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Busyness, Excuses, & Suffering

It is Easter Season, which means I come up for air once or twice a week. This is my excuse for the lack of posting. I think I still have a few helpful things to say… coming soon. Until then:

Suffering people are all around you.

Fighting against abortion, sex trafficking, and other hot-topic needs are all absolutely necessary, but don’t let championing “over-there” suffering diminish the suffering of people in the pews next to you. Americans, yes even white, middle-class Americans, can suffer too.

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Is A Wedding All About Adam & Steve? Adam & Eve?

If you are not growing weary from Christendom’s talking past each other on the issue of religious freedom/anti-gay discrimination/a rarely-more-nuanced-middle-ground-description of the brou-ha-ha; if you are not weary then you are a tribalist, controversialist, who gets off on sparing with any comer. How’s that for vitriol? Consider yourself judged by me! I kid, I kid.

Toward the goal of not talking past each other, I want to briefly consider the state of marriage in ‘Merica.

A Celebration of Love, Commitment, Etc etc

When you attend a 2014 wedding in the great US of A, you are most likely to hear, even in the most churchy of church ceremonies, a few blasé reflections on love, a few comical anecdotes about commitment, and maybe even the rare exhortation that “marriage ain’t easy.” The ceremony, often times called a celebration (along with funerals, but that’s another post), is all about the future bride and groom, celebrating their love, kicking off their new digs in style, and generally treating the get together as a slightly-more-formal Super Bowl party.

If this is what marriage is defined as (indeed, the majority position of our day) then it makes perfect sense to allow anyone and everyone to celebrate love, commitment, and having-a-good-time with any guy, gal, guys, or gals of their choosing. You’re probably picking up on the fact that I think marriage is more than that.

“Speak now or forever hold your peace”

This vestige of a bygone era occasionally appears in modern day weddings, and is really only relevant today because movies still use this brief pause in the ceremony so the protagonist can rush in at the last moment and rescue his true love from a miserable, second-choice matrimony (see the video below).

Even those who elope in Vegas, the county courthouse, or any number of other very-informal, strictly-civil wedding ceremonies still must have witnesses. These witnesses sign the marriage certificate, whether in Vegas or in the First Baptist Church.

So what is the point of opening up a wedding ceremony to public debate? Why does the state require random-stranger-in-Vegas or your brother and sister-in-law to sign a wedding certificate?

Like any assembling of the church, a wedding ceremony isn’t about the individuals on stage, but is about the Body of Christ gathering together and giving faithful testimony. When the church gathers to affirm the wedding of two people, they are there to testify before God that these two should be wed, are not already married, or aren’t brother and sister among other considerations. The last line of defense, for protecting the sacred nature of the matrimony was for the church to “speak now” or thus endorse the union. Then the two closest persons involved in this sacred vetting process put their names on a paper to make it official.

So what? What does this have to do with the marriage brou-ha-ha in Arizona and Kansas?

On Speaking Past Each Other

It seems that most people on the side of “support don’t condemn” gay people and gay weddings are assuming the present day definition of what a marriage is. On the other side, the argument is that anything we contribute to a gay wedding, from the wedding cake to the RSVP “Yes” is an endorsement of the proceeding. The former says “judge not lest you be judged,” and the later says allow me to “speak now” in peace.

I know this debate involves more complexities: civil vs religious, marriage as a picture of Christ+Church, and the serious claim of Pharisaism being hurled from both sides of the divide.

In any case, we would do well to acknowledge the meaning somebody is attaching to the wedding ceremony, seeking to understand where they are coming from, however deficient you might think their underlying presuppositions are. We can debate the merits of laws, what true Christian witness is, and other very important theological-practical discussions. But please, please, at least try not to speak past each other.

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Rachel Held Evans, Not Fighting, & Continuing the Discussion

Rachel Held Evans, notorious blogger extraordinaire, has written a very insightful and in many ways helpful entry entitled: “The Cost.” She highlights the painful relational cost of being ostracized from her conservative roots when she came out as an evolutionist, feminist, LGBT activist. She also, very helpfully (and perceptively) sympathizes with conservatives who are labelled as bigots and extremists in the media and the culture-at-large. Here are a few highlights with her conclusion (on which I will comment below):

They say I’ve taken the easy way out.

They say I’ve given in to the culture in an effort to be welcomed and liked by my peers. They tell me I’ve counted the cost of following Jesus and considered it too much, so I’ve jumped on the liberal bandwagon— embracing evolution, feminism, LGBT equality, and theological views that veer from the evangelical norm — because it’s the easy, convenient thing to do.

And I want to shake their shoulders and ask, What culture do you think I came from? Who do you think are my peers? This church, this community, was once my whole world until it took he questions I offered with trembling hands and smashed them against the wall. How dare you say I took the easy way out when these questions have cost me relationships, reputation, status, and security? How dare you say I took the easy way out when this path has been so lonely and treacherous?

And the very helpful balance:

Because the truth is, their convictions come with a cost too.

It’s painful to see your beliefs mocked in the media and satirized on TV. There’s a cost to sticking with your values when they strike others as old-fashioned or strange. It hurts like hell to be the butt of jokes at your office or called a “bigot” or “extremist” on your college campus when nothing could be further from the truth. It takes guts to raise your hand and challenge the professor in a secular classroom or walk away from a compromising situation when it may mean damaging relationships that have been hard-won. And it’s got to sting to be called a fundamentalist by other Christians (like me) when you’re just trying to do the right thing and do it in love. It must hurt to be subjected to the rolled eyes and the know-it-all attitude we progressive-types can conjure as well as anybody.

And her conclusion:

Maybe we don’t have to change each other’s minds to lighten one another’s load by not assuming motives, by giving each other the benefit of the doubt that we arrived at our beliefs through honest searching.

There’s a cost to every conviction.

What mine have cost me may be different than what yours have cost you, but the sense of loss is the same. And so is the hope that comes with breaking bread together in spite of our theological and political differences and settling into the sweet certainty that following Jesus doesn’t have to cost this. It doesn’t have to cost our love for one another.

Not if we don’t want it to.

Please do read the whole thing, then consider below:

Unity in Essentials, Charity in Non-essentials; Who Says What is Essential?

To extricate yourself from any community, whether to the left or to the right, is a painful and difficult process, and we would all do well to think of “the other” with greater love and empathy than we would for our self (and others “like us”). While I definitely understand the sentiment and agree with Rachel’s article at many points, motive alone (“honest searching”) cannot validate a position.

Case in point:

The well-meaning International Eugenics Congresses of the 1910′s, 1920′s, and 1930′s, attended by Americans, Germans, British, Christian, Atheist, many of the enlightened elites from the enlightened countries of the world, came to a screeching halt when Hitler swept through Jewish homes like the plague; indeed, there was a higher, common-to-all morality that the once-united intellectual elite appealed to against their old conference buddies.

I, for one, do not desire a “sameness for all Christians.” I’m with C. S. Lewis when he said that when people of different Christian denominations grow closer to to the heart (distinctives) of their denomination then we actually grow closer to each other.

A Present Day, Front Page Issue

Regarding Evan’s “LGBT equality” badge, let’s be honest, this is the rub of our day, however much raging-anything-ists and Answers-in-Genesis-types irk us. Here again, Clive Staples Lewis has much to say.

Lewis had a lifelong, homosexual friend (Arthur Greeves) whom he loved dearly and corresponded with, visited on vacation throughout his life, and loved equal to or more than any other person on earth. But Lewis still wrote chapter 2 & 5 of Mere Christianity (and the whole book for that matter, along with many letters addressing this topic) and made appeal to a Real Morality which transcends all and to which we all must appeal in the end.

I’m for people not being arrogant know-it-alls, because the end goal in an appeal to another believer (to turn to an orthodox belief, to repent, whatever) is not about “winning” an argument but is about restoring relationship and reconciliation.

Agree to disagree, while amiable and well-intentioned, will not I fear bring unity. Sure, family reunions might be better in the short run, but shouldn’t our eternal reunion be worth the discussion (not fight)? Articles like this seem to say “stop the discussion” and love one another. If by discussion you mean “fight” then “Hurrah,” we’re on the same team. But I digress.

One might argue that some Christians disagree on infant baptism (and other not-unimportant doctrines) so why are homosexual acts (NOT homosexuality) any different? The stakes (inheriting the Kingdom of God, 1 Cor 6:1-11) seem to be higher on this point, thus, while to each his own works (and is essential) for earthly countries, it must not do for this discussion.

My intention is not to debate/fight/win, and if I have come off this way, please forgive me. However, I do wish to persuade you to not count this topic among the “agree to disagree” discussions that can be so often fruitless and hateful. I count myself as one of those (odd) persons who do not hate homosexuals and have thought-out and loving disagreements and would like to be allowed to keep the conversation going.

Here’s a helpful exploration, although I think “lifestyle” (only mentioned once) isn’t the most helpful word.

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What’s Your Poo Telling You?

No, this is not a post about poo, or coffee, or salad, or stock photography. It is a post about what’s inside our body coming out, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Setup

I received this nifty little book, What’s Your Poo Telling You?, several years ago from a good friend. My always-wanting-to-read son brought it to me yesterday and a wonderfully poopy analogy popped into my head. It is true, what we put into the body comes out in all manner of interesting ways.

I found out the hard way two nights ago what’s inside… wait for it… my heart (again, I have many things to say about the digestive tract, alas, today is not the day for this), because what came out of me was a flood of sadness, low self-worth, and even physical symptoms of stress. And I had a really great day on Wednesday, amidst a really great week, amidst a wonderful season of my life. But in this moment of sadness, I perceived very clearly where my hope lies.

The Dark Moments of the Soul

Life is full of seasons: Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring, depression, exhilaration, success, love at first sight, love in changing diapers, etc. By seasons I mean everything from one week of life-giving joy to 12 years of depression. But this post isn’t about seasons, it’s about moments, and more importantly about what they reveal.

Some of us love to be in love (the feelings associated with new love). Some of us take unbelievable pride in our children and pour our entire souls into parenting. Some give everything to their career, academic pursuits, friendships, serving responsibilities in the church, the Denver Broncos, Russell Westbrook’s health, and all sorts of other pursuits. Praise God that he has made us deep feelers, creators, parents, teachers, and passionate individuals. But what do the brief (but often frequently recurring) dark moments of the soul reveal about these loves?

What happens when your new love leaves? What happens when your child throws an insane tantrum or gets expelled from college for ______, you lose your job, you get a B- on a paper, your 10th conference paper is rejected, your best friend betrays your trust, you lose a serving responsibility in church because of a new pastor, your team loses, your favorite player fails, or you have a train wreck of a message in a Wednesday night service? Do you crawl into a hole and cry? Do you wake the next morning with a canker sore in your mouth (yep, that’s me)?

Our good and merciful God uses the dark moments of the soul to show us where we place our identity. True, if you have kids, a large part of your identity should be titled “Parent.” But if your parenting is your highest goal, if your feelings of falling in love are your highest aim, or the experience of knocking it out of the park in a public speaking or performance event is your chief identity, then your dark moments of the soul will consume you over and over and over again, until eventually they sweep you into a dark season of life.

The Remedy

We wear many hats in life: husband/wife, father/mother, pastor, friend, fan, and (for many of my readers) redeemed son/daughter of the risen Jesus Christ. What identities we prioritize in our souls are seen most clearly in the dark moments. We can say one thing all day long, but how we perceive ourselves when everything we built begins to crumble to the ground shows us what is chief inside.

Thankfully, our God, in every dark moment, welcomes us back with open arms onto the rock solid foundation of his Christ. As we turn, as we confess our upside-down, poorly prioritized hearts, he mercifully forgives us. But he doesn’t stop there: Jesus re-orders our soul with every prayer, with every dark part of the soul we expose to his light in repentance.

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Childlike vs. Childish

child·like
adjective
  1. (of an adult) having good qualities associated with a child.

And…

child·ish
adjective
  1. of, like, or appropriate to a child.

No need to wax poetic about this distinction. One of the many goals of parenting, perhaps maybe the most broad and fundamental of all goals, is to help your child distinguish between childlike behavior and childish behavior. One of the most difficult things to discern as a parent is when a child is being a kid and when they’re being wicked. It is difficult because we don’t even have this down ourselves.

I am no advocate of Joel Osteen, but this next part is gonna sound a bit Osteen-ish.

Grumpy & Grumpiness; Anger & Angry; Feeling & Giving-Yourself-Over-To-That-Feeling

joel-osteen-FAMILYDenying that we feel certain emotions is a rampant problem in Christian circles these days. It is taboo to be depressed, to be angry, or to feel any emotion other than what the Osteen family is feeling on their billboards. But there’s something to our choice, a germ of truth in the otherwise treacherous petri dish of Osteen’s experiment.

You see, we often feel grumpy, angry, sad, jokey, and many other emotions (see the Psalms for a full list). This is not the problem. Emotion is the lifeblood of humanity, and at its best, reflects the depth of our deep-feeling God and what he has imaged into us. But like anything, emotions can be twisted, can take control, and lead us into all sorts of trouble.

Yes, we feel grumpy (see morning: pre-coffee, pre-shower, or pre-breakfast… for everyone); no problem. But we choose to live in a state of grumpiness. We feel the burn of anger (see many bedtime routines with toddlers); no problem. We choose to be angry and to let anger wash over all of our faculties. I often feel jokey. I choose to insert-sarcastic-comment-here at the worst of all possible times. Childishness, in all of us turns us inward towards despair and hopelessness. Child-likeness, turns us outward to the glory of God and the good of our neighbor (child, sibling, other).

Most of the time, these choices are simple. They are never simplistic. Every moment can’t be nor should it be Your Best Life Now. There are a myriad of other factors that come into play: hormones, chemical imbalances in the brain, family history, environment, and I could go on forever. Indeed, many times these legitimate ingredients in the mixture of our present emotional state seem overwhelming, but even still, we need not be ruled by external (or internal) factors. Grieving the loss of a child should not be glossed over with God-speak, and will likely make your default level of happiness much lower for the rest of your life. We are broken people living in a broken world, and Christ has made us his beloved.

Turn from the Childish, to the Childlike (not the Adult)

In raising children, we must be always alert to the distinction between the childish and the childlike. Indeed, boys should be crazy-energetic, single-minded, and running themselves dizzy. Children who are exhausted, who’ve missed a nap or are drained from childlike insanity shouldn’t be punished for behaving like tired kids behave at bedtime (more on that in an upcoming post). They need structure, they need authority, not an angry (or principled—for the godly) dose of discipline (butt-spanking) to settle down.

We don’t want to drain the child-likeness out of our kids. Go stomp in a puddle in the pouring rain, instead of training your kids how to be melancholy like many adults are on rainy days. Go make a mess in the kitchen while baking some cookies, because it’s cool to have flour on your face. Teach your child what it means to speak with self control and to love their neighbor; to put away the childish selfishness that creeps up inside all of us. But don’t mistake childlike behavior (stomping in puddles) for the childish.

Read an imaginative story today and bask in the God-given childlike wonder that surges through all of Creation.

Put away childish things, even if just for a moment, and be thankful that Christ doesn’t count our external (or internal—adult) tantrums against us.

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Dinah, Downton Abbey, and the Justice of God

Let me setup a story for you. The main character is a momma’s boy, he’s fearful and bends to the will of every man he encounters, and the women in his life get everything they desire for good and for ill.

Similarities aside, I’m not speaking about Lord Grantham. This guy works hard for a shady step-father, escapes in the night, sleeps with no less than 4 women (whenever and for whatever purpose they want), eventually fathering 12 sons (and 1 daughter is mentioned; more on her later), he fears family reunions, and capitulates to his wicked neighbors amidst the most horrible of situations.

The “guy” is Jacob (Israel), the father of a nation. True, he does seek God and listen to the word of The Lord throughout the narrative, but again and again, Jacob is just a little bit spineless (like fathers like son). Especially concerning his daughter, Dinah.

Justice, Deception, and Dinah

Now Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to see the women of the land. And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her, he seized her and lay with her and humiliated her (laid with her by force). And his soul was drawn to Dinah the daughter of Jacob. He loved the young woman and spoke tenderly to her. So Shechem spoke to his father Hamor, saying, “Get me this girl for my wife.” (Genesis 34:1-4, ESV)

After Dinah is raped by Shechem, Shechem apparently falls for her and asks his daddy to make amends with Jacob so that he can have his plunder (she is for him a foreign conquest; the plunder of his cowardly attack). Jacob, true to form, fears retribution from the Canaanites (who surround him and outnumber his family in this their land) and agrees to Hamor’s (Shechem’s daddy) bargain. But Dinah’s brothers have their own plan. Hamor, Shechem, and the rest of the men of the city agree to circumcise themselves; the deal with the devils seems to be done.

Thankfully, that isn’t the end of the story.

On the third day, when [all the men of the city] were sore, two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, took their swords and came against the city while it felt secure and killed all the males. They killed Hamor and his son Shechem with the sword and took Dinah out of Shechem’s house and went away. The sons of Jacob came upon the slain and plundered the city, because they had defiled their sister. They took their flocks and their herds, their donkeys, and whatever was in the city and in the field. All their wealth, all their little ones and their wives, all that was in the houses, they captured and plundered. (Genesis 34:25-29, ESV)

Fear the Priestly Line

Simeon and Levi are two of my favorite people for good reason. They are a part of a house filled with many virtues and vices, just like any other house. But this injustice cannot stand, thus they devise a brilliant plan, single-handedly destroying an entire city. Shechem’s plunder, Dinah, is redeemed, and the people of God are left undefiled: not intermarried, not shamed as a whore, and not in league with the treacherous dealings of a wicked people. The priestly line of Levi (along with Simeon) protect the purity of God’s people, they redeem and vindicate the helpless, and will not capitulate in the face of terrible odds even when their own father cowers in the corner.

I’m a week behind on my Downton Abbey watching, but I’m hoping the writers will take a queue from God’s narrative in the coming weeks. Bates, the priest of the people of Downton Abbey, who guards the purity of his people and his bride with righteous anger, I hope will be vindicated in the end.

Whatever happens at Downton, my hope for the broken narratives of this world is sure, because Jesus Christ will vindicate every injustice and will set all things right in the end. Hopefully, the story of Bates and Downton Abbey will end like Dinah’s story: a fierce priest encounters futile resistance and vindicates his bride.

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Stories and Resolution, Pt. 2

If you’ve ever been to a reunion, high school, family, or the like, you’ve experienced the joy of shared experience. Whether it was a childhood memory with cousin Ed, a freshman year fiasco with your biology teacher, or the state championship trophy you hoisted in ’94, it is in our shared experience that we find life.

Our shared experience brings life in another way. In the sharing of our life stories with others, we invite them into our stories and therein find life. This can be as easy as giving your life story to a new friend, or as difficult as opening up the darkest parts of your soul wherein lies your deepest shame. In both cases, our shared experience brings life.

Fictional Friends

There is yet a third way to share an experience with someone: through a book. When you pick up a biography you share in a life. With a poem, you view the world through the lens of it’s wordsmith author. And in fictional tales, you feel the warmth of love, the dark night of loss, and the cathartic sensation of resolution just when all seemed lost.

Two Ways to Live

The choice is yours. You can either turn inward, hide in the shadows of your personal narrative, and wait it out as the plot of your life drudges on. Or you can turn outside yourself, bring your pains, joys, and journey into the light, and learn what it means to trust and rest in the friendly embrace of another.

A first step towards this kind of loving dependence (indeed, independence isn’t the ideal) might be to pick up a book and share in the story of someone else, real or imagined. We learn from the experience of others and this shapes the way we navigate the tumultuous waters in our own lives. Stories on a page speak into our lives and help us to step outside ourselves. But don’t stop there.

When you’re ready, and trust me you are, share your story with someone. You can write it down in a book for someone to pick up and read. Or better yet, you can tell someone: let your wife, sibling, parent, pastor, or friend in on what it feels like in your day to day narrative, and I’m pretty sure you’ll find resolution.

If you missed it, you should read Part 1 too: Stories and Resolution

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Chronicles

I posted an audio recording of an introductory talk I did recently on the Book of Chronicles. The rest of my series on the book will not be posted here, but will be at my church’s website: crossroadsbaptist.cc.

Here are the first two weeks’ recordings:

  1. A bit of scatter-brained reflection on the longest genealogy in the Bible, hopefully still informative: “What’s in a Name?” — 1 Chronicles 1-9
  2. Starting to gain a bit of a rhythm: “The King for All People” — 1 Chronicles 10-16

I will likely be posting some extended thoughts or related ideas from my study of Chronicles, but the rest of the message audio can be followed at crossroadsbaptist.cc. Enjoy!

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Stories and Resolution

If you’ve ever ventured into (or cut through) the book aisle at a local supermarket you’ve likely noticed the glut of shirtless, ‘roided out men holding scantily clad women on the top of a mountain. There is a reason these stories, commonly called romance novels, sell very well: escape.

They promise to transport their readers from the monotony of an unaffected husband or the repetitive schedule of motherhood. The stories help people to escape from their real story, but just like conquering an enemy in a video game, you don’t really escape, you don’t really conquer anything. But I’m not ready to throw video games out with the bath water (romance novels can go).

A Distorted Good

Escapist fiction picks up on something that is good and virtuous about reading stories, but distorts it. The reality of pain and hardship in every day of our lives has us longing for resolution, but like most days, you rest your head on your pillow and that resolution has not come. And this is why (good) stories are necessary.

Movies, Books, and Resolution

I know of many people who don’t read. They don’t want to put the time into reading a story. They would rather get the modern day cliff’s notes, the movie. Why spend 15 hours reading the story when you can watch it in 2? After all, with a movie, you setup the story, experience the climax of the story, and get the resolution before you even finish the first few chapters of a book. Many of the psychological benefits of books can be experienced when watching a movie (or less commonly, a TV show). Movies are great, but the discipline of waiting (while reading) is good for the soul.

In life, we often have to wait a very long time for resolution of the many intertwining narratives of our life. Indeed, the overall story of our life likely won’t end for decades, thus we live in the unresolved day to day. Most days are lived in chapter 3, 4, and 5 and not in the final chapter where everything has been revealed and resolved.

The discipline of reading a book teaches us what it is like to wait for resolution. When we have to labor through a depressing part of a story we can better grasp what it feels like to labor through bouts of depression in real life. But unlike real life (hopefully), a story will soon end and provide resolution. We grow with the characters as they face difficulty. We receive the psychological fulfillment and thrill of a resolved story. What a wonderful gift to receive when you feel stuck in the midst of your real story (especially if you’re in a dark place, like Mordor).

The Story of Redemption

The true story of God’s redemption recorded in Holy Scripture shows God’s patient purposes in the lives of barren, faithless, depressed, cowardly, fearful, and stuck-in-the-narratives-of-their-own-lives people like you and me.

Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah… And Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren. And the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived… Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them. (Genesis 25:20-26, ESV)

To read about 20 years of barrenness in a single verse hardly compares to the monthly experience of negative pregnancy tests. The resolutions we experience in real life, the answers to prayer, often take a lifetime, and in the meantime God has given us stories to help us cope and give us hope that the dark days (or years) of life will end one day.

The hope of Scripture is not that God will complete and redeem all of the subplots of our lives, indeed, many faithful and God-honoring people never conceive biological children like Sarah, Rebekah, and so many other hopeless mothers in Scripture. But the joy found in Christ is that our villainous stories are exchanged for his righteous story and we know how his story ended: resurrection (and will finally end with the consummation of all things).

A True Good

Good stories, whether or not the author know it, do not give us an escape from the difficulty of every day. Rather, they give us hope. They give us hope that the dark nights of our lives give way to the warm sunshine of tomorrow. They turn a life of endless winter into an afternoon of springtime reading, where the imaginative flower of a good story takes root in the soil of our lives.

Good stories show us fearful characters finding courage, orphans finding a loving home, and they invite us in to experience the height and the depth of that journey, even if only for an afternoon by the fire.