Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Salt and Light

TEXTS:           1 CORINTHIANS 2:1-12 (13-16); MATTHEW 5:13-20

ONE SENTENCE:     Despite our flaws and frailties, we are called to be the Salt of the Earth.

I speak to you this morning in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. AMEN.
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First of all, I want to express my profound gratitude to Bishop Seage for inviting and allowing me to preach here at my last Council as an active priest and  Canon to the Ordinary.
            I want, also, to thank him for allowing me to serve on his staff. I want to express that same thanks to Bishop Marble and Bishop Gray, III.
            My most heartfelt thanks, though, goes to the person without whom the last 33 years  -- from Sewanee to this moment – would not have been possible: My wife, Nora.  She has always been herself and has been a healthy role model.
            And my children, Leigh and Chris:  You supported me, you loved me, and you blessed me as my children.  My heart goes out to you.
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            When I first entered the ordained ministry nearly 30 years ago, Nora and my then-senior warden, the late and dear Lynne Hough, would probably have agreed with St. Paul:
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom.

            They endured my early sermons – except Lynne’s daughter, Kellie, who was never one to hide her opinions.  As I was preaching one of my first sermons at St. Patrick’s, Kellie looked at her mother and said, “Oh my God, Mama, he’s a redneck.”
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            I do not claim lofty words and wisdom today.  But I offer you something else.
            Many years ago, I read Walter Cronkite’s autobiography.  He told the story that when he first enlisted in the Army during World War II, he was asked what his religious preference was.
            Walter Cronkite was apparently not very organized when it came to organized religion, so his response was both succinct and memorable: “I guess you could say I’m a jackass Episcopalian.”
            My fellow clergy will recognize my invocation of that term, because I frequently refer to my own practice of jackass psychology.
            Today, I want to look at the gospel and share – not lofty words and wisdom – but a bit of jackass ministry experience.
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            Over the years of working with lots of congregations in this diocese, I have seen many things.  I have wondered what price we are willing to pay to see our congregations become the faith communities we are called to be? What is the price – for congregations and for clergy?
            Keep that question in mind, because I will come back to it.  What price are we willing to pay to see our congregations and ministries prosper and flourish?
That is sometimes a difficult question, because of difficult circumstances.  Being the ecclesial equivalent of a buzzard roosting on the roof, I sometimes see the underside of congregational dynamics.
            On occasion, it can be distasteful.
            Sometimes – though rarely, I must say – there have been issues which belonged squarely on the shoulders of the cleric. The priest had done those things which he or she ought not to have done, and not done those things he or she should have done. Graphically. Grossly. Repeatedly.
            It has been those magnifying adjectives which have posed the problem. Because we all make mistakes. They become real problems when we do not learn from them and  we repeat them.
A clergy colleague told me some years ago of reading a parish profile – of a congregation to which he ultimately accepted a call. The profile said, “We will overlook some mistakes by our rector.”
            That is a tough approach.
            That attitude betrays an expectation of perfection. Members of a congregation transfer or project onto the cleric some unresolved issue from their own lives or some unrealistic and – here’s a key word – unspoken expectation they have for the priest.
            The end result is either an unhappy departure for the lay person from the congregation, or weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth in the congregation.
            I was told that a recent episode prompted a comment from one person: “The Rector sure didn’t help himself with that sermon.”
            I was stunned by that comment. I didn’t know that the purpose of the Gospel… or that Jesus’ purpose in life… was to please us. In fact, I think he was crucified because he did not meet the crowd’s expectation of what a Messiah would be.
            Lynne Hough taught me something early-on. She did it as St. Patrick’s struggled to provide the financial support for their new transitional deacon.
            “Our purpose,” she told me, “is not to make sure all our needs are met, but to enable you to be a minister of the Gospel to the world around us.” Her wisdom and generosity of spirit both moved and educated me.
            Church is not about a consumer experience. Neither is faith. Nor is a priest someone to meet every need, whatever it may be.  Our congregations are outposts of spiritual riches. We share with others from that wealth. We do not enrich ourselves. We worship and we give because we have been blessed by our Creator and saved by our Redeemer.
            Our congregations would be so much more healthy and vibrant if we recognized these truths.
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            Now, to the clergy side…
            I may be the doddering old uncle that everyone wants to ignore, but here is my perspective.
            One development in recent years has been the professionalizing of our vocation.  There is an emphasis on boundaries – which can be appropriate, healthy and helpful. But those boundaries can go beyond being healthy and helpful, and become a problem when they are fixed and impermeable. The more rigid an object is, the more brittle it is.
            I speak especially of time. There is an emphasis on the work week and being certain that one does not overdo it.  The standard 40-hour work-week is seen as the norm.
            I have been told by a colleague in another diocese that a young priest was called by his clergy supervisor on his day off.  The elder priest, already engaged, was asking the young priest to go to a local hospital to pray with a parishioner about to undergo emergency heart surgery.
            “I cannot go,” the young priest said, “I have already worked my 40 hours this week.”
            A short conversation ensued.
            I think it is important that those of us who are blessed to wear these collars, recognize that our vocation is not a profession, it is a calling.
            We are called by the same one who called to Abram in Ur of the Chaldeans.  The same one who spoke to Moses from the Burning Bush.  We hear the call of the one who called to Peter and Andrew by the Sea of Galilee. We hear the same voice as the one who told Mary Magdalene that the tomb was empty and that Jesus had been raised from the dead. And our call is from the same one who knocked Saul off his horse with a blinding light on the Road to Damascus.
            Despite how we portray ourselves as clergy or laity, we are – every one of us – flawed, broken human beings.  We are the poster people for Martin Luther’s phrase: simul justus et peccator… simultaneously justified and sinners.  We may act as if we are pure and immune to sin, but in our heart of hearts, we know.
            But, we are not lost.  We know where to turn.  We are like Peter in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel: “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”
            So, what are we to do?  What do we do as stewards of this remarkable gift – of this pearl of great value? What is the future of the church that is populated at least partially with parishioners that rebel and project against their clergy? And what do we do about clergy that seem to be invested in minimizing the time they spend on the job? Or all of us denying our brokenness?
            I am a person of hope.  I was formed partially by Jurgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope.  So I turn back to the gospel.
            “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world.”  Jesus was looking out on a mixed multitude of Galileans on a green hillside.  The common folks of that region.  The great unwashed masses.  People like those we see on the streets and in Wal-Marts. The Kemper County of Israel.
            And he was looking out and speaking to people like you and me – not people of perfection.  He was speaking to people – down through the ages and even today – who would not get the fullness of his message, who would resist unknowingly the furtherance of his reign, and would find all sorts of reasons for doing so.
            And – still – he looks at us and says, “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world..”
            It is folks like you and me – flawed, broken, imperfect people, marked profoundly by the human condition – who are the salt and light.  We will add flavor and texture to the bread of life.  We will bring structure and tenacity to the bread which feeds the world.  We will bring light to the dark corners of creation… to the hidden corners of human hearts.
            We can do so.  We can be the salt of the earth.  We can be the light of the world. We can build local outposts of the good news – local outposts which flourish, blossom, and grow.
            But the question recurs:  At what cost?  What is the price we will pay?  How will it impact our comfort, our preferences, our own limitations?
            Jesus answers that question in the 16th Chapter of Matthew:
Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

The price of following Jesus is the same.  It has not changed. 
My point is this:  If we wish to live into being the salt of the earth and the light of the world… if we wish to be communities of transformation… we must be willing to give and give and give again. If we want to be the people and communities which are vital, lively, and change the world, we must give our all.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Letting Go of Idols

           One observation I have had over my years of ordained ministry is that retired clergy are frequently very angry with the Church.  It seems that they have a sense of betrayal by an institution they have served, regardless of whether that sense is grounded in reality or not.

            I have chalked up that sense of feeling betrayed to numerous experiences.  One is a sense that, maybe, they have been forced out before they were ready.  Another might be grounded in the reality that the priest had become emotionally spent long before, and the last year or two were years of utter exhaustion in which resentment against the institution built.  Still one more possibility might be the eagerness and energy with which a successor arrives into the congregation – greeted by a welcoming congregation which had been lethargic in recent years.  The priest feels a sense of betrayal.

            I am quite certain that many cases are grounded in anger at the hierarchy (read the diocesan leadership) who appropriately require the priest to separate from the congregation he or she had served in recent years.  When such a group of people have been the focus of one’s life for so long, it is hard to set those emotions and connections aside.

             The most glaring reason, I suspect, is also the least acknowledged.  It is a dual sense of being discarded combined with the reality, I believe, that the church rewards bad behavior but does not recognize faithful service.  I have seen congregations pay large severance packages to clergy who have been less-than-fully-appropriate in their functioning (In some cases that is a monumental understatement), while other clergy who have been diligent and faithful are given a handshake and shown the door.  There is moral hazard in that approach, in the rewarding of inappropriate behavior over faithful functioning.  I have warned leadership about that tendency in the past, but I do not believe that it has changed.

            Of course, I would point out that all retired priests are granted a wonderful pension benefit.  That particular benefit increases as years of service build. Once one has become vested in the pension system, the benefit can never be removed.  It does not matter how a priest exits active service – through removal for moral reasons or retirement at the end of many years of service.  All of us who have been privileged to serve as priests should feel gratitude for that wonderful benefit.

            Having said all that, I have still noticed that many retired priests feel a sense of alienation from the Church they have served – and, in some cases, even anger.  I think that sense of anger or alienation has many causes and explanations but, regardless, it is there.

            For years I have vowed that I would not allow myself to sink into that pit of anger and despair.  I have loved functioning as a priest.  It has been a blessing beyond words.  I have been blessed to serve at each congregation and in each position.  There have been wonderful friends all along the way.

            So, even with all this awareness of the issues, imagine my surprise when I found myself with a rising sense of resentment.  It slapped me hard in the face as I prepared my sermon for this past Sunday.  It gets touchy when a priest is preaching to himself or herself! But, I was.

            The insight for me was this:  As pilot Chuck Yeager might say, I was holding too tightly to the stick.  Recognizing that my time in this position is coming to an end, I was investing a lot of energy into seeing that things were done right (which, coincidentally, was my way).  My way of doing things had become my idol.  And, surprise of surprises, others would not bow down and worship my idols.

            So the lesson for me is clear: Don’t hold so tightly to the stick.  Let go.  Again, again, and again.  Allow others to assume positions and responsibilities which will provide for a smoother transition.  I must begin to step back from the central role I have had in some areas.  My prayer needs to be an amended Serenity Prayer.

            There is one other element, however, of this gumbo of emotions I am feeling.  It is a dynamic that all priests face, regardless of whether or not there is an awareness of the name.  It is called emotional labor.  Emotional labor is that which is done with either emotions hidden or controlled or that which involves very difficult and stressful work.  All clergy do emotional labor and all pay a price for it.  Sometimes we are able to deal with it appropriately or constructively – such as through prayer, therapy, spiritual direction, or peer support groups.  Other times, when the emotional labor is ignored or not dealt with, it will come out sideways – in ways that will either hurt us or others.  Addiction can be one of those unhelpful offshoots.

            Emotional labor always takes a toll.  Over years, it can become a boulder in the heart instead of just a pebble.  It is much more difficult to bear.

            I am aware I have reached my limit with emotional labor.  I have seen enough sausage made.  It is time to step back, release my burdens, let go of the stick, and take the mule to the barn.

            Sigmund Freud wrote of the talking cure many years ago (a term he actually appropriated from an earlier writer).  This exercise of writing this blog has been a writing cure.  It has allowed me the opportunity to think through, process, and come to some sense of my current state of mind and spirit.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Gordon Gekko and the Gospel


TEXT:            COLOSSIANS 3:1-11; LUKE 12:13-21


ONE SENTENCE:   Greed, as Paul notes, is a form of idolatry, and that is a reason that wealth can serve as an impediment to the Kingdom.

            One of the more memorable movies of the 1980s was the 1987 classic, Wall Street, directed by Oliver Stone.  It starred Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen in the lead roles – a master and an ambitious understudy.
            The original name of the screenplay was simply, Greed.  It was produced in a decade during which the Dow Jones Industrial Average increased by 250%.  It was a decade flush with prosperity. Morning in America.
            Ironically, the movie debuted some six weeks after the Black Monday crash of October 19, 1987.  That crash only highlighted the dark, ominous themes on which that movie focused.
            In perhaps the most memorable scene of that movie, Michael Douglas’ character, the market genius Gordon Gekko, is speaking to a group of brokers and investors.  They are hanging on his every word, hoping for some juicy insight or market tip.
            “Greed is good,” Gordon Gekko says.  And the gathered crowd does not flinch.
            The pathos of the movie comes when the Charlie Sheen character compromises all he believes in to acquire the material wealth he seeks.  He even betrays his relationship with his father.
            Greed is good, Gordon Gekko tells us.
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            Paul and Jesus would respectfully disagree.  Paul does so in the lesson from Colossians today.  Jesus does so in the Gospel lesson today, and in many ways in other teachings.
            Paul places the sin of covetousness within the context of a larger, more problematic sin, idolatry. “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”
            That theology is very much in sync with the parable that Jesus shares with us today.  He tells the story of a profitable farmer who, because of his bountiful crops, decides to tear down his barns and build larger storage facilities.  Then, he thinks, he will be able to rely on his ample stores of grain. He will have all he needs; he will be self-sufficient.
            Keep in mind that this is not an evil man.  There is no indication that he treads on the poor, that he mistreats his fellow farmers, or that he benefits from unjust gain.
            No, the issue is where he places his trust.  What gives him his sense of worth – literally, what he worships.   A few verses after this passage, Jesus makes this point very clear: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Luke 12:34)
            And in Matthew’s gospel, the point is even clearer:  “I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
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            The issue is not wealth, per se.  Nor is it a desire to see your retirement investments do better than the market average.  It has to do with worth – where do you find your value?  Where do you find your meaning? On what is your foundation built?
            The example I am about to share with you is lighthearted.  But it has a strong element of truth to it.
            Years ago, I was a rabid football fan – make that a rabid Ole Miss fan.  I have described the darkest day of my life as that fall afternoon in 1970 when Southern Mississippi beat the undefeated and second-ranked Rebels.  I recall clear as a bell that the running back then known as “little”Willie Heidelburg scored on two double-reverses, and the Rebels lost 30 to 14.  It was awful.
            In fact, fall Saturdays used to be awful for me.  If the Rebels lost – which they did a good bit during my college years and afterwards – I would be in a funk for days.  Nora will tell you.  I was unpleasant to be around during those times.  My palms would sweat during the games.  My heart would pound. My fight-or-flight instinct would be on hair-trigger.  I was a piece of work.
            It had to do with where I placed my value – how I measured my worth.  How I saw the world.  What I considered the ultimate value.
            I know that all sounds immature and irrational, but it was where I was.
            I have jokingly – but also truthfully – said that part of my spiritual maturity was being healed of football.  And I was.  I still enjoy a game, but it does not make or ruin my day.  And if I have something else to do that day, I do it.
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            Please understand:  I am not holding myself up as a paragon of virtue.  What I shared is merely an illustration.  If I wanted to name a paragon of virtue, it would be Duncan Gray, Jr. But that is another sermon.
            The essence of what Jesus is sharing with us is that we have worth beyond our belongings.  We do not need to find our foundations in wealth, belongings, status, position, influence, power, accomplishments, or anything else of – as Paul notes – an earthly nature.
            The fundamental issue with greed is that it confuses what one has with what one is.  Our essential value is not in our possessions or any other qualifier, our true value is elsewhere.
            Our value comes in our relationship to God.  It is in that transcendent connection – one that permeates every fiber of our being – that we are truly grounded.
            The old bumper sticker used to say, “The one with the most toys at the end wins.”  That may be true from a material, worldly perspective, but it is not true from a scriptural perspective.
            If you watch Jesus closely, as he meanders from Galilee through Samaria, the Decapolis and finally to Jerusalem, you can see very clearly that it is not ones possessions, station in life or in society that he values, with which he connects. 
            Instead, he points toward the value which is found in the transformed world of his reign – a world in which the poor in spirit, the grieving, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the persecuted, and those who hunger for righteousness are the blessed ones.
            We cannot add one ounce of value to who we are.  But we can subtract from our value – by racing after those larger barns of our idolatry – whatever form they may take.
            I am reminded of a sermon my curacy supervisor, the Reverend Bronson Bryant, preached years ago.  He told of someone who had died – someone who had great riches.  A friend asked the preacher if the person who had died had left a large estate.  The preacher responded: “Oh, yes!  He left it all.”
            Ultimately we leave it all. It is all dross to be consumed – possessions, status, prestige, power or wealth.  Anything we idolize; whatever we put on a throne.  It is our relationship to God and the legacy of good we do in his name which survive our transition.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Celebrating Bishop Duncan M. Gray, Jr.

TEXT:            ROMANS 8:14-19,34-35,37-39       
ONE SENTENCE:   The life of Duncan Gray, as admirable as it was, is not an object of emulation; He pointed us toward the North Star, the true object of faith.
            Some years ago, just before I left Starkville to join the diocesan staff, our home phone rang.  Daughter Leigh answered it. 
            “Daddy,” she said, “It’s Bishop Gray.”
            That was not enough information.  There was more than one.  “Which Bishop Gray?” I asked.
            Her response was immediate and emphatic: “Bishop  Bishop Gray,” she said.
            That was all I needed to know. Bishop Bishop Gray answered the question.
            You know what I mean.
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            Some years earlier, Scott Lenoir and I were traveling from Starkville, to attend a golf gathering in North Carolina.
            It was just past dusk when we were driving east on Highway 82, between Starkville and Columbus.  A bright light appeared in the darkening eastern sky.
            “What is that?” I asked Scott.
            Scott is an experienced astronomer.  He said, “Oh, that’s Venus.”
            We drove along quietly for a few minutes as I watched the light.  It grew brighter and closer.
            “Don’t look now,” I said, “but Venus is about to land at Golden Triangle Airport.”
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            Naval officers are going through some old-fashioned training these days.  Knowing that they rely too much on technology to determine their location on the seas, they are once again learning the skill of dead-reckoning – relying on celestial bodies to give their positions.
            As the experience Scott Lenoir and I shared indicated, there are a lot of false indicators in the world.  There are planets, there are airplanes, there are brief-but-dazzling shooting stars, and there is the constant:  The North Star.
            Likewise, in this world, there are a lot of bright, glittering, superficially persuasive ideas, philosophies, and approaches to life. They are attractive and distracting.
            For thousands of years, navigators have looked toward the North Star to gain their bearings, and to know where they are.
            Likewise, many people seek to find their bearings in a very complex world.  We seek the spiritual North Star.
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            Duncan Montgomery Gray, Jr., was not the North Star, but he pointed us toward it.  His life was a persistent pointing toward that which would ground us – faith in Jesus Christ.
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           It would be easy to reduce the span of nearly 90 years to one event – significant and important, though it was.  His life was so much more; so rich; so profound; so impactful.
           Thousands of people – over a period of more than 60 years – found their bearings because of the way he pointed.
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            He was a man of courage – that we all know.
            The story of his attempt to quell the rioting crowd at Ole Miss on September 30, 1962 is well known.  Less well known is the stance he took as president of the School of Theology student body in 1953 – even in opposition to the university’s administration.
            And there was the courageous leadership he provided in the tense days in Meridian – when synagogues, churches, and homes were being bombed, and deadly threats were a part of life.
            But he was not the North Star. 
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            He was faithful – especially to his wife and family.  Of course, his marriage to his beloved Ruthie for more than 63 years is well known.  They were inseparable.  They were utterly devoted to each other.
            I recall that he had a sign on his credenza in the old diocesan office at the Cathedral.  It said, simply, “The greatest gift a father can give his children is to love their mother.” And he did.
            He and Ruthie reared four children – Duncan, Anne, Lloyd, and Catherine.  They have carried their father and mother’s character forward.
            But he was not the North Star. 
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            He was steadfast.  This is a man – who, as priest and as bishop – faced many difficult times.  Yet he maintained his course – difficult though the times may have been.
            I had a brief glimpse of his steadfastness in a dark restaurant in Hattiesburg many years ago.  I had to be the bearer of some very difficult news.  As we sat there and I told him what I needed to tell him, his eyes closed, his brow furrowed, and his hand closed tightly as he processed the news.  I glimpsed a bit of the awesomeness of the responsibility which was his.
            But he did not flinch.  He did what was right. No one else knew what he carried with him.
            But he was not the North Star. 
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           He was a mentor. Lowell Grisham wrote of the fact that Bishop Gray was his childhood priest – and a model for him of what a priest should be.  And, he noted, that there are probably several hundred of us who feel that way.
            During his 19-year Episcopate, he ordained 58 deacons and 56 priests.  Many of us here were formed by his steady guidance, his wise mentorship, and, perhaps, most of all, his resilient patience.
            But he was not the North Star. 
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            He was an evangelist.  He preached the Word.  He led by example.  He brought people into the faith and showed them the pathway towards the light.
            During his Episcopate, he baptized 852 new Christians.  He confirmed or received 11,446 Episcopalians.  He preached 2,034 sermons.  And, Lord knows how many miles he traveled.
            But he was not the North Star.
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            He was humble.  Even though most of us knew what a remarkable man it was we were walking with, he never seemed to realize that himself.  He was modest, self-effacing, and he always pointed toward others when credit or praise was appropriate.
            He was admired among his peers – both of his order and of his generation.  His wisdom was valued; his perspective sought. Yet, he never seemed to bask in that praise.
            Ruthie summed it up so well.  “You know what’s so wonderful is that he doesn’t even know it.”
           But he was not the North Star.
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           Suffice it to say, that he knew he was not the North Star. And I think he would want us to be mindful of that reality at this moment… even as we focus on a life well and faithfully lived.
           His death… his body present here with us… points us instead toward the seamlessness of God’s realm – just as his life pointed us toward the Ground of Our Being.  Though we look through a glass darkly, we are able to glimpse, through eyes of hope, the eternal reality to which he pointed so relentlessly.
           And that reality is summed up so powerfully in the words of Paul we read today:
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
           He showed us the way.  He pointed us to the North Star.  He wants us to follow.