3 of a Pastor’s Great Fears. . .Ranked!

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Okay, before we begin, I know you know all the Bible verses about things like anxiety and worry and fear.  I know them too and I have most of them memorized and remind myself of them daily.  But knowing them and feeling them are two very different things.  So here I sit as a Christian pastor who is seminary trained, holiness sanctified, and a Bible loving preacher and I am telling you that memorizing Bible verse about anxiety doesn’t get rid of anxiety.  It turns out quoting those verses to anxious people doesn’t help that much either but I’ll save that blog post for another day!

The whole anxiety thing is really bad when you are a pastor.  I don’t know if you know this but the statistics are in and most churches are in a very precarious spot.  They are one bad conflict or one untimely rich person’s death away from closing.  Anxiety and fear seem to just come with that.

But acknowledging your fears for what they are does help.  And as I have prayed through my fears and tried to cope with them I have realized there are three great fears I have, at least when it comes to my relationship with my congregation.  I have listed them below in descending order of how much anxiety they cause me.

3.  Everybody in my church will one day come to hate me.  I live every day in fear that I am going to do something incredibly dumb that will cause everybody to turn on me.  I have family members and friends who have lived through this scenario and I still cry for them.  It is such a nightmare, especially for their families.  It is so hard for a spouse to have to terminate close friendships because their loved one was fired.  I worry greatly about what such a day would do to my wife and my children.    With that said, I don’t lose much sleep over this possibility because if my whole church comes to hate me, the solution will be brilliantly simple.  .  .painful.  .  .but simple.  I will just resign.  Then the church will be able to go on and I will have given a great gift to another pastor who gets to be the white knight on a handsome stead who gallops into that situation to clean up the mess.

2.  Everybody in my church will love me.  I like being liked.  I freely admit that.  I probably like being liked more than most people.  I have the personality of a suitor, desperate to woo people to my good graces.  But I know all too well the liabilities of that personality.  They are not that you will fail to woo everybody.  The liabilities come when you succeed in wooing everybody.  I live everyday in constant fear of having too much political power.  I worry about what might happen on the day I blindly lead my blind fan club into a death trap.  I have never been universally liked (thank God!) but I have come close and it was close enough to know what massive harm I really could do with a group of, well, groupies.  It was scary enough that I actually did resign.  The fallout of that resignation was really rough.  I had abandoned my fan club and caused separation anxiety both in them and me.  I never want to have to do that again.  But I look at myself in the mirror quite often and remind myself that I will if I must.

But now for the true nightmare scenario, the one that makes me tremble and keeps me up at night.  .  .

1.  Half of my church will hate me and the other half will adore me.  I know of pastors who have been in these situations and their churches barely survived.  The worst thing a pastor can become is a divisive figure, one who unwittingly pits one group against another just by being themselves.  These situations are so tragic and so hard to fix that I hope I never find myself in one.  I hope my leadership is never so horrible that a church splits because of me.  As Jesus once said, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” (Mark 3:25)  And I could not stand to walk away from the shredded remains of a divided church.   And yet it happens all the time.  At those moments only a very, very wise and prayerful District Superintendant, or denominational leader, can bring about any good.

Well, what do you know, a blog post about fear had a sentiment about hope up there.  And maybe that is how we conquer our fears, by recognizing the hope therein.

So during my anxious days and sleepless nights, I do hope that my leadership is just adequate enough to not shut down a church.  To hope for any more than that would be pride.  To hope for anything less would be disaster.

 

An Advent Monologue for Lectionary Year C

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As I am preparing for our four Advent worship services, I have gone searching for proper monologues for the more drama inclined in my church to perform.

I have found precious few resources online.  What I have found are either incredibly cheesy or more Christmas than Advent.  And I was unable to find anything tethered to the lectionary, particularly the prophets whom I use to lead us to Jesus.

So I sat down yesterday after a long Sunday that ended a long weekend and put this little number together, thinking I would share it with all of you worship planners for your services.  This is to introduce the candle of hope on the first Sunday.  Enjoy!

(From the last century B.C. in a land called Israel under occupation from the Roman rule.)

My people are an oppressed people.  Our once great kingdom lays in ruins and has for hundreds of years.  Our once great leaders are gone.  In their place stand tyrants and sell outs.  Our tax collectors collect much and our employers give little.  We are waiting for freedom.

My people are a storied people.  We tell tales of men toppling colonnades and floods wiping away the corrupt.  Our prophets lived in the bellys of whales and the caves of mountains.  Our kings killed giants and built great cities with palaces and temples.  Our women conquered warriors with tent poles and gave birth to heroes even in old age.  Our God tore down cities to make a home for us.  Our God split open both seas and rivers, struck the corrupt dead on their feet, sent plagues upon our enemies and rained food from heaven down upon us along with water from a rock!  We are waiting for God.

My people are a corrupt people.  We had the eternal decrees of our righteous God in our possession.  We had a great and everlasting covenant with God that would guarantee our freedom and our safety.  We broke it.  Over and over again we broke it.  From our kings to our warriors to our prophets to our farmers and blacksmiths, every person from every tier of our society turned our back on our deliverer.  And we paid a steep price.  We are waiting for redemption.

My people are a promised people.  Though we sinned, though we abandoned our God, though we live in oppression and agony, we proclaim the promises of our prophets,

That a righteous branch with spring up to execute justice and righteousness in the land.

That the Lord will return to his temple and he will purify us!

When he does, the prophets say that he will rejoice over us with gladness, renew us in love and exult over us with loud shouting!

And He will stand there and feed us so that we will rest secure and be children of peace.

We are waiting for the Lord to enter his holy temple again.

My people are a waiting people.  Day after day we carry on in our sordid state.  Day after day we cry out tears, tell our stories, remember our past greatness and long for our God.  Day after day we long for a different story, a new chapter, a glorious homecoming.

And day after day we are let down as we wonder how long our God will tarry, how long until He comes back to his Holy Temple.

We are a hoping people so today I light this candle, the candle of hope.

An Ode For October’s End

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October is such a regal month, its golden leaves the color of kings, its early snow crowning the mountain tops with glory.

His sports are festivities for royal olympiads, the days beginning with chilly morning country races, giving way to sun warmed football fights and finishing with a cold evening’s sacred baseball.

His dark, declining days lend themselves to the strategizing of kings who take the candle lit evenings to debate with friends and foes about the items of diplomacy and economy.

October’s apples, too, are fruit fit for throne rooms, jonagolds the jesters, honeycrisps the princes and pink ladies for princesses, of course.  They are surrounded by Braeburns, Jonathans, Ambrosia ‘s and Idared’s, willing and suitable servants and advisers.

Pumpkins too are for royals feasts along with all the other squash kinds.  They are the produce of the domain, a splendor even before consumed, their yield bountiful enough to feed armies.

But October the King’s crown jewel, his reigning attribute, his most prized accomplishment is November, his queen.

There she sits by him, teasing the Pink Lady and smiling at her Honeycrisp as she enjoys the splendor of festivities, rolling her eyes at the advice and aid of His Majesty’s Royal braeburns while feasting on the prized squash.

The air about her is more delicate and deliberative.  Her darker days increase her stature and her more constant chill lends herself to those in aid.  She exudes more grace and gratitude as her train gives way to holy-days.

The King is dead, long live the Queen!

My First Foray Into Performing the Scriptures: The Sermon on the Mount

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There is a neat trend hitting modern day Christianity where clever interpreters and actors memorize and perform a large portion of Scripture in an engaging way.  You can watch some of these live performances on Youtube.  When done well, they are quite engaging.

A few weeks ago I decided to give this a try with the Sermon on the Mount.  I memorized it and performed a dramatic reenactment of it for my congregation, complete with Powerpoint slides and props for the kids.

I would love to take a week and write a whole book of posts about this experience but I am way too busy and all ready a day behind because yesterday I was in bed with the stomach flu.

However, here are a few things I learned/gained from memorizing and performing the Sermon on the Mount.

First, I learned way more memorizing it than I did studying it.  Last year I spent a few months preaching through the Sermon on the Mount.  I read a few books, looked up a lot of Greek words, realized some Old Testament connections and poured over the structure.  All that was really useful.  However, I learned more memorizing it out loud.  I saw things I would never read in a book.  These were things like subtle transitions, rhetorical devices, tonal changes and sarcasm.

Second, you make 1,000 more interpretive decisions reciting a text than you do preaching it.  When I preach I try to focus on explaining just one or two interpretative moves from the text.  However, when I spent 15 minutes reciting the Sermon on the Mount, I found I made and conveyed over 1,000 interpretive moves.  When does Jesus raise his voice and lower it?  When is Jesus standing or sitting?  What props did Jesus have handy?  Was there a snake in the distance he pointed to?  Did he have a loaf of bread in hand?  When did Jesus’ voice convey sarcasm?  When did it convey compassion?  When was Jesus being ironic?  When was he being solemn?  Then there is the wonderful ending to the sermon when Jesus says the house fell with a crash!  Do you yell “crash!” or whisper it?  What do you do after you say, “crash?”  Do you get up and leave?  Do you issue a call to follow Jesus?  Do you add an “amen” or a “so be it?”  This brings me to.  .  .

Third, I had to work my tail off not to add words.  I do believe the Sermon on the Mount has an internal structure that made sense to 1st century Jews.  I think that structure is something like:

Describing the World as God Has Made It (5:1-5:20)

Commandments for Living Well in God’s World (5:21-7:6)

Various Metaphors Imploring You To Live Well (7:7-8:1)

With that in mind, there are still some really awkward transitions.  I had no idea what to do with the transition from “do not worry” to “do not judge” or from “salt and light” to “I have not come to abolish the law.”  So I found myself adding “and’s” and “but’s” and “oh’s” to help the audience out a bit.  I felt really uncomfortable doing that, like I was adding to “God’s Infallible Word!”  Still, I didn’t know how not to do it.  After all, that is what I would do in any other sermon or even in blog posts.

Fourth, when Jesus says, “if your right hand is causing you to sin, chop it off” he is definitely talking about masturbation.  I read that in a book over a year ago and didn’t believe it.  But after memorizing it in the context of looking lustfully after a woman and after learning a little bit more about those addicted to pornography.  .  .yeah that is exactly what Jesus was talking about.  This brings me to,

Fifth, parts of this sermon are quite mean.  Everybody loves the poetry of the “do not worry” passage but when read out loud it comes off rather insulting.  “Don’t worry about food and clothes!  The pagans run after those things!”  “Who of you by worrying can add one single hour to your life?!”  In another part, Jesus says that anybody who makes promises is evil, taunting them with, “you can’t make one hair on your head white or black!”  Then there are the obvious ones like, “Be perfect!” or “Your righteousness must surpass the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law!” or “Any man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery!”  It is hard to say this stuff out loud and not sound like a jerk, especially when your congregation is full of guilty addicts, remarried divorcees and gray haired worriers!  Still I should add that my personal favorite is, “if you then, though are evil, know how to give good gifts.  .  .”  Wait, did he just call his entire audience evil?  Yes, yes Jesus did.

Sixth, there are softer parts too.  The aside about settling matters quickly before your adversary takes you to court is just Jesus giving us some good, loving advice.  Out loud, it almost sounds fatherly.  The question, “are you not much more valuable than sparrows?” is full of compassion.  The beatitudes are beautiful.  There are lovely assurances of God’s provision in statements like, “your father knows what you need before you ask” and “ask and you will receive.  Seek and you will find.”

It turns out these are not just descriptions of God but invitations to express our holiness in the way that God does.  The unseen God insists our “acts of righteousness” remain unseen.  The God who forgives sins insists we forgive sinners.  The God who shows mercy insists we be merciful and yes, the God who is perfect insists we be perfect as well.

In closing, this was a very worthwhile practice for me.  My congregation also seemed enjoy it, and not just because I offered a kid a loaf of bread, only to actually throw a rock at him.

Therefore I will definitely do it again, but maybe next time with one of the minor prophets.  That will fill up a sanctuary, only to empty it out just as quickly!

Blessings on your weeks!  May they be full of God’s provision and protection.

There’s a Blog in There Somewhere

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I was out running the other day and thinking of a great many things.  First among them was the reality that I haven’t posted a blog of substance in quite some time.  Beyond that, I haven’t consistently posted anything since May.

As evidence, the pane on the right of my Facebook feed has informed me that my blog’s Facebook page has reached and engaged zero people in the last week.  Because of some residual guilt leftover from my upbringing as a conservative Evangelical, it is tempting to read that as zero people engaged and reached for Jesus, which further would mean people are going to hell because I am not a good enough blogger.  .  .or Christian.

Of course none of that is true and I only point it out for humor’s sake.  However, my Timehop App is also reminding me that it has been one full year since I moved this blog over from Blogspot, chose the wonderfully simple palate from the free themes menu and decided to double down on being a blogger.

When I made that move last summer my working thesis was simple and open ended, I wanted this page to be a window into my grace filled life as a small church pastor.  Because this thesis was incredibly broad so to have been my topics.

I have written movie, song, TV show and book reviews, all with the hope of illustrating how God speaks grace to me through the various media I engage.

I have written several devotionals meant to provide a lens through which I see God and God’s creation.

I have engaged somewhat academically with various facets from my everyday ministry experience, writing about video games, fundamentalism, a preacher’s commitments and more.

I have also written a few posts on particular facets from ministry, like pastoral counseling, putting together sermons, choosing books to read and the like.

Then last Spring I became involved with a major debate in my denomination, hoping to provide wisdom and insight from my perspective and all with the hopes of helping God’s church become better.  In the end, I am not sure we solved the world’s problems but, man, we complained about them a lot.

And finally I have written humorous notes that are just as much about grace as they are about nothing, as sometimes God’s grace comes to us through the ability to laugh at things like towns named “Paradise” that are the ugliest place you ever saw and signs on the interstate that are either bragging or warning about road fatalities.  I am still not sure which.

Some of my posts have been read by 5 people.  Others have been read by hundreds.  One or two hit the thousands.  And some have only been read by mom and one other person whose identity I do not know but who has clicked “like” on almost every post.  Thank you, random person, by the way.  Some of my posts I have wanted anybody and everybody to read, some have been limited to my own congregation with the rest of you eavesdropping.  Still others, I have written and hoped no one from my church read it.  In that vein, I have posted some of the links to several Facebook groups and Twitter handles.  Others I have not advertised at all and been relieved when only my mom read them.

Some people have followed me on Twitter due to this blog and others have even followed it at wordpress.com.  Some have shared the link on their social media pages.  Others have stumbled on this due to random google searches.  Many have given great compliments, and some have added helpful corrections.

Where do I possibly go next?

Well, as I said, last week I was out running and thinking about all of this.  At the same time I was thinking about my sermon for Sunday and how this sermon was unique in that I had over researched it and had so much to say that the sermon could have lasted an hour.  The painful part of this preparation, but a needed step, was the huge amount of cropping I did to get the sermon at a manageable length and with a coherent structure.  There is a blog post in there that I will someday write.

Then I was thinking about some minor conflicts that have happened in my ministry and family over the last few weeks.  Like most conflicts, these were wonderfully entertaining and quite funny and also full of grace.  I would chronicle them here, except for my huge doubts that the other members also saw these conflicts as entertaining, funny and full of grace.  So I refrain.

Then I thought about bigger topics that I really want to spend time writing about.  Since Easter I have been putting together a post about “Feasting and Fasting” and how there are times for both.  But that is an Easter post and Pentecost came and went and now it is untimely.  So tune in next April for that instant classic!

I was also thinking about the major amount of hospital visits I made in June and how that helped me reconnect with a core value of my ministry.  I hate hospitals and yet when I am there on mission, they are buildings full of grace.  There is a wonderful blog there.

Then I started thinking about how I plan to put together a six week Bible study on evangelism in September.  I was thinking about how I would structure this study, what books I would use and what real life examples I would insist we engage.  Then I started thinking about my own half thought out philosophy of evangelism and how passionate I am about it.  And how I should start by writing a blog about it, just to help satiate my passion so  I didn’t overwhelm my poor students in the Fall.

Then I remembered that a friend had forwarded me a copy of his new book, a wonderful little theology primer entitled, “Theology of Luck” and how he gave it to me under the promise that I would write a post about it to get all of you to buy it.  But I haven’t decided what I want to write about it yet, so I am stalling.

Then there are a few massive political battles being waged right now that everybody else is blogging about.  It feels like I should be too except for that age old question about whether or not I would jump off a bridge if all my friends were.  Still, Romans 1 has been a great source of consternation in a few of these debates.  I, of course, am convinced everybody is reading it wrong.  Wouldn’t it be nice to put together a post about how everybody is wrong and convince them I am right.  I may or may not do that.

There is also the temptation to write a post about what I really think about SuperPacs in relationship to God’s command to refrain from gossip and slander.  That one is more likely because nobody is really all that passionate about SuperPacs and I could get away with it.

Then I thought about grocery shopping and how I get so lost and overwhelmed every time I enter a grocery store and how my wife gives me these long, unorganized lists that make me run laps around the store until I ask for help.  There has to be a sermon in there somewhere (and a blog post!)

Then there is that new video game I am playing that is not only fun but full of moments of challenge and grace.  I should review it when I get to the end of it.

Then I thought about how much I just thought about.  I was only twenty minutes into my run and I had that much on my mind.  That helped me remember a post I have wanted to write for some time about how God gives me grace through running and how running is an indispensable ministry practice.  That would be a good post.

Regardless of all of that, if you think my personality is exhausting, just try being me.  Rumor has it some people just have one voice inside their heads while others have two voices in perpetual dialog.  I have 40, 40 wonderful and necessary voices all singing a gorgeous harmony about video games, music, grocery stores, politics, theology, ministry and above all, grace.

Most people would go insane thinking as fast as I do but God keeps me sane.  God keeps me humble.  God keeps my feet planted to the ground and my heart and soul on mission.  It is true, that I am passionate about a great many things and I express that passion in a great many ways.  Yet as this blog begins year 2, I find I am still the most passionate about this incredible God who is faithful and just and who always gives to all of us overwhelming measures of abounding, awesome and amazing grace.

Somebody should write a song about that.  I don’t know anything about music but if you stay tuned until next summer, I will keep telling you all about this grace that goes before.

See y’all next time!

Count Your Words

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We now interrupt your regularly scheduled blog posts to bring you something random about word counts.  .  .

Or not so random.

It is no secret that I have read more discussions online the last month than the sum of all discussions before it.  The topics I have been reading and discussing have demanded such attention.  These are important conversations and deserve careful dialog.

However, as I have engaged in these fierce conversations I have noticed hours were wasted on reading superfluous words.  These words were not necessarily angry or hostile.  They were just unnecessary.

Several people publicly posted emails they had sent to College Trustees.  These emails were so long it would take ten minutes to read one of them.  While I perused them I realized there was no need for 3/4s of the words.  I would bet most of the trustees didn’t read past the first paragraph.

I have also read a fair share of blogs that did not exercise the same caution.  I gave up about halfway through, not because the post was long but because it meandered carelessly so that any conclusion was lost in useless stories and prepositional phrases threatening run-on sentences.

Then there are those pesky comments that take up the length of my screen.  Some commenters end up posting four comments in a row, thereby filling four whole screen lengths.  After reading the first comment I quickly realized the person did not know what they were saying, or at least were not saying it very well.

It reminded me of the advice of a seminary professor who said, “If you don’t have it clear and concise on paper, you don’t have it clear in your head.”

It also reminds me of a great Proverb a friend posted.  It is Proverbs 10:19, “In the multitude of words sin is not absent; But he that holds his tongue is wise.”

Now I know not every person who comments online (or even runs a blog) has taken a writing class but I want to make a law requiring them too.  It is in writing classes that you learn your first drafts are complete crap (see Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird”).  The only way to overcome your lousy first draft is to write a second draft.

In the 1st draft you just write everything you think down on paper.  Then, contrary to popular belief, you do not hit send or enter or post.  Instead you go back through what you wrote and delete everything that does not add to your conclusion.  I do this (albeit imperfectly) when I write emails, sermons, blog posts and when I comment on Facebook.  I usually end up deleting a good half of the words I wrote, although sometimes it is closer to 75%.

But doing that is not enough for me.  I also have set important guidelines for word counts.  If it is an email I only use 100 words.  A quick-thought blog like this one, is 800 words.  A more heady post is 1200.  A sermon is five pages single spaced.

This is the only way to guarantee my conclusions are not lost amid a myriad of words.  And it is a great way to exercise humility.  It is also the best way to show respect to your readers and conversation partners.

So I would recommend others do the same, if only so that I can keep up with our important debates in half the time!

After all, brevity is better and for the record this post was 582 words.

A Blessing For Small Town America

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For the last 32 months I have been a pastor in a Northwest, logging town of 1700 people.  There are small towns and then there is where I live, which is dinky.

I have loved every minute of living here.  I have loved the scenery, the people, the identity, the community.  Just this morning towards the end of my run I ran into one of my congregants downtown.  All the small business owners know who I am.  Likewise, I am well known at the schools.

Moreover, this is one of the most laid back places in America.  There is a libertarian attitude to the whole town that is quite jarring at first but quite endearing over time.  In fact, I have often said the best thing about Elgin is also the worst thing about Elgin.  It is that you can get away with murder here.  That is great news, unless you are being murdered and, by metaphor, I have been murdered a few times.

But last September I sensed God was calling me elsewhere.  In early January I was officially called by a small congregation in a suburb of Salt Lake City, UT where 80,000 people live.  It is the exact opposite of Elgin.

I am quite certain God has called me to this new venture. .  However, living in a tiny town has been a lot like going to summer camp and this is Friday, the day everybody goes home.

So before I change that byline on your left from “A Small Town Pastor’s Thoughts About Grace” to “A Small Church Pastor’s Thoughts About Grace” I thought I would take a moment to try to articulate my love for this place.

I have known for a few months this day was coming so I have had time to think long and hard about what this post would be.  A month ago I read a wonderful chapter in Barbara Brown Taylor’s book “An Altar In The World.”  The chapter was about the practice of blessing others.  It got me thinking that the best way to properly describe and honor the town I am leaving would be to pronounce the Lord’s blessing upon it.

So here goes:

God Bless Elgin, OR, its people, its businesses, it organizations and its churches.

May the Lord richly bless the citizens both young and old

Bless those who live in the town and those who live in the fields around,

Bless those who just moved here, whether young and broke or old and retired.

Bless those who were born here and will never leave and bless those whose parents, grandparents and great grandparents have invested heavily in this town’s prosperity.

Bless those who just arrived.  May their love for this place be greater than my own.

Bless those are poor and live in trailers.  May they find acceptance, wholeness and meaningful work.

Bless those who farm the land on each side.  May the heavens bring them rain in its season and dry, sunny weather when its needed.  May their crops and fields yield enough produce to feed thousands.

Bless the lumber mill and its employees.  May their efforts to conserve the forest continue to provide lumber for many centuries to come.  May your employees find satisfaction and enjoyment in their work and may the administration administer fairly and equitably.

Bless the homeless teenagers.  May they not only find a couch to sleep on but a family to give them the warmth and comfort a couch never could.

Bless the single moms.  There are far too many.  May the Lord bring them sustainable income, blessings of wisdom, and stress free days.  May the Lord be the father their children never had.

Bless the alcoholics and drug addicts.  May they find freedom from addictions and identity in Christ.  May their testimonies cause many to give thanks to the Lord.

Bless the schools, their students, teachers, staff and administrators.  May the Lord’s wisdom prevail so that the students do not just learn data but become critical thinkers and engaged citizens.

Bless the businesses, both the start-ups and those firmly established.  May they employ many with gainful wages.  May their income be ethically earned and may their products and transactions bring joy and mirth to the community.

Bless the clubs and associations:  the quilting, the Lyons, the Opera House, the Chamber of Commerce, the Economic Development, the City Council, the High School Associations, the Sports teams, and all else.  May their efforts bring unity and coherency and identity to all those who participate.

Bless the churches.  May their efforts to work together and sing together not overshadow their need to pray together.  May the Lord hear their prayers.  May the Lord bless and increase their members.  And may they seek the peace of this place.

Lord, bless this town.  Pour out your spirit on the rich and poor, the young and old, the hardworking and lazy, the truck drivers, millwrights, small business owners, farmers and commuters.

Bring your peace and prosperity to its people.  Bring your love and warmth and grace.  Do not withhold any blessing but richly give all good things.

Amen.