Eternity in Our Hearts

Bringing what endures into everyday life


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November Teaches Us to Have Open Hands

“Did you know that fall exists because of the Fall?”

My daughter asks me this as we talk about what she learned in Chapel.

“I haven’t thought of it that way but I know the leaves, so beautiful in all their colors, are in the process of dying.”

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We watch leaves fall to earth and reflect on autumn as a season of beauty and death, letting go and giving thanks. The crimson and golden leaves express the truth that beauty and death exist harmoniously, and can we accept this?

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The cycles of sowing, harvesting, degeneration, and rebirth are a natural, rhythmical part of our landscapes. Genesis tells us, however, that God created the Garden to be a place of continual abundance. Ever since the first sin, our sustenance from the land requires labor and vulnerability to drought, storms, and decay.

Our hearts know the vulnerability too. Emotionally we pass through seasons of abundance, seasons of loss. Past Novembers have found me in a cancer clinic, a funeral home, and a mental health hospital.

In such places, how do I give thanks?

As I remember these things and think about the conversation with my daughter, I ponder the thought that God made autumn, the dying season, beautiful anyway. I see myself in the letting-go, one leaf after another releasing from the limbs. The hope of redemption is the only thing that roots me. While November reminds me of pain, it also offers me a picture of the Gospel. Although death and devastation of the heart entered the human story, God married the gut-wrenching and the glorious at the Cross. 

November, the dying season, teaches me that these shriveled and decaying leaves produce rich soil for new life to grow.

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In moments of seeking life out of loss, I read reflective thoughts on the season, and I’m drawn to this:

Fall is a season for accepting the impermanence of things.

My heart says yes. This is way my soul has learned to live. How else can I open my fist and accept hope – except for the truth that only eternity is permanent?

And how else can I find purpose in this life – except to open my fist and say yes to generosity because nothing I possess is mine for keeps?

On this day when the gold and crimson fall like rain, my heart whispers a prayer of Moses: “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”

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About Thanksgiving, C.S. Lewis wrote, “Let us give thanks and walk into Advent knowing that time is manufactured for eternity and the breath of humanity for the glory of God.”

November portrays the wisdom of open hands, of trusting that I am deeply rooted in grace and I will be okay when it’s time to release. When it comes to things most important, most significant, and most enduring, I’ve received all that I need, and no matter what happens, it is well. When the winds blow and the seasons change, my soul is held fast in permanence.

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And so, all that I have and all that I am on this side of heaven are gifts to me but not mine to hold. As I am a receiver, I am also a releaser. Whatever is impermanent – my possessions, my time – can be lifted from my hands on the winds of God’s will to higher purposes, if He chooses.

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Those with open hands, who let the leaves fall and who watch for spring, are the ones who learn to say “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

The process of releasing our thanks, with our very lives, is no easy fix, no recipe for blunting our pain, no emotional escapism. Sometimes my hands ball up into fists and I want to fight. Yet grace reminds me that Jesus renounced His will and opened His hands on the Cross out of love. And as the recipient of such love, I can always be grateful even when I cannot be happy.

“God is good” is not some trite quip for the good days but a radical defiant cry for the terrible days “God is good” is not a stale one-liner when all’s happy but a saving lifeline when all’s hard…. Thanksgiving in all things accepts the deep mystery of God through everything. ~ Ann Voskamp

And so, November, this time of impermanence – for me, this time of hard things, is my reminder that only God can intermingle hope with death, gain with loss, suffering with redemption, and eternity with humanity.

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“Did you know that fall exists because of the Fall?”

Yes, and God made autumn beautiful anyway.


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Lean Into Jesus

The sunny, February day compels me outside into the unusual warmth. While this rare opportunity beckons me to rake out the flower beds, I’d rather set aside yard work until spring. These days, I set aside things I used to enjoy like getting dirt under my nails.

But as I kneel beside the Lenten roses and scrape the dead leaves away with my fingers, I notice that tiny blooms are rising like a fist against winter.  Suddenly invigorated, I rake and rake and rake away the decaying leaves. My plants need to breathe.

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Something like hope rides on the fresh air, so I lean upon the rake to take it in.  And I remember:

“The best advice I can give you is to lean into your grief.”

I had nodded at the kind lady as if I understood. But I didn’t understand.

In the middle of my yard, propped against my rake, I wonder –

What does that mean?

Although “lean into grief” sounds a bit cliché, I know this lady has experienced this kind of heartache. So I abandon my rake and decide to see for myself.

Underneath my soiled nails, fingers tap out a search “Lean into grief.”

Many stories, blogs, and articles appear, articulating a similar theme:

The process of grief can be long and bleak, like winter, but it’s necessary to let the grief take its course. Instead of pushing it away, patiently work through the pain. Eventually another season will come.

Ok, I get that.

Is that all?

As I dig a little deeper, I discover that the metaphor, “leaning in,” originates in athletic activities – which doesn’t relate at all to suffering, I think.

But perhaps it can.

In sports like snowboarding, skiing, or speed skating, athletes learn to “lean into the turn.”

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The general principle (I think, because I’m no physicist) is that leaning in drives an athlete’s energy forward by acting as a counter-balance against forces that would drag the athlete down. It also suggests embracing risk and not shying away from obstacles.

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I had visualized “leaning into grief” as if it were a crutch. And there are moments when the urge to wallow in sadness is greater than the longing to move through it. Sometimes that’s okay. I’ve been there.

But if “leaning in” is a metaphor for onward and forward, it changes the way I think about leaning into heartache.

Loss unearths emotions which are complicated and unique to every person. Scripture says that “Hope deferred makes the heart sick” (Proverbs 13:12). In this world, we are constantly confronted with the sting of bad news, disappointment with ourselves and loved ones, fading of health and vitality, media reports that disgust or frighten us, and stalled dreams. When we’re heart-sick, human nature (my human nature, at least) wants to push away and hide.

But a spiritual perspective of “leaning into grief” expects that any kind of suffering, although difficult, can be redemptive because there is hope, and His Spirit is the fresh air on which it rides. This means that when we want to run away from suffering, we actually do the opposite and allow it to teach and transform us.

So I get what’s meant by “lean into grief,” but ultimately I’ll fall flat if I lean into my unreliable feelings. I need to lean into something – Someone – unchanging, immoveable, and steadfast.

The times when I’ve tried to lean upon my own strength have left me at the brink of despair. But Jesus comes to my pain with a gentle reminder: Cast your burden upon the Lord [release it] and He will sustain and uphold you. He will never allow the righteous to be shaken (slip, fall, fail) (Psalm 55:22, Amplified).

Grief shows me what it means to live with eternity in my heart. I’m not just moving through … I’m moving toward.  At times I’m still struggling in the dirt yet I’m persisting in the hope that life in Jesus goes on.

I lean through the heartache until I’m leaning with all my might on Jesus.

When we feel that downward tug of heartache or discouragement, we can throw our weight fully upon the Overcomer, and by His power, we press forward.

I encourage you to cast your burdens – those nagging doubts or restless worries or stabs in the heart – on to Jesus. He can take them because He has already shouldered the weight of a dying world. Go ahead and embrace the hard and lean with your grief, your troubles, your failures into His everlasting arms. Sometimes leaning, like me with my rake, means pausing. Sometimes leaning, like a downhill skier, means movement. Let’s lean into the One who, with perfect timing and tenderness, knows what is best for our healing in this moment.

What will “leaning in” look like for you today?

The eternal God is our refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms. Deuteronomy 33:27

I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3: 14

… let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him … so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. Hebrews 12: 1 – 3

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The Physics Classroom – http://www.physicsclassroom.com/class/circles/u6l2c.cfm

Photo credits:

Skier – aLindquist @ http://www.flickr.com/photos/alindquist_/3529374910/

Speed Skater @ http://scienceblogs.com/dotphysics/2010/02/17/apolo-ohno-physics/

Snowboarder @ http://wakpaper.com/id49666/snowboard-slide-sports-snowboard-full-hd-desktop-wallpaper-3000×2000-pixel.html


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Five Minute Friday: “Close”

It’s Five Minute Friday – a weekly gathering of writers linking with Lisa-Jo Baker at Surprised by Motherhood. We have five minutes to type fast, open our hearts, and see what emerges without time to edit or over-analyze. Lisa-Jo provides the topic, and off we go with it …

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Today’s topic is the word “close.”

BEGIN –

In the school parking lot, my daughter said goodbye and closed the car door this morning. Her 6th grade year is coming to a close. She’s quickly growing up (5 inches taller in one year!) and becoming more like a teenager every day. Yet, she still asks for help with her hair and her homework and other things that moms know.

I am thankful.

And so, I will be more intentional this summer about closing my laptop and enjoying her. These times are precious. Sometimes it takes saying no to good things to say yes to better things. And turning away from the urgent to turn toward the most important.

During Father’s Day season, I avoid the card section at the store. Grief is the price I pay to have loved and to have been loved so well.  It’s worth it. There’s no close to the influence that Daddy’s legacy has had upon my life.

While heartbroken, I am thankful.

I’m also thinking about the families, through the years, who have stood before closed caskets draped with an American flag. Among other precious freedoms, we are able to worship this coming Sunday without hiding behind closed doors – because their loved ones gave their all.

This Memorial Day weekend, I am thankful.

The verse comes to mind, although I don’t have time to find the reference, where God says that what He opens, no one can shut, and what He shuts, no one can open. It’s only been a few weeks since we celebrated the victorious opened tomb of our Savior. The tomb is still empty. Easter hope lives on through Father’s Days and Memorial Days and all of our days.

God has opened eternal life, and that promise is sealed within my heart. The transaction was closed at the Cross.

I am thankful.

FINISH.

My daughter and her "Poppy"

My daughter and her “Poppy”

Revelation 3: 7 – 8
“To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:

These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.”


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Unexpected Answers to Prayers for My Mother

It was one of those awkward situations that you want to politely ignore but things are playing out right under your nose. This past weekend, we were in Disney World, standing in line for the monorail to take us into the Magic Kingdom. The mother in front of us was trying to take a picture of her toddler son.

This was obviously important to her, as she implored her son to stand still for a photo in his current clothing in case they happened to get separated. And it was equally urgent to the little boy to evade her every attempt to capture a decent image. The other family members were standing around being generally unhelpful. This poor woman had a very long day ahead of her.

Exasperated, she yanked her son out of line to a private spot to “work things out” and snapped: “Yes, this IS the happiest place on earth.”

I inherited my love for Disney from my parents. Over the past few days, I’ve remembered taking Daddy’s hand to ride the “big rides.” I heard his laugh through the dips and sharp turns of Space Mountain and the Rockin’ Roller Coaster.  I can’t count the times that Mom and Daddy took me to Disney and then carried on the tradition with my husband and daughter along.

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While Daddy was sick I prayed for a long time for one more Disney vacation.

The travel agent must have thought that I was nuts, welling up with tears in front of her as she booked our latest trip for four – me, my husband, daughter, and Mom.

Despite our aching hearts, we wanted to affirm to Mom that we will continue because she matters and memories matter.

A few nights ago, as we watched the “Wishes” fireworks show, I was especially aware of the narration through the innocent wistfulness of Jiminy Cricket:

When you wish, upon a star
Makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires will come…to…you.

Like a bolt out of the blue,
fate steps in and sees you through.
When you wish upon a star,  your dreams…come…true

Puppets become real boys. Cinderella goes to the ball. Snow White’s prince comes.

But … like a bolt out of the blue came a cruel thought, “Your wish didn’t come true.”

For a moment, it really jolted me, I have to admit it.

I’ve been an adult long enough to know better when it comes to Disney’s wish-upon-a-star optimism. Just ask the mother with the toddler – If the happiest place on earth can be maddening, how do we cope beyond its borders? You can call me a pessimist, and I probably have a natural bent that way, but the reality is that every person who walks into Disney World has to eventually exit into the real world where the credit card bills come due and wishes don’t always come true. As a party of 4 on this trip, we experienced it.

And during that blasted fireworks show (ha, the pun wasn’t intended, but I’ll leave it), I realized that I was, even with teary eyes, more hopeful than I had ever been.

Like smoke after a fireworks show, wishful thinking drifts with the wind. But hope is anchored into the solid foundation of God’s wise and loving character.  It’s not based upon my mood or upon magic. It’s an eternal reality, purchased with sacrifice and sealed in my soul.

As an adopted child of the Most High, I belong to another Kingdom. I don’t need to believe in fate, thank you, I (still) have a Father. With infinite wisdom and compassion, He works all things in my life for His good purposes. I have enough experience with my Father to understand that He is too wise and loving to give me everything I wish for. While He doesn’t always grant the desires of my heart, He has placed eternity in my heart. This truth tells me, whether I am in the happiest or the saddest place, that I have everything to hope for.

And so now that we’re home, my attention turns to Mother’s Day.  Today, I thought about my most-read post: “A Prayer for My Mother on Her 80th Birthday.” And I recall those requests made on August 8, 2013 –

“Lord, would this day – her birthday – be the beginning of a year in which my mother knows the deepest peace and richest joy?  I pray with thanksgiving for the promise that You are the strength of her heart and her portion forever. May she be sustained daily by the comfort that You are the eternal refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.

And Lord, I pray for the simplest but most meaningful joys to come her way – such as sweet times with Daddy and with her family.

For laughter. And more opportunities to explore an open road.

For days to enjoy good meals with good friends. For many more victories on the court or on the field for her favorite teams (Your help is especially needed here, Lord!).

I pray for precious memories made with the little ones. For weekends to watch swimming practice or go shopping or eat ice cream with her granddaughter. For the satisfaction of knowing that these shared experiences are creating a lasting legacy.”

In August 2013 we knew that Daddy’s cancer wasn’t responding well to treatment but we really had no idea.

Yet, in May 2014, I hold hope in my heart. Daddy is experiencing more delights than a trip to Disney could ever offer. And my prayers for my mother have been answered.

Dear Mom –

Even in your deep grief and darkest days, you have been a testimony of God’s enduring joy and strength. You have demonstrated the peace of being comforted and carried by everlasting arms. Because He is your refuge and strength, you are still laughing and loving well. Our family finds perseverance through your example of courage and resiliency.

You are brave enough to accept and explore the unknown adventures of an open road. As you share life with us, your days are rich with meaning and purpose. We understand more fully the sweetness of simple moments. In these past few months, we’ve eaten well and cheered hard and watched swim practice and shared ice cream with the dog. Our family is growing with great-grandchildren whose lives will be enriched by your legacy. We will live and experience togetherness to the fullest because you and Daddy taught us to love God and love each other with all our might.

My prayers for you are still being answered in God’s most loving wisdom. Perhaps His answers have not come as I wished, but because of your faith, I know that hope always remains. And so I will keep praying. Thank you, Mom, I love you.

Hope tells me that these unexpected answers come from an unchanging God whose promise of eternal life is unwavering.

I’d rather have that sure foundation than a wish in the sky any day.

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What I Learned in March

Seems like I just wrote about what I learned in February. But Emily Freeman @ Chatting at the Sky has asked her readers to again share pieces of life lessons, so here’s my take on life at the moment from random to relevant to reflective …

1. I like alliteration.

2. God speaks, and the prompting of the Holy Spirit is real. I recently felt led to find and send a Bible verse to a friend about “confidence.” While searching, I discovered Jeremiah 17:7 ~ “Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in Him.” I wasn’t familiar with that verse, but it seemed fitting. After I shared it with my friend, she replied: “Love that verse!  I actually have a necklace based on that verse and wear it often.” God is amazing like that! If He places someone on your heart, do something about it. I am so grateful for friends who have listened to the Holy Spirit and encouraged me with just the right words and timing.

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3. Although I’m part of a congregation that doesn’t formally observe Ash Wednesday, I’m drawn to its significance. This past Ash Wednesday, I shared my recovery story with a class of high school students, and the timing was not lost on me. Everyone bears a mark of sin, frailty, and mortality. It’s good to be reminded that we need a Savior who exchanges our shameful ashes for His beautiful mercy.

4. The best foot warmer is a furry doggie.

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5. Frederick Buechner said so well, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I’m learning that deep gladness arises from those places where I once knew the deepest fear and regret. It is a place touched and transformed by God’s compassion. This junction between my deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger isn’t confined to one place. I may find it located within my family circle, down the street, on the other side of my city, and across the world. This place is likely outside of my comfort zone, yet God would not beckon me a place where He is not already present. He’s calling, and that’s all I need to take the first step.

6. Can we just let go of “Let It Go” already? The song from Frozen was everywhere in March.

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As the mom of a preteen, I became concerned with its lyrics; for example, “It’s time to see what I can do; to test the limits and break through; no right; no wrong; no rules for me – I’m free!” Uh oh, red flags. But I eventually considered that the mass appeal of “Let It Go” has less to do with its lyrics and more to do with its compelling tune. We covet (oops, admire) Idina Menzel’s soaring voice. In the context of “Let It Go,” Princess Elsa finally owns up to her long-hidden secret. When she casts off restraint, however, her actions have damaging consequences. Eventually, a plot twist leads to a redemptive act of love. I exercise “parental guidance” over my daughter’s entertainment choices, but if there is a questionable agenda in Frozen, it floated right over her head like a snowflake. One of the challenges of being a preteen parent, I’m finding, is discerning when to step in and when to – uh – let it go.

7. Just because something is attractive on the outside doesn’t mean that all its attributes are beautiful.

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Have you walked under a pear tree lately? Eew – that smell! Reminds me of a birthday cake that my mother purchased for me from an upscale bakery. It was gorgeous, but as my mother lifted the cake out of the box, she sniffed and said, “Something is wrong.” The repulsive mold on the inside became an object lesson that I’ve never forgotten — a rotten interior will eventually be exposed.

8. Thanks to one of the leaders in my grief support group, I’ve learned to think of “comfort” as “common-fortitude.” We are stronger together.

9. I’m learning amazing new things about the intentional foreshadows in the biblical events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion. Our church commemorated a version of a Jewish seder, the Passover meal that Jesus observed with His disciples on the evening before Calvary. As we passed the elements of the seder, we learned how specifically they point to Jesus, the promised Messiah. Read more here @ the Word of Messiah Ministries Passover page.

Plus, I never knew, until a few days ago, that the name “Gethsemane” originates from a Hebrew term meaning “oil press.” The garden where Jesus went to pray before His crucifixion was a grove of olive trees. The “gethsemane” was a press that crushed the olives until they extracted the highly-valued oil. When we feel hard-pressed on every side, may we remember that the Lord Jesus, who has already withstood the crushing weight of sin and death, invites us to exchange our yoke for His.

10. “Target haze” has been coined to describe the experience of going to Target for a specific something and leaving the store with a cart of goods except for that one item. Apparently, I am not the only person who succumbs to this phenomenon.

11. “Remembering” between generations is something that my husband and I want to prioritize.  Now that one of us has lost a parent, we appreciate even more the opportunities to speak words of honor and gratitude to the generation before us, to cherish past memories, to prioritize occasions to create new ones, and to hold fast to this treasure called legacy. Some may call us the “sandwich generation,” but we choose to see this season as a tremendous privilege to create remembrances with the generation before and behind us.

Our church’s Generations Ministry equips parents to commemorate milestones with our children as they mature in Christ, and at this weekend’s Blessing Retreat my husband and I had an opportunity to intentionally speak words of affirmation and blessing over our 12-year-old daughter. As John and I wrote letters of blessing to her, he wanted to write about “remembering.” His written words encourage our young lady to remember for years to come that her identity, worth, and purpose are established in the love of Christ.

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After the Lord and Israel won a victory over the Philistines, the prophet Samuel set up a stone and named it Ebenezer or “stone of help” for “Thus far the LORD has helped us” (1 Samuel 7:12). Whenever the Israelites would pass by the stone, they would remember what the Lord accomplished on their behalf.

Now, an “Ebenezer” (as in “here I raise my Ebenezer“…) refers to the remembrance of a spiritual principle or an important life event.  This weekend, we gave gifts to our daughter to help her remember our words of blessing. We hope and pray that she will commit to memory this occasion as a marker of maturity, developmentally and spiritually. And for us as parents, we will remember this milestone event as a “stone of help.” While it’s probably normal to be a little nervous about the years ahead, we’re reassured by God’s guidance and the wise people who walk before and beside us along this journey of milestones.

12. This year, “March Madness” could refer to the weather as much as basketball. Equally unpredictable, both have thwarted our best efforts to nail them down. Maybe a little perspective can be gained here; life usually doesn’t go as forecast.  So we’ll roll with the messy days, but we’ll take every warm & sunny day we get here in North Carolina as an opportunity to stock up on the allergy meds, open the windows, and enjoy the ride!

Happy Spring!

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When There Are No Words

When it comes to trending vocabulary of recent years, I suppose that “selfie” rises to the top. In this ever-changing world, some words fall out of common usage (“cassette” for instance). But for all the new and old words in the English language, sometimes they elude us, and especially when we most want to say something, anything.

Oh, how I know this helpless, frustrating feeling – when there are no words. As when I stand with my family over the freshly turned dirt of a grave. “He’s not here,” I mumble, but the words are sucked into a vacuum of silent grief.

What to say? I had seen this same question in the eyes of the people who had passed by my place in the receiving line. I felt for them. All of us understood that mere words won’t ever fill the void. And although I couldn’t verbalize it, I wanted them to know that it was okay.

Their presence spoke everything they wanted to say.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). Without mention of shepherds, stars, angels, or wise men, John sums up the incomprehensible beauty of Christmas.

When there are no human words, there is the Word. Jesus, the Son who spoke this earth into existence, expressed His love to the fullest by becoming flesh and walking on it. By being born to die so that death may die.

The essence of Christmas is presence.

(Not presents.)

Presence requires taking initiative and intentionally entering into another person’s experience. Being present is following the humble Philippians 2 example of our Savior. It is the truest demonstration of love.

My family’s truest comforters are those who set aside their time, schedules, and conveniences to just be with us. When I’ve been too numb for tears, their eyes have welled for me. And when the floodgates burst, they stayed, unflinching.

So beautifully, Henri Nouwen described the ministry of presence:

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.

Words aren’t necessary when actions point to the Word Himself.

Watching Daddy die was the most powerless experience I’ve ever had, and the two weeks since his passing have introduced me to new depths of weakness. And yet, I trust more than ever that the Word receives my wordless prayers and permeates my powerlessness with His presence.

Why am I so sure?

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Jesus “pitched a tent” and “tabernacled” among us (the literal meaning of “dwelt” in the Greek). He drew near; He took our flesh; His eyes welled for us; He didn’t flinch from showing the extent of His love, even with nails and a cross.

Friends, I have seen this love in you. In the cold, hard ground you have nailed the stakes of a tent and stayed awhile.

Thank you.

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Philippians 2: 5 – 8 (NLT) ~
You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.
Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

1 John 4: 9 – 12 ~
God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him.This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.

Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us.

Romans 8:26 ~
And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness (and) prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words.

Resource: Henri Nouwen, Out of Solitude