Letters From Abroad – 13 AUG

Dear Study Abroad,

Well. I’m not sure I know where to begin.

This was going to be a thank you letter, but maybe I should start with a confession.

Confession: I was prepared to dislike you. I was prepared to find little to no connection. I was prepared to be starved of soul-filling fellowship. I was prepared to laugh because I had to. I came with rehearsed answers and withheld questions and a body under an expired warranty. I came without trust in the God whom we serve together.

And then you all happened, in all your smudges and imperfections. I was snarky and you laughed, I was silent and you asked, I was tired and you cared. You did not answer every need of my soul, but that is because God used you to build me up in other ways. You built me up so I could see Christ in the mess of the unspoken parts of life.

Corgibutt, thank you for your infectious laughter, your ability to delight, your choice to ask and care. I can’t wait to hear your joy in the halls of Moody.

Catmom, I may not love cats, but I love you and your snark, the theology and thought underneath, the bursts of laughter, your crazy dreams. I mean, what is even…?

Bush with red berries, I never expected another sister, the stories you tell, the care you take, the wisdom you humbly hold, and the tenacity and empathy rooted so deeply in you that you can weather apathy with honesty.

Jane, I wish you could see yourself and the grace you carry. Thank you for the hilarity (leaves!), honesty, and heart. Your own godly womanhood is a testament to those women for whom you care.

Yellow, you were vastly unexpected; a burst of heart and sass, a deeply caring soul, a vulnerable honesty, and a treasure I wish I’d known so much earlier.

Nancy Drew, there are so many strong women I could name for you, but perhaps this is what I appreciate most: your anchor in Christ is deep, your gentleness tangible, your humor a witty, subtle thing.

Sports GODDESS, we may notice your enthusiasm and skill, but neither can we miss your faithfulness in learning, care of everyone you meet, quick eye and hand to help, and humility to see others at their best.

Pocahantas, where did your heart come from? You have blossomed from the quiet observer to the one speaks truth from that, and your heart to teach and care has chosen to remember those who care for you.

Jenna Coleman, I thought you were quiet, but perhaps you only trusted your voice in memes for a while. Thank you for the hilarity and the honesty. Thank you for teaching us how to see present redemption.

Ophelia, I will look forward to seeing your face at the desk now, because I know the faith and healing God has placed in you, alongside the talent and skill to organize and be a faithful Martha and Mary.

Thriftqueen, I wish you were in Chicago, but perhaps God needs your graciousness, killer style, love of food and place, and quiet ability to enter and enjoy at Spokane. By the way, you’re not too old; you’re just right.

Asian Mountain Goat, I will miss you. I will miss your unexpected questions, your ability to speak into everyone, the different glasses with which you look at the world, and your tender heart towards God. The spirit of you will be in every numbered list until we meet again.

Potato, please know we care. Your questions are unexpected, but who knew that on the scale of serial-killer-to-saint, you were in the category of honest friend who can both shock and awe?

Squirrel, Chipmunk, Hamster… I’m unsure how to describe you other than the small friend who never quite goes away, chatters frequently, but brings delight and has learned to care in ways the world has not yet understood. Your cheer and encouragement will be missed. Stay smiling, friend.

Dan Brown, you bring so much to us. Truly, you are built in Christ, a Timothy being brought up into a thoughtful man of God with deep-running thoughts and a still-cherubic-cheer. (Get it? Angels & Demons?)

Big Bear, I meant what I said: you astonish me and contain the qualities of a person unmistakeably transformed by the grace of God. You stand out in a hundred ways, although some of them will be changed once you learn to use your inside voice (ha).

Soccer Dude, don’t change. Don’t change your laughter, your care, your ability to listen, your honesty about God. I may tease you now, but I count it a privilege to see you grow in those things He has so precisely placed in you.

To those who taught: you taught far beyond the classroom, and, from the person who is occasionally starved for a life perspective outside of my generation, you fed my soul, every day. You treated me with respect I did not deserve, made yourself available in countless unasked ways, and looked ever to Christ so we might see Him, too. You cared for our needs of body and mind and spirit, spoke honestly of hard things, praised Him in past and present grace, opened our hearts to receive a greater portion of Him, and believed in the God Who Is. Thank you.

There are so many more people and places and servant-hearted saints to thank. This is just small gratitude for a harvest that I will be reaping for much longer.

Cheers, friends.

~Rae

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Letters From Abroad – 24 JUN

Dear Family,

Can we talk about pain?

That sounds excessively dramatic, and it probably is. Maybe I should begin this the way I began every childhood letter…

Dear Family,

How are you? I am fine.

Today we trekked up to the castle, ventured out to a museum, found lunch on a cold and blustery day belonging more to March than June. Today was going to be a full, lovely Saturday, stuffed with things to be seen and experienced. Today was begun and ended and muddled in the middle with simple, ordinary pain.

How are you? I am fine, but I’d like to talk to you about pain: physical pain, specifically. And I need to be honest. Because pain tells many, many lies, and maybe putting them down on paper will make the black and white between truth and falsehood a little more clear. Because pain siphons away worth when the group trundles along the street at a faster pace than you can manage; pain taunts your inadequate muscles when the stairs are just too difficult to climb today; pain blots its dreaded inkspots into the agenda of the coming day; pain whispers of a lesser life when your mind is cloudy and your hands shake and your speech stutters in unfamiliar ways. Even those things that you once did or planned to do are not untouched, like the phantom pain of a lost limb. I know it’s something any retiree can tell you: your sleep will become a privilege, clarity of mind a rarity, and even your feet will betray you and keep you where you do not wish to be and lead you where you do not desire to go. I’ve been told that I’m in my prime of life, but pain speaks its classic lie to me as it does to any age: it says that I am not truly living, that I am experiencing less, drifting more, whittled down to joints and muscles and neurons that are all rusting too soon.

I’ve questioned myself: is it my will that is not strong enough? After all, I’m a walking antithesis of every sports t-shirt and self-help slogan: Just Do It, or some other unhelpful phrase. When do I say “I think I can!”, and when do I roll over and take a nap? When do I relinquish the backpack to someone else’s shoulders, and when do I muscle through on my own? When do I stop deciding my day based on the physical factors, and when do I start? When and how do I do both?

Today this was the part of pain that I struggled with: the lie of less. That this different sort of life is somehow less. That this is less when I watch the world from a window and leave my running shoes at the bottom of my suitcase. That this is less as one blissful day of wander and wonder steals the stamina from the next three days. I know it’s a lie. I know that I’m not alone or different or special. You live life tired, live with your own creaks and aches, live with your breath stolen in its own way. Physical pain is universally experienced and individually endured.

I just wish I knew when it was lying to me. Someday maybe I will be able to speak better of pain as a gift, not a lie. Maybe I will be able speak of how it shapes my relationship with the Lord, or how I am living differently–not less–for staying at the bottom of the stairs or handing off the water bottle for someone else to open. I’m not yet ready to declare those with confidence. But in the midst of the lie of less is the first step that I need: wisdom. The physical and the spiritual are not battles I have learned to fight together. Days like today remind me that James’ plea for wisdom is not simply for better spiritual sight or to gain a sort of ephemeral wisdom that takes me to a higher plane of piety. The struggle to know when to push forward and when to stay back is exactly the sort of wisdom I crave, the same wisdom that can recognize the quality of life in the midst of a quantity of pain. There are a million decisions and small struggles for which I am unequipped, but James speaks of confidence before God: that when I bend these knees before the throne in prayer, the Lord gives generously to all without reproach. He does not look at me less because I know so little of how to live like this. He gives as one who intimately knows my every need, who knows the spiritual bent of my soul and the physical bent of my body. He walked here, too. He who gives wisdom knows even the requests to which I cannot give voice.

And the wisdom He is giving in these moments is also what reminds me that my pain is not so bad. There is thankfulness in all things and new mercies every morning. There is the ordinary joy of another day spent travelling in places I never thought possible. There is the simple joy of breakfast at a kitchen table, pressed down and shaken together by the fellowship that does not care that we are eating differently. There is the biting joy of weather I cannot control, sharp with the reminder of the extraordinary Creator who sent it. There is the unacknowledged joy of freedom and taking steps to new places on ground that is steadier than it once was. There are the unrecognized joys of sight and sound and smell and touch and taste, countless unrehearsed joys for the journey. There is the expectant joy of Scripture that speaks truth when all I hear are lies. And there are those who have walked years far beyond mine, who look at these little things with eyes and hearts full of wisdom that has been asked for and granted in undeserved measure.

Like you.

Maybe missing you,

~Rae

Letters From Tour – 31 MAY

Dear Family,

I’d like to tell you a story. A story of colors and first things. This tour has been full of firsts, but last week’s wasn’t my favorite: an ambulance ride.

Prologue: it wasn’t my favorite night, but there were still good things about it. We were in Gypsy’s hometown, she and Lady did everything, her mother drove, we were at a church with a very gracious nurse, I was able to go home that night…many good things. Many less than, though; and to be honest, I don’t entirely remember everything from that night. Mostly pieces and colors. Here they are, disparate and disassembled.

Black: I wore my Chorale dress the whole night. I tried to sing the first set (ha), came off for the second, and tried again for the third. The last song I had enough oxygen to sing was The Lord Bless You and Keep You, even though the world was already spinning by then (per usual). It’s a good song to end on.

Blue: I remember getting into Gypsy Mother’s car afterwards (being handed in, mostly), and being cold and it being very dark out. I thought it was funny that they always wheel you out in a wheelchair yet somehow expect you to get home alright. I also remember being annoyed at how much clothing I was wearing when Lady and Gypsy helped me get ready for bed.

Green: Green and blue and dirty-looking but almost overwhelming? There was too much already, so when I think of the color of the ER now, I’m glad it was muted to that side of the color wheel. My eyes and mind couldn’t really take much more. I wanted to sleep and couldn’t really and for a long time they didn’t want me to close my eyes, then they said I could, then I didn’t want to for the things that happen when you close your eyes without breath. Funny how an oxygen mask can’t convince you that you aren’t suffocating.

Red/Orange: I don’t remember the ambulance people, but their vests were orange and there were red things around. I still had people telling me to open my eyes when they came, or maybe it was after… I only remember the pricks of early tests and those slices of color and far, far too much noise that still sounded like it was coming from far, far away.

Pink: the color of the sky for the sunset I didn’t see. I think Nae Nae and Mountain Man had said it was beautiful, but by the time the concert ended I was heading out of daylight pretty fast. I wanted to catch my breath so I could go see the sunset, and I never found either.

Ivory and Brown: I think of Nae Nae in those colors, when the world went nope and turned into mud colors and went sideways. Her lap was soft and felt so safely unhurried when everything went very fast. I have never realized the measure of confidence one receives when one is heard and understood. Lady, Nae Nae, Gypsy…the Lord placed them under my head and around myself and somehow, they heard me and there was never a time when this highly verbal person did not feel like her voice was not heard through the fog.

White: the nurses and people with the cold and gooey EKG stickys and the one who kept telling me to look straight ahead when I was trying to leave and the world still wanted to tilt and I couldn’t squeeze his finger even when I tried. It’s amazing how frustrated you can be with the kindest of people when whom you are really frustrated with is yourself. I do recall the relief of leaning into someone and not having them push you away because at that point, you’ve returned to a body that feels as hollow and unfamiliar as a seed husk that was ground underfoot.

Gray: that’s the color I remember most of the night. Gray hands that didn’t work and were the sort of all-encompassing pain that made me forget everything else but that couldn’t be distracted away themselves like all the others; the sort of bewildering force that is almost too great to be responded to with something as little as tears. Gray lungs and body that folded up like creaky billows that get stuck and never quite open up for air. Gray self that spent itself like water wringing out of a towel and managed to hurt when there was nothing left to hurt. I was proud of this analogy that I said (and remembered!) from the ER: I am a juice box. One that is emptied out and all twisted up and can’t be undone yet. I’m still undoing it.

Epilogue: so there was my night, in the full spectrum of color. Except yellow and purple. Yellow was the color of Lady’s hair when she smiled at me and made the downhill slide feel not quite so fast. Purple wasn’t a color I remember, but maybe it’ll come later, like most of these pieces have.

I woke up sometime in the dark that night, still looking for that elusive breath, but the Lord, with His gentle hand that wastes nothing, taught me once more how to pray.

With all the dizziness of mind and disembodiment that comes with pain, somehow the thing that keeps me tethered to myself is this called prayer. I once would have said prayer is an ethereal thing; a paper crane that cannot fly. But when it is your soul and self that wants to fly away and make it stop, prayer is a tether strong enough to keep a kite in a hurricane. Is it the meeting of heaven and earth, the way prayer takes the physical self to the throne room of God and keeps your soul on its knees when the walls tumble down? Is it because it doesn’t matter whether or not the trembling walls are the skin that holds us together or the soul that shakes us apart?

When we return to these husks and hollows of ourselves and find that the muscles and mind and lungs don’t work like they should, prayer draws in the lines that should be there, returning the loose cotton to these empty cloth dolls, knitting soul and body together with prayer and breath, holding our fragile seed husks with hands we cannot see that work better than our own.

I remember my father’s hand, so large and heavy, and the way it felt to pick it up and draw his arm around my shoulders. That night, prayer began without the strength to pick up the Father’s great hand and place His arm around me..but in that yawning nothingness of my own strength, I found, underneath, the everlasting arms.

In the shifting prisms of graying color and the ungrounded firsts of that night, that was all I needed.

~Rae

A Cradle Carol

Lord Jesus, Savior, infant weak,
Why come to earth as one so meek?
A newborn babe, helpless and small;
And yet Creator of us all.

Thou hast no beauty, form, nor grace;
No fortune, rank, no fame, no place
That men should see Thee and adore
A babe so humble and so poor.

But to the soul whose eyes are healed,
To whom the Truth has been revealed,
Thy glory challenges the sun;
Thou art a thousand joys in One.

Though strangers see a babe in straw,
Thy children see the Lord of all
Who laid aside His rightful reign
To take away our sin and shame.

This sacrifice of love divine,
This condescension to mankind
With beauty robes Thy lowly frame,
And sanctifies Thy simple name.

O aid my worship, Mighty King,
That I might with the angels sing,
“Glory to God on high!”
Now crowned again beyond the sky!

Oh, help me see Thee and adore
This little child, my God and Lord.

Lyrics by Rebekah Pringle

Hope

When my heart
Is torn asunder
And my world
Just falls apart
Lord You put
Me back together
And lift me up
To where You are

***
There is hope
Beyond the suffering
Joy beyond the tears
Peace in every tragedy
Love that conquers fear
I have found redemption
In the blood of Christ
My body might be dying
But I’ll always be alive

***
You have turned
Mourning to dancing
You have covered me with grace
The struggle here
May last a moment
But life with You
Will last always

***

When the age
Of death is over
And this world
Has been reborn
I’ll be there
Beside my Savior
This is our grace
And rich reward

***
There is hope
Beyond the suffering
Joy beyond the tears
Peace in every tragedy
Love that conquers fear
I have found redemption
In the blood of Christ
My body might be dying
But I’ll always be alive

~Phil Wickham, “When My Heart Is Torn Asunder”

Letters From An MBI Student – 10/22

Dear Family,

You’re the ones who listen to me when I’m rambling, right? That’s what family is for, right? Well, that and being the voice of reason on the other side of the table?

Because today I’m going to ramble. Here’s the brain dump, all under the verbose subtitle of “Thoughts On Being Sunshine When I Am Not.”

Our family was never big on nicknames, were we? Not when I was young, anyway, because I remember being inordinately proud of “Sunshine” and all that it entailed. Grandpa started it, I think, and I was always a little jealous if I ever heard him call someone else that name. It was special, it was mine (in my eyes), and it felt unique in our family of formalities (until Babes and her litany came along and the rest of us dissolved into the shortest versions possible, right? Heh.).

The new one is “Rae” here at school, unless you’re the dude at the counter at Joe’s last night who saw my ID and said my full name and threw me for a loop because only Lady and Nae really do that. I reintroduced my shortened self so it wouldn’t be awkward, which it was anyway. It was a bit of a jump, a blip in the day, a bumpy precursor to what happened today.

Something about a name…funny how a name wraps you up in a brand new wardrobe that you maybe used to wear. I’m my full name in certain workplaces, sometimes at home, and in a lot of old memories–some wonderful, some darkly less than that. Sometimes that name feels like a homecoming, sometimes it feels like an inside joke, but more often it feels far older than I am; something other than myself and what life is now.

I like “Rae,” though. I like being “Rae” at school and at home and at my new job. I like a new version to occupy, because so much of me feels new. Whether that is through the renewal of God or my own poor choices is still being sorted through.

But “Sunshine”…that is the old standby, the old spelling, the OG. The first other name I can remember that I wanted as mine. But sometimes it feels like the farthest thing from who I am now than I have ever been. I remember times when it was a glorious pinpoint of identity: times in middle school and early high school when someone else applied that designator without any idea of what it meant to me. But the flip side of that coin have been the times when that name was–is–dredged up like an old photograph: a toothless child, a version of me 50 lbs ago, myself in a tracksuit in garish 90s colors. I’ve never had a mirror quite like that name – a recalcitrant, encouraging, reflective, combative, warped, airbrushed, far-seeing mirror. A mirror that speaks back to me of pasts joys and past sins, present statuses and present failings, future possibilities and future impossibilities. I love and hate and don’t always want the expectation and promise and lingering of a name that doesn’t feel entirely mine but I can’t actually let go.

Sorry, I told you it was a ramble. Here’s the pb&j version, the 411, the juddering in my day after yesterday’s brief tremor: I was introduced to my replacement at a job. A lovely, lovely person: an older newlywed, new believer, excellent conversationalist, good listener, and already a friend (in the “I-just-met-you-today” sort of way). I was my work self, which means I can be chatty, laughing, engaging…all of those proper things that were made easier by her honest and friendly response. [Side note: I just realized that I have truly have the best sort of people to train. People who do my job far better than I and who allow me to exit with peace that the job will be done well, regardless of whether that means my way or not.] We laughed, talked, and will probably meet for coffee outside of our two Saturdays together, because her interests and mine converge in a way that can’t be explored when we’re talking about investments and securities.

Half an hour into the morning, after introductions and wheres and whys, she asked, “Is your family Christian?” –I nodded and smiled [and by the grace of God in your lives and mine, Parentals, I was able to be proud]–“because you have such joy.” The conversation blinked into something else and that comment didn’t initially register. Not until we left at the same time, after only two hours together, and walked out to see her husband waiting for her. She eagerly wanted to introduce me and in the quick, muddled conversation that happens in unexpected introductions, she said: “She’s such a ray of sunshine!”

And I returned the compliment–genuinely, because I’m looking forward to a longer time with her–and walked down my little alleyway to the train that takes me back to my home here in the city where I’m “Rae,” which she didn’t know, 520 miles away from where I used to be “Sunshine,” which no one here knows, where I’m not “[full name],” where I’m a version of myself that feels like all of those don’t coexist. I can’t describe to you what it feels like to have someone ignorantly, instantly apply those names to you as if they are the most natural thing in the world and of course these three iterations of myself are all the same person. Of course what’s on my birth certificate and what was my childhood and what is myself now are all the same person. Of course. Of course.

Funny how saying that doesn’t make it any easier to reconcile. Because I’m not “Sunshine,” and I haven’t been in a long, long while. I’m functioning in endless variations of different worlds: one where God is so, so good; the other where He is so, so incomprehensible. The former is external, my lexicon, the world of “Sunshine,” the world of Moody speech and Moody expectation, the world of conversation and pat answers, the world where I’m drawing from the words of faith that I have existed in for as long as I have been alive. The latter is the internal, the heart language, the world where names attack and answers falter and words feel as useless as paper promises that never become real.

Yeah, I should have probably warned you that this is not a brain dump; this is a heart dump, too. Someday I’ll write to you of the faithfulness of God that is continually and graciously walking me from the words of His goodness to the truth of it. Today I heard all of the names I have ever wanted for myself and today I heard all of the names I have that used to be myself and today I heard all of the names that are not myself. And they were all the same.

Final thought [Side note: if this letter were in ink you’d never receive it because the postage for this book would put me in the red]: I am not any of those names. I am not the name on birth certificate, I am not the name first written on a whiteboard inside a welding cell, I am not the nickname heard while smelling lacquer and sawdust. All of those are mine, but they are not always me. And I cannot return or embody all of the history and assumption that each of those names create.

I have to untie those threads of expectation, I have to acknowledge those old photographs, I have to confess those good and dark memories, but I do not have to occupy their paths, because they aren’t me. They’re part, not the whole, and not the fault of the label or the labeler; they exist and mean something but not everything and sometimes I forget that.

Sigh, sorry, I think this is actually the end of my ramble: Today I was jarred by the realization that I am not what I would like to be, but what I would like to be is not who I was. Today I was grabbed by an old and present and future self and saw my warped reflection in an unexpected mirror. Today I needed my God for the simple reason that I needed to be known better than anyone else has ever known me. Today all I wanted was to be named by the He Who calls me His. Today I needed to know that who I truly, truly am is a wavering sinner rescued by unwavering grace. Today I needed Isaiah 41.

 

“But now, thus says the Lord, who created you, O Jacob,
And He who formed you, O Israel:
‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by your name;
You are Mine.'”

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they shall not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned,
Nor shall the flame scorch you.”

“Since you were precious in My sight,
You have been honored,
And I have loved you;”

“Everyone who is called by My name,
Whom I have created for My glory;
I have formed him, yes, I have made him.”

Maybe missing you and realizing again that you love me a little like Him,

~

Documenting Life

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I take pictures. Of stuff. And people, sometimes. I can’t really call myself a photographer, because I don’t try hard enough to be a good photographer. I don’t think of my photography as some careful art…I think of it as just…it.

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I just take pictures. Of scenes and slices of life that remind me of greater things. I take pictures of landscapes because the wider the horizon, the more I am able to breathe. I take pictures of things because the tiniest details can be captured and seen over and over again. I take pictures of people because I don’t want to forget. I take pictures because I document joy.

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Except when I don’t. I don’t take photos when I am angry, when I am sorrowful, when I am lost. Because in all of those times, I don’t know how to see those things in a photograph. I’m not looking at the world around me like it is beautiful, so I don’t bother to save a piece of it. There is no joy, so there is nothing kept. I don’t want to remember those times.

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And that’s the problem. Because it’s not because the beauty is gone or even tarnished. It’s just that my sight of it is a little dim. Eventually I come around to seeing the way the sun streaks through the clouds, and then I pull out my camera or pick up my pen, and I document joy once again.

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But shouldn’t we be documenting the not-joy moments, too? Shouldn’t we be telling of the days when life is less than glorious, when the sun-streaks are dull or not there at all? Look at the Bible. What if we were missing the lament of Job or the rebuke of Jeremiah? What if we were missing the tears of Lamentations or the repentance of Hosea? What if the only thing documented was joy?

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Psalm 51 is a photograph; a photograph without sunshine. At first.

“For I acknowledge my transgressions,
And my sin is always before me.
Against You, You only, have I sinned,
And done this evil in Your sight–
That You may be found just when You speak,
And blameless when You judge.”

Why take this picture? This is not a sunset that takes your breath away or a perfectly red rose. This photograph is snot and tears and mostly regret. And yet.

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“O Lord, open my lips,
And my mouth shall show forth Your praise.
For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it;
You do not delight in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,
A broken and a contrite heart–
These, O God, You will not despise.”

But these photographs are the ones we need, too. The ones that are just as honest as the rest. Because the truth is this: there is sunshine and sunsets and glorious horizons. There is laughter and joy and yes, please, document it.

But there is sorrow, and sadness, and brokenness, and loss. There is sin and chaos and yes, please document it.

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Because the times of the thunderstorms come before the times of the rainbow. Because the records of sin and sorrow come before the triumph of salvation. Documenting joy is wonderful and necessary and keeps our souls healthy, but it is not enough. It is not enough to say that God is only good, or only delightful, or only as present as the sun we can see. It is far more honest to say that God is greater than these, delightful and demanding, and present in every circumstance.

So here is my document of both. Of both pain and pleasure, for the grace of God exists in both.

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Share your joy, O saints and sinners,
Share your grief, O saved of God,
Share your home, O long sojourners,
Share your hope, O redeemed soul