The Long View in Ministry

pexels-photo-260607In orphan care, and in life, anything of quality takes a very long time. In Spain, architect Antoni Gaudi began work on a cathedral in 1882, and it’s not finished yet. At the time of Gaudi’s death in 1926, the church was approximately a quarter finished. It’s expected to be completed in 2026. The architect, and everyone working on the cathedral, knew going in that they would not live to see the completion of this project. They also knew they were building something that would last for many generations. Historic buildings and almost everything of significant value take time.

In society today, everyone wants things NOW. Fast food, movies on demand, faster computers, faster delivery. We love Amazon Prime for its next day delivery but that’s not fast enough for some people, Amazon has started same-day delivery in some areas. Somewhere, someone is screaming, “I can’t wait 24 hours for my Hello Kitty pot holders and my camouflage yoga pants!” Immediate gratification is a powerful thing.

The problem with immediate gratification is that it’s not possible, or healthy, in most areas of our lives. God sees a long picture, an eternal perspective. People need a long time to change, to heal, and to grow. Just because we want something NOW, doesn’t mean that it’s the healthy or realistic option.

A healthy weight loss plan should take a long time, a pound or two a week max. It takes a long time to put the pounds on; it will take a long period of correct diet and exercise decisions to take it off. Most people don’t go into debt overnight, getting out of debt usually takes many years of correct spending decisions. In another example of too much too soon, almost everyone who wins the lottery regrets it years later. It came too fast, and they couldn’t handle it, too much too soon destroyed their lives. There are rhythms and timing to everything; it never works well to force anything into our preferred schedule.

In orphan care, in many cases, care and healing can go on for many years, it’s not a quick fix situation. Most of the children in the system will be there for years, 70% of our children grow into adults under our care. In most cases, it takes years for a child to work through the issues of abuse and abandonment that they’ve experienced. It’s a slow, tedious process to bring a child to healing, to help them trust again, to show them that they have incredible value. If you’ve literally been thrown away, it takes a while to believe you’re not trash to be discarded.

Although we value everyone who partners with us, it’s the longterm people that make the difference. The groups that come down every year for decades, the staff and volunteers that live here for many years while the children grow and heal, these are the people who understand the long view in ministry. These people know they are building something profound, they are working to break the cycle of kids in the system for generations.

Most people who have adopted older children will tell you; it isn’t always coloring books, reading together, and hugs. The healing, bonding, and relationship issues can take many painful years to work through, but it’s worth it in the end. A child is not a quick project or a quick fix; a wounded child usually takes years of loving, patient guidance to reach a healthy place.

We see the quick-fix attitude in many short-term mission groups. They sometimes think they will come in and transform a ministry or community in a few days, where full-time pastors and missionaries have been serving for years. Don’t get me wrong; they can make a real difference. But that difference only comes through building long-term relationships, long-term partnerships, and realizing they’re playing a small (but important) part in a long string of mission groups working to transform lives and communities.

When you’re looking at what God is doing in you, please consider the long view. God knew you before you were born, He has a plan. It might not be as fast as you like but He will get you to where you need to be. It might be forty years in the desert, but there is a reason for that, even if we can’t see it. Trust that the potter will shape the clay of your life into a masterpiece.

When you’re looking at a ministry where you’re serving, understand that change happens over a long time. You and your team can’t end the homeless problem overnight; you can’t end poverty in a week, your church can’t heal all the families in your area in a few months. But over time, serving and working with the right attitude and in a healthy fashion, the collective body of Christ can change the world.

Take the long view in ministry, slow and steady can move mountains, and change lives.

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No Unimportant Jobs

cathedralSeveral years ago, three workers building a cathedral in Europe were interviewed about their jobs. A skilled mason shared that he was responsible for adding bricks to a large wall. A painter was asked about his part, and he explained that by adding paint to the project he was protecting the masonry work from wear. The third gentleman was responsible for sweeping up and hauling away the construction rubble. This man became very excited when asked about his job and responded with great pride, “I’m building a cathedral to the glory of God that will be a beacon in the community and last for generations.” “This glorious, solid, timeless church will someday give a tiny sample of the astounding beauty and eternal strength that is our Lord.” There are no unimportant jobs, just small perspectives.

At our ministry, we frequently have groups come down to help on projects. This is how we do what we do; this is how buildings go up and are maintained, this is how our many children are fed. We always make it a point to share, with great detail, why the project the group is working on is vital to the bigger picture. If we tell them they need to dig a trench, they will dig, and the job will get done. If we share with them that the ditch is to be a footing for a new infant care building, that this building will mean the difference between life and death for tiny newborns, the trench gets dug faster, better, and with joy. Same people, same hard dirt and rock, same shovels, but when the bigger picture is exposed it changes everything.

Not everyone is called to preach from the front, not everyone is called to lead worship, but we are all called to do something. That “something” matters more in the eternal picture than we can understand from our perspective. God sees the bigger picture; God sees the efforts we put forth in the eternal perspective. Whether you’re the sound guy at your church, the lady who sets up the coffee, or part of the team handling infant care, it’s import to realize: you are building something eternal.

Most orphan care (our ministry) is either profoundly boring, frustrating, or mundane, but we know it matters significantly in the bigger picture. Each meal served is not a big deal unto itself, the extra trip to the store to buy poster-board for homework is not a grand sacrifice, but each act of service accumulates to create a safe, loving home for our many children. A safe, loving home, with all of the details and minutia that a home requires, creates healthy young adults as the years pass by.

One of our older boys, now ready to graduate from college, has been with us for most of his life. He recently became the poster boy (quite literally) for the college he attends where he is finishing his degree in forensic science. He is featured in the school’s promotional videos, and his face is on a 15-foot tall billboard advertising the school on a major intersection. He has worked very hard over the years, but he’s also had countless people help in his care for more than a decade. Sponsors who helped cover the bills, groups that came down to provide meals, the many volunteers on our staff who are there for him, have all had a part in his success. He did the work, but it was a group effort going on behind him.

We all have something to do for the Kingdom. You might be doing it already and doing a great job with it; you might still be finding your place in the grand plan that God has laid out. But please know, you matter, you are essential, you play a critical part of God’s expansive, timeless plan.

We frequently have donors apologize to us for not being able to give more. We explain to them that we appreciate any effort to bless our kids. That there is no such thing as a “small donation”, each dime that comes in is appreciated, and the cumulative effort of everyone doing their part is changing the world. The same thing applies to our acts of service, they might not seem important to us, but we have no idea the rippling impact each sacrificial act has on others. God loves us, and He rejoices when He sees us stepping out to play a seemingly small part in the body of believers, and the work going on all around us.

Bless someone today, serve a stranger today, give deeply today. Over time, these small, simple acts can change the world, and us, into something better. Go and build a cathedral, one brick at a time.

In Missions, Eat Where the Locals Eat

54255644_sIn our area of Baja Mexico, every tourist thinks they need to visit Puerto Nuevo, a local cluster of touristy, mediocre restaurants and kitschy knickknack stores all designed to suck the money out of people on vacation. A local would NEVER eat or hang out there unless they worked in one of these tacky restaurants. I think most areas have these: San Francisco has Pier 39, New York has Times Square, Chicago has Navy Pier. It’s part of the travel experience to go, take the selfie, and say you’ve been there. 

If you want to experience a city, country, or culture, find a local. Most people who live in Baja know the wonderful hidden restaurants, the amazing unexpected views, the great weekly farmer’s markets, etc. This is true of anywhere; until you’ve lived in an area for an extended time, you just don’t know the best places to go and how to get there. You don’t know the cultural ins and outs. Find a guide, find a friend of a friend who is willing to show you where to go and what to avoid.

In short-term missions, finding the correct guide can make or break your trip. You don’t know what to do, where to go, and most importantly: you don’t know what you don’t know.

Many (many) years ago, I was on a short-term mission trip to help at a sizeable evangelistic outreach/conference in Sydney Australia. There was a host church, and we were each given a contact in case we needed anything. I was paired up with a youth pastor who asked me during the conference lunch break what I wanted to do. Without really thinking it through I told him, “What would you do if I wasn’t here?” BEST-MOVE-EVER. He yelled across the hall for a bunch of teens from his youth group, we all jumped in a van, and went straight to a local pub. They proceed to order a round of beers for everyone while we decided what to have for lunch. I was able to blend into the local crowd, listen to what was going on, and experience the non-touristy local culture. I had also never gone out drinking with a youth group before.

The best part of hanging out in a pub with the youth group was being a fly on the wall to observe how their faith played out in action, not at a conference, not at an outreach; it was just life. We had some great discussions, and I learned a lot about the culture and their views on a wide range of faith issues. It was the best part of my trip. If I had flinched at going to a pub and hoisting a pint, (something I wouldn’t normally do at home), I would have missed out on something very profound.

Too often, in missions, we think we’re the ones bringing everything to the table, we know how things should be, that we are there to save the world. If we go into missions with this attitude we will fail miserably; I see it happen all the time. Humility is a big deal in missions, and in life. It’s so much better to go into missions knowing that you don’t know everything, knowing you need to partner with people who know what to do and how to do it.

By finding a local church, ministry, or hosting team, you can learn more, do more, and have more of an impact than you would in ten short-term missions trips on your own. You need a guide, a local, someone to show you the ropes. You might be from a country where culturally it’s okay for a Christian to have a beer in public (like Australia) but if you went to a bar in Ghana your ministry trip would be over quickly, and you’d never be invited back. You need to know how to “be all things to all people.” I’m not saying you should compromise your standards, but finding someone to guide you into a cultural balance goes a long way towards learning about others, being accepted by others, and opening doors for you to be able to share with others.

My team here in Mexico hosts a lot of short-term mission groups. We spend a great deal of our time educating the groups about the local culture, what to say, how to act, and what to expect. “Yes, your yoga pants might be fine at home, but here, they’re fairly offensive.” “I know your evangelistic drama has worked before, but our town has seen it twelve times this year, and our local church performs it better than you do.” In spite of the few entitled or know-it-all groups, we genuinely do love our groups, and most of them are great. We love helping them be as effective as possible, we love guiding them in the right direction, and we love seeing their lives changed through their experiences while they’re with us.

If you’re thinking of organizing a short-term missions trip, find a host or guide that knows what they’re doing. If you have a host or guide in a destination country listen to them, ask them questions, allow them to help you be as effective as possible. Your trip will be better, your team will get more out of it, and everyone will leave enriched from the experience. (and you might get invited to a local pub.)

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“I’d Rather Help Kids in America.”

colorchildIt doesn’t happen often, but now and then, people have an odd reaction when they hear that I work at an orphanage in Mexico. They say, “I’d rather help kids in America.” This statement brings up so many uncomfortable and unhealthy issues. The snarky side of me really wants to say, “Great, what are you doing for kids in America?” I can almost guarantee they aren’t doing anything for anybody.

The idea that we should only help people in our own country goes against everything Jesus taught. We are called to help wherever there is a need. The fact that mankind has set up arbitrary lines and fences across land masses doesn’t change the fact that there are needs everywhere. When I get asked, “Why Mexico?” my response is, “This is where my feeble efforts can have more of an impact.” In much of the US, children in need have a variety of safety nets, both private and government run. In most of the world, kids fall through the cracks. The other reason I like serving here is “return on investment,” a small donation in the US can help, the same amount used in poorer countries can dramatically change lives. We need to be helping wherever we feel called, and where we can have the most significant impact.

The bigger question about where and who to serve is, in-spite of our first reaction, what’s the difference? More and more, it’s becoming a little “gray” as to what nationality is. I don’t want to go down the road of the current immigration debate, but it’s not always clear where a child should be. Questions of nationality are not always easily figured out.

Although our children’s home operates in Mexico, we sometimes find that a child in our care is, in reality, a legal American citizen who wound up in Mexico. It’s always interesting to see the reaction to that, both from the child and from others who find out. It shifts identity, expectations, and entitlement. We are in large part defined by our history; it’s who we are. Our heritage also identifies us, it’s where we come from. But sometimes it’s hard to pin down. A child born in the US to someone undocumented is legally a US citizen; it’s in our constitution. If the parent winds up back in Mexico for whatever reason, what should that child’s nationality be considered? They are legal US citizens with all of the rights and privileges that brings; they are also Mexican by blood. But why should that matter if the child is in need?

Years ago, we received a cute little blond-haired, blue-eyed, little boy. Wow, the drama that caused. He was an American, born outside of Chicago, abandoned by a parent on drugs with a neighbor here in Baja. It was interesting to see and listen to the reactions people had. We had a few American children in our home at the time but because this one child was “white” people went crazy. Someone called Child Protective Serves in the US, a network news crew showed up, it was a big deal. We kept asking ourselves, “Why is this child more deserving of attention just because of his skin tone?” “Why is everyone stepping over other needy children to get to this one with blue eyes?” We know the answers, but it’s still frustrating. Because of the attention this one child received, within 30 days he was placed with a family in Southern California. A child going back to the US almost never happens, and never quickly. This little boy just happened to win the genetic lottery. Why are the other children not deserving of a healthy loving home?

Ultimately, we are all the same family. The plot of dirt we happen to be born on should not impact whether or not we’re deserving of help, opportunities, and people who care for us. I’m not blind to the differences between countries, but if we share one Heavenly Father, aren’t we all by definition one family? If we have the right perspective, if we see the bigger picture, we need to be working to balance the scales. We need to raise children up, wherever they’re from, with opportunities to grow, learn, and become all that God has laid out for them to be.

Should we be helping kids in America? Sure. We should also be helping wherever there is a child in need, wherever there is an injustice, wherever God is looking down and asking, “Who will help this child of mine?”

Matthew 25:40 “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

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Baptism in Mud

Screen Shot 2018-09-010.jpgI really love baptisms. Every Easter our local church, along with a few other ministries, hold a community baptism. BEST DAY OF THE YEAR. Some people live for Christmas; some people count the days to Thanksgiving. But Easter is the reason our faith exists; it celebrates the day Jesus broke death and rose from the tomb. Combine the profound depth of Easter, with the power of people making the commitment of Baptism, and it doesn’t get better. I look forward to Easter all year.

Although I’m involved in a lot of ministry, the high point of my year is helping the local pastor baptize people. Standing in the water and leaning people back as the water washes over them, marking them as clean before GOD, ushering in that new beginning is monumental. My feeble scribblings do not give justice to this act that has been going on since John the Baptist stood in the River Jordan.

One year, the baptisms didn’t go the way I thought they would. The crowd had gathered at our local lagoon, a wide spot in the local river that even looked biblical that day. The reeds were tall and softly waving in the wind, the sun was bouncing off the grass around the edges of the water. The brown hills framed all this in the background, it felt and looked like John the Baptist himself might wander out to join in the proceedings. The perfect day.

As we got started, our pastor helped one of the other missionaries in the area baptize about six people from another ministry. I stood by the edge assisting people into the soft mud as they walked into the water, afterword I was handing them towels as they came out. I was expectantly waiting for my cue to join our pastor to baptize the people from our church and the children from our orphanage who were taking this step of faith. As the transition was supposed to happen something went wrong, the other missionary stayed out there, and the people from our church started to wander out to be baptized. The transition wasn’t happening for me to go out to help in the water. I soon came to the realization that it was not going to happen.

First I was frustrated, then I was angry. For a few minutes I thought about just wandering out into the water, but I knew it would be awkward. So I just stood in the mud smiling stupidly as I held the hand of each person walking into the lagoon for their life-altering event. I continued to hand them their towels as I was battling my frustration on the inside. “But wait, I’m supposed to be out there!” This was not going as I had envisioned. My Easter was ruined. (I’m a little dense.)

Over the next thirty minutes or so nothing changed on the outside, I was just standing in the mud helping people in and out of the water, but something changed for me on the inside. God knew I needed to spend some time in the mud, and He had planned this day long before I was born. As I watched each person receive this joy into their lives, I started to receive it also. As God was moving through that day, I had to repent of my own enormous pride. Why did I need to be out there in the water? Why did I need to be the person dunking? I told myself it was about the act, but I started to realize it was a little (or a lot) about me, and me being the one doing it. (Once again, I’m a little dense.) I realized my place that day was not the baptizer, I was called to be the one serving the ones being baptized by standing in the mud. I was just there to back up the pastor and help the people being baptized. It changed me.

Many people want to go into ministry. They want to teach, they want to lead worship, they want to be the one up front leading people into a deeper walk with God. There is nothing wrong with that if that is where you’re called. But some people are called to stand in the mud.

Not a lot of people have the dream of someday becoming the sound man. People usually aren’t fighting to handle day-care sign-ins, putting together the bulletin is not an “in demand” position. If you look at what Jesus taught, the “lower” positions in the church should have a long line of people fighting for those jobs. We are called to serve. We are called to do the jobs no one wants, we are called to foot washing. Jesus spoke directly against the leaders of the day exalting in their important positions. It’s easy to think, “Well, those Pharisees were jerks, didn’t they see what they were doing?” How many of us are modern day Pharisees working in ministry for the wrong motivations?

Wherever we stand in the Family of God, it’s important to examine our hearts, our attitudes, our entitlement. We need to daily ask ourselves if we’re being shaped into the example Jesus gave of humble service to others. We need to find and maintain that elusive servant’s heart. Sometimes we need to be baptized in mud.

People Are Irritating

fightPeople frequently ask me, “What’s the biggest challenge of running a large orphanage?” It’s not funding, it’s not dealing with childhood trauma, it’s not even dealing with government bureaucracy. My biggest day-to-day challenge is keeping “grown-ups” from killing each other. Think of any group you’re involved in (work, home fellowship, whatever). Now imagine living with those people seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. If you’re honest, you might want to kill someone also.

All human beings are flawed, weird creatures with their own baggage, wants, and needs. When people work and live together for long periods of time, all that baggage tends to go on display. You’ve probably heard the saying: “Fish and houseguests go bad after a few days.” Anyone can live together for a while, but over time the quirks and irritating habits come out and grate on each other. Most of the groups we host at our ministry come in for a weekend or maybe a week. When a group books for two weeks we try to have them take a break mid-way through to spend time apart decompressing and to catch their breath. We’ve seen well-intentioned groups self-destruct after having to live together for more than a week. One group gave up and left five days early not speaking to each other. People are complicated.

In our home, we have over 100 children and about 30 adults that all live together. Our large staff is made up of multiple cultures, a wide range of educations and backgrounds, and an even more extensive range of personalities. In spite of the many interpersonal challenges that come up, along with the occasional romances, everyone gets along remarkably well. Not that we spend a lot of time discussing it, but the reason most of our team gets along so well is a sense of humility. A humble servant’s heart helps in any situation or relationship. Listed below are a few thoughts on ministry relationships, in no particular order.

Know that you have your own issues. You’re no picnic. It helps to realize you are as difficult and irritating as everyone you work with. Being self-aware is a challenging and complicated goal. It’s incredibly healthy to hold up the proverbial mirror and take a long look at yourself. “What am I doing to add to the conflict?” There is one person that I need to work with daily who is about a third of my stress. When I feel my blood pressure rise, I’ve started to look inward. Why is this bothering me so much? Does this matter? How am I hurting the situation? Sometimes it is the other person, but it’s pretty hard for any conflict to be entirely one-sided. When you’re frustrated with someone, it’s good to realize; you’re not so great yourself.

Lose the pride. Most people react from one of two places: pride or humility. I know some people who seem to be offended by EVERYTHING, I’m sure you know the type. When someone is always offended, it screams pride. “How dare they do that / ask that / expect that? Don’t they know who I am?” Pride really is the basis for all sin; it’s amazing how it can screw up relationships, workplaces, and lives. People reacting from pride are hard to work with and impossible to correct. You probably thought of at least one person after reading that last sentence, but ask yourself: “How do I respond to correction?” Do I get defensive? Or do I take an honest look at myself and see if changes need to be made? It’s a huge symptom of pride when we can not see our own faults. Throw several prideful people together, and it never works for long. Humility is needed in a ministry, in relationships, and in society, if we are going to survive.

Have grace for others. God has shown wild, abundant grace to us, way more than we could ever deserve, we need to have that same abundant grace for those around us. We need to show that grace to others, pour grace over others, and see them through our Father’s eyes. It’s easy to focus on what someone else is doing wrong; it’s harder to look at the person and see why. Everyone has been hurt; everyone makes questionable decisions, everyone is looking at life through their own warped lens and history. We need to “walk a mile in their shoes” and try to understand them as the valued individuals that God sees. When we see people with God’s eyes, they appear very different. When we truly hurt for someone, it’s hard to be hurt by someone.

When we’re looking for new staff, the most important thing we look for is a servant’s heart. Skills can be taught to anyone willing to learn, but a servant’s heart is essential for living in a community. A humble servant’s heart means someone has an understanding of what it means to walk in Christ’s example. Christ was a humble servant, and people were (and are) drawn to that. Christ was honest, He was OK with calling out sinful behavior, but it was always to teach, never to yell “gotcha.” He wanted what was best for all those around Him.

People are irritating, ourselves included. By walking in Christ’s example and seeing people as He sees them, living and working with others shifts into what God desires for us. We can live and work with others in peace, if it’s not about us.

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Life Isn’t Fair

salvery2In running an orphanage, we get asked the same questions by many different people. One concern or question that comes up a lot from child sponsors is, “If I get a gift for the child I sponsor, won’t the other children feel bad?” Maybe I’m a jerk (it’s been brought up before), but my response is, “These kids are growing up in an orphanage, they know more than anyone: life is not fair.” Our kids have been dealt a lousy hand. Through no fault of their own, they have been abused, abandoned, and left alone in the world until they are brought into our care. Are they any less worthy of a family than the children they go to school with? From a very young age, our children understand at a deep level; justice is hard to come by in this broken world.

At some level, we all think the world should be fair. Listen to young children and the idea of fairness come up a lot. “He got more than I did, it’s not fair.” “You won because the sun was in my eyes, it wasn’t fair.” As we get older, we understand the world better, and we experience more and more that “fair” is hard to come by. One person gets laid off, and others don’t. One person comes from a broken home; the next person has both parents. A tornado or fire moves through a town, destroys some homes and jumps entirely over others. We can scream about it not being fair, but fair and just are terms that don’t apply in too many circumstances in this broken world.

Our Heavenly Father is fair and just, but this world is a dark messed-up place. We face injustices all around us. So what are we to do? We need to work to balance the injustices we can. We can’t control natural events or illnesses, but there are some things in our sphere of influence that we need to be aware of, and we need to be working to solve. We need to push the scales in the right direction when we can, to bring the world into a fairer more just place.

Micah 6:8 says: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” The reactions to justice and mercy are very different. Love mercy, but ACT justly. To act justly requires us to move, it requires effort, it’s working to change the outcome or circumstances.

We’ve all read the story of the good Samaritan. He came across an injustice and acted accordingly. He couldn’t solve all the world’s problems, but he could address the one injustice before him. He is the perfect example of “acting justly.” He knew what the Lord required of him.

If we open our eyes, there are ways to work against injustices all around us. Some big, most small, but all important.

I’ve had the privilege of visiting and building a relationship with City of Refuge Ministries in Ghana; they give a stable, loving home to children rescued out of slavery (yes, slavery is still a massive issue in much of the world.) Recently, IJM, another great organization rescued two boys from slavery and placed them with the City of Refuge team. You can read about it here: police-rescue-children-from-forced-labor-in-ghana. Some might say, “It was just two boys.” This is how change happens, one or two people at a time. These organizations are doing incredible work. Are you called into rescuing children from slavery? Maybe, probably not, but you can support others who do this frontline work. Even if you don’t address huge injustices or hurts in this world, there are small acts we can all do; everything counts, we need to ACT justly.

The good Samaritan didn’t rescue child slaves, he didn’t change the world as a whole, but he changed the world of the one person in his sphere of influence, he helped the one before him. If you know how to cut hair, offer your services to a homeless shelter. Volunteer to read to children at a community center or mentor a child from a broken home. Find out who is out of work in your church or school and offer to bring them a meal (or surprise them with an anonymous box of groceries on their porch). Through small acts of kindness, we can tip the scales in the right direction.

The Christian faith is not a spectator sport. We need to be that light on a hill this world so desperately needs. Jesus spent His time addressing the injustices he saw around Him; this is the example he gave to us, this is what we are called to do. Acting to move the world towards justice does nothing to ensure or enhance our salvation, Jesus did that, but a big part of our faith is taking on His image and representing Him well.

Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. Good advice.

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