Responsive. A quality of being barely alive to being fully alive. Giving any response at all to being quick to respond with genuine care and concern. Simply using words, listening and answering.

Jesus was responsive.  In every sense.

He was divine, yet his pupils dilated and his nostrils were full of breath. Even so, he said that real life, eternal life, was to know him and his Father who sent him. (Jn 17:3) He listened and he spoke, responses full of life giving words and tension filled directives. He acted in mind blowing ways, liberating and healing the enslaved, the hurting, the grieving, and the lost who came to him in faith.

In chapter 5 of Mark’s gospel, Jesus encounters three people whom the community would have perceived as:

a psycho, wild man

a crazy, “hypochondriac” woman

and an ultra- religious snob

Though he had every right to, Jesus didn’t judge. He didn’t justify a reason to pass them by. He didn’t condemn.

Jesus responded.

His actions frightened the powerful and shook the timid, challenged the knowledgeable and invigorated the outsiders, and overcame them all with amazement!

He threw legions of demons out of a scary, self-mutilating freak and into a herd of suicidal pigs.
He restored his sanity.

He was a channel of powerful healing energy conducted through a woman’s faithful touch into her own broken body. He relinquished her agony.

He took a lifeless hand and gently ushered a little girl from death to life and into the arms of her faith-full father.
He revived a relationship.

His words set people free, calmed fear, and gave hope:

“Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!”

“Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

“Do not fear, only believe.”

It seems to me that Jesus was available and attentive to the people around him. He didn’t have to seek them out or hunt them down.  He didn’t struggle with what to say.  He followed his Father’s lead.  John tells us that Jesus “can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.” (Jn 5:19)

Whose lead are you following? Are you too busy doing your own version of “good” to notice the people crossing your path on any given day? Are you governed more by what you can’t do than by what only God can do? What does it take for you to respond? Are you bound by judgment and justification, or are you open to the Spirit’s gentle nudging?

Friends, it is God who responds to faith. We are just the vessels through whom he responds. Will you give him enough margin to use you today?  Respond.

Heal and Calm

calm_water-1

Have you ever known someone who was a healing and calming presence in your life? Being with them is restorative and brings peace to an otherwise chaotic world. I’ve had several friends and family members who I would describe this way. Even the darkest demons that torment my mind have been cast out in the presence of these people in whom God’s spirit dwells. Being with them is really good news!

As we are flip-booking through the gospel of Mark, Jesus was good news and proclaimed good news. In chapter three, he repeatedly heals. He heals a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath and gets all the religious people hot and bothered! In fact, he heals so many, that whenever people see him, they push and crowd just to get a hand on him! In his presence, evil spirits could not even operate freely! They (and the people they inhabited) uncontrollably fall down and proclaim, “You are the Son of God!” (3:11)

In chapter four, he calms the angry winds and the waves with a few words, while his powerful presence calms the fearful hearts of his followers.  “Why are you afraid,” he lovingly implores, “Do you still have no faith?” (4:40)

As we follow in our master’s footprints, are we ambassadors of this kind of restorative care?  Do words like “Quiet. Be still,” gently come from our lips into the chaotic environments we find ourselves in every day?

The great prophet Isaiah recorded some important imperatives straight from God the Father to his children (including you and me!) This is God speaking:

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Is 58:6-7)

God the Son echoed the same commands in his last earthly sermon to his followers:

“Come you who are blessed by my Father: take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Mt 25:35-36)

God the Father and God the Son call us to be agents of healing and peace in a world marred by sin and despair, illness and death, chaos and fear.   Following Jesus means acting like he acted. We may not have the gift of healing, but we can look after the sick and give the thirsty a cool drink, while we bring them to the feet of the one who can heal their mind, body and spirit, through prayer. We may not be able to calm the seas with a word, but we can demonstrate trust and peace in the midst of our own storms and speak calming words, through the Spirit, to our anxious friends and family.   Jesus, via his Spirit, continues to live through each one of us in every act of compassion and mercy. As Jason Gray puts it, “With every act of love, we see His kingdom come.” May his kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven!

 

Following In His Steps

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Do you remember flip books? I loved them as a kid. I would draw a stick figure on the corner of successive pages of my notebook, and then flip the pages to watch them move. It looked something like this:

The Gospel according to Mark is a flip book of sorts. It’s the shortest of the gospels, and emphasizes Jesus’ fast paced movements and actions more than his words or teachings. Most scenes transition with words like “immediately” and “at once.” Mark does not seem to be describing a continuous story line but rather a collection of discrete units, creating an artistic collage or mosaic of the life of Jesus. He lays out the evidence for Jesus as the son of God and then compels us to follow him!

If we focus on the actions of Jesus throughout this gospel, I think we will sense movement and direction, just like a flip book. A moving picture will emerge that I hope will move us. Let’s flip through Mark’s first two chapters. (Mark 1-2)

1 John baptizing -> Jesus baptized -> Spirit descending ->Father’s voice confirming -> Spirit driving -> Satan tempting -> Angels ministering -> Jesus proclaiming -> Jesus calling -> Disciples following -> Jesus touching, lifting, healing -> Jesus casting out -> Jesus commanding -> Jesus rising, departing, praying -> Jesus preaching ->Leper imploring, kneeling -> Jesus stretching, touching, willing 2 Jesus preaching -> friends carrying -> Jesus seeing faith, forgiving healing -> Jesus calling -> Levi (Matthew) following -> Jesus reclining, eating with sinners -> Jesus dispelling questions

Here’s what I see in this moving picture:

  1. Jesus submits and moves at the Father and the Spirit’s prompting.
  2. Jesus proclaims the good news of God.
  3. Jesus bids ordinary people to follow him.
  4. Jesus makes time to pray alone.
  5. Jesus casts out and commands demons that torment people.
  6. Jesus notices people, listens, asks questions, and responds to faith.
  7. Jesus touches people.
  8. Jesus eats and hangs out with sinners in their space.
  9. Jesus cares about faith more than rules.

As imitators or disciples of Jesus, are we doing these kinds of things? Some only Jesus could do, but Peter tells us that Jesus left us an example that we should follow in his steps. (I Peter 2:21) We can submit to baptism and listen for the Spirit’s prompting. We can proclaim the gospel. We can follow. We can make time to pray. We can notice people who are tormented, sick and hurting. We can carry them into the presence of Jesus, who is able to heal. We can touch, eat and recline with them. We can elevate faith over rules. His footprints are laid out for us; let’s follow one step at a time.

A Sheep or a Goat?

sheep and goat

If I was picking, I’d rather be a goat than a sheep.  Goats are more curious and independent; they don’t need as much shepherding.  They appear smarter; free thinkers if you will.  Goat’s eat more than grass, and have better hair days, too!

But when Jesus chose his last metaphor to describe his eminent return, he said that one day he will sit on his throne and he will separate all the nations like a shepherd separates his sheep from the goats.  (Read Matthew 25:31-47.)  The sheep will be on his right side – the side associated with the right arm of strength and blessing.  The goats are on the left side, the side associated with the boot.  On second thought, I’d rather be a sheep.

Jesus has always had a thing for sheep.   “I am the good shepherd,” he said, “I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep” (Jn 10:14-15) Sheep know him.  They recognize his voice. (Jn 10:16)

 Jesus said his sheep recognize him…

in the thirsty man who needs a drink
in the hungry woman who needs to eat
in the stranger who needs a place to stay
in the child who is cold and needs a coat
in the sick friend sitting through chemo
in the prisoner, marking time in a cell

…and then show mercy and compassion to him!  Sheep may seem dense, but they see what others can’t see!  The sheep belong to the shepherd; they have his very mind (I Cor 2:16), so they can see him in other people.  The sheep are beholden to their shepherd.  They love him, follow him and serve him.  He keeps the wolf out (Jn 10:11-12); he makes them lie down in green pastures, he leads them beside quiet waters; he restores their soul. (Ps. 23)

Jesus, on his beloved mountain side, to his closest friends, on his way to the cross, concludes this Olivet discourse with some pretty practical advice.   I’m leaving, he said, but my Spirit is staying.  Look for me.  Listen for my voice.  Stay with the flock.  Give me a drink and some bread, invite me in, put clothes on my back, look after me when I’m sick; visit me when I’m in bondage.

Friends, Jesus is a good shepherd.  He loves you.  He won’t let you get away.  Let’s stick together and serve our master until he takes us home!

Resolute Risk

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If you’re like me, you’ve given up on New Year’s resolutions. Maybe you have some goals, but let’s be real, you just don’t want to be resolute about them. If they happen, great, but you don’t want the pressure of commitment and it seems nobler not to fail. Innate in us is a collective “maintenance” resolution. Let’s just not let things get any worse than they are right now. Comfort and safety. Good ole American ideals.

Jesus said life in the Kingdom of God does not operate that way. Comfort and safety are replaced with risking all.   Faith and trust are paramount. These concepts are part of Jesus’ last teaching on the way to the cross in Matthew 24 and 25. We know the story as the parable of the talents. (Read Matthew 25:14-30.)

Jesus has been talking about his return; he’s about to lay down his life, rise again, and ascend to the Father, but he will come back, and we won’t know the day or the hour. He’s using stories to teach his disciples and us how to live in the meantime. The ten virgins taught us to know the bridegroom and to be there when he returns. The three servants teach us to invest in the growing kingdom of God.

Sometimes, we think kingdom living is mostly about getting all the doctrine and theology right. We’re so afraid of getting something wrong that we’re afraid to do anything at all! We just keep reading and re-reading the manual, and don’t get out into the game! Jesus said to put his words into practice (Mt 7:24), to go and proclaim the kingdom (Mt 10:7), to take what you’ve been given and put it to work!   God’s been saying it from the very beginning, “Be fruitful and multiply!” (Ge 1:22)

Being ready for Jesus’ return is not a numbers game. He’s not going to line you up and count your money nor the number of people you have baptized. What he will do is examine your heart.   Will he see faith? “For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance,” Jesus said. (25:29) Have you trusted him with what you have? Have you listened? Have you done what he’s told you, specifically, to do when he’s told you to do it? Have you been willing to take risks when asked? Have you been certain of what you could not see, despite your doubts?

There’s not a flow chart. Some get a little to work with; some get a lot. Only together are we the body, moved by the head, Jesus himself, to accomplish His purposes for the sake of the world and for the glory of God.  Does that make you uncomfortable? Good.  Discomfort and risk. Good ole Kingdom ideals.

Advent

advent candles

We are in a season of Advent.  Expectant waiting.  It’s an exciting time!  Preparations are made.  Presents are wrapped.  Menus are planned.  Travel arrangements are put into action.  The month of December passes relatively quickly, yet it’s meant to remind us of the long wait of God’s people for their Messiah.  “How long will you hide your face from us?” the psalmist put to music the heart cry of Israel.  When he finally came, Jesus’ entry, in the humble form of a peasant babe, was surprising to say the least!

As Jesus prepared to leave the earth, he alluded to another long wait. (Matthew 25:1-13) He will return, he said, but we will not know the day or the hour.   He launched another season of Advent, one in which we are still expectantly waiting.

A Jewish wedding feast was worth the wait, an all out celebration!  The custom dictated that a groom and his friends would leave his home in a processional to the home of the bride where the marriage ceremony would take place, often at night.  The entire party would travel back to the home of the groom where a celebratory feast ensued.  Jesus told the story of ten girls waiting for a wedding party to arrive.  Because it was very late at night, they fell asleep while waiting and their lamps ran out of oil.    The five who had planned ahead and had extra oil, relit their lamps, went to meet the bridegroom and went into the feast with the entourage.  The five who did not plan ahead, had to rush to town to buy more oil and missed out on the party!

The crux of the story is the plea these less prepared five made to the bridegroom, “Lord, Lord,” they said, “open the door for us!”  But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.”  These words were reminiscent of words in another famous sermon of Jesus. 

The disciples would surely remember…“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’  (Matthew 7:21-23)

Some of the last words Jesus gave to his beloved disciples were to “Keep watch!”  Our admonition is the same.  Observe Advent.  Wait with expectation!  Anticipate the arrival.  Be ready, not by adding good deeds to your repertoire, but by just being present, in relationship with the groom.  Knowing Jesus is the key. 

As beautiful as it is to remember his infant entrance into the world this time of year, he longs for you to receive him as Savior and Lord, the greatest gift of grace you will ever receive!  To know and be known is the greatest desire of every human being.  Jesus knows you completely and longs to be known by you.  He left his own Spirit for you, the deepest part of Him.  He’s revealed himself in numerous love letters, right at your fingertips.  May you dive into the greatest love story of your life this holiday season and for the rest of your days!  Spend time with Him.  Talk to him.  Listen.  He’s prepared a place for you at His table.  Be ready.  The celebration will be well worth the wait!

A Special Place

PicMonkey Collage

I have a special place, a mountainside in New Mexico.  I’ve thought a lot there.  I’ve prayed and communed with God in unique ways there.   Important transitional events in my life are marked there.  God revealed the way I should go forth from there.  Community was formed and still exists because of my time there.  My daughter has met God there too.  My son was baptized by my husband on that mountain, in the icy cold stream that runs through it.  A special place indeed.  If I had to choose one place to leave my final words, it would be on this mountainside, surrounded by the people I cherish most.

I love the scholarly title of Jesus’ last long speech recorded in the gospel of Matthew.  It’s called the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24-25).  That means that he spoke these final words at his special place, the Mount of Olives, to his peeps, his cherished disciples.  Perhaps, this was no accident.

The Mount of Olives overlooks the Temple Mount and the city of Jerusalem.  The Kidron Valley divides these two mounts.  Many private gardens were found here, as gardens were not allowed in Jerusalem proper during Jesus’ day.  Perhaps it was a beautiful respite.  Jesus often found refuge and rest there, a place to commune with his Father in prayer.  (Lk 21:37, Jn 8:1)  He frequently gathered with his community, his disciples, on this hillside to regroup and commission.  (Mk 13:3)  Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem would be from this mount. (Mk 11:1)  He would anguish in prayer before his crucifixion in a garden at the foot of this mount.  (Lk 22:39)  His ascension into heaven was from the top of this mount. (Acts 1:12)   A special place indeed.

As Matthew 24 commences, Jesus’ disciples were confused.  Jesus was preparing them for the events that were about to transpire, but they still didn’t understand that he would die, raise back to life, and then ascend to the Father.  The kingdom he spoke of was still ambiguous, at best. The temple, across the valley, was still God’s dwelling place, in their minds.  Little did they know, He would soon make his home inside each of them.  They asked Jesus, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Mt. 24:3)

Have you ever felt like that?  “Jesus, just tell me what’s going to happen and when this will all make sense.  Give me a sign.”  They asked the right person.  He gave them some specific answers, but I wonder how much they really understood?  As hard as it is for us to make sense of the details (I will leave the bulk of this chapter to your own interpretation), I think the disciples were even more confused, and emotionally stressed out! 

Jesus understood.  I think his most encouraging words were, “But concerning the day and hour, no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only…Therefore stay awake, for you don’t know on what day your Lord is coming.” (Mt 24:36,42)  Jesus essentially said, “Look guys, I don’t even know.  Let’s stay awake, and watch and wait together.” Jesus, was listening and waiting for his Father’s direction to lead him to the cross, out of the tomb, and back to heaven.  He’ll just as patiently wait for his direction to come back to the earth, in the manner and timing of the Father’s choosing.   From his special hillside, Jesus encouraged his close friends with practical advice.

He follows with three simple stories to show his followers and us today how to watch and wait for Jesus’ return, as we follow our Lord and Savior in the meantime.  As we close out the year, we’ll reflect on these stories.

The Olivet Discourse.  Specially chosen last words from a very special place.  The last words of instruction by Jesus on his way to the cross.  Perhaps we should hang on every word.

Do We Really Have to Forgive?

debt free

Tit for tat.  It’s the American way.  I work for you, you pay.  You hit my car, you pay.  You hurt me, you pay.  You take something that’s mine, you pay.   You cheat me, you pay.     We are an individualistic society so the center of every dispute is the individual.  We want what is fair, for the person wronged, especially ourselves.

When Jesus finished up his discourse on community life with his closest followers in Matthew 18, it seemed to ruffle Peter’s feathers a bit.  Read Matthew 18: 21-35.  “Wait a minute…” you can almost hear him say, “Community life is hard.  Surely I don’t have to deal with difficult people forever.  Let’s simplify this.  Just tell me how many times I have to forgive my brother.  Surely seven times would be a good, Scriptural number.”

Jesus must have chuckled.  “Not seven, but seventy-seven.” (More like to infinity and beyond my friend!)  Then, in typical Jesus fashion, he puts this in words that his followers, to include Peter, can understand.  He tells them a story. 

Basically, one man owes his master what it would take 20 years of working every single day to repay, a lifetime of work for a Galilean fisherman.  The man knows that he cannot possible repay this, but he begs for more time to try to work and pay it off.  The master takes pity, compassionately empathizes with the man, and goes from ordering him to be thrown in prison to canceling the debt for good, and letting him go free.   Jaws would have dropped, for this was an extravagant act of mercy.

Then, Jesus continues, this same forgiven man goes out and demands one day’s worth of wages from a man who owes him this measly amount.  The forgiven man refuses to forgive, and instead throws the poor man in prison until he can repay his small debt.  This would have seemed outrageous to Jesus’ audience!  How could that man do such a thing?!

So the original merciful master, the one who had been so compassionate and forgiving, hears of what has happened and is outraged!  He harshly rebukes the man who refused to forgive.   He takes back what he said, and throws the first man into prison to be tortured until he can pay back every cent he owes!

“This,” Jesus said, “is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

What it boils down to, friends, is that forgiveness is God’s prerogative.   We want it to be fair, but our perspective is skewed.  We’re the sinners.  We’re the ones that brought shame to the reflective image of a perfect God when sin commenced.  He restored honor to his name by canceling the debt we owed but could never, in a million years of trying, repay.  He scorned the shame of sin on the cross, his way!  He cancelled the magnanimous debt, himself, in the form of Jesus Christ.  What was left was a family of believing recipients, adopted children, living together now as a collective unit, no longer individual entities.  He left his own Spirit to convict and transform each person so that together, they would form a collective whole, his very body, the church, for His glory!   We die to ourselves in God’s economy.  Our life is now hidden with Christ in God. 

Individualistic societies care about what is fair for each individual.  Collectivist societies don’t function this way.  The center of the dispute is the family unit, and honor for the family name takes precedent over what is fair for each person individually.  As honor bearers for our Father, forgiven beyond measure, we accept abundant grace so that it overflows from a receptive heart to others around us.  Forgiveness is God’s way.  As ambassadors, we are the forgiving ones.  We’re debt free, so we invite others to live debt free alongside us!

Lighten up, Peter.  You’re going to be forgiving for a very long time!

The Gift of Community

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15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have
gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be
established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed[f
] in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

Matthew 18:15-20

We are entering the Christmas season, a season of giving and good will, a reflection of the great gift of God to mankind when he incarnated himself in the form of a baby, Jesus, and took up residence on earth. This gift, however, kept on and keeps on giving.

Not only did Jesus grow up to pay the penalty for sin that every sinner deserves, a vile death on a cross, but he rose again and punctuated every example and teaching that he lovingly gave to all who would follow him. He proclaimed good news to the poor and oppressed.   He healed and set people free!   He left part of his divine self, the Holy Spirit, to continue his work, to indwell each person who would believe in him and trust his saving work on their behalf! These Spirit led believers thus make up Christ’s body left on earth, the church, who exist to bring God glory and honor for the sake of the world. What amazing gifts!

Christian community, the church, is a gift. Do you believe that? It’s not as cute as a baby Jesus in a nativity scene, but it’s God incarnate nonetheless. In Matthew 18, Jesus highlights the way community life, in Christ, should function.   As children, dependent on a good Father, and with a healthy respect for sin, we look out for and care for one another. We gather in Jesus’ name, and he promises to join us, then in the flesh, now in the Spirit. We read Scripture together, wrestle with it, and apply it to our lives…TOGETHER. Inevitably, sin will be revealed. Jesus taught earlier in Matthew 7 that when this happens, first, you look at yourself and deal with the “plank in your own eye,” but not for your sake alone! You do that so that you can see clearly to remove the “speck in your brother’s eye.” This is a good way to live. You humbly care for one another, attacking sin together, aware you are forgiven only by the grace of God through Christ.   This is a gift! Even when the defenses go up, Jesus keeps it fair. There is no place for false accusation in the church. Even if it comes to treating an unrepentant sinner like a Gentile or tax collector, this isn’t a license for cruelty. You treat them like any other non-believer, seeking to reconcile them to God with love.

The great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his classic work, Life Together, put it this way…

Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the common life, is not the one who sins still a person with whom I too stand under the word of Christ? Will not another Christian’s sin be an occasion for me ever anew to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ? Therefore, will not the very moment of great disillusionment with my brother or sister be incomparably wholesome for me because it so thoroughly teaches me that both of us can never live by our own words or deeds, but only by that one Word and deed that really binds us together, the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ? (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 36)

As you think about gifts this season, will you thank God for the church? Will you treat your own sin with honesty and repentance? Will you care enough about your brother or sister to point out sin that is destructive or harmful and seek forgiveness together? Jesus longed for his followers to do life together, to draw out the best in one another, and in so doing to make Him known by our love.

Songs of Gratitude

 Gratitude

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be
thankful.  Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom
through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.   And whatever you
do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Colossians 3:15-17

I struggle with my thoughts. I have all my life.   Sometimes, the obsessive and repetitive nature of them torment me.   This week I’m fighting for peace.

I think the apostle Paul was on to something, when he prescribed songs of gratitude as a pathway to peace. The tunes and words for songs occupy a different neural pathway in the brain; they form a loop stronger than thoughts alone. For me, music also gives voice to the deepest recesses of the heart.   A song of thanksgiving can quite literally turn my thoughts around, and usher in the calming presence of God that dwells deep within me.  His grace is always sufficient.

Before we consider the heavy subject matter of Matthew 18 next week, may we allow this week to be one of gratitude.   Let’s flood our brain with the synaptic connections of thankfulness.   As we approach a set aside day of Thanksgiving, may we let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts! We can make the choice to let his message dwell among us, as we encourage one another with song. Here’s one of my favorites…