Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Minimalism is not the Gospel


Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 

Matthew 6:19–21
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To say minimalism is trending would be an understatement. It seems to crop up weekly in conversations. I see articles on the regular: 

"25 Reasons You Might be a Minimalist" 
"Goodbye things, hello minimalism: Can living with less make you happier?"
"Don't Just Declutter. De-own."

I appreciate minimalism. I enjoy purging excess stuff and keeping our home functioning simply. I've been told we are "so minimalist" (as a compliment, I think) and I am inspired to keep our material possessions on the fewer side. Currently, on my refrigerator I have hanging a "30 Day Declutter Challenge" which I mean to complete (but have only checked off one).

While the concept may be good, the rumblings of what minimalism can do for you, for me, of what minimalism can deliver to our lives, make me uneasy. From my dabbling in this trendy movement, I'm convinced that we ought be careful of a way of life which promises what it can never actually deliver. After all, minimalism is not the gospel.


A Few Potential Pitfalls

1. Don't be convinced your minimalistic lifestyle means you have beaten materialism. Minimalism is not the opposite of materialism. Materialism is defined as "a tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values." Just because you may have fewer material possessions does not mean that you are less attached to them. 

Rather, consider your heart. Do you love the fewer clothes you have? Are you deeply attached to the few books you decided to keep in the recent purge? Do you love your home for the way it looks, rather than the way God provided it for your family, as a place to grow together and extend hospitality? You can still value your material possessions as more important than spiritual things, even in having fewer of them.

So while we're busy critiquing our parents' generation for huge homes, stocked attics and overstuffed garages, we need to take an honest look at our own lives and ask: is our minimalism simply materialism in a new dress?

2. Don't expect minimalism to bring you joy. The KonMarie method has received worldwide fame, notably with the suggestion to ask of each item you own, "does this spark joy?" From the first time I heard this, there was unrest in my heart. Not because material things don't bring me moments of fleeting joy, but because we are espousing a philosophy that leans into our already very human temptation to take our eyes off of the true Source of joy and onto the gifts instead.

J.I. Packer has said of Ecclesiastes that the right foundation for everyday joy [to be distinct from our eternal joy in the gospel] is "in celebrating joy as God's kindly gift, and in recognizing the potential for joy in everyday activities and relationships" [read further here]. I would rather be looking at my daughters to find a spark of joy, or in my husband's love, or in nature, or in fulfilling work, and celebrating these good gifts from God in my life, not in that shirt I wore yesterday or the ornate vase I collected from Taiwan. God has given a very material world to enjoy, but let's be careful to worship the giver and not the gift.

"...human beings flourish and are truly happy when they center their lives on God, the source of everything that is true, good, and beautiful. As to all created things, they too ought to be loved. But the only way to properly love them and fully and truly enjoy them is to love and enjoy them "in God"." [Miroslav Volf, in A Public Faith]


3. Don't let your minimalism hinder your hospitality and love for others. At the very root of some forms of minimalism is simply selfishness. I want to feel free in my home, I want to clean less, I want my home to spark joy, I like the look of x, y, and z. I cannot tell you how many times I've thought, "I should get rid of those kiddy kitchen toys" and yet, why? Because, I don't like the look of them. But my kids, and a host of other kids, greatly enjoy these toys, and play with them daily. Who would I be serving to get rid of them? Fortunately in my life, I am daily reminded that there are others of whom I need to think, and serve with love, than myself. 

Before purging all the extra plates from your kitchen, consider: do you have adequate space for extending hospitality? Is your space warm and inviting, a place that people will want to gather? Far and above any desires for a sparse kitchen ought to be our willingness and ability to host others well, to extend our homes and lives and invite others in. [Read here for convicting thoughts on Christian hospitality].


Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater, however. Here are a few reasons why Christians ought to consider living more simply:

to better set our hearts on things above, and not on earthly things [Col. 3:2]

to better love our neighbors [Mark 12:31]

to seek to live more generously [1 Tim. 6:17-19]

to offer meaningful hospitality [Rom. 12:13, 1 Pet. 4:8-9]

If these are the reasons for your pursuit of minimalism, to live a life more pleasing to Christ, then by all means, it is a worthy pursuit. 
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“But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.” 
1 Timothy 6:6–8

"And he said to them, "Take care, be on your guard against all covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions"." 
Luke 12:15

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Mud + Sanctification

There are all kinds of interesting stressors about living on another continent, in another culture. Some are super major, and others not so major. Lately, my biggest day-to-day stress has been... are you ready for it? The mud. The dirt. I know it may sound hilarious to American ears, but truly, these days, all it takes is for a bunch of dirty feet to be running around inside my house for my head to about burst. And we have quite a lot of it in our yard, and I'm not sure why. The shade from our amazing avocado trees? The areas around our house that I haven't yet planted? The fact that we live in... Africa?  I'm sure my stress has something to do with the fact that I have three children who love to be outside (wonderful!) and a house that I like to keep clean (ideally!) and clothes that I try to make last from child to child (not happening!). So, you get the picture.

[Just in case you don't get the picture - why Tess is primarily featured, I'm not sure...]


Last week, the girls and I tagged along on an outing Ben had, and spent some time walking around a gorgeous, well-manicured, full of grass campus. Full of grass! Imagine! I found myself envying the grounds, and wondered if this is what heaven would be like - beautiful rolling hills, lovely gardens, and no mud. This was a serious train of thought in my head. Surely, the thoughts continued, there would be no mud in heaven! Then I felt the Lord gently nudge me to think - what can I make of the mud, here on earth? Why must I battle the mud/dirt problem so very often? Am I loving my cleanliness/peace of mind more than my children, or his planting us here, in the middle of the mud?

And then I realized: the mud is for my sanctification. Or at least, it can be, if I choose to let it. Consider James:

"Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing" [1:2-4].

Now the very last thing I want to do is minimize anyone's trial - no doubt this mud trial of mine is on the very lowest scale of trials. Does it test my faith? Well, when my attitude is altered by it, when I fail to respond lovingly to my children because of it, when I let it produce a discontent for our current place in life - then yes, indeed, it tries my faith. My faith that God has placed us here, and knew of the mud problem first. That God has commanded me to love my children, to lead them kindly, to not exasperate them. That my attitude should be like that of Christ Jesus - and believe me, when muddy feet come tromping through my house, I am often not Christlike in any way. 

At least for me, I often think the big trials in life are meant to sanctify me - but I don't typically see my day in and day out trials purposing to grow me in faith. The baby's crying and failing to nap. The kids fighting. The hot, humid weather. The April freezing cold and blizzard (I see you Midwest). The internet slow speeds and outages. AT&T. You fill in the blanks - the daily frustrations of your life. What do we do with them? 

If we're not sure, let's look back at James:

"If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him" [1:5]. 

That day, I asked God about the mud. What do I do with it? How do I change my attitude, and love my kids better? How do I learn to accept it? He is giving me answers. And though slowly, I'm learning to let it refine me, to change me for the better, to sanctify me to be more like Christ. In all the little things, and in the big things, let us keep our minds focused on Christ, so we can be more and more like him each day. 

Thursday, April 19, 2018

New Routines

Maybe you feel this way too, but anytime our family experiences a big change- adding a baby, finishing graduate school, moving overseas- there is this season where things feel a little out of order, a bit chaotic and unfamiliar, and we are all feeling the growing pains. I remember when Ben and I were both in graduate school, both working, and were adding babies to our family each year. Every time a new semester would roll around, we’d have a “recalibration” phase, as we liked to call it, where the gears of our family and home needed a little extra greasing and a little extra patience to figure out how to run smoothly again.

So, it can take quite awhile for us to settle in. Since arriving overseas, and adding little Adele to our family, the recalibration process has taken a bit longer, I’d say. But, slowly, gradually, I’ve noticed new routines emerging, new structures to our days, and it feels good.

The early rising – it’s an early rising culture here – where Ben tries to beat the kids out of bed so he can have a few quiet moments in the pre-dawn, and when he brings me coffee and opens the curtains at the first hint of light so we can watch the sunrise over the hills out our windows. I soak up a few quiet minutes in the Word with Ady. 

The early jump on chores – to get all the beds made and the laundry in – crucial, now, in these cool fall days where there isn’t as much sunlight or heat, to get the laundry up on the line so it has the most time in the sun to dry. 

The running Norah to school - where I pack all the kiddos in the car and grab my coffee and pray that the drop-off goes smoothly. Some days she's a total champ, and other days there are tears. You could keep praying for us all as she gets used to school every day.


The hanging of the laundry – it adds a good twenty minutes to my laundry routine, but I’m learning to savor those minutes in the sunshine rather than rush through them. Sometimes some little girl will follow me outside, and pluck sticks or flowers or chat to me while I hang. Then there’s the taking down of the laundry, as soon as I see the sun beginning to set, before the evening mist comes – quickly!


The baking – maybe because we have growing kids, but also definitely because we have quite a few people in and out of our home every week – the baking has increased. There is almost always something coming out warm, or at least there should be! The kitchen is the place to be in the mornings – when it’s warm and smells lovely and produces treats!


The “pop ins” - when someone will just stop by, to chat for a few moments over a cup of tea or randomly stay for dinner. Where we’ve learned that hospitality doesn’t mean our home will be all orderly or everyone will behave perfectly or we won’t be in the middle of something, but that instead, it means we are open – our home, our schedule, our kitchen, our lives. Come in and be with us for a bit – it may not be perfect, but we treasure this time with you.

The outside culture - where first thing in the morning I open all the windows and doors, where we get to be outside almost every day, where walking for my sanity is essential, where the kids can run free and we explore our neck of the woods. The mud is a different story, for another time. More on that, later. 


The Saturday morning farmer’s market - just about every Saturday morning, we quickly throw on some clothes and jump in the car to get to the farmer’s market. Back in Chicago, we regularly visited markets as well; however, we often looked more than bought, because prices were expensive. Here, the cost for most food items is either comparable or less than what you’d find in a local grocery store, and so we enjoy finding most of our food for the week from local farmers. Yesterday, we scored a large basket full of a variety of vegetables, two whole chickens, a couple varieties of sausage and bacon, a tray of 32 eggs and 2 liters of raw milk, and locally made peanut butter. We are slowly getting to know these people who work to provide food for our family every week.


The Sunday Sabbath feasts with friends from church – the first time we were invited over for lunch after church, we expected to eat and split, to get home in time for naptime, of course. When lunch took time to prepare, and the kids played, and then we all ate slowly, and cleaned up, and then made tea and coffee, and then gradually pulled out dessert, all while conversations ebbed and flowed around us – and the pace was restful. Which is fitting for the Lord’s day, don’t you think? And we didn’t arrive home until almost five in the evening, and our hearts and lives felt full – of good fellowship, of good friendship. We’ve learned to love these times together, of redefining what we thought rest should look like and sharing life over a whole day together.

These are just some of our new routines, that I’ve noticed lately, and have been appreciating so much. Because for me, it means that we are settling in, rebuilding life, if you will, which can be quite a hard process and sometimes lonely and sad. These routines help give structure to our days, and help our hearts feel more and more at home.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Why Churches Should Visit Their Missionaries

Just last week, we had our very first visitors since arriving on South African soil a year and some months ago. After months of anticipation, our pastor and friends from our Chicago church arrived to spend a week with us.

They did not come as a short term team, with a particular ministry focus. We had no projects lined up for them. They did not come to “check up” on us, to make sure we were worth their investment. They did not have a list of questions with which to assess our effectiveness or success.

They came with a simple purpose: to be an encouragement to us.  

Throughout their visit, both Ben and I wondered, “why aren’t more churches doing this?” We have teammates whose churches are generous financially, but most other kinds of support are non-existent. And believe us, after just a short stint on the field, we see our deep need for all kinds of support from our churches back in the States. Long-term missionaries need you, beyond just your monthly check and prayer. They need you to visit them.

Here are some reasons why.

It is a major encouragement to the missionary.

The very night they arrived, I told my husband, “I already feel so encouraged – it’s like such a lift to my spirit.” They didn’t have to actually say anything – just the act of planning the visit, making the long trip, and arriving at our door, was a gift in and of itself. They could have turned around and left and I would have been so thankful!

But then, over the course of the week, we were able to have meaningful conversations, about our family life, about how our kids were doing, about Ben’s classes and his students, about how we’ve struggled this year and grown this year. And being able to share all of that, to hash it out with people who’ve known us and invested in us pre-field, was huge.

It enables the church to see and experience the ministry.

Before our pastor and friends arrived, we lined up a handful of experiences which would give them insight into our ministry. They attended classes with Ben, and we hosted a dinner with students that evening. They met our coworkers at the college, and from our organization. They spent hours in our home and played with our kids. They took a tour around our city. They attended our church and chatted with our pastor here.



At the end of the week, they expressed how valuable it was for them to be able to put faces to our ministry here – it’s not just numbers anymore, but peoples’ lives, stories, hopes. It’s not just a vision for ministry anymore, but a tangible experience of that ministry. And we’re not just a picture on their wall, but a family whose life and work they intimately got to be a part of for a week.

 It reminded us that this ministry isn’t just about us.

While we were fundraising in the States, we regularly were encouraged by the excitement and support people provided. It was obvious that this discipleship ministry in South Africa, this raising up of Christian leaders, wasn’t just about us or God’s leading to us. It was about so much more – about many individuals who were joining us in this ministry and churches who were behind this mission. We truly felt like Paul when he wrote, “I thank God in all my remembrance of you… because of your partnership in the gospel” (Phil. 1:3, 5).

After being removed from our churches and circles of partners, however, it became easier to forget that this was indeed a team project. On hard days, especially for me at home with kids most of the time, I found myself asking of the Lord – “Why am I here again? Did we make a mistake, coming to South Africa? Is all of this sacrifice really worth it?”


Over the past week, having our sending church here, I was reminded in a deep and meaningful way that this ministry was never about just me. Sure, we are the face of this work, but we could not be here without our churches behind us, without our amazing base of partners in the States, all who have affirmed God’s leading of our family in this direction and expressed desire to be a part of this ministry. Tearfully and humbly, I have thanked God multiple times for his goodness in sending our Chicago church to remind me that it’s not all about me. I needed this reminder, and he gave it to me in a powerful way.

There is no price tag you can put on that kind of encouragement.  

It’s an investment in your long-term missionaries.

You may be thinking, “isn’t it really expensive to send people just to visit?” Yes, it is. Many churches are sending multiple short-term missions teams out every year, some with great effectiveness and others without. There may be great value in redirecting some focus onto the effectiveness of long-term missionaries. After all, they are the ones who are with locals day in and day out, for years, developing relationships, training future leaders, and have potential for a more lasting impact.

Additionally, there is great value in just “being” with people. We are prone to believe that unless there is tangible achievement or numerical results, nothing has been done and our efforts have been wasted. This is simply untrue. Sending people for the primary purpose of encouraging your missionaries is indeed doing something very valuable. It is practicing the ministry of presence. Being with people is encouraging, rejuvenating, and motivating.


 

In general, every church would be wise to consider their investment in their long-term missionaries. And I mean beyond the financial investment. Long-term missionaries need much more than just your money every month – we need your prayers, your emails, your intentional connection, your teaching, your accountability, your resources, your care. Sending a few key people to visit your long-term missionaries is an investment in them, and in that ministry. I only wonder how this kind of support would increases the effectiveness and the longevity of long-term missionaries.

Our church ministered to us in profound ways, by simply showing up at our home and being a part of our life for a week.

And we are so thankful.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Long Haul


Last week, I returned home from a few hours out working to find my daughters puttering around inside. Almost immediately, the oldest said to me, “Mom, we tried to get the “x” marks off your map… we just wanted to mark where our friends live around the world.” My heart sank as I comprehended her words. Just the day before, I had finally found a world map for our wall, the map I’d been looking for since we arrived in South Africa ten months ago and for the wall which has been bare ever since. I had opened it, to show the girls, then decided to have it laminated so it would last for years, and rolled it back into the tube it came in.

I turned and walked back to our study. Sure enough, there on the floor was my map, unrolled from its tube, marked with “x”s in all sorts of random spots (which friend was it that lived on an island in the middle of the Atlantic, I can’t remember), and thoroughly, quite thoroughly, sprayed with my vinegar spray in a well-meaning attempt to clean said “x’s” back off the map. I could feel my blood pressure rising as I knelt down, felt its soppiness, and recalled that it was the only one that the bookstore had.

Years! I thought. For years we have been teaching our children to obey, and yet! Sure, I hadn’t specifically said, “please don’t unroll my map, mark it with “x’s” and then clean it off with vinegar spray,” but still? When will they just get it? I thought grimly.

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I wonder how God must have felt when dealing with the Israelites regular grumbling and unfaithfulness over the course of hundreds of years. Or when David’s very deliberate disobedience had huge and devastating consequences. Or when Jonah, after God rescued him from his disobedience through a big fish and changed the Ninevites hearts, struggled so much with hatred of others that he asked God to end his life.

We know from the biblical account, that “the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps 103:8).

Fortunately, the Lord reminded me quickly that morning, before I could say something I would later need to apologize for, that indeed, obedience in my own life is a long-term project. Though I have been saved by grace for the majority of my life, I still struggle to obey, most often in my heart and in my attitude. Could I truly expect perfection from my own children when I fail regularly?

In that precious moment, God taught me this: A faithful mother is in this for the long haul. Just as God himself has been since the beginning of the world. There’s a reason no biblical author ever wrote about the ease of faithfulness, the quickness of learning obedience. There’s a reason we have been instructed to run with endurance, because finishing well requires it (Heb12:1). There’s a reason we are admonished to remain steadfast under trial, because trial will come, and steadfastness will be an absolute necessity if our faith is to survive (Jas 1:12).

Obedience is not something that I will teach my children and expect that they will have mastered by age five, despite any parenting books that may have indicated otherwise. Rather, my faithfulness as a mother looks like loving them when they fail, and gently instructing them yet again from God’s Word about what obedience looks like. While I know they will not be perfect this side of eternity, I trust that as I seek to be a faithful mom and as God works in their hearts, growth will result, slow though it may be at times.

When I think of how God has faithfully loved me despite my disobedience, how he gently yet often firmly makes clear my shortcomings, how he teaches me over and over from his Word, I rejoice. And I prepare my heart for another day of loving my children and faithfully teaching them those same truths that I taught them yesterday, last month, and last year.

“Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck; write them on the tablet of your heart” (Prov 3:3).

//

I hung the map anyway, dried bubbly and with “x’s” in the middle of the Atlantic. And now, when I see it, I am reminded that I am walking alongside my children in their journey to godliness for the long haul, just as God is faithfully walking with me.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

When God Doesn't Give You the Desires of Your Heart


“Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”
Psalm 37:4

Your heart aches, your arms empty. The quiet seeps in, your loneliness your companion. Your body aches, any healing seems impossible. Your child suffers, your heart breaks. Your mind questions, this loved one doesn’t believe. Your soul downcast, stuck in cyclical sin. Your heart heavy, the suffering doesn’t end.

Perhaps, like me, you are in a season where there is a strong unmet desire of your heart. This desire is good, for a blessing from God or for healing or for companionship or for children or for relief from pain or for a loved one’s salvation. And yet, God has not chosen to bestow upon you that which you so earnestly desire.

A Brief Commentary

Before moving on, let’s briefly explore what it means to “delight in the Lord.” Here in Psalm 37, the word “delight” literally means to “enjoy, be fond of, take pleasure and enjoyment in.” To say we delight in God ought to mean that we enjoy him, which brings to mind the Westminster’s Shorter Catechism answer to the question, what is the chief end of man? To glorify God and enjoy him forever. But we don’t enjoy him in a pluralistic sense, as in, we enjoy God along with our spouse, our children, coffee, ice cream, being outside (if I’m making a list). We enjoy God fully, ultimately, as the one who fully completes us and alone brings ultimate meaning to our lives. We enjoy him even when we do not have a spouse, or children, or coffee or ice cream or the ability to be outside, because he is the beginning and end of our joy. He is fully our joy.

So then, what of our desires? Calvin, in his commentary on Psalms, helps explain: “it can never be well with us except in so far as God is gracious to us, so that the joy we derive from his paternal favour towards us may surpass all the pleasures of this world… if we stay our minds wholly upon God, instead of allowing our imaginations like others to roam after idle and frivolous fancies, all other things will be bestowed upon us in due season.”

Keeping this in mind, let me encourage you with a few thoughts for your weary heart.

Take Your Loss to Him

Though it may not feel like it, God knows the deep desires of your heart, for he knows everything.

“O LORD, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar” [Ps 139:1-2].

This desire is not unknown to the God of the universe, to the God of your life. He knows you so intimately that even “before a word is on my tongue…you know it altogether” [Ps 139:4]. You may not even voice your desires, and yet he knows them.

Though he knows them, there is much good for us to still take these unmet desires to God, in prayer. To open our hands, which clutch so tightly that which we so deeply desire, to gently open and offer it to God. To say, from deep in our spirits, “God, this is my desire. This is my loss. I do not understand, but I give it to you.”

God is not surprised; in fact, you and I cannot find a better friend in grief than Jesus. He indeed is “acquainted with grief” and has “carried our sorrows” as part of his experience as a man on this broken earth so many years ago [Isa 53:3,4]. He is not only qualified to hold your desires because he is the very God who created you and knows you intimately, but also because he is the very God who lived on this earth and died real death for you.

Acknowledge God’s Sovereignty

“I work all things to the counsel of my will” [Eph 1:11].

Firm belief in the sovereignty of God is the sweetest comfort when we are feeling the weight of unmet desires. We can know and trust that the God who created the world ordains it: “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things” [Isa 45:7]. Likewise, we can rest knowing that the God who created our very lives also establishes them, “the heart of a man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps” [Prov 16:9].

You take steps, you walk forward, knowing each step you take is from God, both the joyful leaping lunges forward and the painful slow shuffling. Does this comfort you? It is a relief to know that ultimately, God is choosing to not give this desire now, for some reason you may not understand. But it’s not because he does not know you or hear you. His reasons are often beyond our understanding, but because he is a good, loving father, we can rest in his care for us.

Recently, my 18-month old found an old apple core covered with ants on the ground. She, in true toddler form, reached down, picked it up, and gleefully shouted over her discovery. So when I quickly reached down and plucked it from her grasp, and her glee turned to a despondent glum, all I could say was, “I know you thought that would be good. I know it looked good to you. But it is not good for you now.”

Your desire may be good, your heart may be for God’s glory, your steps may be obedient. But for some reason, only known by your good and loving father, he has not given it to you for now.

Rest in His Peace

“You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Trust in the LORD forever, for the LORD GOD is an everlasting rock” [Isa 26:3-4].

So we can take our unmet desire to God, holding it with open hands because we know and trust that God is sovereign over every aspect of our lives. What now?

Dear friend, rest. Take deep rest for your heart in the only one who can give you complete rest. In trust, there is rest. In trust, there is peace. In those moments of pain, seek to fully delight in God, because when your other desires are yet unmet, your heart will be full from his joy. It is possible, and God desires for us, to live with unmet desires but be fully satisfied in him.

When your heart is weary with unmet desire, turn your mind to your God, who knows you and hears you, who ordains your life, who alone can fully satisfy your heart. And in this active turning of your mind, rest in his perfect peace.

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“But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.” [Ps 73:28] 
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