Learning How to Live Until We Die

learning how to live

We are learning how to live, how to walk, how to speak, how to love until we breathe our final breath. We continue growing up even as we are growing old. The way of life is also a way of continuous catechism.

Catechism might be understood as formalized instruction in the doctrines of the church for young people preparing to take communion or for new converts to the faith. On a very basic level, catechism is simply a manual of instruction that may include some forms of memorization that help a person entering into the life of a new community, a new field of work, a new language.

Think about learning a language. We must learns words, how words from sentences in the given language, what words are appropriate in a given context, how to articulate the words in a way that native hearers can understand, how to understand the language whether written or spoken. In a sense, learning a language is a catechism that may require formal instruction alongside of massive amounts of informal application. The formal instruction fails without real world application. Speaking, listening, and reading in a context can be an ongoing learning process. In fact, native speakers of a language continue to learn vocabulary words as they continue to engage in new cultural pursuits.

We are not simply learning a language or a job skill or a religious doctrine, we are learning how to live. We will keep learning how to live until we quit living. Some people will learn patterns of living that are destructive in various ways. These patterns may lead to broken relationships, unforgiveness, inability to change, or other expressions of living that limit our capacity to love and live in fullness of joy.

Torah is a way, a lifelong catechism. The ancient Israelites were told teach their children and rehearse Torah (God’s instruction) when they sat down, walked in the way, lay down, and rose up (Deuteronomy 6:6-7). The king was expected to read and rehearse Torah all the days of his life as a way of training him in wisdom.

18 “Also it shall be, when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write for himself a copy of this law in a book, from the one before the priests, the Levites. 19 And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God and be careful to observe all the words of this law and these statutes, 20 that his heart may not be lifted above his brethren, that he may not turn aside from the commandment to the right hand or to the left, and that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he and his children in the midst of Israel. (Deuteronomy 17:18-20)

The nation rehearsed the law during significant events (Deuteronomy 4:5, Joshua 8:30-35, Nehemiah 8:2-8), through parent-child engagement (Proverbs 6:20), through traveling instructors ongoing (2 Chronicles 17:7-9), through the wearing of tassels (Numbers 15:38-39), and more. Teaching and rehearsing the law was an ongoing way of life (Psalm 1). The regular repetition and meditation upon the Law and participation in the ritual ceremonies trained the mind and body in the way of God’s wisdom, the way of love.

Within our temporal and spacial limitations, we are continually learning the shape of love in relation to God, God’s people and God’s creation. This learning is also a turning toward relationship (metanoia), a shaping, a forming of the whole person into the way of God’s life and God’s love. This ongoing catechism is way of living in the flexibility of love that remains fully and truly love whether speaking from a mountain or hanging on a cross. Jesus unveils this constant, faithful love in a range of settings and relationships from a marriage celebration to a meal between friends to thousands of followers to a heated debate to a trial for his life. The same Spirit of Love is revealed in each moment.

We are learning how live, how to be Spirit led people in every context of our lives, even in our final breath. Torah is the steady, ongoing training of the heart by the Spirit through the Word into the shape of love. In the school of love, the school of the Spirit, the Teacher can use every situation, every aspect of our creation (including all of human culture) to teach us, train us, catechize us. He exposes the patterns of culture that lead to death while pointing us to the way of life.

In his book, Life in God: John Calvin, Practical Formation and the Future of Protestant Theology, Matthew Myer Boulton discusses how Calvin sees the Christian life as a life of paideia, of education by the Spirit. The Spirit of God works through the Word, worship, believers, and prayer to shape the heart of the believer and to restore our sense to behold Christ in all things. He writes,

Thus in Calvin’s view, the role of the Bible in Christian life is not only to disclose “the true God” within its own pages, but also to act as a kind of clarifying lens through which disciples may come to see God all around and within them, and indeed to recognize themselves and the whole world as “living likenesses” of God (1.5.6). Seeing through Scripture, we might say, disciples may learn to see creation more accurately and vividly as the graceful work of God, from the starry sky above to the most mundane details of daily life below. Likewise, listening through Scripture, disciples may learn to develop “ears to hear” creation more perceptively as a divine symphony, thereby retraining and retuning their aural attention and insight. And so on. 

We are learning how to see, how to hear, how to speak, how to walk. We are learning how to live and how to love. While we do grow in stature and wisdom, we always remain under the teacher and in submission to the body, that is in submission to one another.

Image by Steve Garfield (used by permission via Creative Commons).

Law, Order and Life in Torah

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I’ve been studying Richard Hooker’s debate with Thomas Cartwright about the nature of Scripture, wisdom and creation, and I thought meditate upon their debate in relation to Torah. Here are a few thoughts about humanity, order and Torah.

The Ten Commandments are given to Israel immediately after the Lord leads them through the Red Sea and rescues them from the grasp of Egypt. The Ten Commandments are given again right before Israel crosses the Jordan and enters into the Promised Land. These words, the heart of Torah teach the children of Israel how to live in this world of time and space. These words instruct the people how to live in this world, whether crossing the wilderness, conquering the new land or settling in their new homes. By rehearsing the wisdom of God revealed in Scripture, the people learn how to orient their lives in relation to God, to other people and to the land (and the rest of creation). Torah is not the only law.

The children of Israel were rescued from the law of Egypt. This law also ordered their lives in time and space in relation to the deities/rulers, the people and the land. These laws led to slavery. Once Israel is rescued and enters the land of promise, the people will always face the threat of the substitute order, the strength of the horse and rider. This strength is false and always leads to slavery.

Israel faces the threat of Egypt and other alien orders like Ba-al. Like Egypt, Baalism also had an order of life. It’s order was rooted in manipulating power. The idolatry of Baalism involved sexual defiance and ultimately human sacrifice. In other words, Baalism led to the destruction of social order.

We live in a world of time and space with with rules or ways or laws the orient our thoughts and actions, our relations toward the divine (even if it manifests in some sort of denial), to other people and to the land (creation). Torah states that alien orders will lead to deformation, estrangement, slavery and ultimately destruction (death).

Israel reveals that all mankind, including the people of God, ultimately turn away from God’s rule and follow an alien way of life that will result in death. From the perspective of Torah, humanity cannot properly live in time and space because we are cursed with the deforming/destroying effect of alien law or order or ways. Jesus enters in this death caused by violating the very order of creation. In his resurrection, God’s people can now live in time and space based on God’s ordering of human relations to God, to other people, and to creation.

He has led us out of death, and by His Spirit He is converting our minds, our imaginations, our wills, our bodies to live in time and space through His love. We are being converted into the true order of God’s creation: lovingkindness.

“For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 8:2). We are becoming a people converted by the law of Spirit in Christ Jesus because we have been free from the law of sin and death. The Gospel reveals God’s faithfulness to His people in time and space. Even though we still die in this world, we are becoming lovers in this world, freed from alien orders freed to love undying. Yes, even though our bodies die, the love of Christ does not die, we have hope that In God’s faithfulness, we will be restored in perfect, resurrecting love.

Image by Powell Laj (used by permission via Creative Commons).

The Way of Information

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The word information seems synonymous with content or facts or data. In fact, we regularly use the word information to talk about an accumulation of ideas or bits of knowledge around a particular topic. The very form of the word might also clue us into another more ancient and more specific use of the word inform.

in-form

The MIddle English enforme or informe refers to “give form or shape to” and “form the mind of,” “teach.” The Latin informare comes from “in” or “into” and forma “a form.” As I pause over the word “information,” it makes me think of Torah. The way of Torah is a way of relational instruction: parent to child. The parent images the The Lord as Father of His people who instructs them from His holy mountain, leads them through the wilderness, and shapes them into a nation of priests and kings. At its root, information is a way of formation not simply of accumulation.

I read a delightful article by Ted Olson this morning called “Hacking the Bible.” He describes the convergence of computer processing tools and Holy Scripture. The developments could both excite and could great concern about the future of Bible research and study. He explores the exploding possibilities of collecting, searching and recombining data from commentaries, original languages, church history and more. The possible directions for Scripture study seem almost endless…overwhelming.

Tools like BibleGateway, YouVersion, Logos, Bibleworks and more suddenly give users instant access to large accumulations of data. Olson writes,

“Access to information was the old problem. Logos has been blowing up books for years now. They know how to take a new volume and turn it into data. Now the big issue is sifting through that information and curating it.”

This can be both amazing and disturbing. I use several digital Bible research tools, and find them helpful. I am also aware that instant access to data does not equal formation. This is not limited to the digital world. I was listening to a lecturer at a Christian graduate school recently and she was encouraging the students to take speed reading courses, so that they could keep up with the reading levels expected in graduate school.

I know those demands. When I studied rhetoric, we would sometimes have to read large amounts of dense texts between classes. As Mortimer Adler once discussed there is a helpful way of rapidly covering a text to get a quick snapshot of the big ideas, but he also suggested that there are times for ruminating.

Ruminate. What a delightful word. It means to “chew the cud.”

After reading that article this morning, I thought I might simply pause and ruminate over that word information. We all have access to massive bits of data from our newspapers, televisions, computers and more, and there are time when we may need to sort through large selections of texts/media to extract some key ideas or get a sense of the big picture from multiple perspectives or even to verify references by others.

But let us never equate this with the way of information. I once knew a guy who could easily quote large portions of Scripture, but he had not been shaped by the words he spoke. His ability to quote it gave him a sense of mastery, but it was false.

True information is not mastered. That is why I am so hesitant with “expert” language. I would rather see an idea shaped into a life that to be rapidly quoted in a succession of references. The forming of a life in relation, in community is something different.

Thomas Merton once said that it is okay if we are not the best at everything we do. We must face of our limitations. In a world of nonstop data, I would suggest that it is okay not to be able to reference everything, or not to look like an expert or master of everything. It is far greater to be shaped by the Word and the words we read and we speak.

As we seek to walk in the way of Torah, information might be understood as formation in relationship, in a family, in a friendship, in a community. This way of information might be a helpful way of thinking about the lenten journey. Even as we ourselves are being formed, we form others in our words and actions. May the Lord grant us grace to be formed into the image our Savior. Then our credibility, our verification will be less about the ability to cite references and more about the shape of love expressed through one life.

Learning to Walk in Desert Lands

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Every Lent we learn anew to walk the wilderness way. Like children learning to walk, we also are learning how to walk before our Father in heaven. So we return again and again, asking Him to teach by His Spirit, how to pray, how to hear, how to live.

We rehearse the wilderness way, the desert plains, the valley of the shadow of death. There are no experts here. There are no titles, no awards, no recognition. This is a place of stripping off our titles, our grandiose visions, our self-reliance. When ancient Israel passed through the wilderness, the Lord humbled them and tested them. He allowed them to know hunger. He fed them with manna, Bread from Heaven. So that they would know (and we would know) that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord.

We come to sit at His at feet. We meditate upon His Word. We strip away distractions through fasting, prayer, giving our money and time to serve the world around us. While these disciplines may be disciplines of living throughout the year, we refocus with renewed attention, asking the Lord for mercy and grace. We return to the source of our faith, the faithfulness of our Savior Jesus Christ.

As we behold Him, we may begin to realize that we do not walk the journey alone. We are surrounded by brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers. In a community of mutual submission, we learn to walk, we learn to kneel, we learn rest, we learn to love.

 

What Do I Know?

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I’m not sure how people keep up. The amount of information humans produce and consume rains down like a flood across the globe. Last spring, Science Daily suggested that 90% of the world’s data had been produced in 2011 and 2012: 90%. Companies face the never-ending challenge of storing, sorting and analyzing the endless stream of data.

I love and hate technology at the same time. Some days, I feel like I’m struggling to breathe beneath the endless rain of information.

How do people read, let alone write as much as they do? Sometimes I want to simply breathe. Pause. Stare at the dead leaves on my tree in the backyard that refuse to let go and fly away in the late winter breeze. Every year, these leaves will not fall until mid-spring.

The breeze has stopped. Continuos movement through the leaves is almost imperceptible: a vital stillness Through the leaves and spidery limbs, I see layers of trees: five, six maybe seven trees sprawl in every direction. Behind those spindling limbs, I see patches of green, a pine tree that survived the blight from a few years ago. Then patches of blue: deep blue sky.

On this late winter afternoon, a variegated world greets my glance. In this simple glance, there is more to behold than I can fully grasp. There is always more. In one momentary glimpse of creation, I behold a vast, textured landscape that can unfold and unfold and unfold: mystery upon mystery.

Over 20 years ago, I stepped into the library of my graduate school and felt both elated and saddened. I would never be able to read all those books. Now I step into my library, infinitesimal compared to that library and I realize, I’ll never be able to read many of my books.

What do I know? I know less and less and less.

What I do know? I know more and more how little I truly love.

What I do know? I know more and more and more how dependent I am dependent upon family, friends, and strangers whom I never met and never will meet. A multitude of persons have enriched and continue to enrich my life.

What do I know? I know that the world around me, the people around me, the flood of information around me constantly unfolds wonder.

I don’t have to master it all or know it all, I simply need to pause and behold; to inhale and exhale; to respond as this moment requires; to learn again and again the possibility of thankful love in the midst of such glorious abundance.

A Life of Piety

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calvin on piety“‘The whole life of Christians ought to be a sort of practice of piety [pietatis], for we have been called to sanctification’ (3.19.2). For Calvin this practice of piety is itself a divine gift, a gracious way for disciples to participate in a life of communion with Christ.” - Matthew Myer Boulton (Life in God: John Calvin, Practical Formation, and the Future of Protestant Theology)

3 Tools of Fundamental Coherence in Richard Hooker

In “Richard Hooker and the Vision of God,” Charles Millers suggests that a “fundamental coherence” may be better language than “system” when referring to Richard Hooker’s thought in “Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.”

Instead of a formal system, Hooker works out a “constellation of fundamental ideas,” according to Olivier Loyer (cited by Miller). Working from this core, Hooker has a set of tools that help him explore a range of questions. These tools include rationality, hierarchy, and participation.

Drawing upon a vision of God’s creation as rooted in His divine order, Hooker sees the world as pervaded by “a sense of the rational character of law” and “the human mind’s rational capacity is fulfilled in apprehending and coordinating itself to such laws.”

Hooker’s understanding of hierarchy draws upon a medieval use rooted in Pseudo-Dionysius. Dionysius writes about a cosmos where angels and humans are centered in a vision of God. This particular vision of each person is rooted in God’s divine order (so it’s not about greater or lesser). According to God’s purposes, each person beholds his glory as a particular being and communicates his glory in a particular way, thus we are all made to behold and proclaim His glory to one another. This action binds us together in love and mutual learning.

This vision of hierarchy leads into Hooker’s third idea: participation. We are created to participate at some level in relation with God. Quoting Hooker, “[A]ll things in the world are said in some sort, to seek the highest, and to covet more or less the participation of God himself.”

I assume Miller plans to explores these ideas in more detail, but my first thoughts return to Torah and ordering the cosmos in love. God’s orders His world (which is one way to speak of Torah). Also, God instructs His people in living within His order (this is also Torah). The ordering of the cosmos and the instruction about living are aspects of Torah as told in the Old and New Testament.

Human Living in Christ

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In the eucharist we Christians concentrate our motives and act out our theory of human living. Mankind are not to be ‘as Gods’, a competing horde of dying rivals to the Living God. We are His creatures, fallen and redeemed, His dear recovered sons, who by His free love are ‘made partakers of the divine nature’. But our obedience and our salvation are not of ourselves, even while we are mysteriously free to disobey and damn ourselves. We are dependent on Him even for our own dependence. We are accepted sons in the Son, by the real sacrifice and acceptance of His Body and Blood, Who ‘though He were a Son, yet learned He obedience by the things which he suffered; and being made perfect, He became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey Him; called of God an High-priest after the order of Melchisedech’. – Dom Gregory Dix

Walking By the Light of the Son

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The sun shall be no more
your light by day,
nor for brightness shall the moon
give you light;
but the Lord will be your everlasting light,
and your God will be your glory. Isaiah 60:19 [1]

Exiled into Babylon, Assyria and the nations, the people of God groped in darkness. In Torah, darkness is often a sign of walking outside the way of Torah. In Proverbs 4:18-19, we read that

[T]he path of the righteous is like the light of dawn,
which shines brighter and brighter until full day.
The way of the wicked is like deep darkness;
they do not know over what they stumble.

In the land of darkness, humanity is turned away from the light of the Lord. Humanity descends further and further into dark words and dark acts. And yet, all humanity lives by the light of the sun and the brightness of the moon. In the land of darkness, the sun still shines. In fact, the sun and moon and the stars govern the earth.

14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. 16 And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 17 And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. (Ge 1:14–18)

These great lights mark our days, our months, our seasons. They tell us when to sleep, when to rise, when to plant, when to harvest. For many cultures, these great lights are the only true rulers. The land of darkness lives under the rule of heavenly movements. From astrology to Baalism to Egypt’s cult of the nile (and the heavenly lights), humanity lived and died by the rule of these lights.

Power for survival comes from seeking to manipulate or control the heavens, the gods, or the nations. For some cultures, this took the shape of human sacrifice. For others, it took the form of slavery. For Assyria and Babylon it took the form of endless war. To live only by the light of the sun and moon and starts is live under the spell of idolatry. Idol worship is not about whether humans believe or rejects the supernatural, the gods or the divine. Rather, it is ultimately about wielding power for survival.

When the people of God were sent into exile, it was a sign that they were already wandering in darkness like the surrounding nations. To walk in the light of Torah is to be able to say “No” to the slavery of Egypt, to human sacrifice of Baalism, to the oppressive wars of Assyria and Babylon. This “No” was a divine reigning down from the heavens (above the sun and moon and stars). It was a “No” to the creatures acting like the Creator.

In the cult of Israel, we hear a “No” against all cults living under the sun and moon and stars. In his essay on “Hitler and Israel,” Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy explains,

Israel built a temple, it is true, but they added that God did not dwell in it, as the gods of all other temples did: Israel voided the Temple. Israel circumcised her young men, it is true; but they did it to the child in the cradle, not to the initiate novice of the fertility orgies: Israel voided the rites. Israel wrote “poems,” but she denied that she “wrote” them lest man-made “poems” became idols. She insisted that she was told and that she replied: Israel voided the arts. In these three acts she emptied the three great “speeches” of the heathen, the tribal, the templar, and the artistic, of their lure and spell and charm. [2]

Israel becomes the “No” to all man’s creaturely religions (including atheism).

In listening to God’s “No,” Israel recognized herself as God’s servant, merely a man in the face of God’s majesty. In this “No” all merely human desires are burned out, and our notion of God’s will is cleansed. “Revelation” is a knowledge of God’s will, after his “No” to our will has become known. Only then is God pure future, pure act – only when all his former creations stand exposed as non-gods, as mere artifacts. To have revealed what is not God is the condition for all our understanding of God. On this basis the Jews became prayer. Israel is neither a nation nor a state nor a race, but it is prayer.

This “No” frees humanity from the spellbinders who live under the sun and wield power under the sun. Israel’s “No” frees humanity from the Pharoahs and Herods and Hitlers. The world always lives under the threat of humans who stumble in darkness and leads others to stumble in that darkness. By equating their will and God’s will or by denying God and establishing their will, their insights, their wisdom as supreme, they control and destroy and threaten the future. Rosenstock-Huessy’s words continue to echo,

And immediately, we see the rise of world-wide spellbinders and race-worshipers, of dictatorships, and super states that un-repentingly identify their will and God’s will, their world and the real world. No separation of Caesar and Christ is recognized. Hence mankind stays forever in need of both testaments – in need of both the “No” of the Old Testament and the “Yes” of the New.

In Isaiah’s song, we hear the hope that the people of God sitting in exile were not forsaken by God. They passed through the death of man’s darkness and were restored to the land. From them, a conquering king would come, the Messiah. His rule was not “under the heavens” and rooted in wielding power like the kings of the earth (Psalm 2). His rule reveals the light that is brighter than the noonday sun. This light is greater than the sun or moon. This light says “No” to the exaltation of the creature over the Creator. This light reveals and restores humanity into the shape of living, loving relations with God, one another and all creation. This light fulfills Torah, embodies Torah. Jesus Christ the True Light of the World leads his people us to become truly human images of the Creator.

Even now, we are learning to walk in the light of the Son.

Image used by permission. Some rights reserved by MyDigitalSLR

[1] All Bible references from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
[2] All quotes from Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy comes from his essay, “Hitler and Israel, or on Prayer.” From Judaism Despite Christianity. Reprinted by University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Christmas Trees in Advent

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Advent rhythms gently beat in my heart while Christmas carols boom in my ears. I feel torn between the deep ache of Advent longing and the joyful outbreak of Christmas festival. How do I hold these two distinct rhythms together? How do I journey from the Jews crying out in exile to shepherds rejoicing at the manger?

Last Monday night we visited some friends who live in a 150-year-old family cabin. Stepping into their home felt like stepping into the past. It was as though I stood in the present and the past at the same time. Is there a way to keep standing in Advent reflection while also standing in the middle of Christmas trimmings?

Christmas joy lights my city. I see bright blue, green, red and white trees glowing atop the buildings. Shiny, happy trees spring up in homes, in yards, in stores and even in some churches. Like hearty fruit trees, the branches of these evergreens hang low with the colorful ornaments and glistening lights.

Ezekiel also sees trees all around him, but these trees are not shiny or happy. They are burning. They are falling. They reveal a world coming to an end. Looking back at the sparkling Christmas tree, I begin to see shadows of another age, a sad struggle, a world falling, a prophet crying. Egypt and Assyria who once stood tall like proud Cedars of Lebanon came tumbling down when the ax was laid at the root. One by one the nations around Judah fell. Then Judah toppled. The people of God were dispersed into the darkness of Babylon. Eventually Babylon falls.

The kingdoms of the world fell and will continue falling till the end of the age. No matter how great, how glorious the powers of world may be, they will not always stand. Kingdoms topple before the King. Wicked rulers who oppress their people, wicked managers who take advantage of their employees, wicked parents who abuse their children: all kings and kingdoms will fall. Evil will not prevail. The ax is laid to the root. Only one kingdom will stand: A kingdom of love.

I continue to gaze into the Christmas tree, and I am remembering a tree stump that came back to life. Isaiah looks at that stump of the House of David where the tree once was, and boldly says,

“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
                        And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.” (Is 11:1-2)

From a dead stump, the Kingdom of God springs forth with life eternal. He is the tree that appeared the least of all seeds. So often His kingdom looks weak, failing, falling and fading. Actually, His tree, his kingdom will one day grow greater than all the trees, “so that the birds of the air will come and nest in its branches” (Matt 13:31-32).

I gaze back at the Christmas tree, and I think that maybe it is standing in two places at once. The plainchant of Advent longing stills sounds in our Christmas joy and glimpses of Christmas joy penetrate the plainchant of Advent longing. Joy and sorrow are distinct and yet bound up in one another.

During Advent, I long for the king who is coming and whose kingdom of love and life will prevail. The colorful ornaments on the Christmas tree remind me of a fruit that bring will bring healing to the nations. Beholding the lights, I rejoice that His kingdom of light will shine brighter than the noonday sun.

image by duane schoon (used by permission via Creative Commons)