I Don’t Know…

I spent a good portion of my adult life working in positions where my value rested in my ability to impart knowledge and answer questions. As a teacher, my job was to guide students into a base of knowledge about the English language (and especially spoken communication) so that they would be prepared to adequately speak, read, write, explain, defend, and use it. I was expected to know enough about grammar, spelling, connotations of words, nonverbal communication, sound logic (and fallacies to avoid), presentation, tone of voice, etc., to enable students to improve their communication and use language more effectively in their careers, academic endeavors, business dealings, and even in personal relationships. If they had questions about word choices, written or spoken directions, propaganda techniques, advertising tricks, euphemisms, or a hundred other topics, I was expected to have an answer– and one that would shape their ability to succeed.
When I made the transition to working in a public library, my job was to have answers– which books were at the appropriate reading level for various elementary students; where could someone find information about manatees; who wrote the Captain Underpants books (Dav Pilkey); did our library loan out encyclopedia volumes or sets of early reader books; could our library borrow a rare book from another library; what was the capital of Uganda (Kampala); did we have books that might help a child coping with the loss of a pet, or a parent struggling with toilet-training their toddler; where could someone find … the list was endless and extraordinarily varied. My job was to have an answer– or know where to find it.

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At no time was it expected that I would simply answer “I don’t know.” Even if I didn’t know in the moment, I was expected to search until I found an answer that was sufficient and satisfactory. However, in each case, I found situations where my “answer,” while satisfactory to me, and even to everyone else I had dealt with, was not enough to satisfy the person in front of me. Sometimes, I had misunderstood the question and given an answer to what I heard or assumed I had heard. I needed to listen some more, or ask for clarification before I could answer the question correctly. Sometimes, the other person was looking for an answer that didn’t exist– either they wanted confirmation of a falsehood they believed to be true, or they wanted a single, absolute answer to a question that was complex and open-ended. In rare cases, there were questions for which I could find no satisfactory answer– it doesn’t mean that there was none, but I had not found it, nor had I found someone else who could find it in the time allowed. I might find an answer that was not satisfactory, or I might find seven possible answers, but not one that stood out from the others, or I would find nothing but dead ends.


The Apostle Peter tells each follower of Christ:

15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.

1 Peter 3:15 & 16 (NIV via biblegateway.com)–emphasis added
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This does not mean that we must completely satisfy everyone who asks– the curious neighbor who knows nothing of the Bible and has dozens of confusing questions, or the nay-saying agnostic with a single “gotcha” question. Nor must we fight and fuss and pound the Bible until we “win” every theological and metaphysical argument–because we won’t! There are many things about the Bible, about Spiritual matters, etc., for which we will not have absolute or definitive answers–and neither will they! (That’s why they ask, sometimes.) And those things that satisfy our longings, our questions, our doubts– sometimes don’t meet the needs of the one who is asking, not because the answers are deficient, but because we are all different in our needs, and understanding, and experiences.

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Some people will listen to us merely to scoff and try to make us lose heart or make us look foolish. Others are afraid that our answer will make them feel lost or guilty. Some people have been hurt by others who have used the Bible as a cudgel or a whip– bringing shame, judgment, and contention wherever they go. We must not expect that our answers, our arguments, even our favorite scripture verses– that WE are enough to satisfy the questions, the doubts, and the spiritual needs of everyone we meet.

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What we should always have is an answer for the hope that is in us– why have we chosen to believe? Why do we choose to trust when we do not know all the answers? And our answers should be given with gentleness and respect– not arrogance and snide judgment. I don’t have hope because I know answers to tough questions. In order to have that kind of hope, I would need to know all the answers to all the questions– even those I haven’t asked or imagined! I don’t know about the future– I can’t explain why God allows evil (there are compelling arguments for some reasons, but no absolute answer that stops the question)–I don’t know how God’s Spirit moves, or why He drew me to Himself. I cannot “prove” God to someone who is determined to deny Him– not because God doesn’t exist, but because He will not force anyone to accept Him in this life, and especially not because I said a few words based on my limited understanding. My job is not to explain God–only God is big enough and wise enough to do that– but to reflect His character in a changed nature, and to explain what God has done in my life to effect that change. My hope is in the ONE I choose to trust– the ONE who does have the answers! God has not promised to answer all our “what ifs” or our “whys”– but He has promised to answer all our needs, and to BE the answer in every situation, no matter how daunting.

There my Burdened Soul Found Liberty

Prayer is often about burdens– the burden of need; the burden of sin and guilt; the burden of worry and distress. We bring our burdens to God, to the “throne of Grace;” we bring them “in Jesus’ Name,”, and we bring them to “Our Father.” But how often do we bring them to “Calvary?”

Not the victorious empty cross on the hillside with a beautiful sunset in the background, but the bloody, hot, dry and dreadful Calvary of the crucifixion? How often do we make the pilgrimage to that rocky outcropping with the smell of blood and sweat and death and agony? How often do we cry out to the one who was lifted up, struggling to breathe, pierced, wounded, broken and humiliated? When do we reach out to touch the scars and bruises he received in our place?

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It is at Calvary that we get the real story of Grace, Mercy, and forgiveness–the real cost of victory and peace. It is at Calvary that we see the full extent of God’s Holiness married to the full extent of His Love. Holiness demands justice; Love demands intimacy– together, they require sacrifice.

And it is at Calvary that we find, in the darkest and most hopeless of moments– God forsaking Himself, giving all He IS to bring justice and reconciliation for all we’ve done–that we trade our burdened souls, our worries, our despair for God’s embrace. Arms stretched so wide they are pulled from their sockets; blood spilled from head to toe; breathless and exposed in His passion for your soul and mine–that’s what God offers at Calvary.

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Why do I pray? I am ambushed and overwhelmed and enraptured by such a love. God had no need to suffer even a moment’s discomfort. He owed nothing to His rebellious creation; no mercy, no explanation, no hints as to His character (or ours). The creator of galaxies had no need to lift a finger to save one puny planet or any of its inhabitants from His own right to un-create them and blot out even their memory. Instead, He showed the greatest act of Love across all of space and time–to me!– At Calvary!

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Sinking Sand

24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”

Matthew 7:24-27 ESV via biblegateway.com

I’ve been thinking on old hymns lately, and one that has gotten stuck in my head is the one often called “The Solid Rock”, or “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less.” While slight variations of the lyrics exist, the words follow here:

1My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus Christ, my righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
 On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand,
  All other ground is sinking sand.
2When darkness veils His lovely face,
I rest on His unchanging grace;
In every high and stormy gale,
My anchor holds within the veil.
3His oath, His covenant, His blood,
Support me in the whelming flood;
When all around my soul gives way,
He then is all my hope and stay.
4When He shall come with trumpet sound,
Oh, may I then in Him be found;
In Him, my righteousness, alone,
Faultless to stand before the throne.

For more on the history behind this hymn, see this link:https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-my-hope-is-built

While the song speaks of anchors, frames, and trumpet sounds, its inspiration comes from Jesus’ parable of the houses built on rock and sand, found in Matthew 7. We understand the wisdom of building our house upon the rock, on a solid foundation; we may even agree that Christ is the only solid foundation, and our only hope of salvation. We confess that Jesus is Lord; we say all the right things, and do many good works, believing that we are building on the rock.

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But there are days when I build a temporary summer house on the beach–days when I plant my bare feet in the sandy shoreline, while the gentle waves tickle my toes and slowly cover my feet with glinting sand. My “main” house is safely sitting on the rock, but I am living at the beach. If the storm comes, I might run back inside, but I am lulled into thinking that the storm will never come, and I will only need the shelter and the solid ground in times of distress and obvious danger.

Slowly, the tide and sinking sand can pull me in– I slide into the sinking sand, until the water covers my ankles, and knees. I am still standing, but I am farther from the solid ground, and more vulnerable to the next big wave. It doesn’t take a storm to make me fall over and start thrashing in the surf. I don’t have to rush toward danger, or ignore clear warning signs. I just have to stand in the sinking sand, idly enjoying the scenery, and trusting in my own ability to run to safety at the last minute.

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“All other ground is sinking sand.” There is nothing wrong with enjoying some time at the beach (although I wouldn’t recommend the beaches in my area in November, when the waves are treacherous and the wind slices through several layers of clothing!). There is nothing wrong with enjoying the blessings God has given us in this life. But we cannot plant ourselves in comfort and complacency and hope to build a solid foundation. I cannot trust in my circumstances when they are pleasant and only look to God when I am half-drowned and far from shore. Not because He can’t or won’t rescue me– He is still my hope and my firm foundation– but because I will forget how to stand and where to turn to regain solid footing. My house will be on solid ground, but empty and useless to me on the shifting, sinking sand where I am actually spending my life.

But when I live on solid ground, the storms of life cannot pull me away from safety. “When all around my soul gives way, He then is all my Hope and Stay.”

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Recently, this old hymn has been updated and revised. The message still remains– My Hope is Built on Nothing Less: Christ alone is my Cornerstone and sure foundation. I dare not trust in my circumstances, my own wisdom or feelings, my family, my finances, my health, or any dreams or hopes apart from Christ. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy any of these things. I do, and I thank God for all He has given me. But I pray that I never drift away from the solid and eternal foundation that only He can bring and be in my life.

Jesus Calls Us

I was at worship yesterday. We sang some wonderful hymns and songs of worship. Still, I miss some of the “old” hymns we used to sing in the small country church of my youth. This was one of them:

In case the video does not show up, here are the words:
Jesus calls us: o’er the tumult of our life’s wild, restless sea,
Day by day His sweet voice soundeth, saying, “Christian, follow Me.”
Jesus calls us from the worship of the vain world’s golden store,
From each idol that would keep us, saying, “Christian, love Me more.”
In our joys and in our sorrows, days of toil and hours of ease,
Still He calls, in cares and pleasures, “Christian, love Me more than these.”
Jesus calls us: by Thy mercies, Saviour, may we hear Thy call,
Give our hearts to Thine obedience, serve and love Thee best of all. Amen.

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Prayer is never just a one-way communication. We may not “hear” from God in an audible voice, but He calls us into communion with Him daily. He wants to hear from us; He wants to speak to us–through His word, through our experiences, through friends and neighbors and even chance encounters. We may not have a deep spiritual burden to bring before the throne of grace– does that keep us from needing to share a quiet moment with the lover of our soul?

Suppose the only time you ever spoke to your spouse was when you desperately needed her/his help? What would that say about your relationship? The same holds with our spiritual walk. God wants to speak to us; to have us notice the beauty of the sunrise, or the grace of moonlight in the mist. He wants to bring us hope and comfort in the stories and psalms of scripture. He wants us to share our nagging worries and our minor triumphs– not because He doesn’t know or cannot see–because He wants to share in our struggles and our joys, our deep grieving and our small amusements.

He wants all of this because of His great love for each of us. If we could just see His eyes light up with love when we walk into a room…and if we could hear the love in His voice– we would be undone. Someday, we will be– undone, and remade, and able to catch His eye without shattering in the light of that love.

But for now– He is calling…

Bringing in the Sheaves

It is harvest time where I live. It is especially fraught with significance this year, as we have had a bad growing season– heavy rains in the spring and low temperatures meant that much of the planting was delayed or cancelled. Fields that normally produce excellent crops of corn or wheat or soybeans look stunted and sickly, or they lie barren. Recent rains and threats of early snow mean that crops must be harvested now or lost, even if the yields are low or the crops not fully mature. While there will be a lot of grief and exasperation among farmers this year, there will also be relief and rejoicing in certain quarters.

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The Bible uses farming and harvest imagery to describe the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus told the parable of the sower and seed in Matthew 13 (also in Mark and Luke– see here:https://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-stories/parable-of-the-sower.html), and He spoke of fields being ripe for harvest (John 4:34-38/www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+4%3A34-38&version=NIV)

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As followers of Christ, we are both harvest and harvesters. Like seed, we “die” to our nature, and grow and mature in newness of life by the Holy Spirit. And like farmers and harvest workers, we are called to plant seeds, to “sow” the Gospel of Christ, to tend to one another’s growth and nurture, and to “harvest” a crop– bringing others toward repentance and faith.

Another song from my childhood impressed itself upon me during my worship time today– a simple chorus, but filled with joy. Our mornings, evenings, sunny days and wintry nights may be filled with sowing seeds and tending crops; the work may seem tedious or even thankless. But we can take joy in knowing that there is a joyful and glorious Harvest ahead. Some day, we will be gathered together– not a puny harvest hastily gathered to avoid spoiling, but an abundant, fruitful harvest of God’s love lavished, nourished, and brought to perfection.

Lord, thank you for the reminder that all of this life –even the trials and frustrations–will produce a harvest of praise and worship. Give me the strength and wisdom to work joyfully for Your glory today. Help me to sow the seeds of Grace and Truth that come from your word, and to help others grow. Help me to respond with eagerness to the Holy Spirit’s prompting and counsel, and be a blessing to those around me. Amen.

Looking at the Negative

Growing up in the age before digital cameras, I remember waiting for photos to be developed from a roll of film. We would drop off a roll at the pharmacy or photo shop, and pick up a package containing the prints and several strips of negatives from the original roll of film.

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I was fascinated by these negatives–images with the exact opposite of the prints– dark was light, light was dark, and everything seemed topsy-turvy. Sometimes things seemed creepy and even somewhat sinister–people with white hair and white pupils shining out of dark eyes; icy trees against a dark sky.

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Of course, the negatives were not the prints, nor were they intended to be the finished product. The negatives were included so that new prints could be made at a later time. We didn’t put the negatives in our photo album; we hid them away in a dark place, out of sight and far from the light. Most of them eventually got ruined or degraded over time, while the photos they produced were preserved and cherished.

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Life holds a lot of “negatives”– negative experiences, negative emotions, negative thoughts, bad memories, scars–we all have them. But we are given the opportunity to produce something positive out of even the most negative of circumstances. It’s what God does– His light shines in the darkness and changes our view.

But we need to be exposed to the truth, and developed by faith, just like film. And we need to come back into the light, not as a negative, but as a faithful image of what (and who) God intends us to be.

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The world is full of negatives– distorted images and situations caused by exposure to sin, pain, grief, anger, bitterness, and hatred. We can dwell on such images, and fill our days staring at the negatives, never seeing the reality of what God has done all around us. Or we can allow God to develop the negatives in our life and create albums of God’s Grace–filling our eyes and minds with the truth and beauty that comes only from our Loving Father.

Philippians 4:6-8 NIV

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (taken from bible.com)

Someday, God will finish destroying all the “negatives” in this fallen world, and reveal His full Glory. What a sight that will be!

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Love Lifted Me

I love you, Lord, my strength.
The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;
    my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge,
    my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
I called to the Lord, who is worthy of praise,
    and I have been saved from my enemies.
The cords of death entangled me;
    the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me.
The cords of the grave coiled around me;
    the snares of death confronted me.
In my distress I called to the Lord;
    I cried to my God for help.
From his temple he heard my voice;
    my cry came before him, into his ears.
The earth trembled and quaked,
    and the foundations of the mountains shook;
    they trembled because he was angry.
Smoke rose from his nostrils;
    consuming fire came from his mouth,
    burning coals blazed out of it.
He parted the heavens and came down;
    dark clouds were under his feet.
10 He mounted the cherubim and flew;
    he soared on the wings of the wind.
11 He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him—
    the dark rain clouds of the sky.
12 Out of the brightness of his presence clouds advanced,
    with hailstones and bolts of lightning.
13 The Lord thundered from heaven;
    the voice of the Most High resounded.
14 He shot his arrows and scattered the enemy,
    with great bolts of lightning he routed them.
15 The valleys of the sea were exposed
    and the foundations of the earth laid bare
at your rebuke, Lord,
    at the blast of breath from your nostrils.
16 He reached down from on high and took hold of me;
    he drew me out of deep waters.
17 He rescued me from my powerful enemy,
    from my foes, who were too strong for me.
18 They confronted me in the day of my disaster,
    but the Lord was my support.
19 He brought me out into a spacious place;
    he rescued me because he delighted in me
.

Psalm 18:1-19 NIV (taken from biblegateway.com)
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I grew up hearing hymns– lots of them. My mother and grandmother and aunt all played the piano or organ for church, and often practiced during the week. My father led the congregational singing sometimes, and my grandfather taught himself to play many musical instruments, and used hymns to become familiar with the chords, notes, and fingerings of the instrument du jour. The congregation at our small church sang with more gusto than musical talent, but we sang during the Sunday morning service, the Sunday evening service, the Wednesday evening service, and at any special occasion.

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Two things happened as a result of this: one not-so-good, and one very good thing. The not-so-good thing was that I became somewhat inured to the songs and lyrics– I knew what the songs said, but I didn’t really understand or internalize the truths they contained. However, the very good thing was that the hymns stuck in my memory– years later they came back like the best of friends to comfort me, challenge me, and remind me of sacred realities in the midst of mundane frustrations and worldly confusions.

This old hymn, neglected, out-dated, and seldom sung in our current services, was my lullaby growing up. My mother would sing it over and over as she rocked me to sleep, often running out of verses and words and just humming or filling in with “la, la la, la,” until she reached the chorus.
“Love lifted me. Love lifted me. When nothing else could help, Love lifted me.”

As a young child, I experienced the loving arms of my dear mother lifting me to her lap and rocking me for what seemed like hours until I drifted off to sleep. As a teen, I scoffed at the lyrics a bit–what need had I to be lifted and helped, when I was invincible and young and ready to conquer the world. As an adult, this old hymn came back with power and comfort when my own efforts and life’s stormy circumstances left me with little hope and lots of confusion, doubt, and regret. It reminds me that help and hope can be found even in the raging storms of grief, depression, oppression, and pain. “When nothing else could help…” God could, and did! He can and will!

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“Love lifted me”–such a simple phrase, and by itself not a solid foundation for hope and victory. In fact, there are many popular songs that speak of love lifting a person up, making one feel buoyant and hopeful, joyful or young. But this song speaks of a different and everlasting, all-powerful love– the Love of Christ. And it doesn’t just lift us up from one pleasant place to another. It reaches down into the depths of sin, despair, and even death to lift us up beyond all hope, beyond any strength or effort we could generate or receive from any other source. And this great Love reaches down to lift me–even me! It does not belong only to the elite, the wealthy, the beautiful people, the gifted or the powerful. In fact, this love is especially close and available to those who have done nothing to deserve it; those who have been bypassed and ignored and left to drown in their own shame and sorrow.

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Love. Lifted. Me! My prayer is that this same Love will surround you today, lifting you up, and helping you, just as it helps me and brings me life and hope, to the Glory of Christ our Savior.

Weak, Weary, and Worn

It is not popular to write about weakness. We all have moments when we feel weak, overwhelmed, defeated, and depressed. Sometimes, we are just physically exhausted, and emotionally drained by the piling up of little stresses and routine tasks. Sometimes, we are overwhelmed by loss or grief, guilt, or worry about situations beyond our control.

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We want such feelings and situations to go away, to be replaced by peace, comfort, and contentment. And while well-meaning people tell us that “this too shall pass,” or “God has a plan,” or “you will get through this– I’m here for you,” we are still weak, weary, and worn down by the struggles of the day.

Jesus gave some incredible and inexplicable advice to people who would follow him. He said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11: 28-29 from the Christian Standard Bible via biblegateway.com)

The first part of his advice offers great comfort– “come to me…and I will give you rest.” But then, without even a breath, Jesus tells us to take up his yoke! A yoke does not seem to offer rest– I want the burden to be GONE–I don’t want to put on a yoke like an ox or a plow horse. How could this be comforting or restful?

But this is the promise of God– not to make all our burdens disappear (though he often chooses to give us total relief from a particular burden)–instead, He asks us to put on his yoke. He will share the burden with us, and He will teach us how to make the load bearable, even lighter, by following Him.

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And, though we have moments of exhaustion and setbacks, God’s purpose is not for us to give up or be defeated by our circumstances, but to be victorious over them, and turn to Him. In order to “take up (his) yoke” we must take the burden off our own shoulders and give it to Him. He will distribute the load, direct our path, and set the pace. And not only that, He will take our hand and speak words of wisdom and peace as we carry the load together. And THAT is truly comforting!

I Am..

There are many ways to describe who I am (or who you are). I can describe myself in terms of my appearance, my social status, my occupation, age, familial role, or any number of other labels. These labels help distinguish me from other people around me, while also grouping me in with still others. Even my name functions in this way. My surname connects me with my current family; my maiden name with my birth family–my first name distinguishes me from my siblings within the family. However, there are many others in the world with either the same first name, surname, or both!

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I know that I am a unique person, but I am not singular. That is to say that while I am a unique combination of genetic materials, with unique hopes and dreams, I still belong to the human race, to my family group, and to the culture and time in which I live.

Only God can say “I AM!” and not have to add any modifier. God is..God. There is no one like God–no label that can be applied to Him and to anyone or anything else. We use words like “King”, “Father”, “Lord”, “He” even “God”, but none of them convey the fullness, the enormity, the eternity of the great “I AM.” Many ancient cultures worshiped gods; supernatural beings who ate and drank, married and had families, ruled the skies or waters or land or underworld, fought, loved– some even died. But none of them could say they were “I AM”. I AM stands in the face of doubt and unbelief; I AM remains unchanged and unchanging in the face of progress and technology; I AM defeats our attempts to shrink Him into our own limited understanding and our own limited lifespan; I AM is ever present, ever aware, everlasting.

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And this I AM created each of us to BE. Because of I AM, I can say that I am, too! And my purpose is to be, and to become more like He is, to the glory of I AM, and the fulfillment of what I am in Him.

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Lord, Father, and the great I AM– help me to see you more clearly for who you are. Help me to become more like you, and more like the person you created me to be. Help me to reflect your glory in the words I speak and the actions I take today.

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