06 Aug 2014 Letters From Kenya – The Importance of Play

One of my ministry colleagues posted an article on Facebook that has taken me back to my time in Kenya.  The article’s premise is that the modern, 40-50-60 hour work week is designed to create and sustain our culture’s preoccupation with consumerism.  The underlying message is quite simple: you will not be happy or satisfied unless you acquire the latest and greatest whatever.  It’s a cycle that breeds discontentment and it’s necessary corollaries: anxiety, depression, envy, and disconnect.

I’ve touched on this subject a bit in my ramblings on the image of God, but I truly believe that to be created in the image of God is to be created with an instinctual need for relationship.  To know and be known.  To love and be loved.  To share experiences and all the in-between stuff we call ordinary life.  This is something that our American preoccupation with consumerism and personal advancement cannot embrace.

If we follow traditional business sense, relationship building for the sake of connecting with another person created in the image of God is a waste of time.  It doesn’t possess the ability to produce financial or materialistic gain.  To truly know and be known by a person requires a completely different mindset than the typical Western “networking” (let’s call this what it is: using people for personal gain and advancement) paradigm.  So true and pure relational connections are passed by so we can keep on climbing the success ladder.

In the end, what have we gained?  We’ve become less human and less capable of receiving the grace of God in the face of another.  We’ve gained the whole world but forfeited our souls.  We’ve gained the capacity to build bigger and better “barns” but lost the ability to love and truly engage in life and living in relationship with others.

While we were in Kenya I participated in an alternative way of living and working and being in relationship with others.  In typical American fashion, I entered into our work project with a Gung-ho mindset that wanted to accomplish more than the teams before us.  We’ve got this amount of time and all these objectives to accomplish.  I was ready.  Hand me my assignment.  Let’s “get ‘er done.”

Then the job foreman had the gall to say that the most important thing we could do during our time together was to “share” our lives with each other.  And then during our break the workers pulled out a soccer ball and began kicking and volleying it back and forth to each other.  Then they had the absolute nerve to start smiling and laughing while doing it!  And then I turned around and many of my teammates from the Joplin district started participating in this heresy!  And then to my shock and horror, so did I!

Yes, I was just “playing” in the previous paragraph.  And I did, literally “play” with the workers and enjoyed it thoroughly.  I laughed to the point that the medicine of it poured into my soul.  I smiled till my cheekbones hurt and felt the warmth of the smiles in return.  I felt born again and relationally connected with a group of people that by all outward appearances, I shouldn’t have been able to connect with.

I am reminded that Jesus once said that unless we change and become like little children, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3).  Perhaps this is an area where we need to learn from our children.  Children have this innate ability to play and to engage others in play.  I take my sons to the McDonald’s Play Place to run off some energy.  It’s not 5 minutes into the experience and one of them brings me another little guy and says, “Daddy, this is my friend that I’m playing with.”

If only we as adults could grasp the wisdom and importance of play.  I think we’d I think we’d get all the work done that needs to be done and we’d gain some friends in the process.  And we might rediscover something in the process.  We might rediscover what is truly important in life.  We might rediscover that connections, not commerce, are the real “commodities” of the Kingdom.  We might just rediscover that we are created in the image of God.

04 Aug 2014 Letters from Kenya – the Love of God
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I mentioned earlier that one of my expectations was to be fully present to God and to others during this trip.  I can honestly say that during our times of worship and devotions the presence of the Holy Spirit was near.  Selena Freeman and John Prichard did a fabulous job taking the word of God and applying it to what we were experiencing in Kenya and what we would experience as we returned home.  It was truly a spiritually “forming” experience.

What I wasn’t expecting was the spiritually forming experience I had with one of the workers at the jobsite.  God taught me as much, if not more, about His character and what it means to be human than I’ve learned in any book or seminary class.  All this through my interactions with an electrician named Naphtali.

Naphtali is a quiet and serious man.  He’s the 7th of 8 children born to a poor couple from the Lora Tribe.  Naphtali lost his father when he was quite young and he was raised by his mother and grandmother.  Naphtali speaks of them with great reverence, understanding that the love and discipline he received from them has allowed him to become the man he is today.

Naphtali makes 500 Kenyan shillings a day for his labor.  That’s roughly equivalent to $5.75 a day in American currency.  Naphtali considers himself blessed with his labor and his pay because he’s the only one in his family that has gone past what we would call junior high in education.  He graduated from high school and went on to Tech School where he learned the electrician’s trade.

Naphtali is considered the leader in his family because he’s bettered himself through education and because a great deal of the money he makes he sends back to his village to take care of his mother and siblings.  Where most of us would consider this to be a burden, Naphtali considers it a blessing, an expression of what the human spirit is truly supposed to be and do.  Because of his actions and attitude, Naphtali has also put one of his brothers through schooling to become an auto mechanic.

In order to do this, Naphtali lives in the slums of Nairobi… a very destitute and dangerous place.  He pays 1000 Kenyan Shillings a month to live in a one-room structure with no electricity or running water.  He has very few changes of clothes and oftentimes the only meal he eats during the day is the lunch that Panina (the foreman’s wife) makes for the workers.  All this he does with a true sense of purpose and fulfillment, knowing that He is doing what God would have him do as a man and family member.

As I mentioned, Naphtali is an electrician.  What I didn’t expect was that Naphtali was a theologian, instructed deeply by the Holy Spirit concerning the character of God and what it means to truly be human in this life.  The second day I worked with Naphtali he told me a modern day parable.  Naphtali shared with me that he had been thinking a lot about oxygen lately.  At first I thought that was kind of strange, then as I listened, I was taken to school.  Here’s the parable.

Naphtali told me that if mankind had to pay for oxygen like we do the other necessities of life we would be in desperate trouble.  For the rich man would be able to purchase all he needed plus a surplus that would go to waste because it would never be used.  The poor man however would not be able to afford what he would need and would die because of it.

Naphtali then said this, “What a generous and merciful God we have!” “For God owns all the oxygen and gives to all equally so that they might live… not only so, but more than enough oxygen for every person.”  “What a loving Father in heaven we have!”

In such a simple reflection, Naphtali squarely recognized and confronted the systemic and individual injustices that are present in the world through the hands of mankind not living as they were created to.  But even more profound, Naphtali spoke of the true nature of God – His generosity and benevolence, His mercy and grace, and most important, His love for the creatures He created in His image.

As I’ve had time to reflect on this interaction it has caused me to take a long look at the way I see the world, the way I understand my responsibilities as a white man in the most powerful and resourced country in the world.  Will I support business and industry and governmental policies that only serve to “purchase and hoard a surplus of oxygen” for myself?  Or will I choose to love my neighbor as myself?  Will I choose to think of the needs of both my neighbors here in Springfield and my neighbors across the world?

These are questions that I’m asking myself.  Questions that we as Christians need to reflect upon as members of a country and culture that controls 2/3rds of the world’s natural resources.  In the global village we live in today, our answer is very much one that will prove to be the difference between justice or injustice, human flourishing or human suffering.

01 Aug 2014 Letters from Kenya – Luggage

Our first devotion on our trip to Kenya was given by Kevin Plain, the volunteer Youth Pastor at Scenic Nazarene.  During the devotion, he asked us to think about what our expectations were for the trip.  To be honest, coming into the trip I had been so busy with ministry stuff here at One Life that I was just glad to make it on the plane.

The question began to resonate with my spirit however, and I came to the conclusion that my only expectations were to be fully present to God and others and to minister to the least of these.  What I didn’t expect was to lose my luggage.

Our connection at London Heathrow was pretty hairy because of going through security checkpoints and when we finally got to our gate, boarding our flight to Kenya was almost finished.  It was there that we discovered that due to some sort of computer glitch, nearly half of our luggage was unaccounted for in the system.  And sure enough, when we got to Nairobi, half of it didn’t arrive with us.

Zandee and I had packed a couple days worth of clothes on our carry on, anticipating that this sort of thing might happen.  Well, come Tuesday word reached us at the work site that all of our luggage had arrived, save one.  I jokingly told our hosts that it had to be mine…well, it actually did turn out to be mine and over the course of the next few days I discovered a completely different form of recycling than I’d ever participated in. J

My luggage didn’t arrive until end of the day Thursday, just 2 days before we were to leave to come home.  Definitely not what I had expected out of my trip.  Neither was the lesson that I learned through it.  During that time of recycling my clothes and trying to keep the odor at a minimum I discovered a way of life that many people in Kenya (and in Springfield for that matter) have to live.

There are many who only have one or two sets of clothes and don’t have access to new ones on a regular basis.   Zandee and I have never been “clothes horses” and we’ve always made a practice of “cleaning out our closets” and donating items to Goodwill and the Salvation Army.

What I’ve learned from this experience is that I don’t need nearly as much as I think I do and there are many who would benefit if I would simply learn to live with “enough” and not a self-imposed “surplus.”  As Paul says, 7 For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8 But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.” (1 Tim. 6:7-8)

The interesting part of the whole experience of being without my luggage is that I didn’t feel that I was missing anything.  Now my wife and my teammates may have had other thoughts…after all, it is difficult to smell yourself.  But I was content and to be honest, I was thankful that I had the clothes I packed in my carry on.

Perhaps this is the secret to lasting contentment and peace that seems so illusive this side of the Atlantic.  We have so much and strive after bigger and better things, but rarely experience fulfillment.  I had so little compared to what I normally experience at home and found myself to be at peace with my situation, my circumstances and myself.

It makes me appreciate the words of Paul in 1 Timothy 6:6 – But godliness actually is a means of great gain when accompanied by contentment.”

Perhaps this is the reason why many Christians today seem to search for meaning apart from the holy life.  They haven’t discovered contentment in who God is and what He’s blessed them with and because they don’t experience the peace that goes beyond understanding, which comes from contentment, the holy life seems more like a burden than a blessing.  I think we would all do well to think about that and how it applies to our lives.

31 Jul 2014 Letters from Kenya – The Least of These

We’re wired to see labels.  Not the kind on our clothes, but the distinctions we see between ourselves and others.  For example: Black, white, short, tall.  Chubby cheeks, husky, slim, daddy’s girl, momma’s boy.

As we get older people start assigning us labels: jock, nerd, computer geek, life of the party, druggies, good little church kid.  Believe it or not, it doesn’t get too much better when you get older.  The only change is that they’re assigned on a much grander scale: liberal, conservative, democrat, republican, pro-life, pro-choice, even Nazarene, Baptist, Catholic, or Assemblies of God.

One of the things that I’m learning about labels is that they dehumanize us.  Instead of taking the time to genuinely know someone, labels cut off the flow of relationship before they even get started.  Labels assign value to a person based solely upon perception, stereotype and prejudice.

Let me just state the obvious: this is not what God intended.  Let me take you to a couple of passages that I’ve been reflecting on this week.  The first is in Genesis, the second is in Galatians.

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (‭Genesis‬ ‭1‬:‭26-27‬ NIV)

So this passage is crucial for us to understand if we’re going to understand what it means to be human.  Before there was original sin, mankind (male and female) was created with original righteousness.  Theologians talk a lot about what it means for us to have been created in God’s image, but I wonder if part of it refers to the ability to truly know a person and and be known by them.

This seems to be one of the most tragic of consequences of the Fall of humankind.  We began to take up fig leaves and make coverings for ourselves.  I don’t know if you’ve seen a fig leaf or not, but they’d be just about as comfortable to wear as the 3 inch thorn bushes I saw in Kenya.  Those thorns remind me a lot of the labels we have given and received.  They hurt and penetrate deeply.   They keep others at a manageable distance.  Don’t get too close.  I don’t know if I can trust you.  After all, you’re a (insert label).  And so we continue to hide from the healing grace of God that comes through the practice of authentic community.

The good news is that the story doesn’t stop here.  In Galatians 3 we find this amazing revelation:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (‭Galatians‬ ‭3‬:‭26-28‬ NIV)

There’s a lot of labels mentioned in this passage, a lot of things that had the potential to shipwreck those early believer’s and the early church.  But Paul casts all the labels aside and says, “None of that matters.  You are one in Christ Jesus.”

One of the things I’ve learned in my church history readings is that the early church was a counter-cultural force in society not just because they claimed to follow a resurrected Messiah, but because of the radical, counter-cultural way they viewed each other and lived out their faith:

- Women were not looked at as property, but as equal in the eyes of God and given full access to every role in the church…including pastor/preacher.

- Slaves were looked at as brothers and sisters in Christ, and many (including Philemon) were given their freedom.

- Orphans and widows and strangers were looked at as an opportunity to practice pure and faultless religion, not an excessive burden.

During my trip to Kenya I had the amazing opportunity to be with brothers and sisters in Christ.  But I’ve got to be honest, one of the reasons I wanted to come to Kenya was to serve “the least of these”.  And while in a strictly financial sense that may be true, during my trip I came to grips with the fact that I had put a label on these brothers and sisters.

The reality that I’ve come to embrace is that I have been the least of these in terms of the Kingdom, for our Kenyan brothers and sisters have been the hands and feet of Jesus to me, revealing my need and ministering God’s grace in abundance.  The true reality of the situation is that, spiritually, I was the “least of these” and I was the one who needed someone to reach in and minister to my heart and my need.  And in their ministry to me, I’ve discovered just how rich the faith, love and grace of the Kenyan people is.  I needed my eyes to be opened and the Holy Spirit graciously did so through a group who cannot be defined by any other label than brothers and sisters in Christ.

So here’s some take home.  How are you going to choose to see and interact with people?  Will you allow labels to get in the way of you knowing others and being known?  Will you allow stereotypes and perception and prejudice to keep you from ministering to others?  You might just find that the gift of God’s grace comes to you in different shapes and sizes than you expect.

Can you imagine what might happen if we started losing the labels that we associate with certain people?  Can you imagine what might happen if we began to actually live out the truth that in Christ there are no dividing walls?

We might just begin to see the image of God.

30 Jul 2014 Letters from Kenya – Witness

I’ve just returned from a work and witness trip to Nairobi, Kenya. Witness. My understanding of that word has been transformed during my time in Kenya. Most Christians associate the term with evangelism and that’s especially true with traditional paradigms of work and witness. I’ve returned to the United States having “witnessed” something of equally significant value spiritually.

What did I witness? I witnessed the creativity of a people group that live without the technological advances we take for granted. I witnessed generosity unlike anything I’ve experienced in the States, for out of extreme poverty my Kenyan brothers and sisters gave liberally. I witnessed genuine community and brotherly affection…a love and commitment to family and friends rarely experienced in Western Culture.

My time in Kenya was a witnessing of what I believe God had in mind for the Church. Experience of His immediate presence through a complete dependence upon Him for daily bread. Experience of the different parts of the Body of Christ having a place in community and expressing their gifts in service of the Kingdom and building up of the Body. Experience of a love for the brethren that transcends skin color, socio-economic class, and nationality.

Witness. My prayer is that what I witnessed in Kenya will continue to form and fashion me into the image of Christ. My prayer is that my witness will be a vessel for the Holy Spirit to use to transform the lives of others.

23 Feb 2012 Cravings
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Cravings… we all have them right?  Some of us are into chocolate, others of us apple pie, still others of us are coffee people.  Some of us are not so nice before we have our “fix.”  My sweet tooth gets me in a lot of trouble.  For me, there’s nothing quite like a big glass of ice cold milk with a warm, chewy, chocolate chip cookie.

One of the things I’ve learned about “cravings” is the power they have to drive our lives.  Believe it or not, these hidden hungers come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and the side effects are felt in various areas of life.  For many people, their craving for “cool” drives them to consume the latest technology or fashion.  For others, the craving for financial independence and superiority leads to millions of dollars won and lost on Wall Street.  Thousands of men and women are incarcerated each year because their craving for drugs and alcohol spilled over into criminal behavior.

Perhaps our desire to satisfy a craving is not the only power that drives us.  The other side of the desire to satisfy a craving is the emptiness that we oftentimes feel when a craving lets us down.  My wife and I had a date night not too long ago.  I stopped by the Red Box to pick up The Green Hornet.  I’m a big action – adventure movie lover… especially if they’re remakes of some of my favorite comic book heroes.  Well, let me tell you, The Green Hornet was a major let down.  Poor plot, even poorer acting.  The only thing good about the movie was the car.

It’s a horrible thing to feel let down… to try and satisfy a craving only to feel more empty than before.  This seems to be a constant state of many people in our world today.  They’re drinking from shallow pools that have no ability to quench their thirst.  They’re consuming food that will never satisfy.  This is the bad news… but praise be to God there is good news!

John 6:35 shares with us, “I am the bread of life.  He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”  Let me see if I can re-phrase that in 21st century language:

Only the Savior Satisfies

My son Brennan has high functioning Autism and one of the ways it impacts his life is in his eating habits.  He’s very particular about what food he will eat.  He has about 5 different foods he consumes on a regular basis.  His bread has to be a specific kind and the sandwiches we make have to be cut a specific way.  So what does this have to do with cravings and John 6:35?

I share this because I believe we need to be more “choosy” into terms of what we take into our lives in hopes of satisfying our cravings.  These days we have a whole smorgasbord of options to choose from, but as I mentioned before:

Only the Savior Satisfies

Our Savior offers us a feast of grace in a relationship with him, but unfortunately we oftentimes seem content to be satisfied consuming the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches of society and pop culture.  Friends I can remind us of the obvious:

  • Money will be gained and lost
  • Cars will rust
  • Homes will fall into disrepair
  • Clothes will go out of style
  • Technology will become outdated
  • Trips and vacations will come and go
  • The physique which we meticulously maintain will eventually “round” out

But the grace of God,which the Savior offers to us all, is much different.  Our Creator knows the stuff of which will sustain the creation: forgiveness, acceptance, love, mercy and hope.  That is the stuff a relationship with Jesus Christ produces.  It is the grace of God poured into our lives that truly satisfies.

  • The Bread of Life can change an i-generation into a godly generation.
  • The Bread of Life can change a desire to be financially blessed to a desire to be a financial blessing.
  • The Bread of Life can change criminal behavior into Christian behavior.
  • The Bread of Life can change priorities, families, insecurities and worries.
  • The Bread of Life can change the world.

I think that’s what God has in mind.  Would you like your world to change?  Remember… Only the Savior Satisfies

03 Jan 2010 God Stories…
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God is working.  I know this seems like a yeah duh statement, but you’d be surprised how many people out there don’t think so.  My Senior Pastor’s sermon today reminded me that there are many who have set aside a passionate and devoted relationship with Jesus Christ for a settled status quo.  For one reason or the other they’ve allowed less wild lovers to take the place of the Lover of their souls and spiritual rigor mortis has set in.

After so long a person actually begins to believe that God doesn’t want to move in their lives.  Surely they’ve committed the unpardonable sin and God wants nothing to do with them.  Nothing could be further from the point.  There is no place so far that God’s grace cannot reach.  Like the love sick Father in the story of the prodigal son, our Heavenly Father is earnestly searching the horizon for a glimpse of wayward sons and daughters.

This was the case for two of our guys at Raleigh First Nazarene.  I had the privilege of capturing their “God stories” on video for presentation in our services today.  Though their backgrounds differed greatly, their stories were very much the same.  Their lives lacked something that only a relationship with God could provide.  They both came to a point where they made a decision concerning the testimony of Jesus Christ.  Their decision to take God at His Word has changed their lives.

God is still doing great things…

Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir’s I’m Amazed

23 Jun 2009 All Things Are Possible
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It’s Not Over Today has been one of those days.  Oh, not that it’s been horrible.  I’ve not been cursed at or publicly humiliated or attacked.  Today I’ve been reminded through two individuals that life can be hard.  Situations in life are not always easy and I guess that makes sense, especially in light of Jesus’ words, “In this world you will have trouble…”  Each of us I suppose has our share of impossible situations in life.  Situations that require us to have faith in the unseen and hope in the promises of God.  As I reflect upon the situations I heard about today, both “impossible” in their own contexts, I’m reminded what the angel said to Mary upon her reply to his announcement that she would become pregnant:  ”For nothing shall be impossible with God.”

I’m so glad that God is into impossibilities.  He’s not thrown by them, nor is He anxious about His ability to handle them.  It would seem that God has a heart for the most hopeless cases because its in those scenarios that “his strength is made perfect.”  I don’t know what impossibilities you’re facing right now in life, but I want you to be encouraged…God is there…and it’s never over until He says so!

Grace and peace-

Pastor Jeremy

31 May 2009 Blessed are those who are at the end of their rope
The end or a new beginning?

The end or a new beginning?

 

“God blesses those who realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of God is given to them.” ~Matt. 5:3; NLT

A wonderful promise and startling revelation is given to us here.  Without a deep-seeded awareness of our need for God we’ll never enter into the real life and real transformation offered to us via participation in God’s Kingdom.  We can’t even begin to live the Kingdom life apart from a complete dependence upon God.

This is the entry point of the life God desires to give me, yet it’s also the foundation for it as well.  As long as I live in a deluded sense of my own self-sufficiency, I’ll believe that if this life is to be, its up to me.  Experience has proven time and again that I’m not strong enough, smart enough, saavy enough or spiritual enough.  My best efforts fall so far short of the longings for transcendance that God has set in my heart.

I believe I’ve found the rub: without recognizing my need for God, I’ll never know the life of the Kingdom of Heaven.  I’ll live my life by my own set of standards, which are more times than not, opposite of God’s.  Without “coming to the end of my rope,” I’ll never see the new beginning that awaits me.  I’ll never see God at work because I’ll be looking in all the wrong places.  But if I get on board with God’s estimation of myself and my life apart from him, I’ll begin to see Him at work…providing comfort, serving the least, suffering with those who suffer, offering mercy to those who deserve it the least.  

I’ll start to see the invisible God in the midst of a Kingdom that’s right-side up in an upside down world.

Only then will the Kingdom of Heaven come into view.  Only then will I receive the blessing that comes from recognizing my absolute dependence upon God…

Amazingly graced-

Pastor Jeremy

19 Dec 2008 Bread from heaven…
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I am the Bread of Life...

I am the Bread of Life...

I recently finished a devotional by Pastor Bob Coy that struck my interest.  In it we were led to consider the words of the prophet Micah in chapter 5, verse 2:

“But you, Bethlehem…Though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel.”  (NKJV)

Bethlehem.  The City of David.  I’d not stopped to consider much about the significance of Jesus’ birthplace, but Jesus considered it essential to understanding who He was.  Bethlehem literally means “House of Bread.”  Later in Jesus’ life He would refer to Himself as the:

“…living bread which came down from heaven.  If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.”  (John 6:51 NKJV)

This is quite astonishing to me, but especially in context of the larger Biblical story.  There was a time when the Children of Israel were literally fed “bread” or “manna” from heaven on a daily basis.  (See Exodus 16)  Jesus taught His disciples to pray: “give us today our daily bread,” and in overcoming His temptation in the wilderness He testified that “man does not live by bread alone.”

So what’s so important about all this “bread” stuff anyway?  Well for Jesus’ original audience, bread was their “go to” food.  If there was no bread, they wouldn’t eat.  It would seem that Jesus wanted His original listeners to get the picture that the only thing that would truly satisfy their “spiritual hunger” was a relationship with Him.  It would also seem that He was trying to get them to understand that He was their source of life and that life was contained within a relationship with Him.  Perhaps this is why He encouraged them not to worry about what they would eat or drink…  He was trying to get them to understand that He was their source of their satisfaction in all areas of life.

Maybe we could use a helping of this type of bread today.  We seem to do well at stuffing our lives with things that promise to fill and fulfill us, but with each passing day we go back to the trough of the world hoping to find something else that will curb our appetites.  As Pastor Bob Coy stated in my devotional:

“Substitutes for the Bread of Life abound and none of them will ever give us the nourishment that we need in order to mature spiritually.”

Maybe what we need this Christmas is to pull away from the ham and pies and lights and trees and presents and make a trip to the “House of Bread”.  I hear the “Bread of Life” is still available to all who would come seeking…

Grace and peace-

Pastor Jeremy