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About revmwlowry

Pastor of East Congregational United Church of Christ, Concord, NH I'm a husband, father, son, uncle, friend and pastor, having served churches in Maine, Ohio and most recently, New Hampshire; I'm also a true New Englander and "native Mainuh" who speaks Down East as a second language!

Under His Wings

(An Online Message for August 2, 2020, the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Psalm 91)

It was a blistering hot mid-summer day, not unlike a few we’ve experienced in New Hampshire and Maine this year. Luckily, however, my family and I were riding out that particular heat wave on the shore of a cool and crystal-clear pond at the foot of the White Mountains.  Granted, this was a public beach at a state park, and it was in the days before Covid-19 and social distancing, and so we were sharing the experience with a few hundred or so of our closest friends (!); but that was alright, because all that really mattered is that get in the water and beat the heat!

However, late in the afternoon and seemingly out of nowhere, there was this massive thunderstorm that hit with a vengeance.  The rain came down in sheets, the wind blew like crazy, there was thunder crashing and lightning flashing from every direction – and since the storm had come on so suddenly, everyone on that beach followed their first instinct, which was to find shelter and to get there fast!  However, the only real chance for that was the bathhouse, a very basic (and extremely small) structure at the edge of the beach. 

Well, you know the old saying, “any port in a storm!”  That was us, friends, and for the next half hour or so, we were up close and personal with just about everybody who’d been on the beach. Actually, it was quite interesting, in that the women and children were sent into the inner parts of the building – both sections, incidentally – where there were benches and it was dry.  The men, by contrast, being manly and protective men (!), were all huddled together in the entryway and along the eaves of the bathhouse – the wind and rain blowing the whole time and soaking us to the bone, prompting one of the men beside me to ask if this was what it was like for the men left on the deck of the Titanic! 

Now, don’t get me wrong – as the storm raged on we were all very glad for any kind of shelter; and the storm did pass eventually. But I must confess, I came away from the experience convinced that there are certainly some places of refuge much better than others!

The bottom line is that we all need refuge; as the old song goes, it’s a bare necessity of life!  And there are many forms of refuge: certainly, the kind of physical shelter that keeps us safe from the elements – our homes, our vehicles, even a bathhouse at White Lake State Park.  But there are places of emotional refuge as well, the places we go when our lives start to feel a bit stormy: a corner nook or an easy chair at home where you can really relax, or a private retreat somewhere in the woods. Or for that matter, maybe the refuge comes in the love of a caring family member or friend.  The point is, we all have those places of refuge in our lives that bring us rest, security and peace.

 But what happens in life when all the physical and emotional shelters we seek are nowhere to be found; or worse, when the ones we cling to have been denied us or taken away? Not to sound all foreboding here, but where’s our refuge then?

I think, for instance, of those whose homes have been destroyed by flood or tornado or some other natural disaster; in just about every sense, where do they find shelter from the storm?  And what kind of refuge is there for those who suddenly find themselves without financial resources, or who are reeling from the shock of a broken relationship, or have just gotten a horrible diagnosis from a doctor?  In other words, what kind of security really exists when the world we live in is forever shifting beneath our feet?  After all, as Richard Gelson writes, “we need to know what is left to us when we strip away – or have stripped away for us, voluntary or not – the varnish of all worldly vanities.”  What comes to us when everything and everybody else is gone – that’s the refuge that really matters.

And that, friends, is what the 91st Psalm is all about. In fact, everything in Psalm 91 is about the strength, the presence and the utter reassurance of God in the midst of life’s utter chaos!  This psalm is about spiritual shelter; about our living “in the shelter of the Most High,” and abiding “in the shelter of the Almighty,”

There is no lacking for powerful imagery in this psalm! We’ve got God as a “refuge and [our] fortress,”  and because of him we will not “fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day,” staying safe even amidst pestilence and destruction; that even though “a thousand may fall at [our] side, ten thousand at [our] right hand …it will not come near us,”  because God and his angels will be right there to guard us and protect us from any and all harm, bearing us up “so that [we] will not [even] dash our foot against a stone.”  It’s no wonder that long before we were singing “On Eagle’s Wings,” going back as far as biblical times, this psalm was actually sung as a worship song on the eve of battle, as a prayer for soldiers going to war.

Understand, this psalm is not saying that in the refuge of the Most High, nothing will ever happen to us – in whatever battles and storms we face, there are injuries and casualties; and much as we hope and pray otherwise, the reality of life is that sometimes we get hurt.  And it’s important to know that, especially where our faith is concerned: as a pastor, I have known people whose very faith in God proceeds under the assumption that they will be somehow always be miraculously and supernaturally protected from all the difficulties, struggles and pain of human life; but these are the same people who inevitably end up deeply disappointed and in a fractured relationship with God when the storms of life come …and they do come. 

This 91st Psalm is not the promise that everything will always be good in our lives – but it is the promise that all will be well with our souls.  It’s a reminder that of all the shelters we seek out in this world, the only true failsafe for hope comes to us from God.  In fact, it is in the very midst of the storms of life that sometimes even unbeknownst to us, God is there: holding us close and giving us refuge until the storm has past.

An article in National Geographic a few years back described the aftermath of a raging wildfire that had engulfed much of Yellowstone National Park.  On a trek up a mountain to access the fire’s damage, a ranger spotted a bird that had been literally petrified in ash – looking almost like a statue perched on the ground at the base of a tree.  The ranger, who was actually a little sickened by the sight of this dead bird, took a stick to knock it over – but when he struck it, three tiny chicks scurried out from beneath the dead mother’s wings.  You see, this mother bird, sensing impending disaster, had carried her babies to the base of that tree and gathered them under her wings to protect them, instinctively knowing that the smoke would rise and her chicks might survive the fire if she could keep them low and covered. 

Imagine; the mother bird could have flown to safety, but she refused to abandon her babies; and even when the heat of the fire had singed her body, the mother bird stayed steadfast.  Because of her willingness to die, those under the cover of her wings would live.

That’s how God is, friends!  That’s what the Psalmist was saying when he sang, “He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.”  Whatever the disaster, no matter the struggle and difficulty of life, we are surrounded by the strong and tender presence of a Heavenly Father who stays with us through every moment of the storm.  If I might quote another psalm, the 46th Psalm, “Therefore, we will not fear though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the seas …the Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” 

These are actually two psalms I’m fond of reading at funeral services, particularly when the occasion follows a sudden or tragic death.  That’s because when you and I find ourselves in a situation when our whole world seems to have crumbled at our feet with every one of life’s dangers are bearing down on us, we need to know that it’s the Lord who is our refuge; that it’s God alone who will see us through.

That’s the joy of this psalm, friends.  But, in all honesty, that’s the challenge of it, too.  I know that in reading these psalms, it’s hard sometimes for us to reconcile the promise of God’s protection with the terrible reality of life’s dangers; I mean, really, what does saying, “I will deliver you,” mean to the one who’s just lost everything in a tornado, or, for that matter, what does talking about how “no evil will befall you” say to the families of the victims of increasingly commonplace violence on our city streets?  We cannot ignore that there are things in this world and life that are truly “wicked,” and bad things do happen to good people… but the good news here is that even in the midst of these dangers, God’s promises are real; because if God is with us then that evil need not consume us.

The fact is, there are many storms in this life, and not just of the thunder and lightning variety.  There are storms borne out of life’s many unexpected and utterly uncertain challenges.  There are storms of illness, and transition, and grief.  There are storms that rise out of society’s relentless propensity for division and self-destruction.  And there are storms that have absolutely nothing to do with us… but nonetheless will seek to beat against us with everything they have. And we may well be scared and shaken, roughed up a bit or even a lot.  In the end, we may well be bruised and very sore.  But no matter how the storm rages we are safe, we are protected and we are loved because we are under His wings, these incredible pinions that have never folded, nor collapsed, nor abandoned us… that is ever and always good news, yours and mine.

So in all these storms of life, let us call out to the Lord; that he might truly “raise us up as on eagle’s wings.”

And may our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!      

© 2020  Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved.

 

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Unto the Hills

My own personal “thin place” in northern Maine…

(an online sermon for July 12, 2020, based on Psalm 121)

“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.”

The Celtic tradition has a wonderful phrase for those unique places in our lives that have a great spiritual attraction and meaning for our lives – they refer to them as “thin places,” those places where this world and heaven seem to meet. Thin places, it is said “are ports in the storms of life, where …pilgrims can move closer to God …where one leaves that which is familiar and journeys into the divine presence.”  Call it a “retreat,” a sanctuary, or call it holy ground, but I suspect we all know of special places where a sense of God’s presence and strength and love are palpable; as though you could literally reach out and touch the hand of the Lord!

Well, friends, what you’re looking at here today… for me it’s most definitely my “thin place.”

And not just the lake, mind you, but also and including all the hills and valleys and green forests that extend from here for miles in every direction. Friends, I can’t even begin to express to you just how influential this place has been and continues to be in my own spiritual grown. There’s a hill in back of the camp that I used to climb when I was young which led to this hayfield that overlooked miles and miles of Maine woodlands; I spent a good many summer afternoons up there, soaking in the sun with all of nature around me, sometimes playing guitar and singing (albeit rather badly!), learning how to pray and making some real discoveries about my faith and my life. In fact, this was the place where a great many seeds for my own call to ministry were sown; when I was on that hill, I really did feel that God was there with me.

Like the song says, I stood “in awesome wonder” at God’s creation, and as far as I was concerned it was about the closest thing to heaven that I had ever seen. And I remember thinking about how great it would be to actually live out there, to dwell with God out in the wilderness!  Hey, sometimes I still feel that way!

Of course, as a grown up who’s growing older by the year, I’m admittedly a bit more hesitant!  Truth is, these days I gaze out at such places and wonder if anybody actually lives out there, and if I did, if I’d have all the amenities we’d need?  And I’d think about how isolated a place like that would be, and what we’d do if there was an emergency; in the dead of winter, could an ambulance get to us before it was too late?  For that matter, how would we get to the store for supplies?  And let’s not even talk about bear, coyote and other assorted animals? Say what you will, it could well be dangerous to live out there in the wilderness – I might look out “unto the hills,” but who would be there to help us?

Oh, yeah …my help cometh from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

You know, after a fashion, that’s really what this particular psalm is all about.  There’s actually a very interesting question of biblical translation and scholarship regarding the 121st Psalm: you may have noticed that the words with which I began this sermon (the first verse of Psalm 121) were different than those from the scripture reading.  That’s because between the King James Version (the familiar words with which I began the sermon) and the more modern translations (including the New Revised Standard Version we read here), there is a difference in punctuation and syntax that shifts its meaning a bit.

In the King James Version, that first verse is translated as one sentence:  “I will lift up mine eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help,” which suggests that the beautiful hills become the source of our inspiration, “the hills of God,” that “thin” place where the Lord, who made heaven and earth dwells.  Modern scholars, however, translate this as two sentences – “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come?”  In other words, it’s a question, and in fact, a question of concern.  You see, people of biblical times recognized that the “hills,” specifically, the hills surrounding Jerusalem, were a very dangerous place.  The road between Jericho and Jerusalem, for instance, were (and still are) lined with limestone cliffs pocked with caves in which robbers would hide before swooping down to attack travelers – needless to say, a journey through those hills was not to be taken lightly!

So, according to these scholars, what you have here is the picture of the traveler looking at all the hills before him on the journey and wondering where he’ll find help on the way – and the answer is, “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”  Now, I still love the older translation of this verse, and I’ll always see the hills as an inspiration, but I suspect that both interpretations here have some truth to them. In other words, there’s both beauty and danger to be found in the hills – and God is with us in the midst of both.

This is all borne out in the way that this psalm, which might be called a “psalm of assurance, unfolds.  Incidentally, you’ll notice that in scripture, this psalm and several others is also referred to as “a song of ascents,” or a “song of degrees,” as the older translations put it.  Historians believe that this psalm might well have been a hiking song, sung by travelers as they climbed those hills on their journey toward the feasts at Jerusalem!  This song is all about how God will be their strength and protector along the way!

For instance…

“He will not let your foot be moved” – God will be there to keep you from stumbling on the loose rocks, lest you fall and sprain an ankle.

“The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night” – you won’t burn in the relentless heat of the desert sun, and neither will you suffer in cold and damp of the night.

“The LORD will keep you from all evil” – he will see you through any and all temptation and discouragement and danger along the way.

“He will keep your life” – yes, just as the Lord created life, making the heavens and the earth and also you and me, so the Lord will also keep us and protect us!  And he will not sleep on that watch – the one who keeps all of Israel will extend that same care even to you and me, all along every part of journey.

And the beauty part is that whether that journey is “unto the hills,” or in and through the chaotic and often confusing obstacle course we call life, or in that larger journey that each one of us makes from earthly life to life eternal, God shows that same incredible concern for our well-being.  You know, one of the things that has always drawn me to the Psalms has always been this incredible imagery of nature – mountains and eagles and so on – but also that it always points us to a God who is relentless in protecting us, even and especially when we aren’t noticing.

Christian psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck has written, “When I put together the times I just missed being hit by cars while on foot, on a bicycle, or driving; or times when I was driving a car and almost struck pedestrians or barely missed bike riders in the dark; or times when I jammed on the brakes, coming to a stop no more than an inch or two from a vehicle; or times when I narrowly missed skiing into trees or almost fell out of windows; or times when a swinging golf club brushed through my hair – I asked myself: ‘What is this? Do I lived a charmed existence?’”  No, says Peck. “T’was grace that brought me safe thus far.” It wasn’t luck or fate, or instinct or wits; it was the unseen presence of the infinitely loving God who was his maker and ever continues to be his keeper.

And it’s also love, friends; for what else could it be that we’ve gotten this far?  I’ve got to be honest here; as I read that wonderful quote from Scott Peck this week, I found myself thinking, well, that’s great, but what about the times that we have stumbled?  I for one can name you a whole lot of times in my own life (several in 2020 alone!) when it seemed as though that swinging golf club somehow managed to hit me square upside the head!  As much as the hills fill us awe and anticipation, the fact is we usually face the dangers there head on; and yes, sometimes along the way we get hurt and wounded, “smote” by the sun and moon and the utter difficulties and tragedies of life and living.

And then I realized – the fact that I’m here right now, in this beautiful place talking about the journey — says that I’ve made it through; and have come to the other side of the challenges and dangers that were there on the way.  And most certainly, that I arrived had much less to do with my strength or cleverness than it did the goodness of God’s own heart surrounding me every step along the way.

Let me share a little secret with you this morning, friends: not to shatter any illusions here, but where this is concerned, even we ministers have a hard time figuring it all out!  I know that’s certainly true for me – I struggle sometimes to understand why things happen in life the way they do; why so often the road ahead has to be so incredibly, and frustratingly difficult (!); and why, O Lord, can’t once in a while, things just go a little bit more smoothly?!

I can’t say I’ve gotten any answers to those lamentations; but I can tell you this with great assuredness. Whatever, as the hymn puts it, “the danger, toil and stress” I have faced; whatever struggles I’ve ever had on the way to keep the faith and just keep going; whatever “adventure” there has been for me on the journey – be it good, bad, or just plain old HARD – I only made it because God took that journey along with me.

And I dare say the same could be said of each one of us here.

Truly, with each new day and every new journey of life, as we lift up our eyes unto the hills– we know from whence our help will come.  And come what may, we can walk on with confidence and even joy, because we know that “the LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.”

Thanks be to the God of the Hills who is the God of our lives!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2020  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on July 31, 2020 in Faith, Maine, Old Testament, Psalms, Sermon

 

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A Cup of Cold Water

(a sermon for June 27, 2020, the 4th Sunday After Pentecost, based on Matthew 10:40-42)

Her name was Peggy Grenier, and she was an elderly widow who lived in a log cabin up the road from us on the lake, and at the end of a wooded pathway; and for a period of time when I was very young, she was one of my very best friends.  Actually, Peggy was best friends with just about every one of the little kids who spent their summers on the lake, and as I think about it now, it’s a wonder she had a moment to herself, given all the children who used to come to visit her! 

We all loved to “go see Peggy,” and this was because by all indications, she loved to see us!  No matter what she was doing or how busy she was, the moment we turned up at her door, she’d stop everything to visit with us.  We’d tell Peggy all of our long, drawn-out stories, she’d laugh heartily at all our “little kid jokes,” and over cookies and cold glasses of lemonade we’d have these deep discussions about the great issues of our lives – school and friends and how much we hated social studies – but the thing was that all of this truly seemed to matter to Peggy!

What I remember the most about Peggy is that she really did listen to us, and what’s more, she talked to us like we were grown-ups, which at the age of six is quite a thing indeed!  I remember our parents saying to us, “Now, don’t you go up there and bother Peggy every day; she doesn’t need you kids hanging around all the time,” but we never really understood that because you see, Peggy never acted like we were a bother1 She always made us feel welcome, and all these years later I still remember how great that feeling was. And even though she’s long since passed on, other people live there now, and the log cabin itself has been completely remodeled, as far as I’m concerned, that place will always be “Peggy’s Camp.”

To feel welcomed – to be received, as scripture often translates it – is one of life’s great blessings, isn’t it?  I’m sure we can all name moments in which a simple act of hospitality made all the difference: someone inviting us to sit at their table and share a meal; inviting us to spend a holiday with them where otherwise we would have been alone; or has been the case for me recently, stopping by the house to bring a flower or a goodie bag or a simply a word of comfort.  It’s part and parcel of being a good neighbor, yes, and on a deeper level, it’s the act of affirming the great value of that person through a not-so-random act of kindness; but even more than this, spiritually speaking, it is seeing that person through the eyes of God.  It truly is as our reading today describes it, like giving that someone “a cup of cold water” on a hot and muggy day; it’s just that refreshing and life giving…

…and, might I add… an essential part of the Christian life; it is the manner of welcome to which you and I are called as disciples of Jesus Christ. As Jesus himself said it in our text for this morning, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and who every welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

It is worth noting here that these words of Jesus come right on the heels of those other rather disconcerting words from our text for last Sunday, all about how he’d come not “to bring peace but a sword,” about families being set against one another, and about losing one’s life to save it (and all of that, by the way, coming on the heels of Jesus’ dire warnings to the disciples about the inevitability of conflict and persecution). But then, just when any reasonable person might have run the other way, Jesus reminds the disciples of the great importance of the task before them; essentially saying that whenever someone receives them –  that is, whenever someone welcomes them into their homes, and into their “circle of trust” and admiration – they will be receiving Christ himself! Just as prophets and righteous believers are received on the basis of who they are, Jesus says, anyone who gives you even a cup of cold water because you’re my disciple is also welcoming me!  And when they are welcoming me, Jesus goes on to say, they are welcoming the God who sent me.

In these three short verses from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus reminds us of the vital role that his disciples will play in the building up of the Kingdom of God; understanding, of course, that this extends not only to the original twelve but to all who would seek to follow Christ, and that includes you and me.  As disciples, you see, you and I are in the truest sense ambassadors of Christ in the places where we dwell, emissaries of his kingdom.  So anyone who welcomes us into their circle is also welcoming Jesus; and what that means is that anything and everything we do as “guests” will reflect on the one we represent:  our demeanor around those who welcome us matters, as does our sense of graciousness for what we receive, and our ability to speak, act and respond with love befitting the example of our Lord.

Now, you might think that this is an obvious point (in fact, I hope so; I mean, what’s not to understand about what amounts to “loving one another?”), but in truth of fact, there are a great many people, and many “Christians” among them whose lives never quite approach that example; the kind of folks who by their behaviors give too much credence to those rumors about Christians being holier-than-thou, hyper-critical hypocrites!   My point here is that it’s important for you and I to remember that for better or worse, when every day we head out into the world we are carrying our faith along with us; and there are countless occasions throughout the week when what we say, what we do, the choices we make, the attitudes we show toward others – how we live (!) – cannot help but proclaim something about that faith, either positively or negatively.

Which message comes forth… well, that in large part is up to us. 

It actually puts me in mind of one of my favorite quotes from Frederick Buechner,  a passage from his book, Wishful Thinking.  “Who knows,” he wrote, “how the awareness of God’s love first hits people.  Every person has his own tale to tell, including the person who wouldn’t believe in God if you paid him.  Some moment happens in your life that you say Yes to right up to the roots of your hair, that makes it worth having been born just to have happen… how about the person you know who as far as you can possibly tell has never had such a moment… maybe for that person the moment that has to happen is you.”  The bottom line, friends, is that as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are his representatives.  We are in essence his heart, his hands, his feet, his arms of compassion; in receiving us, you see, the people we encounter can and do discover the love of Jesus Christ; that is both the word of encouragement and the word of challenge that our Lord offered to his disciples as they went out into a harsh and uncertain world.  “This is a large work I’ve called you into,” Jesus tells them in The Message version of this text, “but don’t be overwhelmed by it… the smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice. You won’t lose out on a thing.”

In other words, the “effectiveness,” if you will, of true discipleship is not to be measured by the greatness of what is accomplished, but in all the small things that are done greatly.  Just as something as simple as a card, or a call, or a visit shows us how much we’re loved and appreciated, when you and I offer up, as Jesus puts it, “even a cup of cold water to these little ones in the name of a disciple,” not only serves as an affirmation of faith and love and care to that one who was thirsty, it also shows forth the great and giving love of Jesus Christ and of the God who sent him.  And understand, when Jesus refers to “these little ones,” he’s not talking necessarily about children, but rather, he’s talking about anyone and everyone who has ever needed to be recognized and affirmed and valued and loved… or who simply need a drink of water. 

The point is that these are the ones to whom we are called to bring our faith and our love. and the best way we can reveal the reign of Christ in the world is for them to see Christ in us through merciful acts of love and kindness and grace that makes a difference in peoples’ lives. This, I believe, is what makes you and I authentically Christian, and it’s what makes us the church… yes, what makes us the church no matter where and how we meet.

Once again, it all seems so simple, so basic to the mission we share as believers; and yet I would dare say that in these days when people and groups have become so sharply and bitterly divided over so many issues – not to mention quite literally having to have our faces be covered and be physically distant from one another – that this call to bring forth true love and mercy represents one of the greatest challenges that the church faces in this day and age. 

For instance, I don’t know about you, but these days I’m something finding it very difficult to be able to express what I want to express while wearing a facemask!  This whole pandemic has made me realize just how much of ourselves we convey to others simply by the look on our face: the way we smile, or frown, or grimace, or share the abundance of our displeasure… or for that matter, our compassion.  I think I’ve shared with you the story of how I was in our local Hannaford the other day and another woman came barreling around a crowded corner and fairly well careened into my shopping cart.  It wasn’t a big deal – no harm done at all – but what was interesting was that because we were masked we literally stared at each other’s eyes for the longest moment because neither one of us could tell how the other was going to react to this little accident.  Was there going to be anger and heated words exchanged, or would we just laugh it off?  Based on just the masks we were wearing, there was no way to tell!  Frankly, it wasn’t until I made a stupid joke – in my official downeast dialect, mister man, which I’m sure comes as no surprise to you folks (!) – that she could tell I wasn’t upset and she could breathe a sigh of relief… and we both had a good laugh as a result.

It was, in its own unique way, a cup of cold water… and whether or not that woman knew it, a little bit of God was revealed.  And that was reward indeed.

Karen Mains has said it well: “When we give, having put away our pride, then Christ sanctifies the simple gift.  He makes it holy, useful.”  Friends, it may well seem to us like what we give is small and perhaps even insignificant in the wider scheme of things, to those who receive what we have to give it is anything but; and it’s certainly not insignificant to the Lord.  A cup of cold water matters; for what greater reward can there be than a not so random act of kindness resulting in someone encountering God, perhaps for the very first time?

There’s a lot of very thirsty people out there, friends… and we’ve got plenty of water.  

Thanks be to God.

AMEN and AMEN!

© 2020  Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved.

 

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