What Do Those Lyrics Mean, Anyway?

I was a teenager when Don McLean’s classic song, “American Pie,” came out. In study hall, my friends and I would debate the meaning of the lyrics, when we were supposed to be doing our homework. We would wonder out loud about the identity of the jester and the king – Dylan and Elvis, respectively? – about the angel born in hell, and the Father, Son and Holy Ghost and why they headed for the coast.

Like many other people of my generation, I think I understand most of the allusions in “American Pie,” but how can you know for sure? When people ask Don McLean what the song means, his usual response is, “It means I never have to work again.”

If you grew up listening to music, there are probably other song lyrics that have piqued your curiosity. Everyone wondered about the identity of Carly Simon’s vain paramour. And who was Bob Dylan talking about when he wrote, “I wish for just one time you could stand inside my shoes and just for that one moment I could be you…You’d know what a drag it is to see you”?

Neil Young was and still is a favorite of mine. I wonder who was he talking to when he said, “Now that you made yourself love me, do you think I can change it in a day? How can I place you above me? Am I lying to you when I say that I believe in you?” Is there a double entendre here?

Even if there is an allusion to faith in God in “I believe in you,” what about the Vietnam protest song in which Young sings, “Jesus, I saw you walkin’ on the river. I don’t believe you. You can’t deliver right away—I wonder why.”

As much as I would like to talk to Neil Young and Bob Dylan, there are other songwriters I would like to talk to more. Talking to McLean or these others, I might satisfy my curiosity, but I might satisfy my soul by talking to Horatio Spafford.

Spafford was a well-to-do lawyer in Chicago in the 1860s. He was invested heavily in real estate on Chicago’s north side when the Great Chicago Fire devastated his financial security. Scarlet fever then killed his four-year-old son. The devout Presbyterian must have felt as if he were under a curse.

In 1873, Spafford decided to take a family vacation to Europe, where he hoped to see his good friend, the evangelist D. L. Moody. Because he wanted to wrap up some business dealings before leaving, he sent his family ahead. The ship on which they traveled, the Ville du Havre, collided with an iron clipper and sank in the Atlantic, killing most of the passengers. Spafford’s wife Anna survived, but all four of their daughters died. When Anna reached England, she telegraphed her husband the message, “Saved alone.”

Spafford found a ship headed for England and set sail, passing over the place where his children drowned. On that voyage, still reeling from loss, he wrote the poem, “It Is Well with my Soul.” The poem, which became a beloved hymn, begins with the line: “When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, when sorrow like sea billows roll; whatever my lot. Thou hast taught me to say: ‘It is well, it is well with my soul.’”

What piques the curiosity here is not ambiguous lyrics like Don McLean’s or gossipy innuendo like Carly Simon’s. The question here is: where does such strength of character originate? What grace makes it possible to endure such loss? I’ve known people to lose faith under far less trying circumstances.

If I could ask Horatio Spafford the secret of his strength, I’m certain he would say it is no secret. He endured tragedy and loss because he believed in the God of Jesus Christ. He endured because he had hope.

There are verses of Spafford’s song that do not usually appear in hymnals. One, in particular, reveals the nature of his hope. He wrote: “But, Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal.” Spafford believed that neither grave nor ocean’s floor holds our destiny: God does. And that gave him hope.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter

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Mistaking a Caricature for the Real Thing

Political cartoonists must love President Trump: he is so easy to caricature. It only takes a few swipes of the pencil, the outline of a hairstyle, and everyone knows they are looking at Donald Trump.

Of course, every president gets caricatured. President Obama was pictured with a prominent brow and gigantic ears, while George W. Bush was sketched with close-set eyes and jumbo ears. Bill Clinton’s nose was oversized, President Carter had big lips, President Reagan a goofy smile, and President Nixon a ski-jump nose. (Okay, President Nixon really had a ski-jump nose.) The point is that every president gets caricatured.

Now imagine someone who has never seen an actual photograph of President Trump. They only know the man from his caricatures – the pointed hair, sagging jowls and arched brows. How likely would it be for them to recognize the real President Trump if they sat next to him in a restaurant or followed his foursome on the eighteenth hole?

He almost certainly would not recognize the president, even though he had seen a thousand caricatures of him. By exaggerating a trait to the point of absurdity – Trump’s hair or Nixon’s nose – caricatures are readily identifiable in a way that real people, with their nuanced manners and fine distinctions, are not.

Of course, it is not just a president’s looks that get caricatured: so do his policies. A few swipes of a political columnist’s pen can caricature a president’s position on an issue as quickly as a cartoonist can caricature his face – and can be just as absurd.

Unfortunately, what happens in politics also happens in theology. Presidents are not the only ones who get caricatured: God does too. Only with God, people may not realize they are looking at a caricature. Thinking some ridiculous depiction of God to be realistic, they reject him, even though they would not recognize the real God if they sat next to him in a restaurant or followed his Threesome on the eighteenth hole.

When God did rub elbows with humans in the person of his Son, most people didn’t know who he was. The Bible says, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.” The world expected him to look like his caricature.

In political cartoons, President Trump has pointed hair and President Obama big ears, but how is God caricatured? How do the theological equivalents of political cartoons depict God?

First, there is the angry God caricature. His eyes could bore holes right through a person. Are those clouds behind him or is that steam coming from his ears? The angry God is always mad at someone.

Then there is the killjoy God, who always wears a permanent scowl. His eyes “go to and fro throughout the whole earth,” to misquote the Bible, looking for someone having fun—so he can put a stop to it.

Next is the distant God. He is usually not pictured at all—he’s too far away. Instead, he is symbolized by a light shining though clouds in some distant heaven, reminding us that he is far away and uninvolved. We’re just fooling ourselves if we think the distant God is going to help us.

The accountant God is a common caricature. He wears a visor and spends his day bent over his desk, tallying the sins and virtues of his employees (his creatures) as they appear in the accounts receivable column. This God never whistles while he works. His lips are pursed.

Perhaps the most ubiquitous caricature is the Our-Grandfather-In-Heaven one. This is the old man God, who sits on a throne, presumably because he is too tired to stand up. The Our-Grandfather-In-Heaven God is neither angry nor dour; he just wants his little ones to be happy. He passes out blessings like grandpa passes out Life Savers.

The trouble with these theological caricatures is that otherwise intelligent people confuse them with the true God. When they discard the ridiculous parodies, as they should, they mistakenly think they are done with God. The truth is they haven’t even begun.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 4/14/2018

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What to Look for in a Mentor

One of the best things I’ve ever done was to enter a mentoring relationship with Kenneth West. I was a young man, still in my twenties, working as a lead pastor for the first time in my life, and woefully unprepared for the task. He was in his seventies when we met, a retired pastor, full of wisdom, and still passionate about life with God.

The first time I saw him, he was teaching a Sunday School class. He was a big man, as tall as me, with a sturdier frame. He had large hands that were calloused by hard work, a genuine smile, and an openness toward others I later came to attribute to humility.

We never referred to our connection as a mentoring relationship. We didn’t really refer to it at all; instead of talking about the nature of our relationship, we talked about the nature of life, of faith, and of work. I still remember some of the things he said, but what he said was not as important as the kind of life he modeled. I didn’t just want to learn from him; I wanted to be like him.

I was impressed by his humility from the beginning. He was a good storyteller. Whether his story was about himself or someone else made no difference; never once did I get the impression that he was telling the story to impress people with himself. He loved God, loved life, and loved people, and he wanted to share what he loved with others.

He taught me to eschew brash dogmatism. He did this by showing me that it is possible to firmly believe something without insisting everyone else believe it. I learned from him how to disagree with others without disparaging them. He helped me see that life, whatever else it is, is not an argument to be won or lost.

I learned from him that a well-ordered life is, by necessity, a prioritized life. Humans are not God. They cannot do everything. They must make choices. Once, when we were talking about something that demanded a higher priority in my life, I said, “Well, I guess I’ll have to make time for it.”

Ken West looked at me knowingly and said, “Brother Looper,” – he always called me that – “You can’t make time. You can only take it from something else.” It was an obvious truth with profound implications, but I’d never thought of it before. A good mentor helps you see yourself and others in a new light.

Mentoring has, in recent years, become a “thing,” especially in the business world. But it is not just business types who can benefit from finding a mentor. I know from experience that a good mentor can make a difference in a pastor’s life, but teachers, customer service people, husbands, wives, and students can all benefit from establishing a relationship with a good mentor.

There are things to do and things to avoid when finding a mentor. Don’t ask someone to be your mentor because you admire his or her success. Ask someone to be your mentor because you admire his or her life. The person who has succeeded in your field but failed in marriage may believe that sacrificing relationships is an acceptable price to pay to achieve success. Is that really the kind of mentoring you want?

Find someone who has already navigated the path you are on, is far enough ahead of you to know what the terrain looks like and has the communication skills to describe it to you. Remember that not everyone who has achieved proficiency in a skill is able to articulate the steps in getting there.

Look for someone who sees the relationship as a way to give, not a way to take. Some people love the idea of mentoring (especially the authority and admiration that comes with it) and love to give advice but are more interested in themselves than in the other person.

Finally, don’t quit the relationship when you don’t like what the mentor says. It’s the hard truths that help most. Find a mentor who will tell you what you need to hear, even if it is not what you want to hear.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 4/7/2018

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“Storied” People

The people of Jesus are “storied” people. They not only know the story, they live the story;  it is still going on.

You can hear the climactic episode of the ongoing story told in three parts at http://lockwoodchurch.org/media. Part I (See, Your King Comes, March 25) tells the exciting story of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem. It is a story of hope, conflict, and misunderstanding, set in a politically volatile time. Part II (Holy Week Communion, March 29) tells the story of the night Jesus was betrayed. Part III (See, Your King Comes, April 1) looks at the first Easter morning from the perspective of Mary Magdalene.

Don’t stop celebrating Easter!

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More Than Colored Eggs and Chocolate Bunnies

The Easter circulars came out last week, and they were full of little girls’ dresses and little boys’ suits. Pastel colors were everywhere, dyed eggs and chocolate bunnies ubiquitous. Every kind of ham you can imagine, and some you’ve never heard of, is on sale: bone-in, bone-out, hickory-smoked, spiral-sliced, honey-glazed, and more.

In our increasingly post-Christian society, these are the things people know about the holiday. If you told them what Easter is really about, they would hardly believe it.

Easter, as a Christian holiday – the Christian holiday – is an anniversary celebration. It’s not about how people dress or what they eat, but about what happened early on a Spring morning outside Jerusalem around the year 29 of the Common Era. It was the day that changed the world.

Though the sun still rose in the east and the earth still spun on its axis, Easter transformed the world. It was the first day of the last times. Easter, Christians believe, marked the beginning of the end of death, and the beginning of the beginning of life everlasting—it changed everything.

Too often, people think of Jesus’s resurrection as nothing more than a reassuring proof that there is life after death. But on that first Easter, no one was asking for that kind of proof. The overwhelming majority of people across the earth and across time already believed in life after death.

The early Christians did not think of Jesus’s resurrection as evidence they would live on as spirits or ghosts or life-forces in some ethereal heaven. Once they realized that Jesus was not merely alive but resurrected, they began announcing the dawn of the new age. They believed “the renewal of all things” (to use Jesus’s own words) had commenced. They did not see Jesus’s resurrection as some one-off event, but as the first stone in an avalanche.

To the early Christians, Jesus’s resurrection was not just confirmation that death had been defeated— though it was certainly that. It was proof that God’s kingdom was at hand and his ancient promise to renew all things – to make everything right – would surely be fulfilled. It was proof to the disciples, as Chesterton once put it, that the world had died in the night and that “what they were looking at was the first day of a new creation…”

For the biblical writers, the resurrection was not so much proof that we will go to heaven when we die as proof that God’s kingdom had come to earth while we live. It was confirmation that the new age had dawned or, to be more precise, that the new age is dawning. People sometimes ask the question, “What would you do if you knew you were going to die tomorrow?” The biblical writers would more likely have asked, “What would you do if you knew you were going to live tomorrow – live fully in God’s kingdom here on earth?

The resurrection convinced early Christians that God’s kingdom had invaded earth. They also believed the complementary truth that God’s king, and not death, will have the last word. There is life on the other side of the tomb.

My wife and I have a Sunday morning routine. For the last 30 years, I have left the parsonage before her and crossed the field, heading for worship service. Before I leave, I always kiss her and say, “See you over there.”

Someday one of us will leave the other and cross the threshold of death, not heading for church but for glory. On that day, we won’t say goodbye; goodbye is not the right word. When C. S. Lewis left Sheldon Vanauken in Oxford, he told him, “I shan’t say goodbye. We’ll meet again.” When he got to the other side of the street, he turned and yelled: “Besides—Christians never say goodbye.”

Because of the resurrection, there will be no need to say goodbye to my wife. I’ll just say, as I’ve said a thousand times before, “See you over there” – not in some ethereal heaven in which we are ill at ease, uncomfortable guests, but in our own place, prepared by Christ, humanity’s true home.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 3/31/2018

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Need Help Getting Ready for Easter?

If you’re like me, Easter time is very busy: Gone most evenings, with lots of things on the calendar and the to-do list. It’s easy for Easter to sneak up and find us unprepared to celebrate the biggest thing that ever happened.

If you have time this week, you might listen to the story of Palm Sunday to help you get ready for Easter and make the most of Holy Week. You can hear it here: See, Your King Comes. 

Hope this week is spiritually rich for you!

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Preacher, Prophet, Martyr, Saint

Pope Francis has made the canonization of Archbishop Oscar Romero his own project. Though the lengthy process was begun during the papacy of John Paul II, opposition caused it to stall. But in 2015, Francis beatified Romero, which opened the door to eventual canonization.

Who was Oscar Romero? To understand the man, one must start with his country. El Salvador is the smallest and most densely populated nation in Central America. In El Salvador, the gulf between the haves and have-nots is wider and deeper than anything North Americans have ever known. As El Salvador entered the 20th century, its land and wealth was concentrated in the hands of just fourteen families, known simply as “The Fourteen.”

Coffee was king in those days, and “The Fourteen” were the Salvadoran nobility. Most of the rest of the people of El Salvador were little more than serfs. They didn’t own land or homes. Half of their wages were “appropriated to provide housing. There was no health care. Worse, there was no hope for improvement.

Romero, who was born in 1917, grew up in this world. His father hoped to instruct him in a trade, but young Oscar believed himself called to ministry in the church. At age 14, he began his studies, which were interrupted briefly by his mother’s illness. After graduating from the national seminary in San Salvador, he went to the Gregorian University in Rome.

In 1943, Romero returned to El Salvador, where he served as a parish priest and, later, as the rector of the diocesan seminary. In 1966, he became the editor of the archdiocesan newspaper, where he had a reputation as a quiet intellectual and a staunch defender of traditional Roman Catholic values.

In 1974, the rather reticent and bookish priest was appointed bishop of a poor diocese in rural El Salvador. During that time, the influence of liberation theology was growing across Central America, and with it the popularity of Marxist ideology. Liberation theology promised hope to the poor and generationally oppressed, but the newly appointed bishop remained steadfastly opposed to it, believing it to conflict with Catholic doctrine.

In 1977, Bishop Romero was elevated to Archbishop of El Salvador, to the consternation of progressives in the Church. They did not see the rather quiet traditionalist as a friend of El Salvador’s poor. They could not have been more wrong.

A few weeks after his appointment as Archbishop, Romero’s dear friend and fellow-priest, Rutillo Grande, an advocate for El Salvador’s poor, was assassinated. His work to help the poor achieve self-sufficiency had been considered a threat to the nation’s rigid social structure, and an affront to the wealthy. Standing over the dead body of his friend, Romero made up his mind to continue his work.

Romero never wavered in his stand against liberation theology and Marxism, but now he had something to stand for, not just against: he stood for the poor. But in El Salvador in the 1970s, standing for the poor was a risky thing to do. The Archbishop knew that. He once said, “I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will be resurrected in the Salvadoran people.”

Romero began broadcasting his Sunday sermons, which became the most popular radio program in the nation. He wrote President Jimmy Carter, begging him to stop sending military aid, which was being used to repress the people. Fearing the spread of communism, the U.S. was pouring money into training Salvadoran special forces. Those forces later committed unthinkable atrocities against the poor, most of whom had never even heard of Karl Marx.

Though he knew it was risky, Romero called on soldiers to disobey any order to kill their fellow-peasants. Days before his assassination, he told a reporter, “You can tell the people that if they succeed in killing me, that I forgive and bless those who do it … A bishop will die, but the church of God, which is the people, will never perish.”

To almost everyone’s surprise, the quiet priest found courage to become a preacher, prophet, and martyr. A deeply spiritual man, Romero received strength from the savior of El Salvador, the savior of the world, to whom his life unreservedly belonged.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 3/24/2018

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Alexa, Stop Creeping Me Out

Yet another reason why I don’t own a smartphone or tablet. Alexa, Amazon’s artificial intelligence-based personal assistant, has been laughing at her masters, and it is creeping them out. According to Amazon, it just a voice recognition flaw, but when Alexa laughs maniacally in the middle of the night, it seems more like the prequel to I, Robot.

The software that drives Alexa, that turns on lights, starts espresso machines, and makes her laugh, is driven by a remote server somewhere. Alexa is simply an ear and a mouthpiece; her brain is far away. Or, to use an image from an earlier era: Alexa is an idol. The god that communicates through the idol is off in some digital heaven somewhere; maybe Silicon Valley.

The case could be made that Alexa is the eidolon – the local manifestation – of a god. You can ask Alexa how to be popular, for steps on a career path, or to calm you down with music, and the goddess will respond. Answers to such prayers are never delayed more than a few fractions of a second. Alexa can provide comfort and companionship, and all one needs do is ask – or should I say, pray?

The Silicon Valley Olympians – Amazon, Apple, Google – are all lightning fast and voice activated. Merely speak the words: “Alexa (or “Siri” or “Google”) please text John and tell him I’ll be there in five minutes,” and what you desire is done. And the sacrifices these deities demand are minimal – $150 for the Amazon god, plus any additional cost of installing devices in your home that will respond to her. More ominously, though, those who bow at her altar entrust their lives to a remote power they know little about but that wants to know everything there is to know about them, including when they go to bed and what’s on their playlist.

The God of the Bible also uses voice commands, only it is his voice, not his adherent’s, that make things happen. He does not need eidolons – local representations like Amazon’s Echo – to get things done.

If you want Alexa to turn on your lights or turn up your heat, you need to install smart bulbs or a smart thermostat that are programmed to respond wirelessly to commands from the Amazon god who resides on the cloud. Alexa will let her adherents freeze before she turns up the heat, unless their smart thermostat is connected and enabled. She has no heart.

That is certainly different from the God of the Bible, but there are similarities in the way they work. He operates wirelessly. He also has programmed his devices to respond to his voice. Think about the first chapter of the book of Genesis, when God said, “’Let there be light,’ and there was light.” Creation has been programmed, connected, and enabled to respond to God’s voice.

The universe God designed is a lot like a smart device – or many trillions of smart devices. Beneath the weird framework of quantum mechanics in our universe lies something deeper: a programming of sorts. Many scientists, recognizing this, have abandoned the long-established mechanistic paradigm of how the universe works and are replacing it with an information paradigm. The have come to believe that quanta, the basic building blocks of the universe, represent information bits – code.

This perspective harmonizes well with the biblical view of a creator who made a universe that responds to his voice. He said, “Let there be light,” his smart creation responded, and the lights came on. He said, “Let there be vegetation” (animals, people, etc.), and it happened. The Bible repeats the words “God said” nine times over the course of six creation days. The psalmist commented: “For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.”

Eugene Peterson, author of the popular Bible paraphrase, The Message, has written of “the massive, overwhelming previousness of God’s speech…” Everything, absolutely everything, including humanity, is voice-activated. But humans have been “disabled” by sin and now must be “enabled” by faith in their creator, the God of Jesus.

As for me, I’ll trust the God known for giving “songs in the night” instead of that other one, the one known for creepy nocturnal laughter.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 3/17/18

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The Only Way Out Is Up

When Richard Spencer, the Alt-Right leader and social firebrand, came to Michigan State University this week, four police officers suffered minor injuries and twenty-five people were arrested. According to The Chicago Tribune, only 150 tickets were issued to the event, but even fewer people attended because of the violence that broke out between Spencer supporters and antifascist protestors.

Spencer’s white supremacist rants are deplorable. His apocalyptic vision urges white people to take action before their doom comes. He tells hearers to join his movement if they “want to live,” and warns that American society may end up in a “hot war” waged by people of color against whites.

Richard Spencer may speak with a prophetic passion as he describes, preacher-like, his peculiar end-times revelation, but his views are anything but Christian. His apocalyptic vision contradicts the vision of the New Testament. The hatred he instills and the violence he promotes have nothing in common with the teaching of Jesus or his apostles.

Indeed, Spencer arrogantly claims that Jesus was mistaken when he said, “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” Spencer, who misunderstands what meekness is, states: “I have never gained anything in my life or my career by watering it down to be just a little bit more palatable. The meek shall never inherit the Earth.”

Either Jesus was right, or Richard Spencer was. For my part, I’ll stand with Jesus, not Spencer.

But I also wouldn’t stand with some of the people who protested against Spencer at MSU. They adopted the very tactics civilized people ought to deplore, shouting vile obscenities at police, and using violence against both police and the people attending Spencer’s lecture. If the hope for peace rests on the shoulders of such people, we’re all in big trouble.

I was once invited to join a protest march against a practice that was deemed racially insensitive. The woman who invited me was a 60s radical for whom the Vietnam war protests marked the high point of her life. She was constantly trying to regain the old sense of purpose and camaraderie she had found on her college campus so long ago.

Perhaps the protestors at MSU were cut from the same cloth: people who were not protesting injustice as much as they were fleeing their own purposelessness. Perhaps they just needed a cause with which to identify themselves. But if their cause is peace, they are going about things the wrong way.

It’s not that they were wrong to take a stand, but taking a stand is different from taking a club, or brass knuckles and knives, as some protestors did. The protestors would have done better to stand for something good, instead of merely standing against something deplorable. The local Episcopal church planned a celebration of diversity to coincide with Spencer’s speaking engagement and received more than 1,000 RSVPs. Imagine if Spencer’s speech had gone on without incident: the local news would have reported that Spencer spoke to 150 attendees, while the diversity celebration attracted more than 1,000. Even Spencer’s supporters would then have had to face the fact of his obvious lack of appeal.

The truth is that hatred, whether it wears a swastika or an Antifa mask, is still hatred. And hatred will never dispel hatred, it will only increase it. Good alone has the power to overcome evil. That is a lesson that Jesus taught and St. Paul reiterated, but that we are regrettably slow to learn.

If one person on the MSU campus had truly engaged Spencer’s muddled supporters with love, he or she could have done more to stop the insanity than all the violent protestors combined. Calling people names only reinforces their prejudices, but a reasoned and respectful debate invites people to reexamine their assumptions. Hearts and minds may not be changed in a day, but they will not be changed at all by busting heads.

The way out of this mess is not to the hard right with Richard Spencer, nor to the hard left with the Antifa protestors. It is not even to the soft right or the soft left. The only way out is up. Our sundered society needs help from above.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 3/10/2018

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The King of the Castle?

I just finished a short series titled, “The King of the Castle.” The king is not husband/dad but Jesus the Lord. How do we seek (and experience) the kingdom of God in our homes? The first message in the series is titled, “Removing Stumbling Blocks,” and it comes from Romans 14, and was given on February 4. The next three are titled “Righteousness,” “Peace” and “Joy” (from Romans 14:17-19), and were given, respectively, on February 11, February 18, and March 4.

You can listen at http://lockwoodchurch.org/media. While you’re at it, check out the great sermon Kevin Looper preached on February 25 titled, “Seek the Lord With All Your Heart.” His extended illustration from St. Augustine’s life will inspire you.

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