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“Are you okay with letting people see you cry?”

This question fries me.  Crying is such a profoundly personal thing, a window into your soul.  Even if you’re crying from happiness – yes, it is possible – every time you cry, you tell the world that something has touched the very center of your being, you put your soul on display for public consumption.  You might as well stand naked in the middle of Times Square.

The worst part, for me, is that inevitably, people want to make you Feel Better.  There’s this assumption in this culture that crying is a sign of sadness, and people want to know what’s Wrong.  And sometimes – nothing’s wrong.  Everything is right, so right that you’re awestruck, touched at the core of your being, and the only possible response is tears.  Or you’re so proud.  Or, okay, so disappointed.  I have even wept tears of anger – I was so angry that I was literally trembling with rage, and the tears spilled over.  It only happened once in my life, and it was something to do with one of my children.  What, you think I get that bent out of shape over things that happen to me?!

One of the chief things I prize about being Orthodox is that you can cry to your heart’s content in church, and nobody says a thing.  In Orthodoxy, tears are actually considered a gift – there are so many comments in Orthodox literature about the “gift of tears” that you almost feel deprived if you can’t cry.  (Which makes me one of the wealthiest women on the planet…)

We know that tears are healing – even the most ardent atheist will admit that, if he reads any kind of psychology literature – so why, as a society, do we consider public tears so taboo?  Why do we look down our noses at people who “can’t keep it together,” “break down,” “lose control”?    Heaven forbid you should lose your self-control.  Heaven forbid that anything in life should matter so much to you that a response is not only called for, it’s inevitable.  Do we seriously believe that it’s better to walk around in a permanent state of spiritual illness?

Still, even knowing that – I hate to let people see me cry, even my nearest and dearest, probably because they always want to make me Feel Better.  And actually, I’m not all that crazy about crying itself, either.  I hear so many women talk about how much better they feel “after a good cry.”  All I feel is a headache.  Not to mention all that wetness.

There is one exception.  St. Paul tell us to “weep with those who weep,” and, I’ve discovered somewhat to my horror, that seems to be a talent I have.  When someone is in real distress, tears well up in me, as well, and somehow, that does seem to help them feel better.  I guess it validates their pain.  Interestingly, I don’t cry when somebody else is crying tears of joy – only when they’re hurting, and I hurt, too.  Then I don’t mind.

But otherwise – no, I don’t like for people to see me cry.  It’s like hangin’ out there nekkid.

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Yesterday’s NaBloPoMo prompt was, “Write about one object you see at this exact moment.”  I had a whole, really nice essay written about the view from my office window – then went to publish it, and somehow lost the whole thing.  Meanwhile, on another blog, I found this marvellous disquisition on one of the central facets of my faith:  the icon.  What follows is copied from the blog, Glory to God for All Things, by Father Stephen Freeman.  I recommend it most heartily.

The Scripture tells us that the “pure in heart shall see God.” I have always assumed that this describes a present event and not a promise about a distant life after death. We do not see God now, because our hearts are not pure. In the same manner, we do not see the reality of the world – because our hearts are darkened. I am increasingly convinced that the “literal” world that we see is distorted by our own self-deception. It is not a problem with creation itself – but the distortions of our own falsely created existence. 

What do you see when you see the world and how do you see it? I have written much about the secular character of our culture and its “literal” view of the world. The world is what you see and nothing more. Significant events take their significance from their own relation to other literal events. Much that passes for Christian theology or “thought” belongs to this world-view today. Thus those who concern themselves with “prophetic” events are constantly working to make a connection between the words of Scripture and the “literal” events of today’s news. The coming of Christ is seen by them as an event that will fit within the headlines of the paper – and even fantasize about the difficulties presented to mainstream media when the event of a “literal rapture” occurs, and a significant portion of the population goes missing. It is a way to see the world – not significantly different than how any non-believer sees the world – and – I would suggest – deadly dull and wrong.

There are other ways to see the world. The “other way” with which I am most familiar is the world as icon. Of painted icons we say they are “windows to heaven.” Though no more than wood and paint, faithful believers find them to be something which points to something yet more – they both point to and make present here.

The house in which I live has a marvelous feature. The living room – dining room (more or less one large room together) has one entire wall as floor-to-ceiling windows. In addition, the living room is cantilevered so that parts of two additional walls consist of windows as well. The effect is that the main living space of my home constantly includes the outdoors. In the Autumn the room is suffused with golden light from the leaves of the many trees that overlook the rear of our house. In the Spring and Summer, the room takes on a radiance from the many trees and flowers. Even in winter as the room looks out over the naked wood of trees and offers views of neighboring streets and houses – the room remains transformed.

To say that something is a window is to recognize both its “literal” presence as well as its “iconic” function. It provides both wall to enclose and yet reaches out to include. The world, I believe, when properly seen, does the same. There are occasional views of certain aspects of the world that make the most hardened, literal heart pause and recognize that something transcendent, or something which certainly hints at the transcendent has come into view.

I well understand that there are people who do not believe in God. Oftentimes when they tell me about the God they don’t believe in, I have to say that I don’t believe in that God either. But I do not understand people who live in our world and do not wonder whether there is a God – whether the beauty that refuses to disappear, despite our best efforts – is not reflective of some greater Beauty that refuses to utterly hide Himself.

My children (now adult) laugh at me for once having scolded them about “fairy circles.” We were walking in the woods in Durham, N.C. My oldest girl was 8, her sister between 5 and 6. We came on a clearing with a beautiful circle of mushrooms. “It’s a fairy circle!” I exclaimed. Despite late night readings of Tolkien and Lewis, both of them laughed at me and said, “Papa!” in their most disapproving, skeptical voices. My scolding was that they did not at least pause to wonder.

I do not believe in fairy circles, nor did I expect my children to. But I do wonder (and I still pray that my children do and often). I wonder because I believe the world to be iconic – a window that reveals more than a first glimpse. It reveals a beauty and a vastness that stretches beyond the literal. The patriarch Jacob once fell asleep. He dreamed of a ladder reaching up to heaven and saw angels going up and down the ladder. His response was iconic: “Surely the Lord is in this place and I knew it not! How dreadful is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!”

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Who in your world is made of sugar and spice and everything nice?”

Not very many people, that’s for sure.  Most people I know are made of lemonade:  tart enough to make your mouth pucker, but not too tart to keep around.  And very refreshing, as lemonade is supposed to be.  My own dearly beloved sister, who would have been a candidate for Sugar and Spice thirty years ago, has ripened into…let’s see…”gourmet lemonade,” and I love her all the more for it.

I don’t generally like overly sweet people, anyway, especially not the women with soft, little-girl voices and an attitude of, “I don’t need sugar in my coffee ’cause I’m sweet enough.”  Barf.  People like that are usually so sweet to your face because they’re busy sharpening their knives behind your back.

But a genuinely sweet person is like a refreshing breeze on a day in May, with just a hint of lily of the valley to make you wish this day would never end.  I only know one woman like that, and she’s a member of my church.  If I were just starting out as an Orthodox Christian, this is the woman I’d ask to be my godmother; her grasp on how to live a truly Orthodox life is that good.

She is not a Church Lady in any sense of the word, not one of those Dana Carvey caricatures.  Her whole manner is gentle, and when she smiles, the smile lights up her eyes, too.  When she stands in church, you can see that her whole attention is focused on the service, but she doesn’t have one of those phony pious expressions on her face; she’s really absorbed in what’s going on around her.  Her voice is soft, but pleasantly low, and only from the fine lines around her eyes can you tell that she has seen some hard times in life – and risen above them, by the help of God.

In her “day job,” she’s a nurse at an assisted-living facility.  I once said something to her about the difficulty of her job, and her face crinkled in a genuine smile:  “Oh, it’s not nearly as bad as it would be in a nursing home.  People in assisted living are still able to help physically with their care, so it’s really just making sure they have the medicines they need, and the rest is just companionship.”  Unfortunately for me, she’s only about ten years younger than I am (though she looks much younger than that, she has a grown daughter); if she were as young as she looks, so help me Hannah, I’d wangle my way into assisted living just for the pleasure of this woman’s company.

And the best thing of all about her is that she doesn’t read my blog, so I can talk about her without embarrassing her.  I am so glad I know her.  She reminds me not to dismiss sweet people out of hand.

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A blog that I’ve recently begun following makes an interesting point here:

http://jimjohnmarks.wordpress.com/2012/08/04/be-careful-what-you-wish-for/

to the effect that “…the last thing you want is certainty about the reality of the Cosmos. Please allow me to assure you that it will destroy your life. At least your life as you now know it.”  In another blog I follow, one written by an Orthodox priest, the point is made many times that “God didn’t come to earth to make bad men good.  He came to make dead men live.”  The blog address, not for the quote but for the priest, is http://fatherstephen.wordpress.com.

I write about this because, as I noted yesterday, I’ve picked up a couple of new readers, for the time being, at least, which involves my reciprocating and reading their blogs.  One of them writes with a painful anger about her upbringing as a Southern Baptist.  Actually, I can relate to this, as I’m still working through my own upbringing as a Roman Catholic.  As different as both forms of Christianity are, both of them emphasize Morality, a morality of Bad and Good.  Bad people go to hell.  Good people go to heaven.  And I keep thinking of a line from Billy Joel’s song, “Only the Good Die Young”:  “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints; sinners have more fun.”

I actually understand that, too.  Being Good is a rather grim prospect for today’s pleasure-oriented young people (as it was forty years ago, when the song was popular!):  no smokin’, no drinkin’, no dancin’, and no foolin’ around, and often entails looking down one’s nose at Bad people.  And anyway, what’s wrong with a good time?!

Well, nothing.  There’s that scene in the Bible (surely uncomfortable for teetotaling Christians) where Christ and His disciples are kicking back at a wedding, enjoying a glass or two, or several, of fermented grape (wine, to the rest of us non-teetotalers), without a care in the world – till the happy couple runs out of the sauce, and Christ’s mother, who has also been invited, tells Him, “They have no more wine.”  His response, roughly translated into today’s idiom, is, “And?  This is My problem, How?”  As a commentator once wrote, maybe she was only suggesting that He pass the word to His cronies disciples that they should turn down the next round of drinks.  Instead, He performs His first public miracle of turning water into a wine of such good quality that the party organizer makes note of it to the host:  “Why did you keep the good stuff back till now?!”

So having a good time isn’t the problem.  It’s what the good times can lead to; do they lead to death, or to an enhanced life?  Not just enhanced in the short-term, in the next fifteen minutes, nor even in the next fifteen days, but over the next fifteen years.  And then, twice and three times that.  Do your good times lead you to love that lasts a lifetime and beyond, or to dissipation, dissolution, and/or the conclusion that Life is meaningless, so why not end it anyway?

As painful as seriously examining life can be, it’s at least graspable; that is, you can get your head around it, to some extent.  But there is nothing, nothing on earth like the moment the first blog refers to, the moment when belief in God passes away in the certain knowledge, not just of His existence, but of His relevance in one’s own life, of His limitless, intimate love for each atom of His creation.  As that author assures us, “It will destroy your life.  At least your life as you now know it.”

I know my own first reaction to that statement was, “How can God destroy life?!”  And then I thought of the title of one of my son’s favorite songs, “It’s the end of the world as we know it.”  They sang that at his high-school graduation, and I realized, Yes, this is the end of the world that all these young people have known, as they step out into a wider world, on to college or blue-collar jobs or the military.  The end of one world, but the beginning of a whole new dimension of existence.  As birth is the end of the only world a baby has ever known, as it exits the womb into a world of bright light and color and unmodified sound:  Yikes!  But then it hears a voice it has always known, its mother’s voice, and Life becomes manageable again.

Once God whispers in your ear, “Follow Me” – however He does it, for it is as unique as each one of us – the life you have really is destroyed.  You lose all control over it.  The scariest part is that once you do surrender control, it becomes more wonderful, more adventurous, more challenging, and infinitely more joyous than you could possibly have imagined.  Never once did I plan to become a wife and mother – I couldn’t imagine anything more boring.  Yet, having made the choice, having surrendered control, I have led a life more adventurous and satisfying than I would ever have thought possible.

So, if you seriously want “proof” of God’s existence, it’s there for the asking.  But be careful what you ask for:  You may get it.

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NaBloPoMo doesn’t have prompts on weekends, leaving them available for “free-writing.”  Not a good thing for me, as I usually either blow off posting entirely or go on a world-class Rant.  I promise to try to behave myself today, though.

Thanks to NaBloPoMo, I’ve picked up a couple of new readers – temporarily, anyway – so I thought I’d bring up something about my life, and the way I try to live it.  I am well into my sixth decade of life, married with two grown children (whom I sometimes refer to as “groan” children – you never stop worrying about your children), one of whom has two sons and one of whom is unmarried.  (Yes, the one with the two sons is married.  I can’t believe I just wrote that qualifier.  Nor can I believe that it should even need to be spelled out.  O tempora, O mores….)  I am a retired secretary with a degree in accounting, which I acquired too late in life to do anything useful with, and I currently spend my days on housework and “fine-art cross-stitch” – that’s when you find a pattern that reproduces, in symbols, a piece of fine art, and you work it.  It’s a little like paint-by-number, only with thread.

And I am an Orthodox Christian.  Not an orthodox Christian.  There’s a world of difference between the two.  If you are an orthodox Christian, you go to church on Sunday, you read your Bible, you do good works.  If you are a mainstream orthodox Christian, you do all of that, but you are also heavily active in political causes of the left-wing variety, engaging in protests and voicing support for behaviors that used to be considered highly unChristian.  You do this in the name of Inclusiveness, and you sincerely believe that this activity presents a God Who loves all humankind, just as they are.

If you are an Orthodox Christian, you may – or may not – have some kind of ethnic qualifier in front of that, such as Greek or Russian or Romanian.  People are always asking me what the difference is, and I tell them, “Language.”  Such a thing is only possible in places to which people from Orthodox countries have immigrated.  In all cases, the beliefs are exactly the same, and an Orthodox Christian can attend Liturgy in any of them and feel reasonably at home – language can still be a barrier, though.

If you are an Orthodox Christian, you attend church, but not just on Sundays – there is a whole raft of feastdays that fall at various points of the year, and while attendance at Liturgy is not mandatory (as it would be in the Catholic Church), an Orthodox Christian who takes his faith seriously will make an effort to attend at least some of them.  Some Orthodox Christians read their Bible, some don’t, feeling that the Bible presented in church on Sundays and feastdays gives them plenty to ponder on during the week.  One former Protestant pastor, on becoming Orthodox, counted up the number of Bible verses in an average Sunday service and came up with 104.  There’s a lot to think about in 104 verses.

Your good works tend to be of the quiet variety, and almost never involve public protests.  You might indulge briefly in a bit of juicy gossip about an “errant” member of the congregation, but will find that the conversation is swiftly, and deftly, turned aside to something much more innocuous; the following Sunday, the priest will probably preach a sermon about the importance of examining one’s own spiritual life.

And this is where Orthodox Christianity gets unorthodox.  Nearly everyone who knows anything about Christianity believes that Christianity is a religion of peace, love, and brotherhood.  Or they trumpet George Carlin’s famous (and inaccurate) observation that “more wars have been fought in the name of religion than over anything else.”  (Examine history.  Wars have almost always been fought over territory.  Territory equals economic power.)  What is true is that the end result of being a Christian should be acquiring a spirit of peace – but that peace is obtained by relentless spiritual warfare, battle with oneself, battle with those aspects of one’s personality that are at odds with the Gospel – or, as one priest once put it, “battle with God.”  In this warfare, failure is not only an option, it’s practically a requirement – and failure is a good thing, because it always brings you up against your own shortcomings.

We do tend to try to avoid politics, since worshipping God shouldn’t depend on one’s political leanings.  We don’t tell people that God hates them, since hatred is so alien to God’s nature anyway.  We do try to live simply, always within our means, so that we have money to give where it’s needed; we do try to treat the environment with responsibility, but without becoming nuisances about it.  Some people who become Orthodox see the Church as some kind of Christian-hippie movement, but it isn’t; a lot of business people (shhhh – Republicans, even) are Orthodox Christians, and yes, they do live simply and environmentally responsibly, within their means.  Some Orthodox Christians have quite large families; they are frequently upbraided for being a “drain” on the environment, but considering the number of people in this modern world who have chosen not to reproduce at all, it’s a little hard to take that claim seriously.

In short, being an Orthodox Christian is about as counter-cultural as it gets.  One lady thought her husband had joined a cult, when he became Orthodox; she subsequently learned enough about the Orthodox Church that she joined him.  People do tend to go overboard when they first become Orthodox; it’s a lot like being in love, when the person you love is all you can think about or talk about.  A good priest can help you dial it back, so that you settle into being a person whom others can live with – just with an added dimension.  An…unexpected…unorthodox dimension.

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Well.  It has been a long time since I last blogged.  In between has been mostly Church or family matters:  the celebration of Pascha (Easter), different church projects I was involved in, preparing for a visit to my favorite music school (my trip was cancelled at the last minute); our son began a new job as engineer on a railroad that takes him right through a neighboring town, so we’ve been spending a lot of time Waving at the Engineer, like a pair of “foamers” (railroad slang for extreme railfans).  And, as always, the daily round of housework, medical appointments (thankfully routine), and family visits.  Not a lot of time for blogging.

However, this month I have signed up for NaBloPoMo’s daily post.  Heaven alone knows if I will actually get to do it daily, but I have promised to make the attempt.  This post is a trial run focusing, at least partially, on their theme for August:  Sweetness.

One of the sweeter aspects of my life is cross stitch.  Not those wussy, cutesy little things, but fine-art cross stitch, the kind that takes up at least half a yard of fabric and involves covering every square inch of it with stitches.  Colors up the wazoo:  my current project has 120 colors, and I pared it down from 208.  In retrospect, I should have left it at 208, since paring it down does affect the detail.

But there is still plenty of detail, and the upshot is, I am actually learning about Art:  how artists perceive the interplay of colors, shapes, details as part of the overall picture – things that never struck me before.  The painting I am working on isn’t tranquil or inspiring, at least, not in the ordinary sense:  It’s a painting entitled Boyarina Morozova, by the Russian artist V. I. Surikov, and it depicts a moment in Russian history that was full of turmoil.  If you’re into the 6-6-6 thing, this event took place in 1666, which is suggestive.

A project like this takes pages – 48, in this instance.  48 pages of little tiny symbols that represent the different floss colors, and – thanks to whatever genius applied his computer-programming skills to needlework – come together in a reasonable facsimile of great art.  As I’m working on it, the same thing occurs over and over:  I work in a ten-by-ten grid of symbols, and as I’m working, I keep thinking, “What the heck am I looking at here?!  This can’t be right!”  I grab the printout of the painting and look at the area where I think I’m working:  Does it look anything like what I’ve just stitched?!  Then I look back at my work, and, given a little distance – yes, it does.  It really does.  What looked like an amorphous blob of color as I was working on it has transformed, with distance, into the face of an old man with a beard, a very lifelike face with contour and shadow.  How do artists do this?!  How do they see these contours and shadings?!  Me, I can’t even draw a straight line, and Surikov, and those like him, see an entire “snapshot” of history, thanks to an eye fine-tuned to color and its nuances.

This particular piece, as you will see if the photo ever finishes uploading – if not, you can look up Boyarina Morozova on Google – is tough to look at, tough to think about:  a noblewoman who has been tortured and starved, and is being dragged out of Moscow into exile (ultimately, she was starved to death) for bucking the powers-that-were at the time.  Why choose such a gruesome project?  Originally, I chose it because it’s a very famous painting in Russian culture, and I had hoped to donate it to the Russian Department of our local university.  I had visions of its making a Statement to those Classics weenies who share space with the Russian Department:  Enter at Your Own Risk.  I’m not sure that’s going to happen now; for some reason, the two professors who teach there aren’t talking to me anymore.

There is another reason:  As a Russian Orthodox Christian in a post-Christian era, I’m painfully aware of the persecution that Russian Christians endured during the Soviet era of Russia, and I hold my breath as, little by little, I see signs of the same thing occurring in the United States.  This painting reminds me that Faith comes with a high price tag.  This woman, Boyarina Morozova, paid it.  So did countless other Russians of the Soviet era.  I hope I can show the same courage when my turn comes.

So…what on earth is sweet about this topic?!  Admittedly, not much.  But I must say that I’m enjoying, enormously, my belated Art education.  Color, line, perspective.  Shading, detail.  After a lifetime of wondering how people actually see this stuff – I’m learning to see it, too.

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NaBloPoMo’s theme for March is “whether,” or alternatively, “weather.”  As in, March is such a changeable month, that the real theme for the month is Change.  Yesterday’s prompt asked how the writer feels about uncertainty.

No uncertainty here:  I HATE it.  Life is uncertain enough, thank you, and I don’t need any more uncertainty scrambling my neurons.  I like having things Buttoned Up, the “buttoneder” the better.  I have a daily and a weekly plan for my household chores.  I write down when my mail comes in, and when I send out my bills.  (Sadly, not my letters.  Who writes letters anymore, in this Age of E-mail?)  I have accounting journals and ledgers for my household accounts – nothing as grand as it sounds, but at the end of the month I have a record of exactly where the money went.  And all the receipts are properly filed.

I know that somewhere, someone is thinking, “We have to get this woman help.  Talk about anal!!”  Yeah, probably.  But my sister was recently divorced, and it was a messy one, as her ex demanded his “fair share” of the Vast Fortune she inherited from Dad last year (all of which went to pay his nursing-home expenses).  What saved the day for her was the records she kept; she had every single bill she had paid for the past seven years, and the documentation to show whose checking account it came out of.  The divorce was more of a war of nerves than anything else, unless her ex was really so clueless that he didn’t realize what a careful record-keeper she is.  Moral of the story:  It pays to KNOW where things are.  It pays to know what’s going on in your life.

And it pays to know, or at least have some idea of, where life is going.  Obviously, you can never control every aspect of it; something ugly, like serious illness or the loss of a job, is always going to crop up.  But you’re in better shape to handle it if everything else in life is tidy and predictable.  That goes for very long-range planning, too, as in, planning for eternity.

The priest who hears my confessions – he of the seven kids (the one with five kids is someone else) – often comments on how surprised he is at the plans people make for their lives, planning for all kinds of things that may or may not happen.  “But the one thing we know will happen, with 100% certainty, nobody makes plans for,” he says with a chuckle.  He’s talking, of course, about death and its aftermath.

I have the impression that most folks have some nebulous idea that they will just fall asleep, or die in their sleep, and drift off into a state of unending bliss, unless, of course, they don’t believe that anything will happen at all, which strikes me as singularly silly.  I mean, if you go through life believing in eternity and you die and there isn’t anything, how will you know how pointless your belief was?  And if you go through life believing that death is the end, and you die, and it isn’t – yikes.

And there are good folks who believe that just because they are baptized, they will go to heaven forever because salvation is a Free Gift, and you don’t have to do anything to “earn” it.  Not exactly.  Not that you don’t have to do anything, more like, there isn’t a blessed thing you can do to earn it.  But then, why does St. James talk about “working out” our salvation?  Somebody posed this question on Facebook not long ago, and one of the responses was that we work for it because that way, we value it more.  Which house do you value more, the one you worked and saved for, or the one your parents bought for you, or that you inherited?

It’s an uncomfortable subject, and I guess nobody likes to think about it.   But again, my philosophy is, get it as nailed down as you can.  Make a plan for your funeral.  Start setting aside money to pay for it.  Leave notes as to your wishes (kind of service, where, who’s going to conduct it).  If you have the nerve, you can even write your obituary; that is a humbling experience, as you try to sum up “in 100 words or less” what your life was all about.  With these details out of the way, you can start the real work of preparing for eternity:  building a relationship with God, one that takes you a step at a time towards your ultimate goal in life:  life in God, eternal life.

Going back to what I said at the beginning of this post, I really  hate uncertainty.  I like things as buttoned up as possible.  Eternity is one thing I don’t think I have buttoned up; as much as I might try to conform my life to the life God had in mind for me when He created me, I do such a spectacular job of blowing it, on a regular basis, that I am completely uncomfortable claiming eternal life for a Sure Thing.  By the mercy of God, hopefully it is; but I’m not placing any bets on it until I know.

It’s the one uncertainty I can live with, because it’s the one uncertainty that’s in the hands of the One Who never drops the ball.  Or a life.  Even if I don’t trust myself to get to my ultimate goal, I can trust God to do everything He can to help me get there:  He wants it even more than I do.

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