Who or what dominates your thinking?

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Is it just me, or do you find that living by faith and not by sight grows HARDER and HARDER as the years go by?  The ‘pop quizzes’ that used to land on me every few weeks now seem to show up every couple of days.

Not one to spot my unbelief right away, I sense God gently but firmly taking my face between his hands (so to speak!) to make me look at my unbelief. My pride recoils at yet more evidence for my lack of trust in the Lord as Good Father, Faithful Shepherd, Wise Counselor.

This past week has been that kind of personal attention or ‘handling’.  I have struggled to let go of persistent worry. It’s not that I have been anxious about anything, rather I have OBSESSIVELY ‘angsted’.  My personalized version of Phil 4:6 is now “Do not OBSESS over anything!” rather than the tame ‘do not be anxious’.

I KNOW what I’m supposed to do and I do try!

  • Daily I hand over my needs à la ‘Cast your cares on Him….’
  • Hourly I pray with much fervor à la ‘The fervent prayers of a righteous man…..’
  • I recollect many blessings, the good things about God, who He is and what He has done and the promises laid up for me……

Yet, I feel bound up in worry.

So, it was no surprise to me that the Sovereign Lord, the One who reigns over all creation, used a portion of yesterday’s assigned Scripture from 2 Sam 19: 1-8 to show me exactly what happens when I make a created thing PRE-EMINENT in my life.

Just so you’ll know how I recognize something as being preeminent in my life, it’s those occasions when my thoughts ‘glom’ onto a created thing like sewing pins sticking to a magnet.

Here’s a synopsis of events 2 Samuel 19:

  • King David’s rebel son Absalom has been killed by David’s men and the coup squelched.  David acts ‘un-kingly’ as he indulges his natural grief in an unceasing, over-the-top inconsolable fashion.
  • He does not publicly thank the valiant ones who risked their lives and their homes to flee Jerusalem and side with him.  He does not acknowledge the cost to his loyal citizens who probably fought against some family members supportive of Absalom.
  • He obsessively wails to such an extent, to such a danger point that General Joab, his chief of the army, has to shock him into acting like a king.  Joab point blank tells him that if he doesn’t stop crying about his son and get back to doing his job as God’s anointed king, then he’ll find himself at the end of EVERYONE’s spear.

That’s the narrative in a nutshell. In what way did I see this biblical example as a gentle rebuke from God to abandon my anxious obsession?  Reading this account revealed the evil of disobedience. God had appointed David to shepherd God’s people for Him. David courted danger, almost to the point of no return, when he inverted God’s priorities. This observation is what convicted me.

The king harmed good people when he made his son more valuable, more meaningful than the welfare of those in his care.

I do the same when I place a created thing over the Creator.

Our pastor’s sermons on the preeminence of Christ have bathed my thoughts over the past several weeks (when I wasn’t anxiously obsessing!) The Greek word for preeminence ‘proteuo’ is described in two ways:

  • Ranking first
  • Exercising the most influence

So even as I have struggled with handing over a particular problem to God and then taking it back, I’ve been asking myself:

Maria, who or what is preeminent in your life?”

It’s a piercing question that demands honesty.  I have felt bound up in the time I’ve invested in trying to ‘solve this suffering’ of a loved one.  And God keeps throwing me reminders to ‘JUST STOP IT!’ (you’ll smile if you’re old enough to remember TV actor Bob Newhart as the UN-empathetic counselor). Our good Father gave me the very same counsel but from a different source.

Margin

Dr. Richard Swenson, an author whose book about regaining margin I’m re-reading, penned this arresting statement

The purpose of life is not to solve suffering but righteousness.

Bolstering that truth has been the realization that EVERY single human being on earth in every epoch has lived or is experiencing now a life of suffering.  The purpose of life cannot then be to ‘solve’ suffering.  I have known this but now I KNOW it more deeply. My purpose, your purpose if you belong to Christ, is to be content in Him, to enjoy Him, to seek to please Him, to sing new songs of who He is and what He has done.  In the midst of suffering.

I think we can fall into the trap of making an idol out of a problem-free life, a life without suffering.  At least I am beginning to see that about me. And if that is my or your goal, then we are setting ourselves up for misery.

May God help us all to be joyful obedient servants of our loving God.

 

 

 

Lessons from the Shadowy Valley

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Some wandered in desert wastelands,
    finding no way to a city where they could settle.
They were hungry and thirsty,
    and their lives ebbed away.
Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he delivered them from their distress.
He led them by a straight way
    to a city where they could settle.
Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
    and his wonderful deeds for mankind,
for he satisfies the thirsty
    and fills the hungry with good things.  Psalm 107:4-9 (NIV)

Mike and I are beginning to come out of a LONG trek through the wilderness, a journey without much light or clear vision. For the past 4-5 years, Mike has felt stymied in finding enough satisfying, suitable and value-adding work.  His original business plan when we moved to western North Carolina in the summer of 2013 aborted.  Another enterprise got off to a good start and then stalled one year later.  The door that God DID keep open these years of desert wandering has been as the tech reporter for World News Group.  But the work, as God-glorifying and useful as it was, left him with unexercised analytical skills and isolated from incarnational, face-face-face community. He grew depressed and increasingly beset by some irrational fears.

But thanks be to God, who provided a good biblical counselor and subsequent understanding and clarity to both of us.  The result? We are leaving western North Carolina shortly, something neither of us envisioned when we moved to these beautiful mountains.  But our good Shepherd, our constant guide and driver along the meandering ‘straight’ path He calls ‘good’ (see underlined verse above), has brought us within sight of a new city where we can settle.  The next God adventure awaits.

What have we learned in this God-appointed long trial and trek in the Valley?

  1. God gets our attention in adversity.  Neediness forced us to plow beneath the surface of His Word, unearthing treasure.  We grew hungrier for our daily reading through the Bible, year after year. We each started writing down in a notebook what we noticed in our readings and then sharing them at ‘Happy Hour’, while I was fixing dinner.  Discussing each other’s observations, unanswered questions and insights drove Scripture further into our hearts.  We now know experientially that man does not live by temporary food and comfort-providing stuff, (those good gifts God provides that come with the potential to become what we most value), but by God’s living Word.
  2. We each individually battled daily temptations to WORRY and FEAR.  We still do, but we have grown quicker to repent and remind ourselves of the Truth about who God is and what He says in the Bible.
  3. We practiced enunciating specific, measurable God-requests.  So many people prayed for us on and off these past 5+ years.  When you ask others to lift up your needs before God, you have to articulate well just what you do need.  Why? So you can recognize God’s provision when it comes and so you and the ‘pray-ers’ can properly THANK God for hearing and acting.
  4. Since early December 2018, we began keeping a prayer notebook.  We set it up like this: one page per day with a vertical line to make two columns:  Mike’s needs and Maria’s needs.  We each articulate and explain what is on our heart and our mind, for instance, a dreaded task to do, a burden or a fear.  I write each of them down in measurable detail.  Then we take turns praying out loud for one another.  My favorite part of this process is to look back to yesterday’s needs and see which ones God has already answered!  Then we praise our good God.
  5. A final lesson that we want to retain is this:  wilderness paths along which the Spirit leads us are prescribed by God as His good plan to conform us to His Son.  The trials are part of God’s curriculum designed to make us like more holy.  For what purpose?  to the praise of His glorious grace, which He has freely given us in the Beloved One. Eph 1:6 Berean Study Bible.  Why do we want to hold fast to and not forget this fact about struggles, this truth, this component of God’s School of Discipleship?  So the next God lessons don’t catch us by surprise or alarm us.
  6. We also want to continue this habit of daily praying together.  Not only do we see tangible documented evidence of God at work, but that sacred space with Him has provided a safe place for Mike and me to invite the other into some of the dark corners of our hearts. Our marriage benefits from that practice.

Providentially as I meditated on how to record my thoughts for you, this timely meditation by 19th-century the famous English pastor cycled through again:

Charles Spurgeon’s morning devotion for 8 March

“We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.”
Acts 14:22

God’s people have their trials. It was never designed by God, when he chose his people, that they should be an untried people. They were chosen in the furnace of affliction; they were never chosen to worldly peace and earthly joy. Freedom from sickness and the pains of mortality was never promised them; but when their Lord drew up the charter of privileges, he included chastisements amongst the things to which they should inevitably be heirs. Trials are a part of our lot; they were predestinated for us in Christ’s last legacy. So surely as the stars are fashioned by his hands and their orbits fixed by him, so surely are our trials allotted to us: he has ordained their season and their place, their intensity and the effect they shall have upon us. Good men must never expect to escape troubles; if they do, they will be disappointed, for none of their predecessors have been without them. Mark the patience of Job; remember Abraham, for he had his trials, and by his faith under them, he became the “Father of the faithful.” Note well the biographies of all the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, and you shall discover none of those whom God made vessels of mercy, who were not made to pass through the fire of affliction. It is ordained of old that the cross of trouble should be engraved on every vessel of mercy, as the royal mark whereby the King’s vessels of honour are distinguished. But although tribulation is thus the path of God’s children, they have the comfort of knowing that their Master has traversed it before them; they have his presence and sympathy to cheer them, his grace to support them, and his example to teach them how to endure; and when they reach “the kingdom,” it will more than make amends for the “much tribulation” through which they passed to enter it.

Why we hate to wait

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1 Cor 13:4  Love is patient

As Mike and I wait to hear about a job, we find ourselves very aware of all the other waiting situations that friends, family, fellow believers, and colleagues are enduring.  Such as those awaiting:

  • to undergo medical tests or scheduled procedures
  • results of tests
  • a diagnosis, finally
  • the conception of a child that will lead to a healthy newborn
  • the sale of a house
  • acceptances from college
  • a marriage proposal
  • an adoption to be final
  • renovations or construction to be completed
  • the merciful death of a suffering loved one
  • the release of someone unjustly imprisoned or captured
  • a corrupt political regime to topple
  • an indication of maturing spiritual fruit in someone we love
  • the salvation of a loved one
  • someone to hit rock bottom and come to their senses
  • God to finally DO SOMETHING

Everyone is waiting. And no one likes to wait.  So why is that?  What is it about waiting that frustrates and angers us?

If impatience is contrary to God’s way, what exactly is behind or underneath this sin?

As I was getting dressed at the gym this morning I turned off a podcast just to think about waiting.   Since God has deemed it GOOD that Mike and I wait for something about which we petition God every day, we have grown VERY aware of all the people we know who join us in looking for God to act.

Alone (it was EARLY) in the women’s locker room, I reflected on what I’ve been telling God in my prayers.  How we NEEDED more information so we can make plans.  But is that really so?  What do plans (especially when we don’t have enough info) do for us?  Isn’t it that ‘making plans’ give us a sense of control so we won’t HAVE to worry?

My thoughts then turned to this question as I was putting on my shoes: will there ever be a time when we DON’T worry?  Right away, I pictured myself in Heaven with the Father, Jesus, and the Spirit. THERE, for sure,  I wouldn’t feel this impatient anxiety.  Why is that, I asked myself?  Because I’d see God face to face.  It’d be easier to trust Him, seeing Him, I reasoned. I would KNOW that all is taken care of.

Why would being present with God in the restored world be different than now? Don’t I have His presence, His Spirit IN me? and His promises to me?  For sure, I do!  Yet I pushed myself to answer this question. Then I saw the unpleasant truth:   I would KNOW beyond any doubt that He would provide for me.  I would trust Him more than I trust Him here and now.

Shame flooded me.  I don’t really trust God. 

After all He has done for me in my flesh-and-blood, day-to-day life.

After all the ways His Word reassures me.

After all the stories of how He has come through for others.

After the fact that Jesus did everything necessary for me to be united with Him, forever, in the Father’s presence of Love, in the forever restored world.

So maybe, just maybe, this long wait to hear about a job is exactly what God has prescribed to PROVE to Mike and to me that He really is trustworthy.

As a French teacher, I understand about individualized, differentiated instruction.  Could it be that all of us are students in God’s Classroom of Patience, each of us with tailored-made homework assignments and the occasional pop-quiz?

May we learn our lessons well and NOT have to repeat this class!

 

 

 

 

Putting God’s peace on the shelf

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Romans 5:1 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (NIV)

John 14:27  Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (NIV)

John 16:33 I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. (NIV)

What strikes me from the three promises above is that God’s providential peace and God’s providential trouble form the ‘normal’ for the Child of God. (Those outside of God’s family face the suffering without the grace of His peace)

The supernatural spiritual peace we have received is a GIFT.  Yet when I think of all the gifts I have been given by friends and family, I shudder at how I have disposed of them.

Some intrigued me for a while and I used them, a lot.  But then I either put them aside and forgot about them or threw them away. Some I didn’t know what to do with, like the rubber tube about an inch or so in diameter open on both ends.  When I finally took it to my daughter-in-law to ask her ‘What in the heck is this for?’, I laughed to find out it was a garlic skin remover.  Others I regifted, immediately.  A few I even returned for the cash!

Similarly, I have treated God’s gift of peace, without the awe and gratitude it deserves.  Thankfully, a prayer I read this morning reminded me NOT to fear present or future suffering but to cling to the peace that is part of my inheritance from God.

So…. YES, trials ARE ordained for us, for our sanctification.  But God has given us His peace, which surrounds us on all sides.  This beyond-words peace (“….God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand – Phil 4:7 NLT) IS larger than our troubles and suffering.  The gift has been given.  Let us not put this beautiful provision out of sight, on the shelf.

But instead may we fix our gaze, that is, the eyes of our heart, on our costly birthright purchased for us by Jesus at the Cross.

 

The ‘if-only’ weed – Toxic to my soul

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John Owen is nailing me!  For someone whom I’ve never met and who died 335 years ago, it’s uncanny how well this man knows my heart.

His book on how to kill your sin, Mortification of Sin in Believers, is my current weekend reading before I open my Bible.

Look at what I read yesterday, paraphrased for me:

Do I lack strength and power?  Do I lack comfort and peace? (Owen then writes parenthetically that these 4 qualities are the only ‘lacks’ worth mentioning).  If so, then their lack has been brought on through NOT mortifying my sins. Giving in to any sin (what he calls ‘exercising’ or practicing that sin) precipitates the following:

  • My soul is weakened and deprived of strength and vigor
  • My soul is darkened and deprived of comfort and peace

So what does Owen recommend?

First, he explains how we strengthen the power of sin.  Whatever we set our affections on, whatever we cherish or love we THINK about. And what we invest our thoughts in grows in power to rule us.

Owen quite unnervingly calls those affections not set on God LUSTS.  (And he is not talking just about wrong sexual desires.)  We created beings were made by God to love Him first and foremost. And if we cannot say in all sincerity to God, “You alone are my portion, my treasure,” then whatever takes God’s rightful place as first in our hearts is a lust.  No surprise that feeding and investing my thoughts, fears, desires, and hopes in this cherished but dangerous affection has a deleterious effect on my soul.

Owen describes the condition of directing our beloved and best thoughts elsewhere as ‘a drinking up the spirit and all the vigor of one’s soul’.  The result?  A dark cloud barrier between me and God, blocking all the beams of love and favor from God to me, an adopted daughter.

When I read that yesterday, I realized that one of my pet sins, a ‘péché mignon’ as the French call it, is the ‘if-only’ game. This is where I imagine a better circumstance than the one I’m ‘stuck’ in.  This is sin. And yes, it displeases God, as does all sin.  In essence, when I wish for a different scenario than the one God has given me, I am declaring:  Where you have placed me, the boundary lines you have set for me, the details of my life are NOT good, Father!  If only they were other, I would be happier or more at peace or more content.

What presumption and what a slap in the face of the all-wise and all-good God.

This is sin! This is lust and John Owen says I need to be killing it every day.  That is, if I want the vigor and comfort that are mine by rights as an adopted child of God, whom Jesus rescued and transplanted through his life and death.

These lusts grow stronger the more I fantasize about them.  My thoughts do carry energy; they are fertilizer, ‘Miracle-Gro’ to whatever I direct them.

So what are we to do practically?  How do we kill lust?

Mike and I are going through a very difficult trial.  Like a lot of suffering, we don’t understand it and in this case, don’t know yet what to do.  In our God-centered moments we think and pray like King Jehosophat when he and his people faced the imminent attack of a horde of Edomites: “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” 2 Chronicles 20:12

But more than I like to admit I invest time in feeding the ‘if-only’ lust.  So as I read John Owen yesterday the Holy Spirit showed me how readily I elevate ‘fixing this situation or eliminating this suffering’ to the number one place in my life, above God.  The desire for a life without this ‘whatever’ can dominate my prayers and thoughts.

‘But isn’t that natural?’ you might say.  Yes! but just because it is natural doesn’t make it less of a sin.  As believers, we are commanded to walk or live by the Spirit, not by the flesh.

I am finding that a good remedy for this wrong thinking is our Lord’s Prayer.  After all, when the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, He gave them this content and model.

So when I shift my thoughts UP to what really matters eternally – Praying for God to be honored and worshipped by everyone, for His will to be done everywhere and for His kingdom to come NOW those small, self-centered fantasies of peace and good I have indulged pale.  Next, as I pray through the Lord’s Prayer, I am retrained to ask for what I need this day – basic necessities, forgiveness, and protection.  Does God, my Father, NOT care about the suffering and trials He has sent and what we are to do?

Yes, He does! He commands me to trust Him and to hand them over.  He is using them for my ultimate good and will resolve them when and how He deems best.  For now, I am to get back to His priorities – Loving Him and my neighbors.

This is the weeding, the killing of sin that John Owen describes as a believer’s duty.  And not just duty, but the way to enjoy God’s favor, His strength, comfort and peace that He WANTS me to experience.

Thank you, Father, for inspiring and using these Puritans to instruct not just their contemporary flocks but generations of believers who have followed.

Why I liked ‘Star Wars – the Last Jedi’

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Disclaimer – I don’t watch movies for the internal logic of the story.  I look for examples of God’s truth and common grace.

Mike and I kept to our tradition this week – a once-a-year excursion to view a movie in the theater.  Yes, it had been an entire year.  So we were not prepared for 2 facts:

  • People reserve a specific seat online
  • Lazy-boy style recliners are the norm!

We were graced to be let INTO the 1 pm showing when the ticket gal released 2 handicapped seats to us!

A student had given me a gift card to Regal as a Christmas gift.  It was a free date with my husband!  We don’t buy snacks and we took our lunch with us, enjoying some free coffee (Starbucks rewards) before the movie. We left the house in Balsam at 11:10 am and made it home from Asheville by 5 pm.  That’s basically an all-day field trip.  But all it cost us was time.  Definitely worth it.

I praise excellence where I find it.  And God has endowed Christians and non-Christians alike with many talents.  Here is what I found praise-worthy in this Star Wars episode:

  • Female leadership beautifully modeled.  Both General Organa (Princess Leia) at age 60 and her vice-admiral, another older actress showed strength and made decisions with kindness and directness.  Women can be equally effective as leaders of men and women AND do it in a beautiful way that highlights their strengths of compassion and love.  My oldest granddaughter, Chloe who is 8 1/2 continued her father-daughter tradition of attending certain movies on opening night (i.e VERY late on a school night).  I was glad she had seen strong but kind women model leadership.  And effective OLDER women being productive too.
  • The other female warriors, in particular, Rose, drew a distinction between selflessly choosing to sacrifice out of love and giving one’s all motivated by hate. Noteworthy and encouraging.
  • Among the many ‘The Force Be With You!’ greetings passed among Rebellion members, was one ‘Godspeed!‘.  Made me wonder if director Rion Johnson intentionally shifted ‘the Force’ to a personal God.
  • Sometimes we need the brash effrontery of a young raw but bold officer such as X-wing fighter pilot Poe.  He gambled and won the brass’ confidence to command. There is a fine line between insubordination and leadership.  Gauge incorrectly and you face sometimes-dire consequences for your brashness.
  • Failure as a positive lesson to harness emerged.  Luke Skywalker finally admits to Yoda his painful remorse at having failed his nephew Kylo Ren by not spotting his turn to the Dark Side.  Yoda disarms his self-flagellation by suggesting that failure is a good teacher.  In the end, we see Luke has internalized this new thought to make effective use of it in conflict.  That’s a lesson ALL of us need to acquire.  Shame would be waste of a good failure!
  • Hope as a tangible and necessary good recurs several times.  Without hope, we give up.  The Rebellion is small, a mere remnant, dispersed in the galaxy with some silent supporters.  But as long as they hold on to hope, they can survive to fight another day. So too with Christians.
  • Just as our God often appears to His people to be the ‘God of the very last moment’, so it is with Hope for the Rebellion.  When seemingly trapped and Princess Leia announces that Hope has run out, God (or the Force) seems to use human hubris in Kylo’s character AND the instinct for survival of the ice fox to buy time and furnish an escape for the Rebellion.
  • Finally, though insignificantly small in number, the Rebellion represents Good in this epic struggle of Good versus Evil.  That battle illustrates the struggle in our world.  Modern westerners don’t want to think about spiritual powers, let alone dark, evil forces.  But they are real.  Roiling with hate, they oppose God and those who belong to Him.  Star Wars illustrates that truth.

An excellent movie, worth seeing.  Paraphrasing Abraham Kuyper, ‘All truth is God’s truth.’

 

 

The Gift of Humiliation?

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“I have prayed for years for one good humiliation a day, and then I must watch my reaction to it.”  Father Richard Rohr

That line bites!  Asking God?  for humiliation?  daily?  How is that wise or even safe?

But what if….

  • my justification for how I act/think needs correcting?
  • I think too highly of myself in some area(s)?
  • the only way God can get my attention is if someone I HAVE to heed points out a mistake, a failing, some negligence in duty, a SIN, a way I’ve hurt him?

The recent painful conversation with my boss three weeks ago certainly has given me much about which to think, pray and discuss with a few friends and family.  And I’ve sought God’s counsel through what He daily reveals in reading and chewing on His Word.

Last Monday, a parent of a former student dropped off some French newspapers she had collected for me in July on her and her daughter’s inaugural trip to Paris.  She had ‘re-discovered them in a corner’ and was just now, in December, bringing them by my classroom.  She included a long, handwritten letter where she detailed all the ways I had supported and counseled and guided her daughter during the 3 years I had her as an advisee and French student.  The timing could not have been better.  I saw that in this very school where I’ve encountered so much painful indirect criticism and chastisement (parent to principal to me)  I AM making a difference in some lives.  Maybe not with the particular student whose parent said I wasn’t supporting to her daughter’s satisfaction, but with others.  Thank you, Father!

Furthermore, my desire to improve how I teach French lives on.

So this morning I thought – What if…this BIG and PAINFUL thing is NOT meant by God as an indication that I should leave my current school but is actually just one of His good gifts of correction, designed to make me more like one of Jesus’ little sisters whom He is molding through many trials?

I’m not the only one suffering through a hardship.  Many brothers and sisters currently or soon will face the challenge of discerning God’s will.  These weighty decisions feel like a foggy business, with no clear step-by-step process to follow.  Some of you are grappling with decisions about business direction, moving house, changing jobs, whether to say something important to a loved one, what to do about aging parents, health treatments or any number of other issues.

I heard or read, and it resonates as so true that:  MORE important than knowing the right decision IS knowing the right person – the One, True God and Father of our Lord Jesus the Christ and giver of His divine Spirit.  This triune God IS the One who continuously shows steadfast love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness because that is who HE is!

So, do I dare pray Richard Rohr’s outrageous request and look for the humiliation vitamin to heal and strengthen me? (and you and I thought to pray for patience was a dangerous business!)  Well, if we believe God’s Word that the more we grow in holiness, the more we see Him and the more joyful we become, then why not?

Let’s look to God for a reassuring word from Deuteronomy 31:8:

It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.

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