When your ‘nothing, except for’ is enough!

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2 Kings 4: 1-2

The wife of a man from the company of the prophets cried out to Elisha, “Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that he revered the Lord. But now his creditor is coming to take my two boys as his slaves.”

 Elisha replied to her, “How can I help you? Tell me, what do you have in your house?”

“Your servant has nothing there at all,” she said, “except a small jar of olive oil.

I love this account.  We don’t know anything else about this widow except she is VERY needy and she has neighbors with empty jars. She takes her problem to Elisha, fully expecting his help.  He comes through with a God-given recipe:

Step 1: Elisha tells her to go and round up from all her neighbors as many empty jars as they have.

Step 2: Next she is to go into her house, shut the door and follow the prophet’s direct but simple instruction to the T.  She takes her one little jar of olive oil and ladles the oil into each of the empties until there are no more empties.

Step 3: Finally, she is to sell her jars of oil and pay off the creditors, thus safeguarding her sons whom SHE needs for her future well-being.

Did Elisha’s remedy work?  YES!  Is that all?  No – our Father is the ‘much more’ Provider.

Not only does God ,who is rich in loving kindness, guide Elisha to the solution for her financial and family emergency, He also provides a nest egg for the future.  There are MORE than enough jars of oil left over after her husband’s debts are paid.  She will be able to sell the jars of oil to buy what her family needs in the future.

Reading again of this miraculous account, I saw direct application for my teaching ESL (English as a second language) venture. I’ve been recording simple, illustrated stories for my YouTube channel English without Fear.  But the viewership and number of subscribers is still small.  Yet, SO many people all over the world struggle to learn to speak English well. What mitigates against these learners’ success is the false, but ubiquitous idea that grammar and vocabulary instruction will produce competent English language communicators.  NOT TRUE!

Common sense AND research show that the most effective way to learn a language is through listening with understanding. ‘Mommy Talk’ is what I call it.  I know this approach works.  I used it for the last 19 years of my 27 years teaching French.  I’m having success with it now in one-on-one English tutoring and I’m acquiring Spanish myself through listening to lots of Spanish on podcasts and in videos.

In the past couple of months, I have fought back discouragement due to my still-limited impact on English language teachers and students.  But this story reminded me again to ‘keep asking neighbors for empty containers’ and filling them with the oil that God has given me.  He is the one who will multiply my impact, in His time.

So YOU, my neighbor, if you know of someone struggling to learn English as a second language or a teacher who helps learners acquire ESL, would you forward on the link to my YouTube channel (above) or my website?

As the prophet Zechariah exhorted in 4:10 of his writings:  “Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin!”

 

When a gift from God looks like a disaster

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You all know the story of Uzzah, the son of Abinadab, whom God killed when he touched the ark being transported to the City of David.

The ark had rested in Abinadab’s house for a good while after the Philistines gave it back, having captured it from the startled Hebrews in battle.  1 Samuel 7:1 – So the men of Kiriath Jearim came and took up the ark of the LORD. They took it to Abinadab’s house on the hill and consecrated Eleazar his son to guard the ark of the LORD.

Now comes the drama. King David is ruling and wants to bring the ark into his city, Jerusalem. The leaders of Israel all agree that this is a good idea. But there is the problem.

As I read in my study-bible’s notes this morning, the manner in which the Hebrews organized the transport of this ark of the Lord’s covenant showed a decisive Philistine influence on their thinking.  A generation earlier, when the Philistine cart pulled by 2 momma cows transported the resting ark back to Hebrew territory, that picture must have erased their understanding and memory of how the Lord decreed the ark should be moved.

Those from Abinadab’s house apparently do not check with God or consult the law. Instead they organize a Philistine-style movement plan.  At one point the oxen pulling the cart carrying the ark stumble.  Uzzah reaches for the ark and God kills him immediately.

‘Whoa!’ exclaims a startled King David who suddenly flushes with shame, rage and fear, all at once.  He makes the command decision:  “We’re NOT going any further.”  1 Chron 13:12-13 records his decision:

David was afraid of God that day and asked, “How can I ever bring the ark of God to me?”  He did not take the ark to be with him in the City of David.  Instead, he took it aside to the house of Obed-Edom, the Gittite.

Okay, put yourself in the shoes of Mr & Mrs Obed-Edom, their relatives and all their servants.  How would you have reacted?  I can image the terror when the King pronounces this decision.  Did some of these fears blitz through their minds?

  • If Uzzah, a son of the family which had successfully housed the ark for about 40 years, died from a seeming good motive (to keep the ark from falling) what is going to happen to us?
  • We don’t know anything about tending the ark?  What….how…..who?
  • We’re doomed!  We’re all gonna die!

But look at what the text says after David changes the ark’s travel destination:

1 Chron 13:14 . The ark of God remained with the family of Obed-Edom in his house for three months, and the Lord blessed his household and everything he had.

What the Obed-Edom family and household did NOT expect was God’s blessing.  But look at what the Lord did!  We read that nothing BUT good things occurred to all the people and every THING Mr. Obed-Edom owned.

I hope that fact encourages you as it did me.  What looks like a sudden disaster turned out to be a gift from God, beyond anything ANYONE in the family and household could have predicted or even prayed for.

So what has God ‘gifted’ you with recently that seems like suffering or a problem?  Draw encouragement this day from the goodness and wisdom of our Father.

I’ll close with this paraphrase of something I read by Tim Keller referring to the insanity of worry:  I’m not wise enough to know what is best for me.

The solution to life’s problems

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Mike and I are journeying through the Bible again.  I think this is year 6 following the Chronological Bible Reading Plan.

Each year we discover either new information (“I never saw THAT before!) and fresh insights.

Currently, we are clipping along through the book of Ezekiel at a pace of 3 chapters a day. The theme appears to be constant. Namely: everything that God does and commands Ezekiel to prophesy has ONE purpose, “Then they will know that I am the LORD!”

Whether Yahweh is bringing justifiable painful punishment on Judah’s enemies or whether He’s disciplining Judah and Israel or whether He announces wonder-filled future plans to restore Egypt, Judah, and Israel, the intention is the same:  that the entire world will know that He is the LORD.

Applying this theme to current events has created meaningful nightly discussions between Mike and me. Whether we are reflecting upon recent natural disasters or the threats of North Korean madman Kim Jong Un, it seems appropriate in 2017 to acknowledge God’s very same desire for us as in Ezekiel’s day.  After all, He doesn’t change.  He still wills that all peoples know Him.

Psalm 46:10 Be still and know that I am God! applies not just to nations but to us as individuals.  Here is life-giving advice to combat daily worries and nighttime anxious thoughts.

This morning, however, the Holy Spirit illumined a new context in a devotional I read. Matthew 11: 27b – 28.no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.  Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 

What is the answer for all of us who feel burdened with worries and responsibilities? Jesus says it is to KNOW God.

“….and just how, exactly, does knowing God help me when I have one or more crises on my hands?  Whether it’s

  • an impending storm
  • a dissolving marriage
  • a child’s life gone off the tracks
  • a stressful job that brings no joy
  • a decision to make with no clear way forward

That’s just the point.  Shifting our thoughts off of the looming or present circumstances onto our Creator and Sustainer DOES bring relief.  What can HE do?  Everything and anything.  For He alone is all-powerful, all-good, all-wise, all-loving, always present.  And He is carrying out His plan for His creation, which includes us and our situations.

Up until now, however, I had never understood how Jesus proposed to give me rest if I came to Him.  Reading Matthew 11 this morning, our twelfth consecutive day in Ezekiel, caused me to see God’s ‘way-out’ differently.  If I don’t have a solution to the immediate situation, reminding myself of God’s attributes, that is reflecting on and knowing Him will shift my focus OFF of what seems impossible onto the One who is ALL-possible. That’s how Jesus gives us rest.  Looking at the problem(s) and at the lack of resources/solutions causes the stress and burdens.

We’re blockheads if we don’t take His Rx for rest.  He even tells us what we’ll get for swapping our yokes:

Matthew 11: 29-30 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

PS:  God even makes provision for those of us who act as doltish sheep.  If we can’t even muster up the willingness to swap yokes, we can call out to Him for help!!!

One thing is necessary

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40. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations to be made. She came to Jesus and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her to help me!” 41  “Martha, Martha, the Lord replied, “you are worried and upset about many things. 42 But only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, and it will not be taken away from her.”…  Luke 10: 40 – 42

A new school year started last week.  My anxieties came back to life after their sabbatical of 2 1/2 months.

What is at the root of these worries?  What I focus on during the school day.  Here’s my list of concerns – those situations where I lack confidence, occasions that intimidate me a bit:

  • Will I be able to capture and hold on to the attention of middle school kids?
  • Will I be able to create and carry out effective and engaging lessons, which actually result in them acquiring French?
  • Will I have sufficient time in my school day to complete teaching, planning, grading and handle all those extra duties teachers seem to have?
  • Will I feel free to spend time with my colleagues, listening and encouraging them, all the while accurately representing Christ?
  • Will I be able to grow the French program in the Middle School?

Those 5 matters I have turned into individual and multiple prayers that I send up to God frequently throughout the week.  Better to pray than to worry, right?

Yes and no.

Reading how Jesus corrected Martha and how He described her sister, Mary, caused me to think again.  Maybe I have miscalculated where I should invest the bulk of my energy. Rather than prioritizing and investing all my mental energy on ways to meet all these challenges, I should focus first on what actually might energize me and provide life.

Luke’s account of the two sisters who have just lost their dear brother Lazarus prompted me to imagine what Martha’s list might have looked like (had she written down what caused HER stress and anxiety:

  • Oh no!  Jesus just showed up and with his group of guys, too.  I’ve been feeding well-wishers and mourners for a week now.  What am I going to serve?
  • I’m exhausted!  Where am I going to find the strength and energy to fix more food. And who is going to butcher the lamb, now that our brother is gone?
  • I was going to send Mary around to the family that supplies our wine because we’re all out!  But look at her.  She just sat down with the men to listen to Jesus!  Where’s her head!  With all this work to do?  Doesn’t she care about me?  So this is the way it’s going to be now that Lazarus is gone. I should have figured!
  • Oh, my – Lazarus IS gone.  How are we ever going to make it, two women alone?

What is Jesus’ response, the God who knows all our thoughts and cares?   Read the 4 statements at the beginning of this post.   Freedom calls me with those enigmatic words of His: One thing is necessary.

What is Jesus NOT saying?  Does he tell Martha to skip all the food prep?  No!  Hospitality is a good thing.  But ultimately it doesn’t rank # 1.  We CAN live without food.

But we can’t live without Jesus.

So what did I see afresh in Luke’s account of a very familiar vignette?

It was how I evaluate a ‘good day’.  In past years, I’ve called it a ‘good day’ if I taught well. If I had a fruitful-for-the-kingdom conversation with someone.  If I completed my work.

But I can’t control any of those outcomes, hence my anxiety and uncertainty day to day.

So what IS necessary?  What is ‘the one thing’?

I can see more clearly how God has been moving me over the past 5 or 6 years to rely on Him throughout the day.  To look to and depend on His divine, supernatural Spirit for EVERY thought, word, action, and decision about the future.

Jesus and Paul challenged followers of Christ to stay ‘grafted in the Vine’, to ‘remain in union with Him’.  We actually are not meant to do anything apart from Jesus.  He even tells us we can’t.

  • John 15:5 I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me, you can do nothing.

So I have redefined what Maria calls a ‘good day’.  The one responsibility I have as Jesus’ lamb is to do all in His strength, aware of my position IN the Vine.

Teaching a ‘good’ lesson, completing my list, engaging in a fruitful conversation with a colleague – yes, these are important.  But I can’t control the outcomes.  Hence – perpetual anxiety.

But I CAN control my thoughts.  That ability is given to every Christian in whom lives God’s Spirit.

My goal and focus this school year is to rely on Jesus and seek to please Him that way. And when I forget my source for everything and start angsting about X, Y and Z, I can still please Jesus by repenting of sinful AND needless worry.  And call it a GOOD day!

What God means to do in your life

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I’ve been memorizing the first chapter of 1 Peter.

What I like about memorizing Scripture is that it causes me to think through and meditate on the words as I try to lock them down in my brain.  I started to memorize Bible verses when I was 48 years old. Wes, our youngest son, was a senior in high school.

One fall Sunday, a layman’s sermon delivered (not read) and peppered with Bible verses he clearly knew from heart wowed us both.  As head of the finance committee, he had been invited to the pulpit that morning to share with us the joy and experience of giving sacrificially.  After the service we both approached him to ask how he had managed to recite all that Scripture – a true feat! He told us about the Topical Memory System from the Navigators.  Wes and I were immediately sold and committed ourselves to memorizing and being able to recite all 60 key verses before he left home in June for West Point.

Since then, I have worked through entire SHORT books like Colossians and whole chapters.  I don’t work to retain these long chunks forever, for that would take constant practice and my practice sessions would expand as the months passed by.  But for the duration of the ‘work’, I am chewing on some portion of Scripture every day, often throughout the day.

The payoff is rich.

Which brings me to this morning’s ‘aha!’ moment from verse 2 of 1 Peter 1:

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia,
who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood: Grace and peace be yours in abundance.
I’ve put the ‘chunks’ I was meditating on in different colors.  What HIT me this morning during my walk was the ‘sanctifying WORK’ of the Holy Spirit.
Here’s how my thoughts took off:
  • Maria, the Holy Spirit is working in you ON PURPOSE.
  • His work actually probably overrides MY plans as He directs my circumstances,
  • These circumstances of my life are part of His plan to sanctify me.
  • I wouldn’t choose MOST of these ‘detours’ if I were in control of my days, months and years.
  • No wonder these trials are painful at times!!!

A few significant activities of my life FEEL HARD these days:

  • Morning exercise is HARD and I have to fight my natural feelings of reluctance and dread when I get out of bed and lace up my shoes.
  • Losing these 6 pounds is HARD.  It’s taken me 6 weeks so far to lose 2.
  • Teaching school is HARD.  It takes effort and I fight laziness and just wanting to stay home with NO expectations hanging on me.
  • Practicing NOT worrying, but entrusting family needs to God is hard.  When you love someone and they suffer, you suffer too!

What helps counter all those energy-depleting concerns that tend to occupy large parts of my mental and emotional life is the idea that these details are very much intentionally part of the Holy Spirit’s plan to sanctify.  Random suffering drains, discourages and disheartens.  Knowing that God has planned and intends ALL this for my good strengthens me to endure.

I don’t think I’ve grown enough to rejoice in the trials, yet, but I know that I need to reach that point.  As I walk these days in fellowship with the Spirit of Christ, I am learning His methods.  EVERYthing He does is for my good, to sanctify me.  I can trust Him.  I MUST trust Him, if I am to flee from fear and discouragement and enlarge my capacity to enjoy God.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Matt 5:8

 

Sleepless nights – when are they a good thing?

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Restless and troubled by this persistent dream, she could not sleep.  Foreboding thoughts and feelings flitted along the edges of her semi-conscious mind. What did her dream mean? Why was THAT man even in her husband’s presence? Pontius had not mentioned last night at dinner that he was holding in the dungeons this Rabbi and Healer, the talk of all Jerusalem.

Pontius Pilate's wife

She fell back to sleep and the dark drama continued. She watched with horror as the man called ‘The Christ’ silently endured beatings and taunting.  The soldiers who jeered, smirked and spat on the suffering, compliant victim were HER husband’s men. Her heart felt like it was about to leap out of her chest, her mouth ready to shriek in protest.

In her dream, compelled forward to watch the horror of merciless mocking and abuse, she had pressed around her imposing husband’s back. But this stocky man, transfixed and silent, would not let her edge around him to see.  Blocked then, she nonetheless heard the snapping whips, thudding and biting torn flesh. She recoiled as each whistling lash found its mark.

She had woken with a start, shivering in a cold sweat. What was she to make of this dream?  Resolve forming, she called her maidservants to fetch water to wash and dress for the day.  Maybe she could stop from happening that which no earthly person in the palace had told her about.

*

It is vain for you to rise early,
To retire late,
To eat the bread of anxious labors—
For He gives [blessings] to His beloved, even in his, sleep.  Psalm 127:2

What keeps you awake at night?  I remember reading about Andrée Seu Peterson years ago and how for about 18 months, God kept her from sleep-filled nights.  What I recall is that she eventually accepted this suffering as a gift from God and used it to pray and read her Bible. Then, all of a sudden, God restored her sleep.

Then there are those Bible characters whose sleep is interrupted by Divine dreams. Heroes of faith like the two Josephs: Jacob’s son from Genesis and the much later legal dad of Jesus – THAT Joseph.  There were also those traveling sages from the East who were warned in a dream NOT to report back to Herod.  And you remember Paul who recounted in Acts 16:9 about when he received specific guidance – “During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”

Not only God’s people, but major players in history have puzzled over dreams like Egypt’s Pharaoh with the fat cows and lean cows (as well as the baker and the wine steward sharing a prison cell with Joseph, Bar Jacob). King Nebuchadnezzar also suffered nightmares that no one but Daniel could interpret, thanks to God’s wisdom.

Divine dreams that communicate a message are positive, GOOD reasons for sleeplessness. But I know you are probably as familiar as I am with the negative and sinful impediments to a rest-filled night.  Yes, I’m talking about not being able to sleep due to the anxieties of the previous 24 hours or of the morning soon to break.

Sometimes, my mind races with too many thoughts and I can’t settle it.  Not that I am worried……but I can’t shut it off.  Is that sinful?

The other night I didn’t get home until 13 +hours after I had descended our Smoky Mountain cove en route to Asheville.  Then, after school, I had headed to an evening meeting, eventually walking into our home a little before 8 pm.  I go to bed fairly early on school nights, so there was little decompress time – especially since I shared with Mike about the day (I had been professionally reviewed by my principal) as well as the meeting later on.

My mind was running at an RPM speed normal for my active day.  The thoughts continued as I settled into bed a little after 9 pm. I know we are commanded to count on (trust) Jesus and hand over ALL of our cares, for He promises to take them on.  I wasn’t ‘worried’, nonetheless the grey cells labored on.

Eventually I fell into a deep sleep, but awoke exhausted the next day.  Was it my fault? Could I have handled the night differently?   My first defense was: “I couldn’t help it!” Normally I DO slow down after dinner; the conversation is less intellectually engaging, I read the paper and then a book to prevent electronic stimulation.

But saying ‘it’s not my fault’ is irrelevant and doesn’t help.  Our good Father actually gives us tools to use.  Thinking about this kind of night since then I’ve come up with a plan.  I’m going to do what Christ exhorts us through Paul in his letter to the Philippians:

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. ………And the God of peace will be with you. Phil 4:8, 9b

I want that kind of peace at night, don’t you?  But what assurance do you and I have that we’ll be able to KEEP our thoughts fixed on the above worthy topics? Just the fact that what God commands us to do, He gives us His strength to do. (I’m encouraged by Paul’s teaching in the same letter: “…for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”  Phil 2:13)

And just which topics are true, noble, right,…..?  We can start with recalling truths about God – who He is, what He has done and what He promises those who call Him Father.

PS:  Back to the story at the beginning of this post – what do you think?  Will we encounter Mrs. Pontius in heaven?  What about her husband?

The good kind of fear

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So many things to fear.  To be human and do MORE than huddle in bed, sheets pulled up over our head, takes courage.

Cowering in bed

The Bible is very forthright when it comes to fear.  I can’t think of one Bible character whose fear is not described.  Abraham worried about the Egyptians and thus passed his wife, Sarah, off as his sister. Moses shrank back from the task God wanted to give him, that of confronting Pharaoh.  Esther trembled at the idea of approaching her husband the King without his initial bidding.

The former blind man’s parents feared excommunication from the Temple community when asked to explain why their grown son could now see. The disciples feared the Romans and met furtively behind locked doors after Jesus’ execution.

And this week we faced horror after horror as events in Paris, Syria and Nigeria unfolded, just to name a few!

But there are also more mundane fears.  Friday, I had the occasion to chaperone middle school students on the first of five afternoons skiing here in Western North Carolina.  It had been 12 years since I took to the slopes.  I found myself feeling nervous due to the unknown arrangements of ski rental (will my feet cramp in those confining blocks of cement?), of navigating the ski lifts (will I ‘miss’ the moving seat and fall and make a fool of myself?), of avoiding dare-devil kids on snowboards (will I fall and break something and not be able to complete my daily walks?)

John Calvin observed that our hearts are ‘idol-factories’. Well, we are equally skilled at inventing fears.

Therefore, I felt greatly encouraged by a Desiring God blog post entitled Trading Fear for Fear

Reading it over several times (the link is above) and grappling to put the truths into my own words, I have concluded that God MEANS us to fear and has wired us to do so. But there is a right kind of fear and a wrong kind of fear.

I’m curious to learn how YOU would explain the godly kind of fear (no one needs any help in describing our default mechanism to fear the unknown and the threatening).  Here is what I have concluded from studying God’s word and letting it sink in:

  1. Fearing God – Hebrew word YIRAH (Strong’s # 3374) is experiencing  awe and respect and even a thrill at the ‘greater-than-we-can-grasp’ power and majesty and being of God.  Psalm 2:11 illustrates this posture as in “Worship/Serve the Lord in Yirah (reverence) and rejoice in trembling.
  2. The proper fear of the Lord is actually a gift granted to those to whom light is given.  Before this ability to see, we actually have a twisted view of the world and of God.  For in fact, we are by nature born into darkness and the light with which we see and evaluate the world is about as powerful as that emanating from your bathroom nightlight.  When God, via the Holy Spirit, flips on the switch giving us HIS light, we then see the truth of the world for the first time. We then begin to KNOW who God is and how life, liberty and joy are the birthright of all of us who grab hold of this true, forever and loving God who has given us new birth.
  3. Therefore, until we are transferred from the Kingdom of Darkness in to the Kingdom of Light, we can’t understand the right kind of fear, godly fear, because we don’t see/understand God correctly.  (Colossians 1:13 –He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son,  in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.)
  4. Once our eyes are opened, we can begin to fear God properly. And what blessings accompany this YIRAH/correct attitude and posture toward God! Just do a google search on ‘fear of the Lord’ and feast on the many promises of God.

5. Finally (and this helps me the most), I can’t fear two completely opposite things at one time.  Why not?  Aren’t we good at multi-tasking?  Perhaps YOU are, but it’s more than holding 2 ideas together at one time.  What we fear, what we respond to is dictated by what we look at.  If I focus on troubling world circumstances like the evil terror that seems unrestrained and growing, or if I dwell on my imagined fears accompanying upcoming new experiences, or if I worry about what might happen if this or that happens, then I am fearing PRECISELY in a way that God commands me NOT to. Isaiah 8:12 is a good reminder: “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread.”

However, when we fear/revere/thrill/look at the awe-FUL, wonder-FUL character and works of God, then all sorts of attendant resources are made available to us, besides JOY.  The same prophet Isaiah assures of that….

33:6 He will be the sure foundation for your times, a rich store of salvation and wisdom and knowledge; the fear of the Lord is the key to this treasure.

2a - Maria skiing for first time in 13 yrs - 9 Jan 2006

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