Irenaeus of Lyons: Boundless Love

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Irenaeus of Lyons: Boundless Love

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14

“Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God, of His boundless love, became what we are that He might make us what He Himself is.”

Irenaues of Lyons (c. 130-200) in Against Heresies, V.

I am resting today to worship and think about the incarnation with my friends in Alexandria, Egypt. We celebrate that Jesus came to save us and transform us into His likeness as a light to the world.

This Advent and beyond, may our Lord make us people who are full of grace and truth whose generosity is filled with boundless love.

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Athanasius of Alexandria: Display or Disposal

If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all. Isaiah 7:9

“The Lord did not come to make a display. He came to heal and to teach suffering men. For one who wanted to make a display the thing would have been just to appear and dazzle the beholders. But for Him Who came to heal and to teach the way was not merely to dwell here, but to put Himself at the disposal of those who needed Him, and to be manifested according as they could bear it, not vitiating the value of the Divine appearing by exceeding their capacity to receive it.”

Athanasius of Alexandria (296-373) in On the Incarnation 7.43. Athanasius is the fourth of the four doctors of the Eastern Church that I have revisited this week in their writings.

I read Athanasius today as I am excited to be going to Alexandria today. My NABLA meetings in the Egyptian desert, very close to where the desert fathers lived 17 centuries ago, have exceeded expectations.

In my work with GTP, it’s been a privilege to make disciples of faithful administration here and to help form the peer accountability group. It was a joy to celebrate the accreditation of the first 6 organizations.

From here, like Christ, my aim is not to put myself on display but to put myself “at the disposal” of those who need me. I am learning that generous service is making yourself available to be with people.

This is not easy for me. Perhaps it is hard for you too? And providentially, it matches the verse God gave me for this trip. “Stay in this land for a while, and I will be with you and will bless you” (Genesis 26:3).

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John Chrysostom: Cure

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. 1 Timothy 6:10

“Now tell me why is wealth an object of ambition? For it is necessary to start from this point, because to the majority of those who are afflicted with this grievous malady it seems to be more precious than health and life, and public reputation, and good opinion, and country, and household, and friends, and kindred and everything else…

And how might we cure those who are thus disposed? It would be possible if they would open their ears to us, and unfold their heart, and receive our words. For it is impossible to turn and divert the irrational animals from their unclean habit; for they are destitute of reason: but this the gentlest of all tribes, honoured by reason and speech, I mean human nature, might, if it chose, readily and easily be released from the mire and the stench, and the dung hill and its abomination.

For wherefore, O man, do riches seem to thee worthy such diligent pursuit? Is it on account of the pleasure which no doubt is derived from the table? or on account of the honour and the escort of those who pay court to thee, because of thy wealth? is it because thou art able to defend thyself against those who annoy thee, and to be an object of fear to all?

For you cannot name any other reasons, save pleasure and flattery, and fear, and the power of taking revenge; for wealth is not generally wont to make any one wiser, or more self-controlled, or more gentle, or more intelligent, or kind, or benevolent, or superior to anger, or gluttony or pleasure: it does not train any one to be moderate, or teach him how to be humble, nor introduce and implant any other piece of virtue in the soul.”

John Chrysostom (347-407) Archbishop of Constantinople and one of the Four Doctors of the Eastern Church in the treatise “To Prove That No One Can Harm The Man Who Does Not Injure Himself” 6-7, translated by W. R. W. Stephens. To read it, click and scroll to page 290-309.

This is a powerful 20-page treatise by the golden-mouthed archbishop (that’s the meaning of the label, “Chrysostomos,” anglicized as “Chrysostom”). He follows the pattern of the early church when he refers to “the love of money” as a “grievous malady” and explains why his hearers must avoid it: no one can harm this person that does not injure himself.

Think about that expression for a minute. To state it another way, if you can remain free from the love of money, you will remain unharmed and cared for by God. Chasing after money only hurts the people who chase it. It takes them down a dead-end street. Those who turn to money for what it allegedly offers do not gain, but rather, lose. It offers empty promises.

This question really stuck with me: And how might we cure those who are thus disposed? As Patrick Johnson and I teach today at the NABLA event where we are serving with Adel Azmy and Ereny Monir, our goal is to help people avoid harming themselves or piercing “themselves with many griefs” as the Apostle Paul proclaimed. But how do we do this? 

Chrysostom took the approach of speaking truth with love. He talked about money unashamedly, because he did not want people hurting themselves. That’s Patrick’s job and mine today. But isn’t it everyone’s role, every day? We must talk about money with the right perspective, that is, with a biblical view, so people don’t wrongly chase after it.

Speaking of chasing, today is my birthday. I’m 52, and there’s only one prize I’m chasing. Like Eric Liddell I feel God’s pleasure when I run fast. And like George Müller I want to awaken the world to realize that we serve a living God and that he hears the prayers of those who put their trust in Him. I think I am somewhat of a cross between the two.

I run fast in my GTP work because I am trying to disciple a global network to show a watching world that abundant life is only found in Jesus Christ. He’s the only cure for the grievous global malady. When our individual stewardship and institutional standards follow His generous, everything else falls into place in life and ministry and God gets all the glory.

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Gregory of Nazianzus: Returning

Who lends money to the poor without interest; who does not accept a bribe against the innocent. Whoever does these things will never be shaken. Psalm 15:5

“In order to receive something great from God for yourselves, be the same to the poor! With neither pettiness nor stinginess but with terrific lavishness and eagerness… Freely give this good lot both to yourselves and your beloved, stealing nothing from what has been written but bestowing everything with pleasure and joyousness, as though returning what property belongs to God…

For why should you hoard it up for bandits and thieves and for the vicissitudes of the times, which change erratically and whisk unstable prosperity all about but not deposit it into vaults secure and stronger than the attackers? Display your frugality, then, in other circumstances, and to other people (for I also pray that you’re powerful with kindness), but fight the good fight with us… Convince me that you are genuine…”

Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329-390) in “Letter to Alypius” 4. in Gregory of Nazianzus’s Letter Collection: The Complete Translation, by Bradley K. Storin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019) 154. Gregory of Nazianzus is the third of the the three Cappadocian Fathers and one of the Four Doctors of the Eastern Church.

Today I’m thrilled to serve with Adel Azmy of NABLA in Egypt with Patrick Johnson of Generous Church and Ereny Monir, my colleague at GTP. I pray God gives us the candor mixed with kindness that Gregory of Nazianzus exhibited in his writings. So, how do we help people shift from giving with pettiness or stinginess to giving with lavishness and eagerness?

I believe it starts by freely coming to serve. We are here in Egypt not because of what we want from anyone but rather because of what we want for them. We aim to impart the reminder to them that because everything belongs to God, giving is merely “returning” resources back to Him and, in so doing, grasping abundant life.

When we disobey, we store up money for ourselves and put it at risk to the instability of the times. Instead we can store in “into vaults secure” in heaven through giving. God, through the reading of Scripture, the sharing of stories, and our service with kindness, please cause humble obedience and genuine generosity to spread across Egypt. Amen.

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Gregory of Nyssa: The Pattern

The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher. Luke 6:40

“For as the teacher is, so is the disciple fashioned to be. For it is impossible that one who has been apprenticed to the art of the smith should fulfill his training by weaving, or that one who has been taught to work at the loom should turn out an orator or a surveyor. No, the disciple transfers to himself the pattern he sees in his master. It is for this reason it says, every disciple shall be fashioned like his teacher (Luke 6:40).

What then brothers? Is it possible to become humble-minded, calm in manner, moderate, superior to the love of money-making, wise in things divine and trained to virtue and fairness in one’s ways if these qualities have not been seen in the teacher? On the contrary, I do not know how anyone will become spiritual who has done his learning in a school of worldliness, for how shall they who are striving to become like such a one fail to be as he is?”

Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-394), the younger brother of Basil the Great and Bishop of Nyssa in Cappadocia, also known as one of the three Cappadocian Fathers, in “To the Presbyters of Nicomedia” Letter 17.24-25 as recounted in Gregory of Nyssa: The Letters, Introduction, Translation and Commentary, by Anna M. Silvas (Leiden: Brill, 2007) 167-68.

What pattern will I communicate?
That’s the question I am asking myself as I travel to teach on two consecutive long weekends in Egypt. It’s an important question because disciples follow the “pattern” of their teacher. Students will not live out the truth with love unless the teacher leads the way. They will not grow generous stewards without a model to guide them.

This “pattern” is central to our purpose at GTP: “In obedient service to Jesus Christ, GTP multiplies disciples of faithful administration and mobilizes peer accountability groups to increase gospel participation in every nation.” What’s the pattern? A disciple of faithful administration understands his or her role in God’s work and does it with integrity and accountability.

At ECFA in the USA, the pattern is called Standards of Responsible Stewardship. Other such groups that are a part of the fellowship of trust partners in other countries have adopted similar sets of standards. You can look them up here. Why mention this? Each of us must consider carefully “the pattern” we exhibit before a watching world. What’s your pattern?

If you want others to grow in generosity, they must see the pattern in your life. If I want all the men and women I will serve over the next two weeks to grow in generosity, they must see the pattern in my words and works. Think about the pattern of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the saints in the early church, and throughout history. What about you? Will your life transfer the pattern?

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Basil of Caesarea: Self-Control, Obsessions and Despondency

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. Galatians 5:22-23

“Anyone who is truly self-controlled does not desire human glory, but restrains himself from vices such as wrath and despondency and all those obsessions which untaught and incautious souls are wont to cling to. One might go so far as to say that among all the commandments of God we find that the one is so linked with the other that it is impossible to accomplish one in isolation from another. This is found especially the case with self-control itself, in that the humble person is judged to be one who has restrained himself from pride and one who has renounced all his property and, according to the Gospel, sold all his possessions and distributed them to all (cf. Matthew 19:21) is without doubt one who has restrained himself from the desire of money. And the meek too will be one who has mastered his wrath and checked his rage. And the wandering looks of the eye, the listening of the ear, and the looseness of the tongue – what else but self-control can subdue and check them?”

Basil the Great (330-379) Bishop of Caesarea, one of the three Cappadocian Fathers, and doctor of the Eastern Church, Question 8, Response 20-25, in Rule of St. Basil in Latin and English: A Revised Critical Edition, ed. Anna M. Silvas (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2013) 95.

The next three posts will come from fresh readings from the three Cappadocian Fathers while I travel to Egypt and get situated there for service to pastors and ministry administrators in a variety of contexts. We start with Basil the Great. He was an influential theologian whose writings always shape me when I read them.

In this section of his rule Basil expounds on self-control so that “untaught and incautious souls” may avoid being overcome by obsessions and despondency in trying to sort life on their own. It’s the last in the list of the fruit of the Spirit for a reason. It’s really important! If we have self-control, it saves us from a host of vices, including pride and the desire of money.

We live in a day when even Christians tell us to hold on to money. Many (wrongly!) call it wise stewardship. Don’t be fooled. Holding back money for ourselves positions us to indulge in a host of other sins and shifts where we place our trust. In telling us to let go of property in the Gospels, Jesus was not trying to rob us but to help us.

So what’s the key to self-control and how does it relate to generosity?

Without the Spirit’s help, there will be no self-control and no generosity in our lives. None! Either the self guides our lives or the Spirit does. When we submit to the Spirit, it frees us from obsessions and despondency, from the desire for anything other than God to sustain us and all the fear, worry, and vices that go with it.

Father, show us any areas of our lives dominated by self rather than the Spirit. As you do, teach us to submit those areas of our lives to You, so that our obedience delivers us from obsessions and despondency that seek to overcome us. Make us people that exhibit the fruit of generosity and self-control. Hear our prayer in the name of Jesus. Amen.

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Nicodemus and Theophan: Struggle to Overcome

But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. Matthew 12:36

“Remind yourself every day that now is in our hands, but tomorrow is in the hands of God, and that He Who gave you this morning has not bound Himself with the promise to give you the evening too. Refuse to listen to the devil when he whispers to you: give me now, and you will give tomorrow to God. No, no! Spend all the hours of your life in a way pleasing to God; keep in your mind the thought that after the present hour you will not be given another and that you will have to render a strict account for every minute of this present hour. Remember that the time you have in your hands is priceless and if you waste it uselessly, the hour will come when you will seek and not find it. Consider as lost a day when, although performing good deeds, you have not struggled to overcome your bad tendencies and desires.”

Unseen Warfare: The Spiritual Combat and Path to Paradise of Lorenzo Scupoli, edited by Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain and revised by Theophan the Recluse, translated by Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1987) 127-128.

Five phrases struck me from this post: (1) “remind yourself every day,” (2) “refuse to listen to the devil,” (3) “spend all the hours of your life,” (4) “remember that the time you have in your hands is priceless,” and (5) “consider as lost a day when, although performing good deeds, you have not struggled to overcome your bad tendencies and desires.” So good! So rich!

We must remind ourselves every day to live today for God to the fullest and not worry about tomorrow or listen to whispering of the devil. We must spend each priceless moment for God and struggle to overcome the tendencies of the flesh so we live by the Spirit and produce the fruit of generosity. Father, help us do our part, for we know You will faithfully do Yours. Amen.

I leave for Egypt in about 24 hours. Pray for safe travel and fruitful ministry. Each trip I take I write a report for the GTP board, regional facilitators, staff, and supporters for accountability. Similarly, Jesus reminds us that we will all have to give an account. God help us not waste any words or moments but make the most of each conversation and opportunity. Amen.

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Macarius of Egypt: Drunkenness of Materialism

Then He said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” Luke 12:15

“Whatever the soul may think fit to do itself, whatever care and pains it may take, relying only upon its own power, and thinking to be able to effect a perfect success by itself, without the cooperation of the Spirit, it is greatly mistaken. It is of no use for the heavenly places; it is of no use for the kingdom – that soul, which supposes that it can achieve perfect purity of itself, and by itself alone, without the Spirit. Unless the man who is under the influence of the passions will come to God, denying the world, and will believe with patience and hope to receive a good thing foreign to his own nature, namely the power of the Holy Spirit, and unless the Lord shall drop upon the soul from on high the life of the Godhead, such a man will never experience true life, will never recover from the drunkenness of materialism; the enlightenment of the Spirit will never shine in that benighted soul, or kindle in it a holy daytime; it will never awake out of that deepest sleep of ignorance, and so come to know God of a truth through God’s power and the efficacy of grace.”

Macarius of Egypt (300-391) in Spiritual Homilies, Homily 24.

In today’s Scripture Jesus warns us that “life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” though the world proclaims the opposite message to us. We get so bombarded with the opposite message that many are overcome by the “drunkenness of materialism” as Macarius describes it.

Jenni and I walked around an outlet mall yesterday. The Christmas decorations were beautiful, but the marketing messages seemed to try to intoxicate our thinking linked to possessions. What’s at stake? Macarius rightly notes that getting this wrong can cause us to fail to “experience true life.”

True life is only found in enjoying and sharing all God richly supplies (see 1 Timothy 6:17-19). Grasping this is only possible with the help of the Holy Spirit. Remember, generosity is one of the fruits of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22-23). So, if you to grow in generosity, call out to God for help. Macarius is right! Don’t try to go at it alone.

Come Holy Spirit.

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Fabiola of Rome: Our Own Need For Mercy

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

“‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” Luke 16:19-31

Today’s post is an excerpt from The Life of Fabiola.

“The first thing she did was to set up a nosochomeion [Greek word meaning “hospice” or “hospital”] into which she gathered sick people from off the streets and provided relief for the needy and nursed those suffering from various ills. Need I describe all those various human disasters – the broken noses, the eyes put out, the feet half withered, the hands covered in sores, the distended bellies, the thin shanks, the swollen shins, the diseased and decaying flesh swarming with maggots? How often did she bear upon her shoulders people infected with jaundice or filth? How often did she wash the wounds oozing with pus which most people could not bear even to look at? She prepared food with her own hands, and moistened the lips of the dying with sips of liquid.

I know many rich and religious people who are quite happy to bring this sort of relief to people by being generous with their money, as long as somebody else is actually doing the work. They have not the stomach to do it with their own hands. But I don’t blame them. A natural repugnance does not necessarily indicate a lack of faith. But while I may forgive them their weakness of stomach, I cannot fail but offer praises to heaven for the fervour of a mind which has perfectly banished such scruples. It was her great faith which enabled her to overcome.

I know what reward was meted out to the proud rich man clothed in purple who failed to do anything for Lazarus (Luke 16.23). The person whom we might despise, whom we can hardly bear to look at, to care for whom would make us vomit, is only another person like us, formed like us out of the same clay, built up out of identical elements. Anything that happens to him could just as easily happen to us. If we were to reckon the wounds of others as our own, then our own hard-heartedness towards others might be broken down into a realisation of our own need for mercy. If I had a hundred tongues and a hundred lips and voice like a trumpet, I still would not be able give you the names of all the diseases that Fabiola treated. She brought so much comfort to these wretches that many people even began to be envious of the poor! She exercised a similar liberality towards clerics, monks and virgins. What monastery has not been given a share in her alms? What scantily clothed or bed-ridden person has Fabiola not provided with clothing? Are there any needy persons upon whom she has not poured forth her immediate and unstinted bounty? And she found that even Rome was too narrow a sphere for her pity.”

Fabiola of Rome (died 399) in The Life of St. Fabiola. Life 25. Chapter 5.

Today’s Scripture recounts the story of Lazarus, whose name means, “God has helped,” and the rich man who failed to help him. Where do you find yourself in the story?

As I continue to enjoy reading the lives of the saints in the time of the early church and the desert fathers, Fabiola inspires me deeply today. This excerpt from her life demonstrates that those who help sacrificially, trusting in God to supply, can impact many in the name of Jesus and bring glory to God.

What inspired her? The secret lies in the story. It was a realization of her “own need for mercy” which is the only thing that breaks down hard-heartedness. This motivated her to serve the sick generously while other rich people would give as long as somebody else was “actually doing the work.”

Lord, help us each see our own need for mercy. Teach us that our own hands are the conduits of heavenly love and care and empower us to extend it to those in need in the name of Jesus. Amen.

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Brother Troilus and John the Almsgiver: The Story of the Unwilling Almsgiver

Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and He will reward them for what they have done. Proverbs 19:17

“Brother Troilus,” said the blessed patriarch [John the Almsgiver], “love and honor these brothers of Christ.”

Now someone had told him that Troilus’ house servant was carrying thirty pounds of gold with him in order to buy a sort of anaglyphus to grace his table with. Fearing that John was about to preach a sermon at him, with a marked lack of enthusiasm he ordered his servant carrying the gold to give some of it to each of the poor. The whole amount of it quickly vanished.

The patriarch and bishop Troilus, the unwilling almsgiver (as I call him), both went their several ways home. Troilus felt very bitter, with all kinds of perilous thoughts rushing through his mind because of the money he had given away. The love of money which had engendered harshness and negligence in him finally caught up with him and made him shake all over, so that he became unnaturally feverish, and unwillingly took to his bed.

Now the most holy patriarch sent his servant to Troilus to bid him come to a meal, but Troilus refused, saying that for some reason he was suffering from a shivering sort of fever. The patriarch knew at once that the unwilling almsgiver’s fever had been caused by the sudden disappearance of his money. For, as we have said, he loved his money and had no sense of compassion for others. The blessed man could not allow himself to sit at ease at his table while Troilus was languishing on his bed, so he went to see him straight away.

“Don’t worry, Troilus, my son,” he said humbly and with a cheerful face. “Did you really think that I would have expected you to give to the brothers in that way? Believe me, I was only joking. I had in fact wanted to give each of them a numismatum for them to celebrate the holy feast day, but my purseholder did not have enough money with him, so you kindly lent me the money. See, I am bringing you back the thirty pounds now.”

When Troilus actually saw the money in the honored hand of this wise doctor and pastor, his fever suddenly left him and strength and warmth returned to his body, so that it was quite obvious what had caused the change that had come over him. Without hesitation he took the money from the venerable patriarch’s hands, and the patriarch asked him in return for a receipt, disclaiming any reward that might be due for having given the thirty pounds. Troilus quite happily agreed to this, and in his own hand he wrote as follows:

“O God, I have received back my own money. Ascribe the reward due for the almsgiving of the thirty pounds to the account of my lord John, the most blessed patriarch of this great city of Alexandria.”

The holy man took this receipt and betook both himself and Troilus back to dinner, for as we have said, he was now completely well.

But God, the giver of rewards, decided to reproach him, and awaken in him some compassion and sympathy with the idea of almsgiving. So after his dinner with the patriarch, God showed him that night in a dream how he had been deprived of his reward. He saw a building whose magnificence and beauty no human art could possibly devise, with a doorway all of gold, and across the doorway a scroll, saying THE ETERNAL MANSION AND RESTING PLACE OF BISHOP TROILUS.

“I was overjoyed,” he told us later, “when I read this, to think that someone had provided such a sumptuous house for me. But I had hardly finished reading this superscription before a royal bedroom-attendant came along with other servants to the doorway of this gleaming house and said: ‘Take that superscription down. Change it and put it back according to the orders of the ruler of the world.’

“And as I looked on, they brought a new scroll and fixed it on: THE ETERNAL MANSION AND RESTING PLACE OF JOHN, ARCHBISHOP OF ALEXANDRIA, BOUGHT FOR THIRTY POUNDS. I awoke immediately, and went to the great high pastor to tell him what I had seen”

And from that time onwards Bishop Troilus became a most magnificent almsgiver.”

“The Story of Bishop Troilus and John the Almsgiver” in The Life of St. John the Almsgiver by Leontius, Bishop of Neapolis in Cyprus, translated by Athanasius, his librarian, Book 1b, Chapter XXVI.

The power of the story is that Brother Troilus went from being the unwilling almsgiver to becoming a most magnificent almsgiver. What about you?

Will it take a dream in your sleep to be awakened from your own unwillingness? What if you imagine your eternal mansion and resting place?

As the week draws to a close, take inventory of what you have. Take time to think about the eternal implications of your stewardship. Determine what you want your almsgiving to look like.

Most importantly, realize that heaven is watching. Will you be an unwilling almsgiver or a magnificent one? There are eternal implications to your decision.

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