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Cyril of Alexandria: Apply yourself to holy works

To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted. They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good. Titus 1:15-16

“Let us cease from our sins; let us rest from our offences; let us wash away our stains; let us abandon the impure love of the flesh; let us flee far from covetousness and extortion; and from disgraceful gains, and the love of lucre. Let us first gather provisions for our souls for the way, the meat that will suffice us in the world to come: and let us apply ourselves to holy works.”

Cyril of Alexandria (376-444) in Commentary on St. Luke, volume 2, sermon CI (From the Syriac. MS.12,154) 384.

I’ve transitioned from a retreat center some distance from Alexandria to a simple, yet peaceful, Egyptian flat downtown by the sea. This photo is the stunning view from the kitchen window. I’m convinced the beauty of this seaside city helped the early fathers connect deeply with our Creator!

For Titus, whose assignment was to minister in Crete, which happens to be not far from my location on the Mediterranean, people have corrupted minds and consciences if they claim to know God but their actions send a different message.

What message do your actions send with regard to money?

Cyril explains that those who love money and getting more and more of it as compared to what other people have, reveal that they are afflicted with the sins of covetousness and extortion; whereas, those who deploy money find themselves gathering provisions for the world to come.

Which are you doing?

You can’t say both or somewhere in between. That’s like saying you can serve God and money. It’s inconsistent or in biblical terms, impure or corrupted. You only make one objective your aim. Our human tendency is to take and accumulate. Let me urge you to live by faith from beautiful Alexandria by the sea.

This life we are living, it’s only for a brief moment. Eternity is of incomparable length. Make your actions show you are living for the eternal kingdom. We do this not by accumulating money and things, but by applying ourselves to holy works.

What is at stake if we don’t walk this path?

Paul says that if we are not “pure,” which in antiquity refers to “consistent,” then we are “detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good.” Resolve today to apply yourself to holy works, which is “set apart living for God” that dispenses His love wherever you go. You can do it as God will help you.

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Clement of Alexandria: Be freed from greed

So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? Luke 16:11

“It is not scanty means that ever constitute poverty, but greed. The good [person], being free from this, will also be rich.”

Clement of Alexandria (150-215) E, 2.352, in A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, ed. David W. Bercot (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1998) 440.

My meetings in Egypt are going great. I love the Egyptian Christians as they are so deeply devoted to Christ, and of all the early church fathers, I would have loved to meet Clement of Alexandria in person.

Here Clement states plainly that poverty is not linked to the level of a person’s resources, but rather, whether or not they are free from greed, which enables them to possess true riches.

Greed tells us we need money. Those who are free know they need God and they only discover this by handling money following God’s design. We must not sugarcoat this. It’s really hard. It’s the hardest thing you will ever do, which is why Jesus is not condemning but sympathetic.

Jesus looked around and said to His disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” Mark 10:23

As I move and interact in what many would say is a country filled with poverty, I am encountering many that, in God’s eyes, are actually quite rich. Additionally, I come from a country that most would say is full of rich people that I believe God would say are poor.

What’s the point for those who want to exhibit generosity?

We only find freedom and true riches through giving. It transforms us into people of trust. God does not need our money. We need to give it to be freed from greed. If we have money stored up on earth, our fund balances are evidence against us that we don’t understand the pathway to freedom and life.

Then He said, “Beware! Guard against every kind of greed. Life is not measured by how much you own.” Luke 12:15

Jesus not condemn the rich, but He does warns those with wealth to be on guard. With Him, I am alerting everyone to take the pathway to true riches. Each person must decide to take it in order to show where they place their trust.

Give generously whatever you have and be freed from greed. You don’t find it’s the way to life and true riches until you take it.

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Cyril of Alexandria: Open your heart

Here’s the lesson: Use your worldly resources to benefit others and make friends. Then, when your earthly possessions are gone, they will welcome you to an eternal home. Luke 16:9

“He said, “Make for yourselves friends of the unrighteous mammon: that when it has failed, they may receive you into eternal tabernacles.” But as being God by nature, He well knew the slothfulness of the human mind in every earnest and good work. It escaped not His knowledge, that men, in their greediness after wealth, giving up their mind to the love of lucre, and being tyrannized over by this passion, become hard-hearted and unsympathizing with affliction, and show no kindness whatsoever to the poor, even though they have heaped up much wealth in their stores…

But this was not God’s purpose in permitting us to possess wealth. If therefore we are unfaithful in the little, by not conforming ourselves to the will of God, and bestow the best portion of ourselves upon our pleasures and our boasts, how can we receive from Him that which is true? And what is this? The abundant bestowal of those divine gifts which adorn man’s soul, and form in it a godlike beauty. This is the spiritual wealth, not that fattens the flesh, which is held by death, but rather that saves the soul, and makes it worthy of emulation, and honorable before God, and that wins for it true praises.

It is our duty therefore to be faithful unto God, pure in heart, merciful and kind, just and holy: for these things imprint in us the outlines of the divine likeness, and perfect us as heirs of eternal life. And this then is that which is true…Let such of us then as possess earthly wealth open our hearts to those who are in need; let us show ourselves faithful and obedient to the laws of God, and followers of our Lord’s will in those things which are from without, and not our own, that we may receive that which is our own, even that holy and admirable beauty which God forms in the souls of men, fashioning them like unto Himself, according to what we originally were.”

Cyril of Alexandria (376-444) in Commentary on St. Luke, volume 2, sermon CIX (From the Syriac. MS.12,154) 113. The photo above is the of the retreat center where my meetings have been held. I chose this Bible passage this morning as it is the text I will preach from this Sunday evening at a church in Alexandria.

Doctor Cyril provides the starting point for living generously. It starts with open hearts to those in need. When we “open our hearts” the faithful and obedient giving follows. And it’s God’s design for our lives. When we play our role as generous, merciful and kind givers, we reflect “the divine likeness” and it transforms and perfects us as heirs of eternal life.

So what will you open your heart to this Advent? Don’t be “hard-hearted and unsympathizing.” Today mine is open to the pastors and ministry administrators I am serving in Egypt. The meetings are going well!

Once your heart is open, assess what earthly wealth God has richly supplied this year, and ask God what you should do with it because it’s all His. Respond faithfully for what will happen next is bigger than the giving. Only after you open your heart, and respond in obedience and give generously, do you realize you are not diminished but enriched in the process.

We think giving is about the money, but God opens our eyes to see it is what we were made to do with Him as our Supplier. Only when we do our part, are we transformed and do we make friends for eternity.

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Clement of Alexandria: Suited for Pursuits

I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God. 1 Timothy 2:9-10

“Let a woman wear a plain and becoming dress, but softer than what is suitable for a man. Yet, it should not be immodest or entirely steeped in luxury. And let the garments be suited to age, figure, nature, and pursuits.”

Clement of Alexandria (150-215) E, 2.285, in A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, ed. David W. Bercot (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1998) 170. It’s beautiful here in Egypt (pictured above).

Clement taught at the Catechetical School of Alexandria. He helped people apply God’s Word in everyday life. Few thoughts are more practical than his adornment advice as everyone wears clothes.

Ladies, notice the middle road down which Clement points. He calls for clothing that is plain, soft, and becoming, or as we might say in today’s terms, simple, soft, and cute.

Such simple, soft, and cute attire avoids immodestly on the one hand and that which is “entirely steeped in luxury” on the other. And notice, it is “suited to age, figure, nature, and pursuits.”

Why make a post about clothing during Advent? One of the most common gifts at Christmas is clothing. The advertisers do everything they can to insist that we must buy luxurious clothing.

To have margin to live generously, ladies, keep it simple, soft and cute. Men, don’t go soft as Clement advises your clothing be different from the ladies; wear practical clothes.

So, today is my birthday. I’m thankful my wife got me six new undershirts, new walking shoes, and some books. I am well suited for my service and pursuits in Egypt today.

Regarding attire, if we all aim at simple and practical, our clothing will neither distract from our Christian testimony nor drain our pockets of resources for generous giving.

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Origen of Alexandria: Plainness and Needful

So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Matthew 6:31-33

“The words of the Gospel, although probably containing a deeper meaning, may yet be taken in their more simple and obvious sense, as teaching us not to be disturbed with anxieties about our food and clothing. Rather, while living in plainness and desiring only what is needful, we should put our trust in the providence of God.”

Origen of Alexandria (c. 185-254) 4.620 in A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, ed. David W. Bercot (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1998) 441.

This meditation posts about the time I arrive in Egypt. One of the things I love about the Christians there is their simple trust in God. Though, largely speaking, they have limited financial mens, the Christians I have met possess something of inestimable value: deep faith in God.

In the West we tend to trust in our resources rather than in the providence of God, so life is filled with anxiety. We become disturbed and stingy rather than at peace and generous. For many, Christmas is about “what we want” rather than celebrating “what God gave,” namely, Jesus, the greatest gift to the world.

As we experience Advent in Alexandria together by exploring the writings of the early church fathers from this city, we find that the way of Jesus is “living in plainness and desiring only what is needful.” What would that look like for you to trust in the providence of God to care for you?

Only when we grasp God’s care for us do we shift from being anxious and disturbed people whose trust is in ourselves to being joyful distributors of spiritual and material blessings. The simple and obvious way of living is to trust in the providence of God. We can enjoy and share generously as God is our Provider!

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Clement of Alexandria: Divine Market

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. Matthew 6:19-20

“What beautiful business! What a divine market! You purchase with money something incorruptible, and you give the perishing things of this world in exchange for heavenly things! Set sail, O Rich Man, for this festal assembly, if you are wise. And if it is necessary, go around the whole earth without considering dangers or toils, that here you might purchase a heavenly kingdom.”

Clement of Alexandria (150-215) in Quis dives salvetur (The Rich Man’s Salvation) 32 in Alms: Charity, Reward, and Atonement in Early Christianity by David J. Downs (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2016) 185.

Today I depart for Egypt, though I will not exactly set sail. I fly from Denver to Houston to Frankfurt to Cairo. Thanks for your prayers for strength to face whatever awaits me and for the Spirit to work powerfully through my service.

In antiquity, much like today, people with wealth loved to travel and shop. Emporiums and markets in many cities achieved great fame. People would travel many miles to visit temples and to go shopping to purchase a variety of wares.

Clement calls the rich to a different market, a divine market. He beckons them to use wealth to purchase the incorruptible. What about you? What will you do? Will you be wise? If so it will require you to spend differently than your wealthy friends.

This echoes the explicit instructions of Jesus to store money in heaven rather than on earth. Will you prepare for the festal assembly in eternity? I hope and pray you chose wisely. You are not making a sacrifice, but rather the smartest investment on the planet.

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Clement of Alexandria: What to obtain with your wealth

So we ourselves should support them so that we can be their partners as they teach the truth. 3 John 8

“Enlist on your behalf an army without weapons, without war, without bloodshed, without anger, without stain, an army of God-fearing old men, of God-beloved orphans, of widows, armed with gentleness, of men [and women] adorned with love. Obtain with your wealth, as guards for your body and soul, such ones as these, whose commander is God. Through them the sinking ship rises, steered by the prayers of saints alone; and sickness at its height is subdued, put to flight by the laying on of hands; the attack of robbers is made harmless, being stripped of its weapons by prayers; and the violence of daimones is shattered, reduced to impotence by confident commands. Effective soldiers are these, and steadfast guardians, not one idle, not one useless. One is able to beg your life from God, another to hearten you when sick, another to weep and lament in sympathy on your behalf before the the Lord of all, another to teach some part of what is useful for salvation, another to give outspoken warning, another friendly counsel, and to love you truly without guile, fear, hypocrisy, flattery, or pretense.”

Clement of Alexandria (150-215) in Quis dives salvetur 34-35 (The Rich Man’s Salvation) in Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society, ed. Susan R. Holman (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008) 38.

Clement urges the rich person with wealth to support effective soldiers and steadfast guardians. Do you have wealth? Do you know any people who fit the descriptions listened above?

As this is the time of year when people make lists of the things they want for themselves at Christmas. What if, instead, we got together (as couples or families or with friends) and reasoned to support such soldiers with the resources God has supplied.

In places like Egypt, where I fly to tomorrow, when we support God’s workers there, we become partners with them. We mobilize them and send them forth armed not with weapons but with gentleness and love.

Spend your wealth on such people as these. Pray and follow God’s leading as to what effective soldiers you will support. Does a missionary or maybe a young Christian worker come to mind? Or perhaps an organization equipping such workers?

Should you desire to invest in the international accountability efforts that have me working with such guardians around the globe, stay tuned. God is bringing together an organization that will need your support and prayers very soon.

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Origen of Alexandria: Uncorrupted

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. Matthew 5:13

“Men [and women] of God are assuredly the salt of the earth. They preserve the order of the world. And society is held together as long as the salt is uncorrupted.”

Origen of Alexandria (185-254) E. 4.463, in A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, ed. David W. Bercot (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1998) 144.

Jenni and I flew to New York City last night to preach together in five services today at Bethel International Church. Our message is entitled, “Sharing Abundantly: The Early Church in the New Testament.”

I asked my wife to join me in delivering the message because after sharing the biblical themes, she does a great job sharing our story. She basically shares how we realized our saltiness had been corrupted.

What does that mean? Most followers of Christ say they have faith in Jesus but their financial statements reveal that they have conformed to the world and that their trust is in money. What would yours reveal?

In her remarks, she sums our story aptly with these words: “Obey, Let Go, and Trust God.”

You don’t figure out the teachings of Jesus until you live them out in obedience. Then you must let go of that which everyone says you need for life and living, namely, money. Only then, when Christ is all you have, do you realize, He’s all we have ever needed all along.

Of course our story is a lot more colorful than that summary, and more humbling to share, because we had become corrupted. We were disobeying, holding on, and trusting in money. What about you?

If you want to make a difference in the world that seems to be falling apart, the most generous thing you can do is to remain salty. If you are not salty, according to Jesus, you are no longer good for anything.

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Origen of Alexandria: Seven Remissions

But now as for what is inside you — be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you. Luke 11:41

“Now hear how many are the remissions of sins in the gospel. First is the one by which we are baptized “for the remission of sins” (Mark 1:4). A second remission is martyrdom. Third, is that which is given through alms. For the Savior says, “but nevertheless, give what you have and, behold, all things are clean for you” (Luke 11:41). A fourth remission of sins is given for us through the fact that we also forgive the sins of our brothers. For thus the Lord and Savior Himself says, “If you will forgive from the heart your brother’s sins, your Father will also forgive your sins. But if you will not forgive your brothers from the heart, neither will your Father forgive you” (Matthew 6:14-15). And thus he taught us to say in prayer, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). A fifth forgiveness is when “someone will convert a sinner from the error of his way” (James 5:20). For thus divine Scripture says, “Whoever will make a sinner turn from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:20). There is also a sixth forgiveness through the abundance of love as the Lord Himself says, “Truly I say to you, her many sins are forgiven because she loved much” (Luke 7:47). And the Apostle says, “Because love will cover a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). And there is still a seventh remission of sins through penance, although admittedly it is difficult and toilsome, when the sinner washes “his couch with tears” (Psalm 6:6) and his “tears” become his “bread day and night” (Psalm 42:3) when he is not ashamed to make known his sin to the priest of the Lord and to seek a cure according to the one who says, “I said, ‘I will proclaim to the Lord my injustice against myself,’ and you forgave the impiety of my heart (Psalm 31:5). What the Apostle James said is fulfilled in this; “But if anyone is sick, let that person call the presbyters of the Church, and they will place their hands on him anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and if he is in sins, they will be forgiven him” (James 5:14-15).

Origen of Alexandria (185-254) in Hom. Lev. 2.4.4-5 from The Fathers of the Church, vol. 83, Origen: Translation of Homiliae in Leviticus, as cited in Alms: Charity, Reward, and Atonement in Early Christianity by David J. Downs (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2016) 194.

Here we come to understand why Origen is known widely as the “Father of Christian Theology.” These seven remissions from the Scriptures make everything clean for us. What does that mean? We must understand biblical purity language to grasp the implications of this list.

Jesus is the only way of salvation, and He calls us to follow Him in righteousness and justice. That is, in the good and right way of making all things right. So when a person with much money shares with one who has little, perhaps someone in crisis, this is “clean” or pure and good.

Our generosity moves far beyond money to areas of forgiveness, prayer for others, showing abundant love, and more. So what should this collection of Scriptures inspire us to do this Advent as we await the coming of our Lord? I say pick one of the seven that fits your situation.

If you are sick, call the elders of your church to come pray over you and anoint you with oil in the name of the Lord. If you have sorrow over your sins, pour them out before the Lord on your couch knowing that He hears and sees your brokenness. If you have been blessed, serve a generous conduit of abundant love, as you can cover a multitude of sins with it because nothing can touch love. If someone owes you something or has wronged you, forgive the debts and the hurts. Sure, it’s hard. It’s only possible with God’s help, but see how it makes things clean and right. Following Jesus transforms us into generous agents of transformation.

So, what are you waiting for fellow follower of Christ? Let us live, give, forgive, serve, and love like Jesus. We do this even though it might cost us everything, including our lives. Those who “get it” will take hold of abundant life now because we won’t run out of forgiveness, love, or resources. God will supply! And unfathomable rewards await us for eternity.

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Dionysius of Alexandria: Persecution and Plunder

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before Him He endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. Hebrews 12:1-3

[Here is the opening of a letter “To Fabian, Bishop of Antioch” from Dionysius of Alexandria. Though undated, scholars locate it in the days of the Decian persecution. In 250, Roman Emperor Decius issued an edict that everyone in the Roman Empire offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods and the well-being of the Emperor or face death. Havoc raged throughout the empire in 250-251. This correspondence gives us a glimpse of what followers of Christ endured in Alexandria.]

“The persecution did not begin amongst us with the Imperial edict; for it anticipated that by a whole year. And the prophet and poet of evil to this city, whoever he was, was beforehand in moving and exciting the heathen crowds against us, rekindling their zeal for the national superstitions. So they being aroused by him and availing themselves of all lawful authority for their unholy doings, conceived that the only piety, the proper worship of their gods was this — to thirst for our blood.

First, then, they carried off an old man, Metras, and bade him utter impious words, and when he refused they beat his body with sticks and stabbed his face and eyes with sharp bulrushes as they led him into the outskirts of the city and there stoned him. Then they led a believer named Quinta to the idol-house and tried to make her kneel down, and, when she turned away in disgust, they bound her by the feet and hauled her right through the city over the rough pavement, the big stones bruising her poor body, and at the same time beat her till they reached the same spot, and there stoned her.

Thereupon they all with one consent made a rush on the houses of the believers, and, falling each upon those whom they recognized as neighbours, plundered, harried and despoiled them, setting aside the more valuable of their possessions and casting out into the streets and burning the cheaper things and such as were made of wood, till they produced the appearance of a city devastated by the enemy. But the brethren gave way and submitted and accepted the plundering of their possessions with joy like unto those of whom Paul also testified. And I know not of any, save possibly a single one who fell into their hands, up till now has denied the Lord.”

Dionysius of Alexandria (d. 264) in “To Fabian, Bishop of Antioch” (c. 250) in St. Dionysius of Alexandria: Letters and Treatises, ed. by Charles Lett Feltoe (London: SPCK, 1918).

Today I have introduced the fifth key early church father from Alexandria (though not in order). Here they are in chronological order: Clement (150-215) came first, followed by Origen (185-254), then came his student, Dionysius (d. 264). Some time later God raised up Athanasius (296-373) and then Cyril (376-444). Of course there were other prominent Christians in this city but the memory of these doctors and theologians stands out based on their written contributions for the larger church and their surviving correspondence.

Again I have chosen the theme “Advent in Alexandria” as I will spend half of Advent there in service to God’s workers there. I am researching along these lines with the aim of learning how these fathers might help us from their writings to prepare us for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

So far, I am struck by the fact that all of them endured many difficulties. Some battled against heresy that threatened to destroy the church from within. Others faced fierce persecution from outside. I believe God has led me to mine their writings to inspire us as we encounter varying difficulties. The message is clear: do not lose heart! Their generosity soars to unthinkable levels and stirs our hearts as we see them giving their lives in Christian service.

In the excerpt of the letter of Dionysius posted above, consider the torment that the old man Metras and the believing woman Quinta endured. With the “old man” label, we surmise that Metras was an elder and an influential guy. Likely the mob thought that if they could get him to renounce his faith others would follow. Are you Metras? Though up in years, might your greatest tests of trust in God be yet ahead of you?

And what about Quinta. She is clearly known for her faith, and remains true despite suffering horribly. Are you Quinta? Are you known for your faith and willing to stay true no matter the watching world throws at you?

Notice that their possessions were plundered too. We can only imagine the losses they endured though yet the gains that awaited them in the eternal kingdom are inestimable. What helped them to persevere and to not lose heart? Likely they remembered what that Dionysius (or Origen before him) had undoubtedly taught them about humble obedience and perseverance. Those who are persecuted have the hope of the kingdom as a reward from our generous God! As Jesus reminds us in Matthew 5:10, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Would you be able to endure? Do you count yourself blessed when you suffer? I am learning that suffering drives me to my knees in prayer and dependance on God. Then, over time, I discover that’s the posture for navigating every day and every challenge. So, wherever you are and whatever you face today, remember the hope that we have because of Jesus Christ our Lord, whose coming we await with great anticipation. Take heart in what we have learned this week: that we can give all we have and endure persecution and plunder because Jesus has promised us the kingdom. What gain!

Whenever I face a trial, my daughter Sophie sweetly reminds me, “You got this, Dad, because God’s got you.” I can think of no more generous gift that we can give those who are enduring hard times than to encourage them lovingly to not lose heart. Before the great cloud of witnesses, Metras and Quinta shined like lights for Christ and their legacy lives on to this day. What will you do when your moment comes? Come alongside anyone you know who is suffering. Give them the generous gift of love and encouragement, and remind them, “You got this because God’s got you.”

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