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Commonsense Christianity

Commonsense Christianity

The Inadequacy of Corporate Prayer

posted by Carolyn Henderson

Although it’s been years since I’ve been in a regular church situation, I can still conjure up the feelings of dread I felt at “prayer time,” sitting around a circle (we’re told it’s “intimate”) and sharing details about our lives. The worst part was when we all bowed our heads and prayed for one another, for several reasons:

Prayer -- whether it is individual or in a group setting -- is intimate, not businesslike. Scene from  The Office, courtesy Paul Drinkwater, NBC

Prayer — whether it is individual or in a group setting — is intimate, not businesslike. Scene from
The Office, credited to Paul Drinkwater, NBC

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1) People mumble. They’re looking down at their knees in the first place, and when they mutter low, fast, and fuzzy, even those with the best hearing (not me) can’t hear.

2) We’re all expected to participate. If there are eight people, and eight prayer requests, it is an unwritten rule that we each take one. The problem is, some people take two. Or, by the time we summon the courage to speak (not everyone thrives upon group attention), 5 out of 8 of the prayer requests have been taken care of, and we can’t remember the other three.

Or, because people mumble, we’re not sure if the request we’re praying for has already been addressed.

Worst of all is when there’s only one request left — ours — and one person who hasn’t prayed yet — us.

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3) It’s awkward. Prolonged, uncomfortable silences ensue between prayers, because no one wants to start speaking accidentally and simultaneously run in with another person.

“Should I speak? Is it quiet? Or is someone else starting to pray?” It’s back to those mumblers again (Point 1) — some of whom could be one minute into a prayer before we even realize they’ve been talking. Probably because they don’t thrive upon group attention (Point 2).

4) It’s Shallow. The very social awkwardness of it all (Point 3), coupled with people’s understandable desire to not share, or pray, deeply private elements of their lives with a group of people who, if they are not strangers, do not consist entirely of extremely close confidantes, lends itself to superficiality.

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This superficiality is underscored by the prayers themselves, many of which incorporate words like, “Lord,” “Jesus,” “God,” and “Father” as punctuation: “We come before you, Lord, humbly, Lord, to beseech Thee, God, for Thy mercy, Father, in this situation.”

Group Limitations

Because we can’t get down to bare-naked, deep essentials, we are limited in what we say, and most corporate prayers could be completed, without the word-commas, in one short sentence: “God. John and Mary want to draw closer together,” or “Father. Anne is hurt and needs healing.” Neither John nor Anne would appreciate a prayer along the lines of, “God — John no longer has feelings of love for his wife, and he finds himself avoiding her company,” or, “Anne’s severe gastrointestinal problems are embarrassing, and they are keeping her from going out socially.”

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Light in the Forest inspirational original oil painting of two women in woods with candles and Celtic overtones by Steve Henderson, licensed prints at Framed Canvas Art, amazon.com, and iCanvasART

Where two or three — not necessarily 8 or 15 or 25 — are gathered in His name, He is there. Light in the Forest, original oil painting by Steve Henderson; licensed prints at iCanvasART, Framed Canvas Art, and Amazon.

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“But we are told to pray for one another!” one objects.

“Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective,” James tells us in 5:16. (That last sentence is especially telling. One doesn’t have to be a church leader or celebrity Christian to qualify for the “righteous man,” part, and indeed, many an ordinary person fits the qualifications better.)

However, there is nothing in this verse that implies a corporate church setting, in the same way that the oft-repeated Hebrews 10:25 (“Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing,”) is not limited — and indeed should NOT be limited to — a weekly church service, complete with interlocking chairs and professional worship team.

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If we were truly meeting together, regularly and genuinely (read: informally, as part of our daily life), then we would be praying for one another regularly and genuinely. If we knew John or Anne closely and dearly, so much so that we ache when they ache and laugh when they laugh, we would pray about John and his wife, or Anne and her literal release from release, but privately — to our Father alone — and not aloud.

Our Corporate Culture

The very nature of the words, “corporate prayer,” expresses its limitations: it is a group activity, and not just any group activity — in the peculiarly businesslike cultures where the term “corporate” is so freely used (“corporate worship,” “corporate Bible study”), there is such a focus upon “proper group dynamics” that we forgo the benefits associated with a community of believers. Indeed, the word “community” has been overused to the point that it no longer means anything beyond a corporate group activity.

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While there is nothing wrong with praying as a group — and indeed, done in a manner more creative, and thoughtful, than what most of us endure now it can be beneficial — the problem comes when people associate prayer — all prayer — with the big group activity kind.

Prayer Is a Conversation, Not an “Activity”

Recently, I was asked to write a prayer that other people could read and use in their private prayer life. I chose to write on loneliness, and the editor reading the prayer commented,

“This sounds more like a conversation.”

Indeed it was — because that’s what prayer is — and I had serious misgivings about publishing it, simply because it was so rawly, nakedly, vulnerably personal: without thinking, I wrote as I would pray, intimately, to my Father, and when I read it over I thought,

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“No human being should see the inner thoughts of another.”

This is true, and this is why, in a corporate setting, we don’t express our true thoughts, fears, needs, and failures — because the Father alone is worthy of our soul’s secrets:

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corner to be seen by men . . . But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.

“Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:5-6)

True, intimate prayer is a conversation between a believer and his Father, and when our only association with prayer is the group kind, we miss out on the real thing.

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Pray, in a group — even a circle — if you want, but don’t stop there. Be like Mary, of Martha and Mary fame (Luke 10:38-42), and choose the better thing, because it won’t be taken away from you.

Thank You

Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity, where you can’t read me for long to realize that I’m not particularly excited about what passes for Christianity these days: group activities, supervised by leaders, no questions allowed.

Posts complementing this one are

Yes or No: Does God Hear Our Prayers?

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Grasping the Goodness of God

Is God Calling You?

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Forgiveness Is a Promise, Not a Contractual Agreement

posted by Carolyn Henderson

Too many Christians spend too much time trying to placate a God who will not be satisfied with anything they do, simply because He dislikes them so much.

White on White inspirational original oil painting of Floral still life roses and flowers in vase by Steve Henderson

White as snow, or a perfect rose — our sins are miraculously changed from the stain of scarlet. White on White, original oil painting by Steve Henderson.

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Despite this being an inaccurate understanding of the intimate relationship between a loving, gracious, merciful Father and His vulnerable children, it is the misconception under which a large number of believers labor. The result is that we feel unsettled, unloved, insecure in a relationship that is meant to bring us joy and peace.

A critical foundation for this relationship of love is forgiveness — something we earthly parents do with our children all the time, with the ultimate hope that, as our children grow and mature, they also will learn by our example.

So it is with God, as He forgives us, a topic I addressed in an earlier article, 5 Things to Know about Forgiveness. The problem is, we can’t believe that He means it, and verses like Matthew 6:14-15 trip us up:

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“For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

That sounds scary.

Fulfilling the Law, or Not

But then again, so does everything in Matthew chapter 6 — which addresses prayer, fasting, giving, and not worrying — and the antecedent chapter 5, which starts with the Beatitudes, is worse: murder, adultery, divorce, making oaths, taking revenge, loving our enemies: it doesn’t matter how holy we think we are, those of us who are honest can skim through the chapter and find something that we don’t fulfill.

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And as James helpfully points out in 2:10,

Grace inspirational original oil painting of woman in pink dress dancing on beach by Steve Henderson, licensed prints at amazon.com and framed canvas art

As beloved children of a loving Father, we do not have to cringe in abject subjugation because of fear; we can dance. Grace, original oil painting by Steve Henderson; licensed prints at Framed Canvas Art and Amazon.com

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“For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.”

So if we’ve run an even mildly libidinous eye over the sculpted, or buxom, chest of another, no matter how briefly, we’ve just cheated on our spouse. Let’s gouge out our right eyes. (Matthew 5:27-29).

(There is strong, strong, logic to the argument that not every verse in the Bible is to be taken literally.)

So let’s go back to Matthew 6:14-15: Does this truly mean that, if we harbor feelings of resentment — toward another person — that we just can’t get rid of, then God turns His back on us? And He keeps it turned until we generate those warm, happy feelings toward the scumbag who ruined our life and isn’t suffering any consequences from his rapacious, predatory, prehensile, poisonous personality?

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Worse yet, this creep, if he repents, has the potential to a good end, because of God’s rich mercy:

“For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins,” (Colossians 1:13-14),

but for some reason, we’re permanently stuck looking at God’s back.

Afraid of God

There’s something wrong with this picture.

When we operate under the fear that we must forgive someone, NOW, because if we don’t then God won’t forgive us, the result is, not only an imperfect forgiveness toward the person who harmed us, but a weak understanding of the concept in the first place. It’s akin to the people who come to a gracious, forgiving, loving and perfect God because they’re afraid that, if they don’t, He’ll send them to hell.

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It’s very, very difficult to love and trust someone when our relationship is based upon this foundation.

“Come now, let us reason together,” says the Lord in Isaiah 1:18.

“Though your sins are like scarlet, though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.”

These sound like measured words from a reasonable Person. Hating someone, harboring resentment, nursing grievances and encouraging them to grow — even when the dirtball against whom we direct our malice deserves every bit of it — is a sin, but rather than run our faces into the wall and break our nose (or worse yet, think vaguely that God’s hand is behind our heads, pushing), we can sit down with a reasonable God and lay our feelings and hurt and frustration and pain before Him.

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He’s not asking us to act as if the hurt doesn’t exist; He’s asking us to give it to Him to take care of:

“It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” Deuteronomy 32:35 informs us. But wait, it gets even better:

“In due time their foot will slip; their day of disaster is near and their doom rushes upon them.”

Evil Does Not Triumph over Good

Evil is avenged, my friends. And the beauty of it all, the mystery of it all is that, for even those who do the greatest evil, forgiveness is a procurable option:

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins, and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)

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All we have to do is ask. And when we ask, He answers, and part of that answer is to “purify us from all unrighteousness,” with the ultimate goal that we no longer think and act the way the world does, but are transformed by the renewing of our minds to something higher, better, deeper, grander, holier (Romans 12:2).

Transformation is a process, just as forgiveness is, and when we spend all our time worrying that God will condemn us if we don’t properly forgive the person who has hurt us, then we are unable to go before our loving Father, with confidence, and say,

“Dear Father — I want to forgive this person, but the hurt he/she did is so deep, that I can’t get past it. Will you please help me?”

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What would we answer, if a child of ours came to us with a question like that?

Thank You

Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity where I encourage us to make understanding God’s unfathomable love, a part of our prayer and meditation (it’s certainly an improvement over thinking foul thoughts about nasty people).

Posts complementing this one are

Child of God: You Are Much Beloved

Accidents Happen, But You’re Not One of Them

Do You Long for the Love Christianity Promises?

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5 Things to Know about Forgiveness

posted by Carolyn Henderson

The first time I heard this sentence:

“Jesus talked about hell more than anything else,”

Morning's Glory inspirational original oil painting of still life roses and flowers in clear green glass vase by Steve Henderson

Forgiveness is more than mumbling, “I’m sorry.” It’s actually a beautiful thing, worth desiring. Morning’s Glory, original oil painting by Steve Henderson.

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I knew it was inaccurate, but hadn’t read the Bible enough to say so with confidence. Now that I have grown up, as a Christian, and started chewing meat, I read very little about hell, and much, much more about love.

Another favorite topic of Jesus’s, but not necessarily ours, is forgiveness.

We all know we’re supposed to do it, we feel bad when we don’t, and sometimes it’s easier to just not think about it. But forgiveness is such a crucial element to Christianity — because it’s a major factor in love — that it’s worth asking God to help us successfully accomplish it:

It’s Difficult

1) Forgiveness isn’t easy.

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While this sounds ridiculously obvious, it’s worth mentioning because, within some Christian circles, there is this idea that we are patient, holy, even-tempered beings, and if we’re not, then the Holy Spirit is not living in us.

But Ecclesiastes 7:20 quite practically reminds us,

“There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins.”

And 1 John 1:8 says,

“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”

When someone hurts us or someone we love, we hit, and hate, back — this is a natural, normal response, and to deny it is to deny our humanity. When we place unrealistic expectations upon our goodness — goodness that we pressure ourselves to generate from within and not rely upon God to give and nurture — then we will be disappointed.

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It is better to acknowledge the difficulty of the forgiveness process to God and ask Him to help us with it, then plow ahead and slap ourselves because we don’t feel loving and kind.

It’s Slow

2) Forgiveness isn’t quick.

Galatians 6:1 tells us,

“Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.”

It takes time for a person repenting of a sin to change; and it takes time for the person against whom he has sinned to work through the matter. The process of “restoring someone gently” is just that — a process — and it may take days, weeks, and sometimes years to finish it.

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Sophie and Rose inspirational original oil painting of young woman and child hanging up clothes outside seaside Victorian home by Steve Henderson licensed prints at Great Big Canvas, amazon.com, art.com, Framed Canvas Art and iCanvasART

Forgiveness is an essential part of any healthy relationship — if there are two people, forgiveness, at some time, will be called upon. Sophie and Rose, original oil painting by Steve Henderson; licensed prints at Great Big Canvas, Art.com, Amazon.com, Framed Canvas Art, and iCanvasART.

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There are people in all our lives who did damage years ago — damage so significant that it caused scars — and the wound repairs slowly, but it does have the potential to repair. Forgiveness is the act of not picking at the scab.

It’s Complicated

3) Forgiveness is not always accompanied by positive, glowing feelings.

“Do not hate your brother in your heart,” Leviticus 19:17 commands. “Rebuke your neighbor frankly so that you will not share in his guilt.”

When someone hurts us, there’s nothing wrong with standing up and telling them so (this is honesty; not bitterness). Afterwards, part of the process of forgiveness is releasing the angry feelings — which are often entirely justifiable — so that we don’t become ugly and foul within our soul.

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It’s important to note that there is a distinct difference between absence of negative feelings and the presence of positive ones — success with Part A does not ensure instant success with Part B, and indeed, with some people, the best way we can love them is to consciously agree to not hate them.

It’s not perfect, but it’s a start.

It’s Ongoing

4) Forgiveness is a process, not a one-time thing.

The apostle Peter, always one of my favorites because he’s so refreshingly honest, once asked Jesus:

“‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?’

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“Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.'” (Matthew 18:21-22)

Obviously, Peter thought that seven times was fairly generous, but Jesus – whose ways are not our ways, as anyone who has read through the Sermon on the Mount begins to realize — has a different idea.

While this passage implies that we are forgiving multiple sins from the same person, forgiving seventy-seven times may also mean that we are returning to the forgiveness of the same initial sin, multiple times, because we just can’t give up our feelings of bitterness toward this person.

Many, many years ago, there was a person in my life who was exceptionally difficult to forgive, but after a significant amount of time, I consciously chose to do so, and told the person this in conversation. However, thoughts of this person continued to annoy me, and I repeatedly stood before God, requesting help with these feelings. One day, to my surprise, when I thought of this person I found that they no longer bothered me, and while I’ll probably never put them on the list for my next birthday party, I can hear their name without rancor.

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For me, that’s progress.

It’s Possible

5) Forgiveness takes practice, and we get lots of it.

The story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) revolves around a father whose love for his child is so strong, it eclipses the pain that his son caused. In our own lives, we are given family and friends who mean so much to us, we forgive because we know that holding in the grudge, and nursing the hate, will destroy the relationship.

The very feelings of love enable us to do something that intellectually seems impossible, and while it’s difficult to generate these feelings for strangers, the very act of forgiving our own shows us what it looks like, and makes it easier (but not easy!) to do with others to whom we are less close.

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Ultimately, Christ is our example, and we forgive, because He first forgave us (Ephesians 4:32). As in all things where we seek to imitate God, we don’t do it on our own, but under His guidance, and patient teaching.

And, Thank God, He’s patient.

Thank You

Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity, where I haven’t begun to cover the topic in 5 easy points and 1,000 words, but, just like preliminary forgiveness, it’s a start!

Posts complementing this one are

Practical Christianity: 3 Tangible Things We Can Do to Live Our Faith

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Are We Stuck with Our Bad Choices Forever?

When the Prodigal Son (or Daughter) Is Yours

 

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Are We Being Manipulated? Let’s Just Say “No”

posted by Carolyn Henderson

Like many others who struggled through algebra and its highbrow cousins in school and wondered how they would ever be useful in my life, I have successfully lived that life without advanced mathematics.

Girl in a Copper Dress 3 inspirational original oil painting of woman stretching by Steve Henderson, licensed prints at art.com, great big canvas, and framed canvas art

Walking away, with aplomb, is a good technique, one that we can use around people who seek to manipulate us. Girl in a Copper Dress, original oil painting by Steve Henderson; licensed print at Great Big Canvas, Framed Canvas Art, and Art.com.

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Not that it was totally useless — aside from being a mind-stretching exercise (although Logic would have been more useful) — higher math’s primary impact on my life was to teach me one salient fact:

Without sufficient information, we cannot come to accurate conclusions. I’m glad that somebody knows how to figure out how much water will will be in left in a 100-gallon-tank — after 3 hours — which is losing 8 ounces of liquid per minute through a little hole in the bottom, while gaining 6.75 ounces in the same period of time. I don’t.

What I do know, however, is that without enough information, and the right information, even the finest mathematician cannot figure out the answer.

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Struggling through Life

This concept is not limited to the classroom, but rather, follows us throughout life. Imperfect beings, limited by time, space, and our own bodies, we try to figure out what is going on around us, and in our lives, by the limited facts we have available.

Quite often, we succeed — when a knock comes at the door, it’s 98 percent certain that there is a human being standing on the other side, and if we’re expecting a package at 11 a.m. and it’s 11:01 we finesse our judgment further — but just as often, we’re wrong. It could be someone selling cookies. Part A was right, Part B was not.

After delicately extricating ourselves from purchasing an overpriced product, funding an establishment we don’t support, without hurting the innocent child the corporation sent out to do their work, we might ruminate on how the conclusion we came to — while reasonable and supported by the facts — was wrong.

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My Third Cup of Tea

This morning, at breakfast, my husband the Norwegian Artist poured me a third cup of tea.

“Will you pass the cream, please?”

Without a word, he left the table.

One natural and logical conclusion to this information is that we got in a fight, and it’s the first one that many minds would jump to (“Man Storms Off in a Fury!”). However, when I add a couple small, seemingly insignificant details:

“Without a word, he picked up the creamer, left the table, and got the milk out of the refrigerator,”

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then marital bliss is restored.

When we don’t have all the facts, it is simply impossible to consistently and accurately arrive at the truth. A favorite literary and story-telling technique involves two separate camps, each with the same information, but totally opposite interpretations of what that information means. Georgette Heyer wrote fine romances along this line; Steve Martin’s 1999 film, Bowfinger, follows a low-budget movie maker, unable to sign on a famous star, who sets up situations in which to film the actor without his consent, or understanding. As the audience In The Know, we laugh as the movie star freaks out.

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But in real life, we are not the audience In The Know — we are ordinary human beings, trying to make sense of things with what we are given.

Unscrupulous Manipulators

This is an excellent time to emphasize that people who want to control, direct, influence, and manipulate others have absolutely no scruples about giving us some of the information, but not all, as a means of directing us into drawing their intended conclusions. For this reason, it is wise to be wary: what we are not told — by the news anchors, the politicians, the corporations, the advertisers, the “experts” — is just as important to the truth as what we are told.

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Seaside Story inspirational original oil painting of girl and woman on beach reading book by Steve Henderson, licensed prints at art.com, amazon.com, Framed canvas art, Great Big Canvas, and iCanvasART

Before we wholeheartedly give our trust to someone, we want to make sure that that someone is trustworthy. Seaside Story, original oil painting by Steve Henderson, sold; licensed prints at Great Big Canvas, Framed Canvas Art, Art.com, Amazon.com, and iCanvasART.

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Knowledge is power, we all like to say, but the thing about power, is that the people who crave it aren’t the most trustworthy people to rely upon for knowledge.

There is one trustworthy person who has the added advantage of knowing everything — and this is God. Ironically, He is one of the first people we blame when things go wrong, and many of us — even those who have been Christians for a long time and really should know better — instantly jump to the conclusion that He is toying with us, playing with us, manipulating us, pushing us into a situation that we resist — all techniques well-used by evil human beings, but not an all-perfect God.

When we turn off the evening news in a panic because of what we’ve just heard, we rail at God, “Why don’t you DO something? Why do you let this happen?” without first asking ourselves, “Wait a minute — what exactly is happening? And why?

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“I know what I’ve just been told, and the result is that I feel fearful, helpless, and angry at a particular group of people — but have I been given enough information to accurately figure out how much water will be left in that 100-gallon tank?”

Someone Worth Believing

In our personal lives, when everything things falls apart and the doctor’s face is grave, or there isn’t enough in the bank account to cover the electric bill, or our job is being pushed to the side so that an ambitious colleague can innocently take it over, it’s easy to piece together the available facts and come to the conclusion,

“My life is toast. I have no future. I have no hope.”

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Actually, what we don’t have, is all the facts.

What we do have, is access to the One who does. And He loves us, and He watches over us, and He tells us this:

“Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. 

“I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41:10.

He’s worth believing.

Thank You

Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity, where I encourage all God’s people to be the first ones to ask questions, and to keep asking them until they find true answers.

Posts complementing this one are

Stay Alert: Burnt Toast Is the Least of Our Concerns

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Questioning Convention: It’s Part of Growth

Free Yourself — and Your Family — From Fear (at The Christian Post)

 

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