Encouragement Through God’s Grace
Who’s There? (Fear Factor)
As happens sometimes, I woke up well before the sun would make its appearance, and I couldn’t go back to sleep. When that occurs, I would rather make better use of my time than to toss and turn and lament the fact that I’m losing shut-eye, so I will use my phone app and read the day’s devotion along with an Old Testament and a New Testament passage. There is really no better way to spend one’s time, and along with prayer, this regimen redeems those wakeful hours. I had just finished my reading and I believe I was spending some time in prayer when all of a sudden, I heard what sounded like a door opening and closing. I immediately elbowed my husband out of his sound sleep and whispered, “I just heard a door open and close.” He was instantly propped up on his elbows listening intently. After a few moments, he laid his head back on his pillow, and we both stared at the ceiling waiting to see if we heard any more signs of what might be an intruder. It only took another couple minutes, and there it was again, the sound of a door opening and closing, only louder this time. My husband was up immediately – he grabbed a small pistol and proceeded to investigate the origin of our middle-of-the night disturbance.
As I stayed lying in bed, I had quite the urge to get up and use the commode, but I squelched that inclination knowing that any noise I would make could alert a prowler or cause my husband to mistake me for one who did not belong. So, I prayed and I quoted as many Scripture passages in my head that I could to quell the worry and concern in my mind and heart: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7, ESV). “Thank you, Lord, that you are in control, and please keep my husband safe.” “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1, ESV). “Lord, please put your hedge of protection around us and help us.” “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” (Psalm 139:7-8, ESV). “Thank you, Jesus, that you are here with us!” As the time passed for what seemed like an eternity, I texted my daughter (in a different time zone) for prayer and my son to make sure he hadn’t shown up unexpectedly from his traveling occupation. At that point, I wished that my husband had taken his phone so I could know what was happening and he could call for help if needed. My daughter gently reminded me later that if my husband had a phone and used it, any prowler would have a heads-up as to his where-abouts. After about fifteen minutes, my husband returned. Thankfully, there was no unwelcome person inside our home! He shared that on the ground at the north side of our house were two huge owls. Apparently, they had each used our roof as a landing site. As I thought about that and we actually began to laugh over our misinterpretation of the event, I wondered what caused both owls to make a two-part noise. Practicing a gymnastics’ move and a perfect landing for the Owl Olympics?
Notwithstanding the benign intentions of our feathered guests, this was obviously a situation that precipitated fear. Fear can be irrational, or it can be a natural response to a particular circumstance. Certainly, it can be a deterrent to participating in harmful or unwise behavior. Clearly God recognizes that fear is a part of our emotional makeup as he has much to say about it in his Word. He emphatically declares that there is only one fear that we need to manifest in our lives, and that is the fear of the Lord. This fear is a deep reverence of him and a tremendous awe of him. According to the Book of Proverbs, the “fear of the LORD” – “is the beginning of knowledge” (1:7), “is the beginning of wisdom” (9:10), “prolongs life” (10:27), brings “strong confidence (14:26), “is a fountain of life” (14:27), by it “one turns away from evil” (16:6), “leads to life, and whoever has it rests satisfied” (19:23), and it brings a reward of “riches and honor and life” (22:4 [all references from the ESV]). In answer to all other types of fear, God reminds us that he is the one to whom we can turn, whether our fears are irrational or warranted. We can take comfort and put our fears in his capable hands as we remember he says, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10, ESV).
The next time I’m faced with a questionable situation, I can’t guarantee I will not respond with fear. But I do believe I will again turn to God in faith, pray, and meditate on his Word, which can bring his peace and answers for all our troubles. There is nothing that is out of his control, even death, “‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:54c-57, ESV). I can say with King David, “In God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Psalm 56:11, ESV). Image by danny moore from Pixabay.
As to the owls, how about some notification the next time you schedule gymnastics practice on our roof?
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It’s What’s Inside
“All that glitters is not gold.” – William Shakespeare
Spring into summer is the busiest travel time for our business/ministry as we participate in various homeschool conferences. As a promotion for multiple purchases, we have a little incentive for our customers. Essentially, people who buy two or more products pick one of several like items that will indicate what prize they will take home along with their purchased products. The items from which they choose are associated with the concurrent season or holiday. For instance, around patriotic days we put flags in a container with numbers on them that are affiliated with our different gifts. There are artificial flowers for springtime. If we are doing an event for Christmas, we have some red and green lollipops for the game. We even have a set of plastic baby bottles for the times when we are featuring a brand-new product.
And then, there are the incredible, non-edible plastic eggs that we put on display in a pretty basket as we are nearing Easter. Each egg holds a slip of paper that reveals what the customer will receive. We use iridescent eggs that are different pastel colors. It became apparent a few years ago that not only are these an attractive decoration on our table for the Easter season, they are fascinating enough to little eyes to be a prize themselves. Recognizing their appeal, I purchased extras so that I can give a few out to those who ask, letting the recipient know that the shell is all they are getting. At this most recent conference we placed the egg basket at the front of the table. When we left for the evening, everything but the cashbox stayed in place. Upon returning the next morning, to our slight dismay, almost all of the eggs were gone! Fortunately, because of the extras I had, along with a few additional prize slips, we were able to replenish the basket and continue the game. Later in the day while we were busy with some customers, low and behold, another egg disappeared. We had to keep an especially vigilant eye on the basket from then on and hide it overnight to be able to continue our little game for multiple purchases.
As pretty as these eggs are, I wonder how many of our pilferers were aware that the prize inside was a mere piece of paper with the promise of a gift on it. Certainly, kids are accustomed to finding treats and treasures inside a plastic egg. Could it be there was some disappointment when these little ovals were opened? The truth is that we all can be lured by shiny, pretty wrappings around what might be very insignificant contents. We go for the gleaming, the glamorous, the beautiful, the striking only to find out that there is nothing worthwhile in the acquisition, and we are disappointed not only by what is inside but by our original fascination with it and the assumption regarding the treasure it might hold.
But then, we have a God who seems to always turn our idea of the world upside-down. He sent us Jesus, his only Son. Jesus, the unassuming, humble, even perhaps unattractive Son of Man. Jesus, the one about whom was written hundreds of years before his earthly arrival, “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:2b-5, ESV). Jesus, the one who told us that the last will be first and the first will be last, that one who desired to be great should become a servant, the one who said, “‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it'” (Matthew 16:24-25, ESV).
No shiny covering, no glad appearance, nothing glamorous or striking to behold. But, oh the beauty within! What a wonderful truth to ponder – this Jesus the one and only came to suffer and die in our place, and those who have come to believe in him have the gift of eternal life that holds no comparison here on earth. The first glance at the outward appearance may not draw us in, but a peek inside of just who Jesus is will never disappoint and will be the most worthwhile prize we will ever acquire.
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The Father’s Awesome Love
Lily is spotted and speckled with the long torso of a typical wiener dog but also with an extraordinarily lengthy and pointed nose that looks out of proportion from the rest of her body. She easily illustrates the expression “She has a face that only a mother could love.” Lily definitely has some bad habits including using any turf inside or out as a place to potty. She is the third of three dogs, adopted into the family because the elderly woman who was her prior owner just couldn’t manage her anymore and my daughter and her husband felt sorry for her. Because of Lily, all three dogs spent much of their day either outdoors or in the inside kennel so that not only would she not add her own special decorations to the carpeting, but that she would also be able to have the companionship of her doggie brother and sister. We believed that they were likely not always fond of the arrangement since their household manners were in check. Besides, those disparaging glances and sarcastic little snarls were telltale signs of two very annoyed little pups.
All kidding aside, with a growing family of small children, my daughter knew that she did not have the time or ability to train Lily to be a better-behaved girl. She and her husband were beginning to assess their options regarding a new home for Lily with someone who could give her the attention she needed. There were the neighbors who expressed an interest in taking her. But, during a holiday visit to our home with the three human kids and the three furry babies along for the ride, a perfect answer came into being. Our oldest grandson, Anthony, met Lily and heard about the family dilemma. The bond was instantaneous! The moment Anthony looked at Lily and knew her plight, his heartstrings were struck, and he immediately asked to take her home. According to his mom, Anthony is “head-over-heals in love with this girl.” He has taken her on a hike and to Starbucks for a Puppucino – I’ve never heard of such a thing, but apparently it is a treat that is the rave of every sophisticated pooch. The point is that in spite of any negative traits she may have and nothing that warrants his love, Anthony is a doting dad with an incredible amount of affection, care, and joyful delight toward this needy little creature. He sees her as beautiful. The fondness does go both ways, but Anthony initiated the relationship and Lily is the blissful beneficiary of Anthony’s compassion, mercy, and kindness.
Anthony’s overtures toward Lily remind me of Someone Else who is even more loving, kind, and caring toward the recipients of his affection. God looks at us, speckled, spotted, unmannerly us, with eyes that take the shape of Valentine hearts that genuinely see us as beautiful and the object of his affection and delight. We do nothing to merit his grace and favor, but he is our doting Dad who initiates the relationship and lavishes his love on us. “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us” (1 John 4:10a, ESV). This love he has for us brings abundant life and blessing. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4-7, ESV). He patiently waits for us to return his love, and he is always available when we come to him. “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23, ESV). Needy creatures that we are, we are most definitely the blissful beneficiaries of his relationship with us.
Sitting on Dad’s lap; feeling his caring and protective arms in a loving embrace; enjoying his attention and affection. Yes, this describes Lily in her loving new home, but for God’s children, this is our certain and distinctive reality. There is nothing like the awesome love of the Father!
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Putting Down to Pick Up
I have no doubt that moms who are worth their weight in baby wipes would concur with this statement: parenting is a very overwhelming job, especially throughout the first few months of an infant’s life. After all, the baby just spent nine months tucked inside a cozy bubble, and the desire for that warmth and closeness isn’t left behind. While the infant’s primary interest is wrapped up in ensuring his tummy is full, besides a laundry list of needs that Mama is often the one to meet, it is essential for the baby to be cuddled and cooed at and given much me time. The benefits are great for mom too. Who can resist those tiny arms and hands and that precious fuzzy head? Often due to various other tasks that demand time and attention, mommies, and even grandmas, can become experts at multitasking: vacuuming with baby in tow, rinsing and loading dishes into the dishwasher, brushing big sister’s hair with the new little “helper” sharing the space. But there are many times when a mother has to choose to put something down to pick up her precious bundle and devote full time and attention to the little wonder that God has given as his special blessing. And though it can be tremendously hard at times, I believe many mothers would also concur that it really is totally worth it!
Mary, the mother of Jesus, was no exception. She had to put some things down to pick up her dear little Son. She was a virgin, but being pregnant during the period of betrothal would mean scorn, stares, and isolation from those in her community. She had to put down her dignity, her family ties, and any preconceived notions about the beginnings of married life as she expected the birth of her prodigious Son sooner than she would have dreamed. Oh, how special it was to her, however, to hold God’s Son. And everything she let go was worth putting down for the sake of not just that moment, but for the benefit of the entire world for all of time into eternity.
Then consider her Son. Jesus spent his life putting things down and picking up other things, some of which he would have rather left alone. He put down his heavenly sovereignty and picked up an unprivileged start to his earthly life in a dank, stinking manger. He put down his entitlement to a throne and scepter and picked up scorn and skepticism from particularly the educated and elite in the Israelite society. He gave up his glory and his rightful place of worship and picked up a rugged cross, the instrument of his death. He laid down his life and lifted up the souls of those who put their trust and faith in him for eternal salvation. And though it was incredibly hard at times, to Jesus it was totally worth it – what a wonderful Savior!
This Christmas, what might you put down and what might you pick up in honor of the humble, loving Son of God? To truly devote oneself to the Savior, there are choices to make, things to put aside, and sometimes challenging things to pick up to live out the life that will bring him honor and glory and live as he desires. And though it may be particularly hard at times, it will be totally worth it!
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12: 1-2, ESV).
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Close at Hand
I have once again been blessed to have spent time with my daughter and her family in Texas to welcome our newest little grandson, Easton Levi, into the world. I helped with the care of all three little ones, and while it was a very special time, it was also often hectic. I tried to be diligent to keep up with the household chores such as the never-ending laundry and the dirty dishes that made their way to the sink (or not) throughout the day. But I also am keenly aware of how important it is to continue to care for myself so I remain healthy and strong in mind, body, and spirit. I often read my Bible and took a shower or bath at night to make sure to get those necessities in. And there is one thing I did in the mornings every day as per usual to keep my back from giving me trouble – a thirty-minute exercise routine that includes stretches, push-ups, sit-ups, and scrunchies, my four-year-old granddaughter’s term for crunches.
No matter where I visit, all my younger grandchildren are interested in my daily ritual, and I often have company participating in close proximity. On one of the first few days of this stay, my terrific two-year-old grandson, Caden, took it to the next level. He decided not only to join in, he was on the bottom part of my legs with his chubby little hands grasping above my knees as I did those aforementioned “scrunchies.” It made for quite an interesting, humorous, and very cozy process. This was not unlike the camaraderie I experienced from a dog we had a few years back who also held to the philosophy that he had to continually occupy the same square foot of space as I did, despite the large size of our home. Both Caden and our beloved furry friend provided a tangible illustration of the word “near.” So congenial of them both!
A few days after this incident, I was reading about Saul, the first king of Israel, in the Book of 1 Samuel Chapter 10. This chapter relays the anointing of Saul and his humble beginnings as king and even his hesitancy to sit on the throne. That would not remain true, but at this juncture, Saul was all about following and honoring God. As told in the prophecy of Samuel the Seer (what prophets were called in those days), Saul was to see three signs confirming his kingship. The culmination of these signs was Saul joining a group of prophets. “Then the Spirit of the LORD will rush upon you, and you will prophesy with them and be turned into another man” (1 Samuel 10:6, ESV). The following text really caught my attention: “Now when these signs meet you, do what your hand finds to do, for God is with you” (1 Samuel 10:7, ESV). This may have been just a little bit heady for Saul as he quickly turned from humility to self-sufficiency, making decisions without God’s input and performing sacrifices, which he was not authorized to do. Samuel’s advice from God, however, was sound. When one finds himself connected to God, listening to him in prayer, following his Word, and observing how God is moving around him, doing what the heart is urging is natural and very appropriate. But it takes that nearness to God to be able to confidently step out in faith and accomplish much in his Name. His closeness is welcome and more than congenial – it is a necessity to our growth and victory as believers.
My time with the family in Texas has come to an end. It was hard to leave behind those chubby little hands, the impish grins, the chaos, and the crazy. But I know that each time I do my exercise routine, I will cherish the memory of the nearness of one little boy that September morning. And, I am moving forward with the hope that I will inch ever closer to my Savior so that my hand can do what it finds to do for his glory.
“Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory… For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you. But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works” (Psalm 73:23-24, 27-28, ESV).
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It was quite the lively time – six grandchildren, nine down to two, and four adults all together in one three-bedroom home; cousins that don’t get to see each other very often. Bed space was at a premium, and so the girls all slept in one room, most on quilts and blankets on the floor. Abby, being just under three-years-old, to make sure she didn’t wander around the house or turn bedtime into a perpetual party, spent her nights and her naps in a port-a-crib, albeit in that same room. Abby is of average height, and the space for her in this cozy little bed is adequate, but snug. Though the girls had somewhat of a hard time settling down at night, eventually everyone got to sleep (except for poor Mama who occupied the couch in there), and all was well.
One afternoon I went into the room to pick-up after naptime, and I literally laughed out loud. I’m not sure how Abby squeezed in amongst the items she had brought into her little nest, but it had to be a challenge. Abby had amassed quite the collection of varied toys. Along with her prized baby doll, Abby had napped in that compromised space with a pillow, at least three blankets and a sheet, a cash register complete with a phone and a microphone, plastic pieces of cake, a toy knife, a cake plate, a stuffed educational dog, and a book. She must have cleaned out a bit because there were three books next to the crib on the floor. I immediately thought to myself, “Wow, Abby was prepared!” I’m not exactly sure for what, but there was no chance that should sleep escape her, she would be bored because she’d have plenty of activities from which to choose.
This is actually a very good life lesson both for practical, every-day living and in our walk with the Lord. The Bible definitely addresses both. Of course, there is the proverbial passage about the ant: “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest” (Proverbs 6:6-8, ESV). Further on in the book of Proverbs, we find the excellent wife who is also ready ahead of time for the needs of her family. “She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands. She is like the ships of the merchant; she brings her food from afar. She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household and portions for her maidens. She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard… She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle… She is not afraid of snow for her household, for all her household are clothed in scarlet*” (Proverbs 31:13-16, 19, 21, ESV). Clearly, there is much thought and planning that goes into a household that is run so efficiently. It is not always easy to be so organized, but it is something to which we can aspire.
It is even more important to be prepared each day for the tasks and encounters to which the Lord may call us. Second Timothy chapter four begins with these words, “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:1-2, ESV). A key passage that reminds us to always be ready for the Lord’s plans is found in a parable that Jesus shared with his disciples. In Matthew chapter twenty-five is located “The Parable of the Ten Virgins,” which is a story meant to help us understand the kingdom of heaven. Ten young ladies were awaiting the coming of the bridegroom for the wedding feast. Five had readied themselves by bringing oil for their lamps, and they are called wise. The other five were unprepared for the bridegroom’s arrival, and they are labeled foolish. As the bridegroom approached, the foolish virgins tried to buy oil from the wise, but there wasn’t enough for all. When the foolish left to purchase some for themselves, the bridegroom came, the wise maidens took part in the feast, and the foolish virgins were shut out of the party. When they returned begging for entrance, the bridegroom answered, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you. Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:12b-13, ESV).
Certainly, we should always be ready for the Lord’s return. But, by virtue of our time in the Bible and in prayer we should also be ready for the opportunity to encourage believers in the faith and to encourage non-believers to seek a life-giving relationship with Jesus. Like Abby we can be prepared; unlike Abby, our aim is not just to fill up our time with frivolous things to prevent boredom just in case we cannot sleep, but to make an impact that will last throughout eternity.
*(can mean double thickness) Footnote on Proverbs 31:21, Page 844, ESV Student Study Bible, Copyright 2011, Crossway, Wheaton, Illinois USA. All rights reserved.
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The Wonders Around Us
Ah, summer! It’s finally here – one in which we can actually leave our own four walls and explore the great outdoors virtually bare-faced and bare-footed, depending on our environs. In case you’ve forgotten best practices, keep in mind that shoes of some type are still required in most places even as masks become unnecessary.
When I was a child, our summer outings were basically within a hundred-mile radius of home. For the adventuresome type, this probably seems tremendously restrictive. In general, I would have to agree, especially since much of my first ten years of marriage were spent in Europe. But I can’t go on without mentioning that I grew up within 30 minutes of the Canadian border and just a short distance more to what has often been included on various lists of the world’s top natural wonders, the powerful and majestic Niagara Falls. We would often go to the Canadian side of the Falls where one can view all three sections the best – Horseshoe Falls, The American Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls. We would pack a picnic meal in order to spend the day, often stop along the Niagara River to fish for a while, and bring along swimsuits to enjoy a dip in the water at a small beach not far from the main attraction. At some point we would stroll along the walking path that skirts the Falls. And we’d stop and look at the massive formation with the great deluge of water coursing to the rocks below. Impressive – of course. Awe-inspiring – absolutely. Commonplace – unfortunately for me, this also was true. Somehow I had come to view this extraordinary creation of God as ordinary. I began to take this amazing display of nature for granted, as if something so wonderful was found in everyone’s backyard. This desired destination for so many from not just North America but for millions around the world was a normal, everyday part of my experience, and I lost the wonder along the way.
It reminds me of the experiences of the Israelites as the Lord brought them out of Egypt. They were prone to taking an awful lot for granted, but even more so, they were a complaining crowd. Moses had been given the information to pass on to them about how God was going to provide for them in the wilderness. One would think that as a sustaining substance miraculously appeared on the ground that first morning, they would have stood there, mouths agape, proclaiming, “This is a wonder from heaven!” But their first comments were quite to the contrary. Can you hear them quizzically or even sarcastically ask, “What is it?” which in Hebrew sounds like manna. Not only did they not recognize the wonder before them, some of them didn’t follow God’s explicit directions regarding its gathering, and then as they continued seeing it on the ground and therefore on the daily menu, they complained about it. What an ungrateful group!
In all honesty, I have no right to point fingers at them. The other day as I was reading the passion of the Christ in the Book of John, these words gripped my soul, “Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged him. And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head and arrayed him in a purple robe. They came up to him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ and struck him with their hands” (John 19:1-3, ESV). Having read the Gospel passages about Jesus’ denigration and crucifixion so many times before, I was absolutely struck anew by this description of the utterly contemptible treatment the Lord took for me when he chose this path to save me from my sins. How could I have read it so matter-of-factly in the past and missed the outright wonder of this most loving, devoted act by the God of the universe? I literally paused in awe, thanksgiving, and repentance for what the Lord willingly endured for me. And of course, this is only one piece of the wonder of who God is.
There are so many wonders to behold in God’s creation. May we not just accept them as part of our everyday experience and take them for granted when access to them is easy and/or in close proximity. As an adult, I’ve had many opportunities to return to Niagara Falls, and I have a far greater appreciation for the marvel that it is. I have tried to pass that on with excitement to my children and grandchildren. Even more so, I desire to continue to appreciate the wonder of all that God is and all that he’s done for me. Communicating that to my progeny is far greater to share.
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Dad’s Lifetime Home