homeless people, which allows families to stay for a week at a time in various partner churches (four times a year) while they seek permanent housing. The other gift was for Wakefield Elementary, for their new playground. And of course through the connectional nature of our denomination a portion of our giving (roughly 8-10%) is distributed to various regional and international ministries. Thank you.

All of these gifts, and so many more, are possible because Grace families see real needs, hear the call to respond, and do so with generous hearts. This should make you feel proud. The good kind of pride, the one exhibited through humility. Following worship one of our members pulled me aside. He had a $2 bill he planned to contribute to the communion offering. But after hearing the sermon, seeing a video for Blue Sunday, and hearing Christy's words encouraging folk to give, he put away the $2 bill and gave a $10 bill. I suspect many others gave more than they planned at the beginning of the day.

Talking about money in the church can be uncomfortable for some. We'll have families who will consciously decide to worship elsewhere or remain home during our stewardship campaign this Fall. But when we do not discuss Christian approaches to giving we give in to to the overly materialistic nature of our society, which says what we have should only be used for ourselves. We also rob ourselves of an opportunity to say "thank you" to God, who provides all we have to live a full life.  When we join a church, we pledge to support it with our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. Thank you for the many ways you fulfill all of those commitments-- especially your giving!

07 May 2017

Finding Meaning in Suffering

"Why do bad things happen to good people?" is a timeless question, one that most or all of us has asked before. I know I have. One of my first experiences in ministry was working as a chaplain at Parkland Hospital in Dallas while I was in seminary. Most of the time I was on-call, the only chaplain on the overnight shift in one of the busiest trauma-1 hospitals in the country. My pager would buzz and I wouldn't know where I was needed: the ER? The burn unit? The neo-natal unit? I would call the nurse station, rush to the elevator, then silently pray: "God, the odds are good I will not be able to deal with the situation I am about to enter. At least not without your help." Invariably I found myself in the hospital chapel asking myself, "Why do bad things happen to good people?"

In North Texas this week, there were several opportunities to ask that question. A fifteen year old black student named Jordan Edwards was killed by a police officer in Balch Springs. The officer was subsequently fired and arrested for murder. A standoff in East Dallas ended with a murder/suicide and a paramedic in the hospital. A worker was killed and another seriously injured at an apartment complex just a few minutes from here. Tornadoes ripped through East Texas, killing five people. Congress voted to change the health care system, potentially jeopardizing the well being of millions of Americans, particularly the poorest among us. "Why do bad things happen to good people?"

And today is Blue Sunday at Grace, where we will receive an offering to support victims of child abuse in our area through the Grayson County Child Welfare Board. The statistics are staggering:

  • Over 1600 children die annually because of abuse
  • Most are under age 3. 
  • Most were victims of neglect.
  • Most were boys.
  • Most deaths were caused by family members.
  • There are 6 million new cases of abuse every year.
  • 2/3 of those in drug treatment were victims of abuse.
  • 80% of the prison population were once in foster care.
  • 2/3 of those in foster care die, are homeless, or are in jail within a year of aging out
These statistics do not have to be the final story. I printed off some activities for families to do together; you'll find them on a table in the hallway. They're printed on bright pink paper; only after copying did I think to put them on blue paper for blue Sunday! There was a disclaimer after those harrowing stats on the Blue Sunday materials: "Do not let these statistics discourage you. Use the information to empower you to pray and seek God in these kids' behalf." And we can also do our best to develop an understanding of suffering that expresses the hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ, rather than trying to blame God or rationalize human suffering. I often say, "The best answer to bad theology is good theology."

On first reading, the 1 Peter text assigned for today text doesn't help: 

For it is to your credit if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, where is the credit in that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. 
‘He committed no sin,
   and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ 
When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

It sounds like the text is legitimizing suffering: "If you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God's approval." Does that mean God is causing this suffering? Or is God looking the way when a child is abused or a spouse is beaten or a natural disaster destroys a home? Does the insurance industry still classify those things as acts of God? People who attend the Wednesday Bible study can tell you: I really struggled with this text this week! How can we read such a thing on the same day as we're supporting child abuse prevention? 

For help I especially leaned on the wisdom of scholars from historically oppressed communities: a women's commentary and a commentary from the African American experience. I learned that 1 Peter has been used across the centuries to justify the oppression of others. But the text does not endorse human suffering. It does not say God causes suffering. In fact, the text isn't even about suffering. It's about faithful endurance.

First Peter was not written by the apostle Peter; Peter is believed to have been martyred around the year 62 or 64. 1 Peter was written closer to the year 90, and named in honor of the apostle. It was not written in Jerusalem or Rome, but modern day Turkey: it's a letter, or more accurately a sermon, addressed to Christians in "Pontus, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bythnia." It's a word of encouragement to Christians, former pagans, who are suffering for their faith-- not necessarily tortured like the namesake Peter himself, but more likely dismissed or shamed or cast away from friends and family. See, this context helps us understand the passage better: these Christians are hurting because of their faith: "For it is to your credit if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly... But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval." The text does not dismiss human suffering. It embraces Christian hope in the midst of suffering. 

One of my favorite Christian thinkers, William Sloane Coffin, said this about hope: "Hope has nothing to do with optimism. Its opposite is not pessimism but despair. And if Jesus never allowed his soul to be cornered into despair, clearly we as Christians shouldn't either." 

Yesterday our confirmation class participated in an amazing ministry called Bed Start. We traveled to Plano to serve alongside members of my former church, Custer Road UMC, and others to deliver beds and furniture to those in need. Our crew arrived at a home in East McKinney with a trailer full of donated beds, couches, chairs, and bedding. We walked inside the house to see a woman, her mother in law, and two daughters who had just relocated to Texas from Ohio. Fleeing an abusive situation, they came here to be near family carrying only two suitcases. The only furniture in the home was a couch they had pulled out of a dumpster a couple of days before. When we left, they had four beds, a new couch, a recliner, books shelves, dressers... and the love of Jesus Christ. The woman told me she had just been placed with a full time job. Hope has nothing to do with optimism. It's about overcoming despair. 

In her classic book Suffering, Dorothee Soelle reminded me this week that the Bible speaks of God as the "lover of life" (Wisdom of Solomon 11:26)-- not the cause of suffering. God loves life. So Jesus, Soelle says, 

...drew himself precisely to those who lived on the fringes or were cast out, like women and children, prostitutes and collaborators. He affirmed those who were everywhere rejected and compelled to reject themselves. It is from the background of this affirmation of life, even the life of those who were sick, disabled, or too weak to accomplish much, that one must see the understanding of the acceptance of suffering as it developed in Christianity. It is an attempt to see life as a whole as meaningful and to shape it as happiness. The God who is the lover of life does not desire the suffering of people... but instead their happiness.

First Peter encourages the suffering Christians to find comfort in the example of Christ, who endured the cross, but by accepting it forever changed its meaning. The cross is no longer an instrument of death and shame; it is a symbol of hope and endurance for those who have faith. Through the cross, Jesus, our Good Shepherd, brings us to a place of comfort and peace. "You lead me besides still waters. You restore my soul. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all of my days, and I will walk in the house of the Lord forever." Jesus said, "I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly."

It's been a very challenging week. There is injustice, the threat of war, the loss of life and resources. But in the midst of that and more is the message of the gospel. May we all find hope and meaning in the sufferings of others and in whatever challenges we face. May we find comfort and strength in God, the lover of life. And may Christ's example of accepting his cross fill us with righteousness, that we may return with confidence to the green pastures of our Good Shepherd. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.