Something for Sunday

This is a hard saying. Who can listen to it?

How are we to read our gospel passage? What is going on here? At one level Jesus is engaged in controversy seeking to show those who question him who he is and what he’s about. At another level scholars have suggested that John’s gospel was written to reflect controversy between those who understand the truth about Jesus and those who rejected it – some of whom may even have been Christians of a kind.

A somewhat grumpy tone is characteristic of this gospel. “He came to his own but his own received him not” Chapter 1. The light has come into the world but men preferred darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” Chapter 3. And now in Chapter 6 “after this some of his disciples drew back and did not go about with him” So there’s opposition and disquiet even amongst those who had called themselves disciples and had followed him.

So opposition is a theme here and indeed throughout the New Testament. Opposition to Jesus is a consistent theme uttered by many voices. And today we need to ask ourselves do we Christians have opponents and even enemies. To be honest-yes we do! Should we name them? Dare I name them! Well here are two candidates –those who deny Jesus’ mission to extend the love of God beyond the boundaries and those who ignore his call to leave self behind and prefer to focus on our rights and my privileges. Thinking of this week’s news I’m sure that if the parable of the Good Samaritan were to be told again the focus would be on the good member of the Taliban. And in the epistle passage from Ephesians the dominant theme is spiritual warfare and there’s no warfare without an enemy and the devil has many human agents. The whole point of the passage about spiritual warfare is to highlight the need to confront them.

One of my favourite recent quotations is this one from the Catholic literary scholar and author Terry Eagleton. “If you claim to be a follower of Jesus and you don’t end up dead you’ve got some explaining to do. I just love that! It applies not only to the first disciples who followed Jesus on the way of the cross but also to martyrs of more recent days. It has been said and truly said that the twentieth century generated more martyrdoms than any previous century. Remember Jesus own words. If anyone would come after me let him take up his cross and follow me.

As for Methodist martyrs that seems to be something of a blank page. A google search for Methodist martyrs produced only the Tolpudddle martyrs but they were something entirely different. And yet the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. Truly it’s a paradox that the way of self-giving love is the way in which God’s grace reaches us. Discipleship is costly but true grace is costly grace.

The idea that Christians do have enemies makes many of us feel uncomfortable. Christianity we were brought up to believe was another name for respectable and proper behaviour. But now as times have changed Christianity is sneered at and dismissed as backward, traditional, unhelpful, and too complacent about racism and abuse. Some of these criticisms are fair at least fair in the present climate of opinion. I once met a Minister who was being stationed to Glastonbury to confront as she put it the “alternative society”. But now Christianity is itself the alternative society.

As Christians we can be regarded with suspicion. Social occasion’s especially family occasions can be tricky. Should one speak up or keep silent. On the whole I prefer to smile and keep quiet always erring on the side of kindness and tolerance especially towards the intolerant. Being elderly doesn’t really help either as it’s easy to be dismissed as unprogressive, out of touch or whatever. Judging by his letters I don’t think St Paul would always approve of my behaviour.

In my offerings of these days I try to offer something about the environmental crisis. In the case of the environmental crisis the enemies of the faith are those people and agencies who foster greed, envy and waste-all those things that are detrimental to a thankful approach to God’s goodness in creation. What should our response be as a follower of Jesus? Some as you know favour civil disobedience and direct action in the name of Jesus. I have grave doubts about the wisdom and rightness of this approach. I fear it may be counter-productive. Remember the two disciples in Luke’s gospel who say to Jesus at a moment of crisis. Look Lord hear are two swords. And he says: that’s enough of that. No I think personal witness is the only way. But not everyone agrees.

And then at the end of Chapter 6 Jesus challenges his disciples. Do you also wish to go away? Some you will remember had drawn back and had put a distance between themselves and Jesus. Others perhaps had decided to follow Jesus but from a distance-preferably a safe distance. This then is a challenge to us. Are we following Jesus but only from a safe distance?

Challenged as to whether he will cease to follow Jesus Peter’s response is one we should take to heart. Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life and we have come to know that you are the holy one of God.

That’s a very authentic Christian confession. Just consider. You are the holy one of God. Or as we might say the best image of God we have.

This is Jesus-not a social reformer, or a distributor of free lunches, or a psychotherapeutic counsellor or a political radical but the holy one of God. He speaks the words that are the truth about real life as God has purposed it. He not only speaks the words but as this gospel is at pains to point out he is the living word. Words that lead to actions, actions of grace and love.

Everything that Jesus does signifies this and Peter has got the message-at least for the moment-which poses a question to you and I. Have we got the message? Are we living in grace and truth? What would it mean to live as if this were true?

How to be a Good Enemy

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In our Old Testament studies course at college one  of the most heated discussions was about how we confront the ethical question of the psalms of vengeance. Some people argued that they were in scripture so we should just accept them others worried over the ill that could come if these words are prayed from our pulpits and in our private prayers. They fear what could happen with the expression of our rage.

 My concern moves in the opposite direction. I fear the cool and collected civility of church life that denies those who have experienced trauma the space for public expression of that anger, which lingers in the air as palpable discomfort for the powerful.

I have herd christians complain about those who have raised issues of racism in the church. I’ve watched as those of LGBTQI community are reprimanded for interrupting business as usual, despite decades of silencing them through  many conference resolutions. People who occupy seats of power control the agenda by censuring the anger of those demanding change. Certain voices, “respectable” voices, are given space while others are shut out.

The psalms that call for God’s intervention are written as a reminder of the enormity of human suffering within systemic and sustained forms of violence that cannot always be rectified by good work, good intentions, or reasonable dialogue. They show us the way that power is structured across and within interpersonal relationships and geopolitical realities. Rather than showing resignation or reasonableness, the psalms keep before us the trauma of inequitable suffering. These psalms hold the space, and they push us all toward response.

In psalms of justice we hear the cry of those whose words mark the places of oppression and degradation in history. These are people who are acted upon, who apprehend their own helplessness before suffocating violence. These are people whose very existence hangs in the balance of political and economic forces beyond their control. There will be no negotiation or discussion, nothing to bargain with, no scheme, no outsmarting, no escape. These are the prayers of dead-ends.

And yet something else happens here. To speak this violence aloud is also to generate a hope which destruction cannot overcome. To make space for the words of those facing catastrophe, who have nowhere left to turn, who have nothing left — this is the memory preserved in the psalms. 

“In the face of monstrous evil, the worst possible response, is to feel nothing. What must be felt is grief, rage, outrage. In their absence, evil becomes an acceptable commonplace.”  (J. Clinton McCann – Introduction to the Psalms) The psalms of rage remind us that somehow, in spite of absolute defeat, someone dared to say aloud that the world is not as it should be.

In my own prayer I sense no conflict between the psalms of justice and the New Testament’s call to love our neighbours as the way to describe prayer for our persecutors. The prayers offered in the Bible include those by Zechariah, asking God to save us from the hands of all who hate us. The prayers of the Gospels encompass Mary’s Song, a call to tear the powerful from their thrones and send the rich away empty. Throughout his ministry Jesus is intolerant of prayers meant to look pious. He lashes out at prayers being used as a public gesture rather than as an offering to God of one’s internal orientation. I would guess that praying as we “ought to pray” falls in line with the false piety of those who pray loudly on the street corners so that “they may be seen and praised by others” (Matthew 6:2).

Prayer may be transformative of our desires, but this can only happen by stopping pretending we are something we are not.

Jesus gives a rough outline of how to pray in light of this remarkable change of perspective. We start by positioning our prayer from the place where God is in control of history, working things out in the world around us, not distant from it. God is charged with the care of creation. We can let go of outcomes, of our attempts to control history. “Our Father in heaven. Your name is holy.” We recognise that God’s kingdom is established, firmed up in our midst. Our desires, our intentions for the righting of wrong, the reign of justice — let it come to pass.

After we have established God’s reign, Jesus tells us to offer our own needs. In this prayer, Matthew slips out of Hebrew, the formal language of the Temple, and into Aramaic, the everyday language of the people. It is in this language in which people argued in the market and whispered to their children as they went to sleep. The purpose of prayer is to move ordinary life and common speech into the communal form of God’s reign.

I suspect Jesus uses this informal language because there is no point in offering up prayers about the things we ought to want. Prayer may be transformative of our desires, but it will not be so by pretending we are something we are not. Rather than putting out pious prayers for public consumption or pretending that God doesn’t already know what we desire, we come to God as we are.

The Dominican monk and writer, Herbert McCabe reminds us that “genuine prayer means honest prayer, laying before your Father in heaven the actual desires of your heart — never mind how childish they may sound. Your Father knows how to cope with that.” We pray for the things we want and the things we need because we can’t fool God. In the end, we only fool ourselves.

“One of the great human values of prayer is that you face the facts about yourself and admit to what you want,” McCabe tells us, “and you know you can talk about this to God because he is totally loving and accepting.” This is why Jesus tells his followers to stop babbling like the pagans. This kind of prayer is an extraction exercise; stone and wood idols are impersonal amulets that intercede to reckless deities. The prayer Jesus offers to us makes space to come face-to-face with who we are and to deal with it plainly, alongside someone who loves us absolutely and unconditionally.

I have offered forthright prayers, prayers asking God to remove, by any means necessary, the government of my country. I have asked God to cause institutions to crumble and people to lose their jobs. I prayed these prayers in honesty, placing my anger before a holy God. And more often than not my prayers were not misplaced in their earnestness and longing for a world set right. At other times, my prayers of wrath, seething with demands for punishment and revenge, revealed that my own incoherent and blistering rage would do nothing to set me and others down in the renewed order of God’s creation. What I really wanted was pain. In these prayers, I reengaged the cyclical violence of perpetual struggle, only now on behalf of victims. But until I said the words aloud, until it was held before me, I could not see another way out.

God bless

Alan.

I am Me

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One of the most difficult aspects of pastoral ministry for me has being alongside those who live with dementia. It is a terrible disease which seems to rob a person of their essence. Not only do they forget who their family and friends are they forget who they are. 

I have sat with a university lecturer who cannot button up a shirt, a brilliant cook who could not remember what a spoon was and most poignantly a minister who had no remembrance of the church, the bible or Jesus.

This loss of self identity puts me in mind of the words of Jesus when he asked his disciple `”Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29)

Much of the western worlds thinking about identity has been shaped by existentialists like Soren Kierkegaard, Albert Camus, and Jean Paul Sartre. (My sisters and brothers from other parts of the wold will have a different idea of identity.) They believed that a meaningful life involves being true to yourself.

To be true to yourself, you have to know who you are. Each time we confront dilemmas or challenges, struggle with disappointments or navigate heartache, we will either be true to ourselves or betray ourselves in what we do and how we do it.

As Christians, we share a common framework. You may not be a Christian, but I hope you’ll hang in there with what I’m about to say. Not because I’m trying to convince you to take up my faith tradition, but because I think that there’s something in it that stretches across a range of spiritual expressions. 

In one sense, if the dementia sufferer cannot remember who they are we will remember for them. Sure, we may never know them exhaustively. Much of who they are may remain a mystery. But our love for them helps them to continue to be who they have always been, even if they themselves can no longer remember.

When He asked his friends “Who do you say that I am?”, Jesus was not testing whether they could recite some formula of orthodoxy. He was telling them something like this. “If you can see that I am the one who loves you no matter what, you’re going to get a sense of who you truly are: the Beloved.”

When we remember that we are the Beloved, we respond to the world in love. And this is the crucial bit, we all forget. At one time or another we forget that we are the Beloved.

And so we need each other. Our love for each other reminds us who we really are. The Beloved. But more than that. Sometimes we need the love of others to carry us when we forget until somehow, by grace, we come back to being ourselves at last.

God bless,

Alan.

Wonderfully Made

Our Multicultural Missteps | A Catch of Culture

When was the last time you said ‘I love you ‘, other than in the bathroom mirror! Just think about who the person was and what was their relationship to you.

Frequently we say I love you because you agree with me, because you belong to my family/group/church, because you are my ally and support me. Sometimes we say ‘I Love you’ even when your words and actions infuriate me (in those situations maybe we need to say ‘I love you’ more!). Don’t get me wrong, saying I love you to people in your social group is important but our love for others must stretch beyond those we like.

We will overcome prejudice, racism, homophobia and all forms of injustice only when we learn to say, “I love you because you are you.” To everyone.

A commitment to justice requires a devotion to and the pursuit of the common good. And in what may seem a contradiction, the good of the whole is rooted in our recognition of the infinite worth of each individual. Conversely, the worth of each individual is actualised only by the community’s commitment to the individual’s dignity.

As it turns out, this is a basic Christian principle. It is rooted in our doctrine of creation.

Drawing on the wisdom of Scripture, Medieval theologians like Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus emphasised that God’s love is the power that brought everything into being. That same love sustains the whole universe at every single instant.

Duns Scotus went on to say that each and every creature has a unique ‘thisness’. He called this its haecceity. (hek-see-aty)

In other words, God doesn’t just create humans in general. Or robins or daffodils or stars in general, for that matter. God creates each person as a singularity. None of us is interchangeable. Each of us is irreplaceable.

You, O best beloved, are you. There is no other. And you were made this way by the infinite love of the author of all things. God loves you because you are you.

Scripture also teaches us that we were created in the image of God. To be fully human is to love in a way that reflects the divine way of being: to love you because you are you.

In other words, I need my neighbour in order for me to be truly me. That’s because I am my true self only by loving my neighbour as myself. Remember, Jesus said, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”

It should come naturally to say, “I love you” not only because you are fearfully and wonderfully made by the same God who created the stars of the universe but also because you remind me more of myself than not. Of course, God knows as well as we do that it doesn’t come so naturally.

In other words, we still have work to do. We need to see ourselves in others as well as seeing the face of Christ in all those we meet.

God bless, Alan.

Let Me Dance to the Beat of your Heart

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Well it is Monday morning and the whole nation seems a little flat (unless you are Welsh Irish or Scottish). England didn’t quite win the European Championship, but they certainly lifted the nations mood.

One thing I will not miss is the constant, and often out of tune, rendition of ‘Three Lions on a Shirt’ (I much prefer ‘Sweet Caroline’!). A complaint that I have heard from Church members has been – Why can’t we sing at church like they do at the football?

If only! I wish people would sing in church like they do at the football match! So much passion and enthusiasm. Sadly many of the churches divisions have arisen of the style of worship allowed in the church. It is nothing new, Charles Wesley was criticised for using ‘popular’ tunes as settings for his hymns.

We can go back to King David and find the same disapproving of ‘inappropriate worship’. In 2 Samuel 6 we read how the Ark of the Covenant was moved from Baalah into Jerusalem. It must have been quite a spectacle as 30,000 men were involved, with singing and loud musical instruments. At the centre of the spectacle was King David dressed in a linen Ephod (his underwear?!) dancing with all his might.

His wife Michal was horrified by her husbands behaviour (nothing in life changes!). Michal’s complaint to David doesn’t sound too different from those I hear when Sunday’s “passing of the peace” becomes something more than a begrudged murmur of acknowledgment. Should Michal be understood as the first champion of traditional, decent-and-in-good-order worship? If so, she doesn’t come out of this incident as one whom God favours. 

However we have to be careful in reading too much into this passage about the kind of worship that pleases God (as opposed to Michal’s dour preference), one only need remember the highly liturgical patterns that evolve in Jerusalem’s temple worship, a worship pattern that arguably bears David’s impress. One great story of exuberance does not a theology of worship make.

So what is there in this unique story? Supremely, just one thing: it’s a pitiful thing when we’ve gotten too prim, too proper, too stuffy to make merry before God when something wonderful occurs. The fact is you don’t bring the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem every other month. (Just as you don’t reach a major football final every week.) This is a momentous occasion and it deserves to be celebrated with silly party hats and horns and yes, even with the king doing a jig in his boxer shorts!

Over the years I’ve attended (and even planned) my fair share of church anniversaries and celebrations. The truth is most were less than “kick up your heels and shout hallelujah” occasions. There we were with a century or so of the faithfulness of God and people to remember, but a visitor might have mistaken it for one of those solemn assemblies Isaiah was underwhelmed by. On many of those occasions I knew enough about my fellow worshipers to know that they’d go bananas over their favourite football team, but put them in a church context and all the whoopee goes out of them. Why is that?

Well, put a positive construction on it first. Maybe we are restrained in church simply because here we see things through a different filter. It’s not so much that we aren’t as joyous as at the football, as that in church we recognise that life and all its blessings are interwoven with holy purpose. A late goal to win the match is one thing; a child’s baptism is another. Joy is appropriate on both occasions, but is it not a different kind of joy when by water and word a child of God is claimed for time and eternity? Maybe it’s not that our whoopee evaporates in worship; it just has a grateful hush of reverence about it. But granted that this is the case, there still remains the awkward possibility that most of us mimic David so seldom because we’ve lost touch with the grandness of what we are doing.

We mouse around because the wonder God’s love escapes us. I know it to be true, that there are Sundays when the Minister sleepwalks through the service—even when they seem most animated. A gauzy film of the theoretical shrouds the action. But there are those moments when the awesome, absurd good news of what we are about comes crashing in like waves on our stony shores. We can no more program those epiphanies than we can count the stars. But we can be careful not to stifle them, and we can be quick to give them glad permission to soften the eye, catch the voice, and lead us to make merry before God.

When I read this story of David’s enthusiasm without contrasting it with Jesus’ story of the elder brother who would not join his father’s party. It was a time to make merry, but the elder brother didn’t live like that, he seemed fixed with life being bound up with duty. How many children have given up on ‘Church’ because they were told they had to go to church and there was nothing attractive or joyful about the experience.

Grace, those lovely moments when the unexpected holy descend upon us, is a gift we are privileged to see every now and then. That’s the time to put aside the balance sheet and even the prayer book and to kick up our heels, and with body and soul make holy fools out of ourselves, dancing an Alleluia to the giver of all good and perfect gifts.

So as they say on the Strictly Come Dancing “Keep on dancing!” but you may want to wear a little more than King David!

God bless,

Alan.

All Are Welcome

Holy Communion, First United Methodist Church of Mechanicsburg, PA, July 4  2021 | AllEvents.in

In the middle of this years Methodist Conference there was a report presented which I suspect most people missed, given the interest in the vote on same sex marriage which made the national news!

The report I refer to is ‘Holy Communion and Online Worship’ (Report 39). During this period of lockdown we have been effectively deprived of Holy Communion as the present standing orders of the church prevented people joining in a service of Holy Communion at home over the internet. (The get out clause was to call it a Love Feast). Given this deprivation the Faith and Order Committee have begun a period of discernment as to the experience of online communion.

The Conference adopts a period of discernment from 1 September 2021 until 31 August 2024, in which presbyters and other persons authorised to preside at the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper be permitted to lead celebrations of Holy Communion in which some or all of the worshippers gather together through electronic means, and directs all who preside at such celebrationsto consider prayerfully the guidance in this report in their preparation and conduct of them and to observe the parameters set out in paragraph 7.4

At the same time this was happening unnoticed in Methodism, Bishops in the Roman Catholic Church were arguing as to whether President Joe Biden (a life long Catholic) should be prevented from receiving the Mass because of his stance on abortion. That did make the national news.

The Methodist understanding of Holy Communion reflects a broad spectrum of opinion so what I share with you are my own personal beliefs about Communion. I know there will be those who disagree with me but I am OK with that.

As a Methodist I believe Communion is God’s gift, not the church’s gift. Methodists should never debate, as the Catholic church currently is, whether some individuals should be permitted access to the Table. Deciding who deserves to receive communion is beyond the job description of the church. The origins of Communion begin with God’s gracious character revealed in Christ. It does not begin or end with the church. This means the church does not get to refuse anyone the privilege of participating in God’s gift. We did not create communion. We, therefore, do not get to limit Communion. We do not even “take” Communion. We receive Communion. And our job is to help others also receive it. The church is a recipient of grace. We do not own grace. We do not restrict grace.

As a Methodist I believe that in Communion God folds the past and future into the present. This belief begins not with the nature of time, but in the nature of God. The past, present, and future all collapse in on each other because we worship a God who transcends time and makes one community out of all of us. God’s presence has been given to the people of God in all times and places. The past, present, and future are God’s eternal now. As God was present in the Exodus, so God is present now. As Jesus is present in the future new creation, so Jesus is present now. This presence, in fact, is not a symbolic presence. It’s a real presence. The God of all time has folded all moments into this moment and given us not symbolic presence but God’s active, passionate, attentive presence. So that also means we all participate in the Exodus story, the liberation of God’s people from the bondage of Egypt, sin, and death. That past event is brought into the present. We participate in the future resurrection and redemption of all things. That is, Communion brings God’s future restoration and new creation into the present. This also means that Communion makes us present to other believers who are also presently alive and receiving Communion. We are participating in divine grace as a Communion with believers in China, Russia, Fiji , Zimbabwe, and Palestine.

As a Methodist I believe the table is open to everyone. Our language is that we have “an Open Table.” No one is restricted from the Table. No one is too unworthy because no one was worthy to begin with. Will unworthy people receive Communion if we leave it open to everyone? Well, yes. But unworthy people receive Communion even when the Table is “closed” because no one is worthy to receive Communion. I remember early in my ministry being criticised for giving communion to children as ‘they don’t understand what they are doing’. I asked the critic to explain to me what was happening when they received communion. I received no further complaints! Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with Judas, who was soon to betray him. Jesus washed Judas’s feet that same night. Jesus knew beforehand that Judas would betray him, yet he was not kept from divine grace. If Jesus can wash Judas’s feet and receive him at the Table, who are we to restrict anyone from the Table?

As a Methodist I believe Communion is a work of grace into the lives of non-Christians. Even non-Christians can participate in the Communion moment. They may not become Christians that exact moment, but they do, nevertheless, participate in grace. And that grace can lead them to conversion. When we say our Table is “open,” we mean that no one — not a Buddhist, not a Muslim, not an Atheist, no one! — is kept from the Table. Communion is the moment when all of us, undeserving as we may be, find God’s grace given to us in tangible ways. The church doesn’t own Communion, so we don’t even get to restrict it to those inside the church. The God of all creation has gifted it, through Jesus, to all of creation.

God bless, Alan.

Transforming Pain

What Does the Bible Say about Healing?

The fatal stabbing of Dea-John Reid is nothing out of the ordinary. Just one of the 46,000 knife crimes that result in 300 deaths each year. For me whoever this was different, it didn’t take place in London or Glasgow or Manchester. It didn’t even take place in another part of the city of Birmingham. It happened in the middle of our circuit amongst people who are members of our churches.

As I reflected on the violence that surrounds us, some words from Richard Rohr came to mind. “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.” To put this another way, violence is a misguided and self-defeating strategy for dealing with our pain. To reduce the violence in our world, we will have to deal with our pain differently.

Now, we might not like to admit it, but each of us has been bruised and battered, chipped and scraped by life. By impersonal circumstances but also by other people, and let’s be honest, by our very own precious little selves. And before any one says anything about loving church fellowships I can assure you a sharp tongue can wound as effectively as any knife!

Our pain gives rise to a hunger for justice. Things should be set right. Things need to be made right. And so, many of us fervently pursue justice. And, without intending to, we make things even worse.

Many of us are convinced that justice requires punishment. You have to balance the scales. Heap a proportionate amount of pain on those who have caused pain. You just have to find the right people to blame for the mess we’re in. That’s called retributive justice. But there’s a problem. Punishment does not heal pain. On the contrary, it creates new pain. And as a result, it perpetuates the very violence we’re trying to solve.

Does that mean as humans we are stuck in a perpetual circle of pain and violence? Well, no. Two thousand years ago God sent his son, Jesus, to break the power of sin and death – and pain and violence once and for all.

On the cross Jesus did not blame or curse any one for the pain he suffered. “Father forgive” were his only words.

Instead of looking for someone to blame in our suffering, we can set our sights on healing. This is restorative justice.

Restorative justice begins when we have compassion for each other. My pain is transformed when I stand in solidarity with the pain of another. So it was good that there were members of our circuit who stood with the community alongside the family of Dea-John Reid at the vigil following his death.

Again, as Richard Rohr says, “Those who agree to carry and love what God loves—which is both the good and the bad—and to pay the price for its reconciliation within themselves, these are the followers of Jesus Christ. They are the leaven, the salt, the remnant, the mustard seed that God uses to transform the world.”

Love is the only power that will transform our pain and deliver us from violence. Love is not easy. It isn’t even safe. But it is good. And in the end, love wins.

God bless, Alan.

(Richard Rohr –The Universal Christ.)