Love, Obedience and Joy Go Together

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John 15:1 – 17

As I studied this passage, I was fascinated by how there seemed to be a repetition in what Jesus was saying to His disciples, that what He said in verses 1-8 were echoed or expanded in verses 9-17.  This really should not come as a great surprise though, for we must remember that chapters 13 to 17 of John’s Gospel all took place on the last evening that Jesus spent with His disciples before He was crucified.

If you or I knew that we were just about to die, then I’m sure that we too would want to be very clear to our family and friends that they hear and understand our last wishes.  And to make sure that they really heard us, we too would probably repeat the most important parts again to them.  It seems to me that this is what Jesus did.  And to help see this, I have paired the verses together from the two halves.  Jesus said:

1 “I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener.

“I have loved you even as the Father has loved me. Remain in my love.

Both God the Father, and God the Son love you and I very much.  God tenderly cares for us as the Master of a beautiful garden.  It is a love relationship that ties us to God and God to us, and we must choose to remain in that relationship to experience His love.

    

He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more.

10 When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.

Here we see that love and obedience go together.  Jesus modeled for us what obedience to God looked like, and showed that this is the path to experiencing God’s love.   When we truly love God, we desire to obey Him.  If we refuse to live in obedience to Him though, God will remove His watch care over us, and may allow painful events (pruning) to shape our lives to bring about positive growth in our lives.

    

You have already been pruned and purified by the message I have given you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me.

11 I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow!

As Christians, we must allow Christ to rule completely in our lives.  And we establish and maintain this relationship through regularly spending time in the Bible, God’s Word.  As we drink in the riches of His Word, we will experience such tremendous joy in connecting and communing with God.

    

“Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing.

12 This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. 13 There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command.

All that we think we accomplish in this world mean nothing though in the light of eternity.  We need to pursue actions that have eternal significance, such as loving God and others, even as the cost of our own lives.  God will reserve our reward for us in heaven which will never be destroyed.

    

Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned.

15 I no longer call you slaves, because a master doesn’t confide in his slaves. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me.

All of us begin as broken, sin corrupted people whom God cannot tolerate in his holy presence.  We all deserve to be cast into the fires of hell.  But then God showed His love by sending Jesus to become one of us.  And Jesus showed His love by taking the punishment for our sin.  He then elevates us, who believe in Him, from being slaves to sin to becoming children of God and brothers and sisters to Christ.  Praise God for His great love.

    

But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted!

16 You didn’t choose me. I chose you. I appointed you to go and produce lasting fruit, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask for, using my name.

When we make that choice of accepting Jesus as the Lord of our lives, the things that He wants become the things that we want.  We begin to know God’s mind on important matters, and so when we ask for things from God, it is not out of our own selfishness that we ask, but rather a desire to see the Kingdom of God advance in the world.  Therefore, what we ask for will already be within the will of God and He will naturally want to give us those things that we are praying and asking for.

    

When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father.

17 This is my command: Love each other.

The final result is that we will be true disciples, that is, as we follow Jesus, we will become like Jesus, and this will bring honor to God.  In practical terms, we will love others just like Jesus loves others, and was willing to die to demonstrate the love of God to the world.  Wow!!  What deep truths are contained within this passage.

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Christian Perspective On Wealth

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The Plinky Question for this week is:  “What Does Wealth Mean to You?”

That’s an easy question, isn’t it?  I mean, isn’t the answer obvious? Wealth is money, jewelry, fancy cars, exotic holiday locations, power, lots of material objects, land & property, and on and on goes the list.  But if that is the answer, then only a very tiny fraction of people in the world would be considered “wealthy people”.

And yet, there is a stunning and sad fact of life that goes along with the thought just expressed above.  If you ask this question “What is wealth?” to the average person, you will find them stating what I just wrote above.  And then if you ask a related question, “Do you think wealthy people are generally happy?” most people would very quickly answer “No!  I doubt that.”  And why is that do you think?

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Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Rich people get bored.  How many days can you just sit on a beach and drink champagne?
  2. Rich people have to be suspicious of everyone.  Every hand that reaches out to shake their hand will often ask for some kind of hand out or suggest ways that they can help spend that money.
  3. Rich people live in fear.  They become targets for kidnappers and potential blackmail people.
  4. Rich people can buy but not hold friendships.  Once the money is gone, supposed friends seem to disappear.
  5. Rich people cannot escape the inevitable no matter how hard they try.  How many plastic surgeries will they endure to keep looking young, and their money does them no good when they die?

Now if even just half of what I suggest here is true, then there is certainly no way that I ever want to be a really wealthy man.  I mean really, if riches ultimately cannot provide a person with joy and true long-lasting friendships, then why pursue those riches.  (Ah ha, I’ve just revealed a part of what true wealth is: it is having true meaningful relationships with others, and possessing an inner spirit of joy.)

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Just recently, I worked through a Southeast Asia translation on the book of Matthew.  Consider from the English back translation how they translated the words in Mt. 6:19-21:

“Don’t gather treasure for yourself in this world, where termites and rust will destroy that treasure of yours, and a thief can break in and steal it.  Instead, gather your treasure in heaven, where termites and rust cannot destroy it, and a thief cannot break in and steal it.  For where your treasure is, that is where your heart is also.

Notice here the two dangers we face if we build up our “treasures” here on earth?  We face the possibility that either termites or rust will destroy whatever we own.  Now that probably sounds pretty odd to you, doesn’t it?  When was the last time that we had to fight off termites or deal with rust in our comfortable North American homes?

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Consider this from the perspective of someone who lives in a remote village in some developing country though.  And it is more than Southeast Asia that I am thinking of.  It is the Pacific Island countries, the tropical jungle areas of South America, the dusty sun-baked villages of Africa, and many more places in the world.  There is still a majority of the world living in poor to poverty-stricken areas.

For these kinds of people, their vast wealth in life can be listed on a short piece of paper: 2 sets of clothes (maybe), a wooden, mud or bamboo hut, a couple of old dented pots, a machete, and an ax if they are real fortunate, etc.  And so for them, the danger of termites eating through their walls and floors, and rust damaging their few tools and cooking items is certainly a real threat to their livelihood, and perhaps their very survival.

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But Jesus’ words are meant for even these poor people to hear.  We must not put our trust and our hopes in even these few meager items, for life is more than just surviving from day to day.  And life is most certainly more than all the trinkets, gadgets and possessions we have in the West.  No, real life begins and ends in our relationship with God.

You see, it is really all about perspective and values.  If we view life totally from a “Me” perspective, and if we place a high value on the things of this world, then everyone from the billionaire to the shanty town dweller will be yearning for more than what they presently have. So a very “wealthy” person or a destitute person have it all wrong when it comes to what is of true worth in this life.

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In Matthew 13, Jesus teaches many parables, and in verses 44 – 46, Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a great treasure found buried in a field and to  a fabulous costly pearl found at a market.  Jesus states in these parables that finding the joy or having God rule over one’s life (i.e. the meaning of “Kingdom of Heaven”) is worth so much that a person would be willing to sell all earthly possessions to be able to own that field, to buy that pearl, to become a citizen with God’s Kingdom.

So what is my perspective on wealth?  I know that I am a child of the King, and an heir to all the promises of God and all the blessings and riches of Heaven.  I have the love of God my Father, and the salvation bought for me by Jesus, and the joy and presence of the Holy Spirit, and the fellowship of other believers.  What more could I ever want.  Truly, I am a wealthy man.

Being A Follower Of Jesus

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There Is a Cost To Following Jesus

When we look in the New Testament at the topic of people becoming disciples of Jesus, He almost always talks about the cost of being a true follower.  Take a look at some of the first men whom He called to be His disciples.  Peter and Andrew, as well as James and John, were all professional fishermen who lived hard, simple lives by the shores of Lake Galilee.  Then Jesus came and asked them to follow Him.

Notice that Jesus did not say, “Put down your nets for a short time while I ask you to come and be my disciples.  Then you can go back and continue your lives as fishermen.”  No!  He was expecting them to turn their backs completely on their old ways of living and adopt a whole new vocation.  Jesus said, “Come follow Me and I will cause you to become fishers of men.”

James and John were shown how costly it would be to follow Jesus, for in that moment of decision, they left not only their nets and their boats, but they even left their father sitting in the boat.  So much for passing on the family business.

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What is very unusual is that when someone wanted to be attached  to a famous Jewish teacher (called a Rabbi), then they would humbly approach the Rabbi and ask to become a follower.  In the case of Jesus’ disciples, it was Jesus Himself who invited them to become His students and learn everything they could from Him about God the Father and about the coming Kingdom of Heaven.

In Luke 9:57 – 62 we see Jesus interacting with three potential disciples.  One man approached Jesus and said, “I will follow you wherever you go.”  Looking in Matthew’s account, we find out that the man was a “teacher of the Law”, commonly known as a Scribe.  He would have been a young member of the religious group called the Pharisees.  He probably thought that if he got himself attached to Jesus, then his own fame and importance would also rise in the eyes of the people.

That would explain Jesus’ response, “Foxes have dens, and birds of the air have nests, but I, the Son of Man, have no place to rest my head.”  To follow Jesus meant a person had to be willing to give up the comforts of life, and to do Kingdom work even in the most difficult social and physical environments.

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The next two inquirers did not fare any better.  One said, “Please let me go back and bury my father.  Then I will come and follow you.”  The third man simply said, “Let me go home and say goodbye.”  Look first at Jesus’ response to the third man, “No one who puts his hand to a plow and looks back is fit for service in the Kingdom of God.”

The picture here is that if relationships with others in this world are more important than following Jesus, then it will be hard for that person to truly make Jesus the Lord of their lives.  It is not that we should not love our families, but our love and devotion for Him must be greater than that towards our own family.

Now Jesus’ response to the second man can be difficult to understand, and some people accuse Jesus of not being very sympathetic in not letting him go and bury his father.  Jesus said, “Let the spiritually dead bury their own physical dead, but you go proclaim the Kingdom of God.”

You see, the culture then was that if a father was sick (and we have grounds to think the father was not dead), then the sons were to take care of the property and business work of their father.  So the second man was not willing to release his role on the materialism and the finances of the family inheritance.

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So what has all this to do with me and my family?  I believe that Jill, my sons and I have realized the importance of obeying Jesus, no matter what the immediate cost might be to ourselves.  These last four months have not been easy for Jill and me as we have been apart from each other, except for a few days in the middle.  But we knew God was asking me to serve Him here in Dallas, and that God was also asking Jill to “hold down the fort” and manage things at home.

For our boys, Eric was led to meet a lovely young Christian girl.  When they knew they shared the same spiritual beliefs and principles, then rather than “test it out” as so many common-law people do today, they followed the biblical injunction to leave their parents and get married and to reserve their sexuality for the marriage bed.

And finally, Glen followed the leading of God to enter into the Canadian Armed Forces (Army).  This has taken him out of our family, and placed him with some rough men, doing a tough job.  But in his words, “God wants me to be a light for Christ to the other men, and God wants to use me to help defend the defenseless people of the world.”

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But on December 15th of 2011, our schedules have worked out for all five of us to be back in Calgary for at least two weeks to celebrate the Christmas season together.  Being follower of Jesus has recently meant splitting up the family to do what we are called to do.  But the fulfillment we have in doing this work, and knowing God is always with us, makes being apart possible.  It also makes it so much sweeter when we do get to return home and share our stories of what God is doing in our lives.  I can hardly wait for December 15th to arrive.

Walking By Faith

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A True Story

Recently, I got a cute and amazing story about a dog in an email in my Inbox.  I don’t always read them, but this one caught my attention, and I’m glad it did.  Not only are the story and the pictures I share with you incredible, but I believe that the story has a lot that can speak truth and hope into our lives by analogy.

The original story that was sent to me will be in italics below.  My thoughts and reflections on life will be in regular print. Ready? Let’s go.

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This dog was born on Christmas Eve in the year 2002. He was born with 2 legs.  He of course could not walk when he was born. Even his mother did not want him.

His first owner also did not think that he could survive and he was thinking of ‘putting him to sleep’.  But then, his present owner, Jude Stringfellow, met him and wanted to take care of him.

She became determined to teach and train this little dog to walk by himself.  She named him ‘Faith’.

[How appropriate that name is.  And you know what?  All of us are actually like this puppy in that we too have been born with a handicap.  We were born with the propensity to sin, and that handicapped us from having a whole spiritual walk with God.  But when we put our trust in Jesus, we also learned to walk by faith.]

In the beginning, she put Faith on a surfboard to let him feel the movement. Later, she used peanut butter on a spoon as a lure and reward for him for standing up and jumping around.

Even the other dog at home encouraged him to walk.  Amazingly, only after 6 months, like a miracle, Faith learned to balance on his hind legs and to jump to move forward.

After further training in the snow, he could now walk like a human being.  Faith loves to walk around now.  No matter where he goes, he attracts people to him.

He is fast becoming famous on the international scene and has appeared on various newspapers and TV shows.  There is now a book entitled ‘With a Little Faith’ being published about him.

His  present owner Jude Stringfellew has  given up her teaching post and plans to take him around the world to preach that even without a perfect body, one can have a perfect soul’.

In life there are always undesirable things, so in order to feel better you just need to look at life from another direction.  I hope this message will bring fresh new ways of thinking to everyone and that everyone will appreciate and be thankful for each beautiful day.

Faith is the continual demonstration of the strength and wonder of life.  A small request: All you are asked to do is keep this story circulating.

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So what do you think?  An amazing story isn’t it.  As I said in the middle of the story, all of us have been born with the handicap of sin in our lives.  But once we have Jesus in our hearts, that barrier between us and God is removed and we are made spiritually whole.

But I offer one more challenging thought, and this one is specifically for Christians now.  How many of us have been freed from the guilt of sin, yet are weighed down by the burdens and the worries of life.  Jesus tells us not to worry about the things we need in life because our Heavenly Father takes care of us.

And Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 that we are to, “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”  This is not just wishful thinking that we can have a joyful and optimistic spirit in life, this is God’s will for our lives.  I believe we can be as free and as happy as this amazing dog named Faith.  What do you think?

Joy In The Lord

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Reflections From Philippians

Last week I finished checking the book of Philippians in the T. language of Papua New Guinea.  It went so smoothly during the sessions that it only took two days to completely check and revise the translation.  I think one of the reasons for this is that I, like many others, find Philippians to be such an uplifting and encouraging book.  It has been nicknamed “The Epistle of Joy”.

There is no doubt that joy is a major theme of the book.  In just four short chapters, Paul uses the word “rejoice” nine times and the word “joy” five times.  And then for good measure, he adds in “thankfulness” and “to give thanks” once each.  So if you average this out, Paul talks about joy or thankfulness every six verses all the way through this epistle.

No wonder most people feel so good after reading the book of Philippians.  Paul is bursting with encouragement and positive feelings.  And as Christians, we too should take this attitude with us wherever we go.  But what is so amazing about Paul’s attitude is when you take into consideration the context within which Paul wrote this book.  Let me reflect on three aspects that come out of this book.

1.  Joy in His Location.

You do not need to read very far to realize that when Paul wrote this book he was in prison.  We do not know exactly when Paul wrote this letter, so we do not know if this imprisonment was his final time in Rome, or if it was an earlier imprisonment.  But we do know that it is because he faithfully preached the Good News that he was put there, and that Paul saw that this was the new ministry that God was calling him to, namely to preach Christ to other prisoners and to his captors. (v. 1:16)

Now I don’t know about you, but I think I would be hard pressed to “be joyful” if I were thrown into prison without just cause.  And prisons back then were nothing like the clean and modern prisons we now have today in North America.  And further, Paul lived under the constant threat of death from day to day.  He tells the Philippians that he is glad he could minister to them spiritually, even if it meant he would be “poured out like a drink offering”, i.e. be executed. (v. 2:17)

2.  Joy in His Situation.

Now to understand how Paul can be joyful in his location, I think we need to understand the joy he had in his situation.  In chapter three, Paul takes time to briefly describe what his situation was before he met Christ.  He had all the right credentials (a circumcised Jew of the tribe of Benjamin who spoke pure Hebrew), had all the right training (a legalistic Pharisaical zealot) to make him believe he was “righteous” in God’s eyes.

But after meeting Christ, his situation changed completely.  He came to know that righteousness does not come from arrogant obedience to the law, but from a relationship with God based on the example of the humility of Christ to whom we bow the knee and declare to be our Lord.  (vv. 2:5-11)  As Paul says, everything in this life has little value “compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”  (v. 3:8)

It is this perspective, that there is an eternal spiritual life to be had, that makes life in this world look both pale and also bearable.  So if we are enjoying the “good life”, it does not compare to the eternal riches of the next life.  And if we find life treats us terribly, we also know that it is for just a little while that we will endure such difficulties.  And so Paul can view all situations in the following way:

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  (v. 4:12)

3.  Joy in His Vocation.

This is not to say in any way that Paul did not struggle with life and what was happening to him and around him.  He tells his readers quite plainly that there are others who are imitating his ministry of “preaching Christ” out of envy, rivalry and a desire to cause Paul even more grief while he is in prison.  True, there are some whom he says preach Christ well out of a love for Paul.  But Paul says, what does it matter, as long as Christ is preached.  (v. 1:18)

And further to this, we also see Paul wrestled with the idea of “maybe it would be better if God just took my life.”  No doubt, Paul had to have some moments of despair and depression.  Others seemed to be trying to destroy all the good that he had done.  His life in chains was a terrible daily ordeal.  I don’t think we could blame Paul to think of the joy of leaving this life of misery to be with the Lord in eternity.

But instead of giving in to his despair, Paul looks outside of himself and looks at what opportunities still lie ahead of him to serve his Lord by serving others.  He says these poignant and emotional words:

I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.  Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith.

Philippians 1:23-25

Dear Readers, may you be encouraged by the words and the attitudes that Paul has put before us to be an example of how we ought to live our lives as Christians.  May we all be content to live our lives for Christ wherever He has placed us.  And may we be willing to lay down our lives for others for the benefit or their souls.  May we all live for Christ, until the day He will take us to our heavenly home.

Amen!

God Will Bring Us Through

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The year 2010 is almost over.  I can almost hear some people saying, “Well, we made it through another year!”  Have you heard this being spoken?  Have you perhaps said something like this?  But what is really being said in an expression like this?  I want to briefly look at this saying, and then take a look into my own life.

By saying, “Well, we made it through another year!” it makes me wonder if the people who say it doubted that it would actually happen.  It even makes it sound like they were surprised.  And I suppose in some instances, this may be a fact.  Given the bad economy that we still have around us, I believe that there are some people who do get to the end of the year and are surprised that they did survive financially.  And medically, I know there are people who thank God that they have survived physically to see the end of the year.

But what concerns me is not the people who have experienced or are experiencing a genuine crisis, be that physical, emotional, financial, or what have you.  My concern is for people who are simply trudging through life, who see the world constantly through the lens of negativity, who appear to be joylessly enduring life rather than seeing the positive and rejoicing in life, regardless of what circumstances they may be finding themselves in.

This is especially true for Christians.  Five days ago, we celebrated a Day that changed all of human history, the fact that Jesus, the very Son of God, took on flesh and was born among us.  And with that miraculous birth came the announcement of Good News for all the world.  This event of Christmas Day, coupled together by the astounding event of Easter, when Christ rose back from the dead and showed he had conquered death, and Hell, and the Devil himself, has given to us who believe a reason to hope and grounds to live each day in victory.  Upon us, the Son is always shining.  (Pun intended.)

Now let’s get practical about all this.  It would be my hope that all Christians would be filled with joy knowing that Jesus came to earth as a baby in order that one day He would die as a man and through this means offer new life to all who believe in His name.  And I’m sure all Christians all yearning for the day when Christ shall come again and make all things new, and we will live with Him forever in the new Heaven and the new Earth.  But what about all the days between, when we live our lives here on earth as mortal men and women.

I think that it is a fact of life that while we are mortal, we will worry for our lives, such as: what will we eat, where will we live, how will we live, etc.  Even though Jesus tells us through very picturesque stories that we have no need to worry.  God, he says, will take care of us and our daily needs if we will trust Him to do so.  Read Matthew 6:25-34 to see what Jesus said.  And Paul puts it this way in Philippians 4:19:

And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.

In principle this sounds great.  But I still hear some people saying that this kind of faith does not match the reality of life.  There is still sickness and death.  There is still poverty.  There is still emotional pain and disappointments in life that beat down this faith, and condemn us to just accept things as they are and to continue our weary trudge through life.

No my friend!  Do not accept this message which the world would preach at us.  Scripture tells us that we are “more than conquerors“.  Read Romans 8:28-39, which begins with the love of God for us, and ends with the love of God we have through Christ our Lord.  And the key verse here for me has to be in verse 28 which says that “in all things God works for the good of those who love Him.”  The real truth is that not all things are good, as mentioned above, but rather that in everything that happens to us in live, God can bring good out of the situation.

Now believe me when I say that this is not some intellectual truth I am holding on to, but in fact, I am seeing this to be true in my own life daily.  Not everyone who reads this will know that I have been hit with a muscle disease that runs in our family genetics that severely restricts my ability to walk and causes me to experience significant pain on a daily basis.  So how do I handle this?  I take life at a much slower pace, and I look for what is positive in each situation, and trust that God will bring good out of this experience, for me and for those with whom I come in contact with.

So no matter what life gives us, and no matter what others may say about that, I want to encourage all of us to believe ultimately in the goodness of God.  Our life story is not over until it is over.  In the meantime, hold on to the belief that God has not abandoned us, even if we are in a “valley of the shadow of death.”  Live by the words of this chorus from an old song written and sung  by The Imperials:

He didn’t bring us this far to leave us.
He didn’t teach us to swim to let us drown.
He didn’t build His home in us to move away.
He didn’t lift us up to let us down.