The Best Defense…

Imagine growing up in a home that idolized the New York Yankees. You were born in 1950, and your earliest memories involve the Yankees: going to games, watching them on TV, trading baseball cards for great Yankees players: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra. Your Yogi card is even signed. Now your hoping to get your Mickey Mantle Card signed.

In your home, the Yankees are the subject of conversation every evening at dinner—and those conversations are full of anxiety. “In the good old days, we were the winners. Oh, when the Iron Horse, Lou Gehrig, was at the plate. Those were the golden years. Now, everyone is out to get us. The bullpen looks weak – don’t know about that Whitey Ford guy. Mickey is playing injured. And Roger Marris – he used to be a Cleveland Indian, and those Cleveland guys never amount to anything. This year will be bad. Things are going in the wrong direction for us.”

Of course, the Yankees won the World Series twelve times in the 23 years following Lou Gehrig’s retirement, including a five-year stint in which they won every series.

Sometime people talk about the church in the same way: “This year will be bad. Church people aren’t what they used to be. Things are going in the wrong direction for us.” But this is a distorted view, if ever there was one. Jesus’s church will not fail. The kingdom of God will win.

This message looks at Matthew 16:18: “I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18 NKJV). God’s kingdom and Jesus’s church will prevail. Listen and be encouraged.

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I AM: The Door for the Sheep (Series: Allow Me to Introduce Myself)

I was speaking at a conference years ago. During the break a woman came up and introduced herself. She was a Christian who had married a reformed con man after he found Jesus and had been released on parole. It turned out, however, that he had not reformed, only revised his approach. He became a minister and started his own religious radio program in Northeastern Ohio. She told me that money was pouring in from listeners who were inspired by his spiritual cant. All the while, he was living a godless life, sleeping with his secretary, and laughing all the way to the bank.

In this text, we’ll look at how Jesus differentiates himself from religious leaders who use people rather than help them. The passage (John 10:1-10) contains one of the two great “I Am” statements that Jesus felt compelled to repeat: “I AM the door.” In the infinite wall that divides us from the richly satisfying life God intends for us, there is a door – a way in. That door is Jesus.

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The Power of Idolatry and the Idolatry of Power

Photo by Wisnu Widjojo on Unsplash

The last sentence in St. John’s first letter is: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” It’s placement as the apostle’s final word gives it substantial weight. He clearly regarded it as important.

We do not. The sentence hardly seems to fit our postmodern era. Idols were a part of their culture, not ours. Humanity has advanced beyond our ancestors’ crude worship, lavished as it was on lifeless, heartless symbols and images.

Think again. Consider the images that we have endowed with power: the apple with a bite taken out of it (Apple Corporation); the golden arches (McDonald’s); five yellow bars, radiating out like sunrays (Walmart); the smirky gold smile (Amazon). These images connote power, even world dominance.

One year out from the U.S. general election, I can think of two other symbols that connote power. The Donkey and the Elephant. They promise to their respective worshipers the same kind of things that idol worship has always offered: control, comfort, and a better life.

In idolatry, a non-divine power subverts human worship for itself and usurps humanity’s God-given authority to exercise dominion over the world. Such dominion – loving, wise, and just – remains a human responsibility, but idolatry robs humanity of the authority to fulfill it. The responsibility to rule is outsourced to someone or something else – corporations, media influencers, governments, and more.

When our practice of politics becomes idolatrous, we give away our authority to make the world a better place while at the same time excusing ourselves from the responsibility of doing so. The cost of idolatry is always high: the loss of human freedom. When we sacrifice to any idol, including the images of the Elephant and the Donkey, the sacrificial victim inevitably turns out to be us. Worshiping God empowers us. Worshiping anything else dehumanizes us and robs us of our power.

That we have made politics an idol is evidenced by our abdication of responsibility to do something about our own problems. For example, a person who has made politics an idol will say he is concerned about saving traditional marriage but do little to save his own marriage. A person who casts her vote in the hope of improving race relations but does nothing to welcome people of other races and ethnicities into her life may be an idolater.  

Of course there are things we can do together that we cannot do alone, and for those things the collective power we can exercise through government is necessary. But if we are not doing what we could do as individuals; if we are surrendering our authority and responsibility to government, we are flirting with idolatry.

When we trust some power other than God to make our lives or the world better and offer our devotion to it, it quickly begins to take over God’s rightful place in our lives. We become dependent on it. We (to use the language of biblical discipleship) “follow it,” probably on Facebook and Twitter, the cable news networks and in print. If we see that our idol is under siege, we become fearful.

An intelligent, informed worship of God brings the worshiper peace and self-control, but the worship of an idol always brings fear and agitation. If this is true, and if politics has become an idol for many people, we would expect to find anxiety, distress and anger surrounding the practice of politics in our nation. We would expect to see people lose control and act like the world will fall apart should their party fail to gain ascendancy. In other words, we would see exactly what we are seeing.

America is not being torn apart by politics but by the idolatry of politics. Politics is good and right in its place and America has as good a system for doing politics, because of our constitution, as any nation in the world. But while politics is right in its place, it is wrong in God’s place; in fact, it is a devil. This is where many Americans now stand (or kneel): in front of the idol that is politics. We, who say, “In God we trust,” must repent of this and reserve that sacred spot for God alone.

First published by Gatehouse Media

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Is Time-Change a Real Thing?

Photon by Luis Cortes on Unsplash

Historians attribute the idea of Daylight Savings Time (DST) to a New Zealand entomologist named George Vernon Hudson. Near the end of the 19th century, Hudson presented a paper to the Wellington Philosophical Society, recommending a two-hour time-shift in October, which would be reversed in March. Apparently, the entomologist wanted more daylight hours to search for insects.

The idea evoked interest but failed to get traction. Ten years later, an Englishman named William Willet lobbied to make twenty-minute time changes on four consecutive Sundays in April, then invert the process on four Sundays in September.

It was the Canadians who first tried the idea in 1908 and the Germans who went wholesale for the idea in 1916. The German rationale for the change was that longer daylight hours would mean less artificial lighting, thereby saving fuel that could be used by the military in the First World War. The idea soon caught on in England and France.

The U.S. was late to the game. Though the nation tried it briefly in 1918, they jumped off the bandwagon in 1919, and did not get back on until President Lyndon Johnson signed the Uniform Time Act in 1966. But in 1967, the people of Arizona and Michigan rebelled, and returned to standard time and Indiana didn’t get on board as a state until 2006.

Does DST really help us? The initial rationale for the change – that the country would save energy – turned out to be misleading. While DST slightly decreases the use of energy for lighting, it also increases the use of energy for heating and cooling.

Personal energy is also negatively affected by DST, which makes it easier for people to stay up later but does nothing to delay start times at work the next day. That means many of us get less sleep – and this in a nation where the CDC says almost one out of four people don’t sleep enough.

It’s nice to have an extra daylight hour in the evening to enjoy the outdoors, but is the trade-off worth it? Perhaps we should stop messing with time. We really aren’t very good at it. In fact, we’re not good at it at all. We can’t save daylight hours. We can only change our clocks to create the illusion that daylight begins later and ends later. Only God can actually save time.

The philosopher Peter Kreeft argues that God is not bound by time. “He can act forward, backward, and sideways” in time. This is because God is eternal and all time is constantly present to him. “From eternity,” Kreeft writes, “time is manipulable: expandable, compressible, reversible, divisible.”

This seems to fit the outlook of great saints and biblical authors. St. Peter writes, “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” Kreeft comments: God “plays time like an accordion, expanding and contracting it at will…As an author can move backward or forward in a story, God can move in time.”

If St. Peter is right, God’s relationship to time has significant implications for us. As Kreeft points out, God can answer prayers before (from our limited time-perspective) we ask and, strangely, after we are dead.

Because of God’s relationship to time, our uncertainties about the future, even our fears and worst-case scenarios, are of less consequence than we realize. The God who is committed to us is already there, in our future, even at the occasion of our death. He knows we will be alright and knows what he will (again, from our perspective, not his) do. Our fears do not faze him.

This also means, as Professor Kreeft points out, that our present is well in hand – God’s hand. Apart from God, time is to us a “wild beast or a slave driver.” But when we give our time to God, it is transformed and tamed. Where time touches eternity, that is, where God touches time, it becomes malleable or, as Kreeft vividly describes it, it becomes “silly putty” in his hands.

This is why the biblical poet breathed a sigh of relief when he realized, in his words: “My times are in your hands.” That was right where he wanted them to be.

First Published by Gatehouse Media

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Desperate

A great sermon by Kevin Looper on Mark 5. Jesus returns to his home base Capernaum to find massive crowds gathered and a respected religious professional in desperate straits. The man pleads with Jesus to come and heal his daughter, even though association with Jesus was at this time risky for religious professionals reputations and careers.

Jesus immediately say yes to the request but an obstacle, in the form of yet another desperate person, prevents him from reaching the girl in time.

This sermon provides fascinating biblical background, a revealing look at Jesus’s character, and solid hope for people today.

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What Happens in Vegas

Photo By James Walsh on Unsplash

I never thought I would go to Las Vegas. It is hard for me to imagine an intentional expenditure of money that is more wasteful than gambling. Then there is the glitz and glitter of Vegas. It doesn’t interest me. I’m more of a lake and forest kind of guy. The Vegas headliners are generally not people with whom I’d care to spend two minutes, much less two hours and $200.

And yet, here I am on a plane bound for Las Vegas. The preacher in Sin City. I’m not staying, though. When we learned we could save $200 a person on airfare, my wife and I decided to land in Vegas, rent a car, then head into California for our vacation. Still, as I write this I am surrounded by travelers on their way to Vegas, many of whom, I suspect, will be lighter in the wallet and bank account on their return flight.

The more serious problem, though, is not with what they took to Vegas and left behind, but with what they picked up in Vegas and brought home. The famous advertising slogan, “What Happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” is a bald-faced lie. It could only potentially be true if the person to whom it happened were to stay in Vegas forever. When they leave, what happened there will go with them.

That is the thing we so often misunderstand. We choose to believe that we can go to Vegas (as an example), behave in ways we would never want our spouse or children or employers to discover, then return to real life as if it never happened. But it did and there is evidence that proves it.

I’m not thinking of the kind of evidence that shows up on security cam footage or in pictures on someone’s Facebook page, though that sort is continually appearing to the embarrassment of some high-profile hypocrites. The kind of evidence I’m thinking of shows up on the inside of the person who has behaved shamefully. This is a far more serious and more lasting concern.

I am of course thinking of character, which is formed or deformed by the choices we make and the actions we engage in, whether those actions come to light or not. Imagine someone who goes to Vegas, engages in behaviors they successfully hide from friends and family, then returns home. They don’t come home the same person they were when they left.

All people, not just children, are in a process of personal formation. That process doesn’t end when someone turns 21. It continues throughout life. For better or worse, our choices produce a type of character that is entirely unique to the individual, as unique as a fingerprint but not as static. It is always changing and usually hardening into its own particular shape, like the coral on a reef.

The things that happen to a person provide the context for such personal formation but not the dynamic, which does not depend on outside influences but on personal choices. Those choices, whether made in a casino or a church, are what most profoundly influences character.

Concerning this process, C. S. Lewis said, “Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible.”

St. Paul reminded his Galatians readers of this reality. After warning them against self-deception, he wrote: “A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.”

He was warning his friends that what happens in Corinth (the Vegas of that time and place) wouldn’t stay there. It would come home with them – in them. It is inescapable.

First published by Gatehouse Media

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Can You Go a Day Without Comparing Yourself to Anyone?

Here’s a challenge. Try going a day without comparing yourself to anyone – not your height, your weight, your hair, your clothes, your car, your spouse, your golf score, or anything else. If you think it will be easy, you might be surprised. Just see how you do when you choose which checkout line to enter at the grocery store or the best lane to drive on the expressway. Those decisions are also based on comparisons.

Fastest, smartest, newest, biggest, safest, most – these are all words used in comparison. Our culture is formed on comparisons. So are our minds. We understand ourselves in relation to others; that is, through comparison. Those comparisons start in early childhood, before we are capable of articulating or even comprehending the meaning of comparison.

Are we smart? How would we know apart from comparing ourselves to others? Are we successful? How about attractive, or friendly, or wise?

While forming comparisons is a natural and necessary part of growing up, it is also a source of much of our dissatisfaction. If I lived in a Papuan village where I was the only person with a car, I would be happy with my car, even if it was rusty, the seats were lumpy, and the car could not accelerate past 35 miles per hour.

However, I might be very dissatisfied with that same car living in my Michigan town. Why? It’s not as if the car has changed. But the situation has changed. Other people’s cars are shiny, and comfortable, and fast and, compared to theirs, mine is a bucket of rust.

Comparisons can quickly lead to dissatisfaction. This is even more likely because comparisons are often rigged. I’ve observed that people tend to compare themselves morally to those they excel but financially to those who surpass them. Because of this, they are contented with their morality but discontented with – and motivated to increase – their income.

We frequently compare our weaknesses to others’ strengths and our deficiencies to their excesses. Social media has exacerbated the problem. We compare our dismal day at work to our “friend’s” day off at the beach, or our child’s temper tantrum to their child’s cutest birthday ever. The unceasing flow of images of success and happiness can lead us, without knowing why, to feel inferior or even misused.

Comparison is natural and need not be destructive. It is foundational to how a person learns. Without comparison, a musician’s instrument would never be in tune, an elementary school student would never learn to write, a game of horseshoes could never be scored. However, the reason behind the act of making a comparison makes a difference. When comparison is used to reach one’s potential, it can be helpful. When it is used to validate one’s worth, it is disastrous.

It is this latter kind of comparison that the biblical writers warned against. St. Paul wrote, “When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise.” They are not wise because the motive behind the comparison is self-validation and the conclusions reached by such comparisons are inevitably flawed.

Consider, for example, the person who compares themselves morally, which happens all the time. If he compares himself to a person who is lazy, selfish, or greedy, he may justify his own faults and allow them to continue their slow corruption of his character. If he compares himself to someone who has advanced far beyond him in moral development, he may despair and give up hope.

For this reason, the Bible urges people to “test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else.” Such comparison will either lead to an inflated sense of one’s value, making one unpleasant to be around, or a deflated sense of one’s value, making one equally unpleasant. The way of contentment lies elsewhere.

People who have learned to be content do not try to validate themselves through comparison to others. They approach life as someone whose worth has already been validated by God. Because their worth is not based on comparisons, they can appreciate and enjoy other’s abilities and learn from them, without feeling threatened by them. This is a key to contentment and to the ability to enjoy others.

First published by Gatehouse Media.

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I AM the Light of the World

Jesus makes the extraordinary claim that he is the light of the world. This claim is rooted in Old Testament texts and is made in conjunction with the Jewish Feast of Booths (or Tabernacles).

When Jesus promises that whoever follows him will not walk in darkness, what did he mean? That his followers will never experience uncertainty? If not, what could it mean? And is this remarkable promise unconditionally guaranteed or is there something we must do to take advantage of it?

These are the questions we look at in this sermon, where we discover that the light of the world is not stationary! The implications of this truth are enormously important. If you can, open your Bible to John 7 and 8 as you listen!

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What if You Were Going to Live Forever?

In the 1980s, the denomination I served encouraged me to attend a conference on evangelism presented by Evangelism Explosion (known familiarly as EE). This enormously popular approach to personal evangelism was pioneered in the 1960s by D. James Kennedy, the pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, and was and is used throughout the world.

It was hard for a shy introvert like me to strike up conversations with people I didn’t know. It was even harder to strike up conversations about spiritual matters with people I assumed didn’t care. EE was designed to help people start and guide conversations to a particular end: the acceptance of receive Jesus Christ as one’s personal Savior.

At the EE conference, attendees were taught to ask people two questions, designed to coordinate with one another, and both including the prepositional phrase, “if you were to die tonight.” Both questions also included the idea of going to heaven.

There were things about the training I appreciated and things that made me uncomfortable. The discomfort came largely from the similarity between the EE program and programs that teach sales techniques. I wasn’t comfortable with the idea that I was selling Jesus the way the kid at the front door sells vacuum cleaners. It seemed to me that, in both cases, the immediate goal was to get the person on the other side of the door to say yes to something they might not really want and probably didn’t understand.

Today, my approach to evangelism has changed. I don’t try to sell Jesus after dangling the promise of heaven (or the threat of hell) in front of someone’s eyes. Don’t get me wrong: I think heaven and hell are real possibilities for each of us; I just don’t see Jesus or his apostles doing evangelism that way. I have not found such an approach to be effective, nor does it prepare people to live the authentic and rewarding life of a Jesus-follower now.

I’ve come to think it better to ask people a different question, one the philosopher Dallas Willard suggested. Instead of asking, “If you were to die tonight, would you go to heaven?” we might ask, “If you were to live forever, what would you do? What kind of person would you become if you continued on the trajectory you are now following? Would you love being that person forever – or would you hate it? Would living forever with you – as you – be more like heaven or hell?”

I’m afraid we’ve tailored our evangelistic message to people who think about the fact they are going to die, while Jesus tailored his message to people who were going to live—forever. That alone is enough to make us reconsider our approach, but add to that the fact that we live a culture that is in denial about death. People are not thinking about dying. They distract themselves throughout their waking hours to prevent themselves from thinking about death – and pretty much everything else.

What would evangelism look if we started using Jesus’s approach? His invitation was not, “Say ‘Yes,’ and you can go heaven when you die.” It was, “Join me in the kingdom of God now.” Heaven someday? Yes, of course, but also a transformational life on earth now; a life that transforms both the person and his or her world. Jesus invited people to a radically different kind of life now, not just after they died.

Willard defined a human being as “a never ceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe.” That way of putting it is certainly in sync with the biblical understanding of human nature. That I will live forever is a given; that I will I’ll enjoy living forever is not. Living forever is a great thing—if I am an everlasting blessing to myself, to others, and to God. Otherwise, it is a curse.

To become an everlasting blessing, or even to avoid being an everlasting pain, requires a good deal of transformation. Jesus understood how to guide his students into that transformation. He knew how to live – and to live well – forever, and he can help others do the same.

First published in Gatehouse Media

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Finally. I Jumped out of that Perfectly Good Airplane

The Four

On Sunday, I jumped (more like tumbled) out of an airplane at an altitude of 14,000 feet – that’s more than 2-1/2 miles up. I told you I’d let you know what that was like, and I will try to describe it for you, but it’s one of those “you had to be there” things.

First, the rush. Not the rush of jumping, but the rush of getting to the jump site. For me, that meant leaving church as soon as possible, changing clothes, and hurrying to the airport, which is more than an hour from home. We went through a MacDonald’s drive-through – slowest MacDonald’s ever – had to stop for gas, and I was worried everyone would be waiting for me.

They were not. When I arrived, the place was packed. All the people whose jumps had been postponed – ours was postponed because of weather on three straight Sundays – were there, waiting. And waiting. I waited about four hours.

When our group was finally called, we went inside to put on jumpsuits and get our instructions. On a large mat, we watched as three full-time parachute packers worked non-stop to prepare the chutes for the next round of jumps. It was interesting to watch these young people work. They talked and laughed with each other as they worked and I wanted to say, “Would you please concentrate on your work?” (Well, not really. But I could see how someone might feel that way.)

My instructor Dom had me get into a harness and then explained what I would be required to do. I would need to lower my head to get through the small door on the plane. I would then place my feet on the four-inch-wide step outside the door and hold my head up. When we jumped, I was to pull my feet back and hips out, while holding the harness straps along my chest. Then, when he tapped my shoulder, I was to release the straps and hold my hands out and up, rather like signalling a touchdown. We went through the procedure a couple of times. Then we headed out to wait for the plane.

Here we go!

We got on the place with two other tandem jumpers and five solo jumpers. The tandem jumpers and some of the solo jumpers straddled the two benches and, while on the bench, our instructors hooked themselves to our harnesses, tightened them down, and got us ready. We were pretty much sitting in our instructor’s laps, and I had a solo diver sitting on mine. The space was very tight.

The skydiver in front of me was trying to reach a strap of some sort, and my foot was tangled in it. Because I was hooked to my instructor, I couldn’t lean forward to help him. He fumbled around for two minutes, trying to release his strap from around my size 17 shoes, while I tried to lift my foot and help. I didn’t know it – assume he didn’t either – but he untied my shoe in the process. When I landed, I still had the shoe. My son joked that if my big shoe had fallen off at 14,000 feet, it might have killed someone.

Going…
Going…
Gone!

After the jump, my wife Karen asked me if I felt like I was falling or floating. I said, “Neither. I felt like I was skydiving. It is its own thing.” I was hoping it would feel like flying, as a long-time diver once told me, but it didn’t. I think it might feel that way for a solo diver, but when you are strapped to someone else who is controlling the dive, you’re more like a passenger than a pilot.

I can see your house from here!

Still, it is quite an experience to be at 14,000 feet without a mountain or an airplane under your feet. From up there, I could see lakes and houses and farm fields; golf courses and housing developments. I was surprised there were so many people living in such a rural setting.

I could see that some lakes were crowded with houses and there were still boats at their docks. Others were too shallow for boating and there were no houses alongside them. As I was looking this way and that, trying to take it all in, the chute deployed. I wasn’t prepared for that! I was not cognizant of the speed with which we were hurtling to earth until the chute opened. I felt like we were jerked roughly back into the sky, though of course we merely slowed our fall.

Whoa, there!

After the chute opened, my instructor began steering us toward the airfield. He performed a couple of spins but, for the most part, just took me on a nice, smooth ride. A couple of times we seemed to drop at an accelerated rate and, when we turned, we keeled over a little, like a sailboat.

As we neared our landing site, Dom told me to lift my legs. I had seen others land on their feet, but I am 6’4″ and probably five or six inches taller than Dom, so he wanted to slide in on our backsides. The landing was soft and all was good. A photographer said something to me, but my ears were completely plugged and I couldn’t make out what he was saying. I suppose it was, “Smile!”

There was a lot to smile about. It was fun. It was unlike anything I’d ever done before. Would I do it again? Maybe. What I’d like to do is solo dive from 14,000 feet, but that takes time, instruction, and money! But I’m not ruling out another tandem dive.

Were there negatives? A couple. The first is that I rushed like crazy to get there, not realizing I would then need to wait four hours for the jump. If I had familiarized myself with how skydiving works, I would have realized that from the outset, and would have been more relaxed about about getting there on time.

The other negative: sinus pressure. I’ve always had trouble flying because my ears would hurt and, before I had surgery to correct a Z-like septum, I used to get a stabbing pain in my eye on descent. The pain would last for 20 or 30 seconds, but it was bad – like having an ice pick stuck in your eye. The last time I flew, I had that pain again, after a reprieve of several years. I was hoping that wouldn’t happen on the dive and it didn’t, but I was pretty deaf afterwords and had a headache right behind my forehead. That got worse as the evening wore on, becoming very painful before getting any relief from the acetaminophen I took.

When I knew I was going to jump, I decided to use the event as a fundraiser for a wonderful non-profit, Beginnings Care for Life. They regularly make a difference in people’s lives and in the community – and they do it by hard work and genuine love. I wanted to support their efforts. If you would like to know more about what Beginnings does, check out their website, http://www.beginningscare.com/. If you would like to help them to carry on their important work by making a financial gift, go to https://www.gofundme.com/f/jumping-for-beginnings-care. I support Beginnings with confidence – you can too.

If you’d like to see a video of my jump, go to https://skydive.shredvideo.com/f/rTsNHEokR4 (viewing time 3:39).

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