Category Archives: Christian Living

3 Things to Tell Yourself When Others Prosper While You Suffer

how-to-deal-with-jealous-peopleHave you ever noticed that suffering makes us keenly aware of the blessings of others?  It’s the woman recovering from a miscarriage who’s the first to notice all the pregnant bellies in the grocery store.  The laid-off employee who feels like every Facebook friend is celebrating a fulfilling career.  The spread-thin single mom, who watches husbands hauling baby carriers into church.

There was a season in my life when it felt like God said, “No,” to every request I asked of Him.  I stored up those “No”s in my heart like an old woman in a house full of cats, daily nursing my grievances with God.  Finally, out of nowhere, I received an unexpected blessing.  It was a very small thing, so when it fell through a few months later, my husband couldn’t understand why I took it so hard.  As we cooked in the kitchen (well, technically he was cooking and I was sobbing on a stool), I finally managed to choke, “It just felt like it was a sign that God still loved me.”

In the weeks to come, God impressed three truths upon me that deeply comforted me and radically changed my perspective.  The first was this:

I do not need a single blessing from God to know that He loves me.  I only need to look to the cross to know that He loves me.  When we look solely at the circumstances of our lives, it often feels like God plays favorites.  Like He loves sweet Susie Jane with her happy family and easy life more than he loves you and me.  I used to comfort myself by thinking that one day the boot may drop on Susie Jane’s perfect life, too.  But it may not.  People really do face varying degrees of suffering while on earth.  And even if the boot did squash Susie Jane for a season, is it really biblical to delight in her suffering?  To hope for it, even?  Of course not.

I still remember the day God whispered those bolded words above into my heart.  All at once I saw the cross again.  And just like that, I had proof…MIGHTY proof that God had not forgotten me.  Just like that, I didn’t need to test Him anymore, because the test had been given on a hill long ago, and He had passed with flying colors.  Months later, my insecurity was triggered all over again when a sweet friend received the very blessing I ached for.  As I cried to God in bed, I could almost hear Him pleading with such earnest passion, “Look to the cross!  I promise I love you–look to the cross!”  You know what?  In a thousand years I wouldn’t trade that intimate and powerful moment for a fleeting, earthly blessing.  Which brings me to lesson #2:

In God’s economy, spiritual blessing always outweighs earthly blessing.  In the allegorical book, Hinds Feet on High Places, Much-Afraid embarks on a journey to the High Places.  As she is about to set off, the Shepherd promises her, “I have most carefully chosen for you two of the very best and strongest guides.”  Much-Afraid is horrified to learn that the guides are named Suffering and Sorrow.  But later in her journey, when the Shepherd asks her how she feels about them, this is what she says:

“I never could have believed it possible, Shepherd, but in a way I have come to love them…They do truly want to get me up to the High Places, not just because it is the commandment which You have given them, but also because they want a horrid coward like myself to get there and be changed.  You know, Shepherd, it makes a great difference in my feelings towards them not to look upon them any longer with dread, but as friends who want to help me.”

This is exactly what passages like James 1:2-4 want us to see!  God designs suffering to make us more like Christ.  Much as I despise encountering Sorrow and Suffering on my own journey, they are the most excellent tutors I have ever known.  And nothing is more encouraging than looking back over my life and realizing that because of them, I am no longer the cowardly girl I once was…or the arrogant teenager…or the idolatrous young adult.  That is the truest blessing.  Becoming like Jesus is more valuable than birthing children, or winning awards, or finding a spouse, or any other earthly blessing we could ever beg for.

I am not called to evaluate the lives and circumstances of others.  I am only called to follow God myself.  The final stop on my journey to accepting personal suffering in light of other people’s prosperity was John 21.  Right after Jesus prophesies about Peter’s future death, Peter glances at John and says exactly what I would’ve said: “Lord, what about this man?”  To which Jesus beautifully replies, “If it is my will that he remain (alive) until I come, what is that to you?  You follow me!”

Wow.  And ouch.  If it is My will, that she receive the blessing you wanted…what is that to you?  If it is My will to write the story of your life completely differently than you wanted Me to…what is that to you?  If it is My will to say “yes” to him and “no” to you…what is that to you?  You follow me.

Dear believer, you and I are called to one thing only.  Jesus Himself.  To love Him enough to follow Him…no matter whatAs Much-Afraid finally came to see in the Valley of Loss: “Right down in the depths of her own heart she really had but one passionate desire, not for the things which the Shepherd had promised, but for Himself.  All she wanted was to be allowed to follow Him forever.”

Sometimes only valleys and deserts can teach us that.

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Blogging and the “S” Word

woman-typing-computerThis is my 100th post.  Not too shabby an accomplishment for a wearer of many hats!  When I started blogging 1½ years ago, I had three simple goals: I hoped to grow as a writer, to cultivate contentment with my lot in life, and to leave a small, God-exalting imprint on the world.

In case you're wondering, I don't really look like that when I blog.  I look more like this only in pajamas.

In case you’re wondering, I don’t really look like that when I blog. I look more like this only in pajamas.

What I didn’t expect was for blogging to leave an imprint on me.  I thought I would be the teacher, not the student.  But blogging has taught me a lot about myself, about sin and temptation, people and suffering, culture and society.  And ironically, the bulk of the teaching comes from one little button.

For you non-bloggers, there is a button on every blogging dashboard that charts “statistics.”  It tells you how many people are reading your posts, how articles fare with others, which countries view your blog…etc, etc, etc.  I love this button.  It is my pat on the back for hours of work.  It is the just-keep-going-you-ARE-making-an-impact button.  This little button had the power to turn me into a paid writer for the first time in my life.  The statistics went up, and Wordpress offered me a portion of the revenue–enough money to buy a pack of crackers every three months.  Hooray!

I hate this button.  This button reminds me that I am constantly at war with the desire to be God.  To seek worship, to love glory, and to praise myself.  Every time I click on this button, it whispers the question, why are you writing?  This is the button that unearths motives and desires, the condition of my heart.

This button has taught me that people want to read about themselves.  That topics like parenting and marriage are popular, and topics like world hunger and the persecuted church are not.  It’s taught me that painfully vulnerable subjects will be highly viewed, but not highly shared.  That the “perfect” article must address the audience’s felt needs, be provocative, yet feel “safe.”

And so the challenge becomes walking the tightrope.  I am writing to people.  God is passionate about people.  At the end of the day, if my writing doesn’t encourage, comfort, and spur people on, what’s the point?   In this sense, I must pay attention to statistics.  I must understand the felt needs of my audience, or I risk becoming irrelevant in my own culture.

I am writing to people.  But I am writing for God.  Which means the statistics guide, but they must not govern.  I believe this is the only way I can truly be used by God.  He must govern the ship, even if His direction leaves the statistics in the toilet at times.  Because when He leads, He brings another “S” word into the picture: supernatural.  God has the supernatural ability to guide me to write that which will be used for His good purposes in the world.  And unlike statistics, this guidance knows no rhyme or reason.  It is about being in step with the Spirit.  Every time I post an article I pray for God to choose the audience.  Because the truth is, 100,000 people could read an article that bears no lasting fruit in their lives, and 10 people could read an article that changes them for eternity.  With God the statistics are unseen.

Dear reader, this morning as I blog about blogging, I am thinking about you.  I don’t know your story, but can only assume it holds its own share of statistics.  The success (or failure) of your marriage, the money you earn, the growth of your company or church, the private failures no one knows about, the public failures no one can forget.  It can be so tempting to view yourself through the lens of statistics.  But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in blogging, it’s that statistics are temporary.  One day, the greatest triumphs and the most embarrassing failures will be forgotten.  And on that day, Christ’s pleasure and the accomplishment of His purposes will be the only thing that lasts, long after we’re buried and the last statistic has dropped to zero.

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4 Reasons Men Fail to Engage at Home

20111112_STP506In many Christian homes, the man of the house comes home from work only to plop down on the couch and turn on the TV. They are distracted at dinner. They are unmotivated in their role as a father and husband. Why don’t they seem to care?

This is a common problem, and it is not just deadbeats and sociopaths that fail to engage at home. Even sincere Christian men struggle with engaging at home consistently. I, personally, am deeply convicted about my responsibility as a husband and father, but I still have good days and bad days when it comes to being engaged at home.  This article shares 4 reasons why I have struggled to engage at home.

Learn more about guest blogger Aaron Smith below.

Learn more about guest blogger Aaron Smith below.

1. Work goals and rewards are more tangible than family goals.
Like most men, I like solving problems, and that makes me thrive in the work world. At my job, all of my goals are well-defined and the path to success can easily be broken down into tangible steps: “Do these calculations…fill out this report…” Sure, there are surprise challenges and delays, but at least the problems and the goals are well-defined.

At home, on the other hand, I sometimes get lost in what I am trying to accomplish. What are the actual steps that lead to a stable marriage or Godly children? Oh, how I want a formula for being a good dad and husband… “play two games of hide-and-seek on Mondays, bring flowers home for my wife every Tuesday, read Scripture at dinner, and voilà… perfect family.”

But, unfortunately, there is no formula for having a loving marriage or for raising Godly children. Only God can make our family efforts succeed. But God still intends for men to make plans and to lead their families the best that they can. I think that this is why I find it much easier to stay engaged at home when my wife and I have a clear set of goals for our family.

2. Men feel entitled to “veg out” after work.
When I was single, I could work really hard for a couple of days, and then just “veg-out” for a few hours to recover. But, now as a father and husband, I don’t have that luxury. But, I still regularly have days at work where the stress and pace really take it out of me. I often want to just come home and watch TV. Being entertained is so much easier than engaging. Sometimes, I even rationalize to myself, “Why shouldn’t I take a rest? I have worked hard all day. Don’t I deserve a rest?”

In general, the answer is no. I have a responsibility before God to actively love my wife (Eph. 5:25) and to train my children (Eph. 6:4).  I only have a few hours after work each day, so if I am going to be faithful, I will need to spend most of that time engaging with the family. I don’t have the prerogative to regularly “check-out” from family time.

The times when I have succumbed to the temptation to veg out, are times that I have lost sight of how much I am needed at home and my responsibility before God. Also, when I find that I have nothing left to give my family at home, it usually means I am giving too much of myself at work (see next point for more on this).

3. Men make work an idol.
The line between doing my best at work and making work an idol often seems like a razor’s edge. I may start the week desiring to work hard for good reasons: to provide for my family and to glorify God with my talents. But by the end of the week, I have fallen into idolatrous motives — looking to my performance to give me significance and trusting in my own efforts to bring me happiness.

And as soon as I wrap my happiness and significance up with my work, I become a slave to success. Delays or setbacks at work continuously tempt me to work longer hours. Even when I come home, I keep drifting back into thought about how to solve those pesky problems at work, and how great my life will be when I overcome them.

The problem here is that I forget the Gospel. Christ has already accomplished the work that gives me significance. His death on the Cross has made me holy and blameless before him, a beautiful bride for Christ (Eph. 5:25-27). Also, I don’t have to trust in my own efforts to provide for my family’s needs. The God who made all things knows all my needs and cares for me; He will provide. He has given me His Son — how shall He not also give me all things (Rom. 8:32). When I keep these Biblical truths in my mind, I have much more energy left to give at home.

4. Men don’t take advantage of opportunities to meditate on God’s Word.
Anytime that I struggle to stay engaged at home, I probably have not been spending enough time meditating on God’s Word. Psalm 1:1-3 promises the following to those who regularly meditate on God’s Word:

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.”

What an exciting picture! I long to be a husband and father who bears good fruit during each new season of my family’s life, and the only way that this will happen is if I regularly renew my mind with God’s Word.
IMG_2035I’m happy to introduce another talented guest writer!  Aaron Smith is a husband, dad, engineer, and blogger.  He spends his days designing hydraulic systems, and his evenings at home with his wife Christel and their two children.  In his spare time (or in his words, the time he should be sleeping!) he blogs at Faith and Life.  Check out his blog, share it with your husband, and leave him a comment below!

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The Wandering Thirty-Somethings

walking_down_the_road

What do I want to do with my life?  If I could capture the thirty-somethings in a single sentence, that would be it.  Sure, you think about this question from time to time before you’re thirty, but it’s always with an air of optimistic ambition.  Mommy, I want to be a princess.  I want to be an astronaut.  Maybe I’ll be a doctor.  Or a novelist.  Then college rolls around and let’s be honest, you’re a little distracted by all the cute coeds, and you major in something fascinating but less-than-marketable like sociology or humanities.  Or, you get that accounting degree, and realize crunching numbers isn’t as fulfilling as you’d hoped.  And if, somewhere along this journey you also get married, it only becomes more complicated.  You may be one of the fortunate few who’s found their niche in a field they love, while your spouse is the barista with a Humanities degree.

One way or another, you find yourself going through the motions with an irritating sense of dissatisfaction.  What do I want to do with my life?  The question is no longer dusted with optimism, so much as frayed with panic.  If you’re a Christian, you may phrase it a little differently: What does God want me to do with my life?  Yes, we know the biblical commands.  He wants us to be holy, to love Him more than anything else, to make disciples of all nations.  But specifically, what does He want me to do?  How does He want me to fulfill His commands?  As a godly doctor, a missionary, a piano teacher?  How??  

And so emerge an array of different thirty-something approaches.  There are the Plodders, who accept the fact that work and passion may not fit in the same sentence.  They work in order to do the things they are passionate about.  Then there are the Risk-Takers.  They are the start-your-own-business, move-across-the-globe, take-a-year-off-and-write-that-book kind of people, who would rather try and fail then settle for ho-hum.  There are the ADD Go-Getters who find a new career calling every thirty days.  The In-Transition-ers who live in a constant state of waiting.  Waiting for the kids to get a little older, the savings account to get a little heftier, the right door to swing open.  And of course, there are the Frustrated Bloggers, who eat Rice Krispy treats and write to try and make sense of it all.

Naturally, there are exceptions, too.  There are the thirty-somethings who live like the fifty-somethings, with an enviable sense of “arrival.”  Fulfilling job, fat mortgage, deep roots…ah, establishment!  I will confess, this is the life I long for.  As a former missionary kid who often felt rootless, I long to put roots down so deeply it takes the apocalypse to lift them.  But in the midst of the thirty-something what-do-I-do-with-my-life epidemic, I have found one comfort worth treasuring: Wandering can be worshipful.

I think there are two types of wandering in the Bible.  There is the godless, Israelite-like wandering as a result of unbelief.  This wandering is truly aimless, and unless something changes, hopeless.  But there is also a nomadic type of wandering in the Bible.  Abraham living in tents.  Jacob sleeping on a stone.  Joseph sitting in prison 200 miles from home.  Surely, each of them must have felt just a little bit lost sometimes.  Uncertain, clueless, and even afraid.  But unlike the Israelites in the desert, each of these men allowed their endless not-knowing to drive them to desperate dependence on Someone Greater than themselves.

Wandering has the ability to cripple our sense of sufficiency.  To expose our vulnerability.  To toss us like a drowning child into the arms of God.  In this way, wandering can be worshipful.  It can be a daily song of faith.  What does God want me to do with my life?  Honestly, I don’t exactly know.  I know He wants me to be a wife, and a mother.  To honor Him in all that I do, and with all that I am.  I know He wants me to have a heart like His, burdened for His mission.  But I don’t know a whole lot of details.  And I’m becoming more at peace with that, for three reasons:

I know the character of God.  I know He is faithful yesterday, today, and tomorrow (Dt 7:9).  I know He is flawlessly sovereign (Pro 19:21).  He has not forgotten me, but rather loves me (Ps 103:17), intercedes for me (Rom 8:26), works within me for His good pleasure (Phil 2:13), and has a plan for my life that will bring Himself glory (Jer 29:11).

I know the desires of my heart.  I know that I want to glorify God more than anything else.  I’m not wandering because I’ve closed my spirit to God’s call, hardened my heart in unbelief, or decided to pursue worldly ambitions.  I’m not saying my motives are always pure, but I am saying the cry of my heart is to do whatever God wants me to do.  Therefore, I can have the confidence of I John 5:14-15.  Because I am praying in line with God’s will, asking for His direction for my life, I can rest assured He will hear and answer me.

I know the final destination.  Last of all, I know that one day I will live in that permanently rooted place of endless belonging, for which my soul aches.  It won’t be in sunny Georgia, or Metro Manila, or the heart of Africa.  It will be etched in eternity.  To any other wandering thirty-somethings who love Jesus and are weary in the journey, the final destination is coming.  And when it does, it will be even more satisfying than a fulfilling job, fat mortgage, and fifty-something sense of “arrival.”  It will be true arrival, home.

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Getting Real about the Girl Behind the Grin

Remove-Mask_sepiaSometimes I feel like a total mess.  I’m not talking about day-old mascara and greasy hair.  Those things may have bothered me in a distant teenage life, but now?  Please!  I’m just thankful I still have hair after the number of times it’s been chewed, yanked, and caught in zippers.  No, when I say I feel like a mess it’s not on the outside.  It’s on the inside.

Anybody can take a hot shower, tidy the kitchen, and put on a bright smile.  But beneath the smile I often feel like a frazzled storm of unfinished tasks, thinly concealed irritations, throbbing inadequacy, and weary battles to believe God.  It’s as if my outside and inside are disconnected:

“Yes, sweetheart, Mommy’s listening.”  (Say my name one more time and I’ll slam my head in the dishwasher.)
“Can I get you more manicotti?”  (Good gravy, I’m going to be doing dishes til midnight.)
“We’re just waiting on God!”  (Who I’m beginning to fear is never going to show up.)

Of course there are those moments when the inside erupts onto the outside:
“For the love of all things sacred, give me some SPACE!”
“COOK IT YOURSELF!”
“I just don’t feel like God loves me!”  *sob, sob, sob, sob, sob

But for the most part I’m pretty talented when it comes to the outside.  I know how to put on a cute outfit, camouflage the mess, and get the job done.  And that’s what scares me.  Because unlike most people, Jesus has never been fooled, nor impressed by the outside.  “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” He cries in Matthew 23:27.  “For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.”  How’s that for a metaphor?  So what do we do when our whitewashed exterior is as thin as a coat of nail polish and our interior is daily filling with decay?

Dear sister, we limp back to the cross.

The cross reminds us that life was not always this way.  That once, long ago, there was no outside/inside disconnect.  Once, all the joy and perfection we pretend to have on Facebook was truly felt in our souls.  Mankind was at peace with God, with one another, and with self.  Then sin entered the picture and just like that, all of creation broke.  Nature, animals, mankind–together we began to groan under the weight of our own brokenness  (Rom 8:22).  And nothing could remedy the problem.  Not outward appearances.  Not religious practices.  Not cute guys, or big homes, or double-stuffed Oreos.  Nothing, except the cross.  When Jesus died on the cross He absorbed the full weight of sin–the penalty, wrath, bondage, and brokenness.  And He rose victorious.  That single act has the power to obliterate the outside/inside disconnect.

As Tchividjian wrote, the cross reminds me that “Because Jesus was strong for me, I am free to be weak.  Because Jesus won for me, I am free to lose.  Because Jesus was someone, I am free to be no one.  Because Jesus was extraordinary, I am free to be ordinary.  Because Jesus succeeded for me, I am free to fail.”  You and I don’t have to pretend we’ve got it all together on the outside.  We need only draw near to Him by faith, and in His sufficiency find our rest.

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Making Peace with Family Systems (or Why Everybody Fights So Much Over the Holidays)

family
Years ago in a Marriage and Family class, my professor drew big circles on the whiteboard to represent family systems.  He talked about “closed” systems and “open” systems, and all sorts of other terms that eventually filled his circles with arrows and scribbles and a general sense of disorder.  This holiday season I found myself thinking a lot about those circles.

Every day I live in my own circle.  It’s the “Me and Husband Family System.”  It has its own set of priorities, entertainment preferences, conflicts, and agreements.  This Thanksgiving we loaded up the minivan, drove four hours, rang my parents’ doorbell, and stepped back into the “circle” that raised me.  Mom and Dad’s family system.  It was as familiar as my mom’s fried rice, and yet it fit like skinny jeans after a pregnancy.  How can something that made you who you are, no longer fit who you’ve become?  

My answer came three weeks later when Christmas rolled around and we spent a week living in another “circle,” the one that raised my husband.  I realized that marriage is a little like tossing two family systems into a bag and shaking it until they smooth each other out.  In the end what you take out of the bag is entirely new.

Sometimes it’s beautiful, like a stone polished with friction.  And sometimes it’s broken.  Sometimes we realize the pieces we were given were never whole to begin with, and trying to build something healthy is like assembling a bicycle with broken parts.  Even if we can make it look normal on the outside, it will never race down a road.  So how do we make peace with family systems?  Here’s what I’ve been mulling over:

Recognize that every family system is flawed.  From the moment sin entered the world, nobody had a shot at doing this “family” thing perfectly.  So, what if we just admitted it?  What if we gave our parents, and our in-laws, and our parents’ parents the freedom to be human?  To have made mistakes that impact us and yet to be treated with dignity, love, and forgiveness–the same way Christ has treated us?

Acknowledge the specific failings of the family system.  I think there are two unhealthy tendencies for dealing with the failures of a family system.  We either want to sweep them under the rug, or we want to frame them on the mantel.  Neither is beneficial.  Think about your own children.  Would you really want them to pretend they haven’t been hurt or negatively impacted by the mistakes you’ve made?  To quietly grow bitter toward you?  Or worse yet, to repeat those mistakes?  As terrifying as exposing the failures of a family system can be, when it’s done with a commitment to love one another, it can be liberating.  Messy as a bachelor pad, but liberating.

Lay the past to rest.  None of us own a time machine.  Which is why framing past failures on the mantel is so devastating.  Nobody wants to be defined by their mistakes, nor made to pay for them again and again.  At some point we have to deal with the ugly under the rug, then forgive and lay the past to rest.  Throw it in the trash with the turkey carcass and all the other things we’re officially “done” with.  That is grace.  And we all need it.

Accept personal responsibility for the family system you’re creating.  Believe me, I know how comforting it can be to blame someone else for all the things you dislike about yourself.  Your inability to trust.  Your penchant for shutting people out.  That anger problem you have.  But the hard truth is nobody will be held accountable for our lives except us.  The beautiful side to that truth is we’re not slaves to the past.  In Christ we have everything we need for life and godliness (2 Pe 1:3), everything we need to grow, to change, and to overcome.

As I move into this new year, I’m reminded again that Jesus is the essence and the fullness of Hope, one of my favorite things about Him.  There is no hurt He can’t heal, no relationship He can’t restore, and no failure He can’t redeem.  His presence within us is our hope of glory (Col. 1:27).  Our only hope of glory.

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An Ode to my Twenties

My dear twenties,
Photo Scan for JeanneIn seven days I will celebrate the start of my last year with you.  29.  My farewell year to a decade well spent.  I’ll have you know I’ve liked you a lot more than the teens.  You are the decade that got rid of acne, gave me a job that didn’t come with an apron, and taught me how to spread my wings and fly away from home.  You introduced me to love, turned me into a bride, and washed away the insecurities of adolescence with the affection of a man I never deserved.

ry=480You are the decade of burnt dinners, tiny apartments, and tender beginnings.  The decade that laid a little body into my arms and in one swift moment made me a mother for life.  Where adolescence taught me to be strong because I have not, you taught me to be strong because I have.  You tutored me with kindness instead of pain.  With blessings that made me ache to be better than I am.  No matter what the future brings, I will remember you as the decade that gave me the gifts that would come to define my life and my legacy.

My dear twenties, you have been merciful to me.  A decade of joy, lavish with grace.  I used to view you as the ticking-clock decade, the race-to-the-deadline decade…in which case I would have just one more year to run a marathon, write a novel, and finish having children!  But I know better now.  Your goal has never been for me to gather accomplishments and pin them to my chest before I’m thirty.  Because you are not the finish line, but the starting line.  If childhood and adolescence is the “ready” and “set,” you are the gunshot decade that gives us a swift kick in the pants and tells us to “Go!”  Take your life and your blessings, and live!  Put wings to your dreams, and courage to your feet, and don’t be so afraid to stumble along the way.  Thank you, dear twenties.  I look forward to one last year with you!

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