Whole Again

23A0B57C-5487-4E6C-B48B-C45552916C23So many people have been broken. I join them in their brokenness, for I, too, have been broken. Not just once, but again and again. So I know how it feels to look down in the dust at my feet and see the shards of a broken spirit. I know the emotional response I have when I sit on the ground examining the broken shards, and I know how I despair of the daunting  task of putting the broken pieces back together.

I know the fear of doubting that I will even be able to put them together again. I know the terror of believing that my broken life will forever be broken. I know the suffocating feeling of having been broken beyond repair, without hope, without the faith I will need to repair my own brokenness.

And then, we look at our world, lamenting its groaning in so many ways and in so many places around the globe. Ours is a world that seems broken into pieces. I often find encouragement in the Jewish concept known as Tikkun Olam, a phrase found in the Mishnah that means to heal or repair the world. While Tikkun Olam is used today to define social action and the pursuit of social justice, the phrase has ancient roots with origins in classical rabbinic literature. It means so much more than examining broken pieces and finding a “glue” that might possibly put them back together.

Rabbi Yitzchak Luria* pondered the world’s brokenness and came to believe that, even before time, something must have gone terribly wrong with the world. As he continued to mull it over in his mind, he proclaimed that the world had shattered. He taught that we are anointed to repair a world which he defined as “all that is eternal,” insisting that “at the very core of reality is G-d’s shattered dream, waiting for us to pick up the pieces.”

Things break. The world breaks. Dreams break. We break. Such is the reality we know. And yes, we can become disconsolate as we take on the task of putting the pieces back together again. But there is a higher truth, a more noble calling than just putting together broken pieces. It is the calling to make things whole again, to make the world whole again, to make your spirit whole again.

In Scripture, we find many stories of persons being made whole. Each one looks like a miracle. Remember the story of the woman who had suffered for twelve years?

A woman, who was very ill for twelve years, came behind Jesus, and touched the hem of his garment: For she said within herself, “If I but touch his garment, I shall be whole.”

Jesus turned about, and when he saw her, he said, “Daughter, be of good comfort; your faith has made you whole.” And the woman was made whole from that hour.

— Matthew 9:20-22

Surely it was a miracle that this woman received. But for us, miracles are rare. We are burdened heavily by the brokenness, usually without the benefit of miracles. So what is it around you that is broken? What broken shards do you have before you? A broken relationship? A broken faith community? A broken dream? Is your city broken? Your nation? Your world? Or it it your own spirit that lies in broken pieces at your feet?

I cannot promise you a miracle. Even so, you must pick up the broken pieces and get started. You may get a little help from the people in your life. Then again, they may offer no help at all. But I do know that you have within yourself all the strength you need to take what is broken, put the pieces back together and find yourself whole again.

She is a beautiful piece of broken pottery, put back together by her own hands. And a critical world judges her cracks while missing the beauty of how she made herself whole again.

— J.M. Foster

The Japanese art of repairing broken pottery is called kintsugi. Repaired with pure gold, the Japanese art embraces the imperfections of the broken object. The flaws are seen as a unique part of the object’s history, which adds to its beauty. The glistening gold cracks are seen as very lovely features of the pottery, and Japanese artists say that the pottery is even stronger at the broken places. 

And so are we!

* https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/3593030/jewish/Fallen-Sparks.htm

The Hands that Made the Stars

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Comfort in the magnificent Arkansas skies. Photography by Steven Nawojczyk.

As I write on this day, I am aware that many friends are in the throes of darkness and despair. Some are facing devastating medical diagnoses. Some are yearning to have a child and are going through difficult medical procedures. Some are grieving for a family member in trouble. Some are waiting with hope for a cure for a disease that is bringing them to their knees. Others are enduring harsh medical treatments, hoping their lives will be saved. Many of them are at the point of losing all hope.

It hurts me deeply every time I am at a loss for comforting words. A little part of my heart breaks because I know I cannot “do something” to ease the suffering. And so I search for my own comfort as I search for ways to hold my friends in the light. As always, I am led to Scripture, not for easy answers, miraculous cures, or an instant panacea. I peek into the Bible to find words that will lift up hope in the middle of dark days and darker nights.

Often the words I find point me to the skies, as if gazing into an expanse beyond imagination might open my eyes to a radiant and holy hope. In truth, the words of Scripture do point me to hope. 

From the Prophet Isaiah:

Look up into the heavens. Who created all the stars? He brings them out like an army, one after another, calling each by its name. Because of his great power and incomparable strength, not a single one is missing. O Jacob, how can you say the LORD does not see your troubles?

Have you never heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of his understanding. He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless.

— Isaiah 40:26-29

From the Psalmist:

When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers — the moon and the stars you have set in place — what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?

— Psalm 8:3-4

And so whoever you are, whatever pain you are carrying, know that the hands that made the stars are holding your heart.

“Therefore, I have hope . . .”

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The quiet beauty of Arkansas. Photo by Steven Nawojczyk.

This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.

I have been without hope at times, disconsolate, forsaken, wondering why my faith seemed to fail me. My struggle overcame my hope even as I listened desperately to hear the Spirit of hope. I heard nothing. Day after day, in the long dark night of my soul’s anguish, I heard nothing.

That’s the thing about hope. She doesn’t shout our her presence. She doesn’t get your attention in a loud, thunderous manner. Hope, it seems to me, is the quiet whisper of the Holy Spirit that goes beyond your conscious mind deep into the depths of your soul. That is the only kind of hope that works, the only kind of hope that can comfort us in times of affliction. The Scripture offers a promise in the book of Romans: “By the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” 

The prophet Jeremiah speaks in the book of Lamentations with words filled with devastating pain. Certainly Jeremiah was a man of abiding and genuine faith. Yet, he suffered. Although it may not be our understanding, Jeremiah understood his times of anguish to be at the hand of the God he served. In hearing Jeremiah’s words of lament, we hear his loss of hope. Listen to this prophet’s heart.

I am one who has seen affliction under the rod of God’s wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light;

against me alone he turns his hand again and again, all day long.

though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer;

He has blocked my ways with hewn stones, he has made my paths crooked. He has filled me with bitterness . . . My soul is bereft of peace;

I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.”

The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall! My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,  his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”

— Lamentations 3: 1-3; 8-10; 17-24 (New Revised Standard Version)

To reassure the prophet, God did not shout out a proclamation of new hope. There were no loud, boisterous declarations. Instead, the prophet calls to mind the mercies of God. And as he calls God’s faithfulness to mind, his soul speaks of hope.

If you are a long-time Baptist, you may have sung an old hymn that speaks of the quiet presence of hope. The hymn, Whispering Hope,* promises a gentle hope that comforts us in a whisper. Here is a portion of that hymn.

Soft as the voice of an angel breathing a lesson unheard,

Hope with a gentle persuasion whispers her comforting word:

Wait till the darkness is over, Wait till the tempest is done,

Hope for the sunshine tomorrow, after the shower is gone.

Whispering hope, oh, how welcome thy voice, making my heart in its sorrow rejoice.

— Septimus Winner, 1868

Hope with a gentle persuasion whispers her comforting word . . . To me, that sounds like the whisper of the Holy Spirit who, in our times of despair, in the times when we feel that we have lost all hope, brings her comfort, her assurance, her peace to us again and again.

May you hear the Spirit’s whisper when you need it most.

And may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (Romans 15:13)

Amen.

 

* If you would like to listen to a lovely arrangement of “Whispering Hope” sung by Hayley Westenra, or if you have not heard this hymn in a while, please visit this link: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=zj3N9LE9FPs

 

 

 

 

A Life Breathtakingly Beautiful

 

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Art by Darlene Gibson-Piper

Life can be tricky. Life is a living thing just waiting to grab you and pull you down, or so it seems at times. Bad things do happen to all of us. Misfortune can suddenly engulf our lives and leave us, any of us, in a heap on the ground, heads bowed low.

I know all too well the stark reality of being brought low, but when I find myself face down in the dirt, I always recall one of the most comforting passages of Scripture.

We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed . . .

— 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 (King James Version)

At this time in my life, I am thankfully on the other side of a very serious illness. But the year 2014 was a nightmare year for me and for my family. I spent a good part of that year in the hospital, at times leaning very close to death’s door. Much of that year, I spent in a mental haze not even knowing the loved ones caring for me. I was often very afraid, but one thought came to mind again and again.

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.
― Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith

So many people find themselves afraid and in despair. In the time it takes me to write this piece, five people in the U.S. will take their own lives. For every suicide, there will be 25 attempted suicides. Some people will suddenly and unexpectedly lose a job and plunge into financial ruin. Others will lose someone they love by death or divorce. Others will fall deeply into illness. Others will face the challenges of aging and lose their homes. Some will experience the terror of addiction. Every person — every person — will know the lowest depths of despair, an existence void of hope.

I love the writing of L.R. Knost. She is an award-winning author, feminist, and social justice activist, the founder and director of the children’s rights advocacy and family consulting group, Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources, and the Editor-in-Chief of Holistic Parenting Magazine. Her writing is down to earth and uplifting, always filled with snippets of pure wisdom. This is what she writes about life.

Life is amazing. And then it’s awful. And then it’s amazing again. And in between the amazing and awful it’s ordinary and mundane and routine. Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful, and relax and exhale during the ordinary. That’s just living heartbreaking, soul-healing, amazing, awful, ordinary life. And it’s breathtakingly beautiful.

She is so spot-on about life, so thoroughly wise. She knows about muddling through the muck of life to the best part of it, the beautiful part of it. And that’s what we must do, muddle through until we get to the beauty. It is true that life doesn’t always get better. Sometimes the thing that breaks us down just lingers with us and keeps us on the lowest ground of desperation. Yet there is that life-giving, life-saving thing called grace, the gentle and persistent grace that is ever-present with us during every low season in life.

Here is the reality, the tried and true foundation of truth that keeps us moving forward after a difficult patch. Again, L.R. Knost describes it.

Life doesn’t always get better.
But you do. You get stronger.
You get wiser. You get softer.
With tattered wings you rise.
And the world watches in wonder at the breathless beauty of a human who survived life.

Going back to that wonderful passage in 2 Corinthians, we find this:

. . . We do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

— 2 Corinthians 4:16-17 (New International Version)

This is, indeed, a soul-healing life, utterly beautiful during the good times, but still heart-breaking and frightening at other times. You and I will pick ourselves up from the dusty earth again and again. We will most certainly rise to our feet for another day. We will find the gentle, persistent grace that holds us upright. We will not lose heart. We will make it to the breathtakingly beautiful part of our lives. Count on it!

When Your World Ends

66A9AA3C-258F-40E7-AB87-32000E79567EMy adult son is a master at denial. He can get very upset over a situation, but before you can blink, he has moved on as if it never happened. To be honest, I have often envied that part of his personality. As one who tends to brood over life’s challenges and problems, I would love to just be able to blow things off.

There is no chance of that happening for me. I think that this brooding part of me emerges from the trauma I have experienced over the years. My world has ended many times, or so it seemed. Yet, there has been a positive aspect of my brooding: that I have learned to sit with an issue for a while, dissect what has happened, feel the depth of hurt, and reflect on the depth of the emotional assault I’m experiencing. Blowing off pain just doesn’t work for me. Denial is not my way.

Denial never makes hurt go away. Denial never even diminishes hurt. So be warned. Blowing off pain is a path to internal disaster. As difficult as introspection can be, I am grateful that I am able to deeply feel the feelings I feel, to let the hurt wash over me, and finally to emerge better and stronger. Feeling the depth of my heartaches has served to disempower them and, most importantly, to enable me to harness my inner power to be free.

This, I believe, is the path that takes us beyond despair. This is the path that lets us own our heartbreak and then leave it behind to move into a fresh, new day. I am strengthened by the words of poet Nayyirah Waheed.

feel it.
the thing that you don’t
want to feel.
feel it and be free.

the thing you are most afraid to write, write that.

it is being honest
about
my pain
that
makes me invincible.

i don’t pay attention to the
world ending.
it has ended for me
many times
and began again in the morning.

To sit with your pain, to touch the heart of your hurt . . . that is what makes you free. And that freedom will be for you this miracle . . . when your world ends, and it may end many times, it begins again in the morning.

Thanks be to God.

 

“Are you upset, little friend?”

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Charles M. Schulz

These days, I find myself in the very center of worry and discontent. I feel vulnerable, out of place in a new place I never expected to make my home. The problem is, I think, that I have not really made this place my home, and that reality has left me unsettled. I left forever friends behind when we moved here. I think the reason for my worry, my occasional despondency, even my fear, is that I feel alone. I recalled this week the well-known lyrics of a Carole King song from the seventies.

When you’re down and troubled
And you need a helping hand
And nothing, nothing is going right
Close your eyes and think of me
And soon I will be there
To brighten up even your darkest night.

You just call out my name
And you know wherever I am
I’ll come running to see you again;
Winter, spring, summer or fall
All you have to do is call
And I’ll be there, yeah, yeah, yeah.
You’ve got a friend.

If the sky above you
Should turn dark and full of clouds
And that old north wind should begin to blow;
Keep your head together
And call my name out loud, yeah
Soon I’ll be knocking upon your door . . .

It is a frightening state of being facing worry or illness or aging or loneliness, finding yourself disconsolate at times, and alone, without a loyal friend. But we have a mystical, magical force that leads us through the dark nights of the soul every time, without fail. I’ll name it faith.

A dear friend who just faced some devastating news reminded me of a deep-down, rock-solid truth about faith when she wrote, “My faith is bigger than my fear.” And that’s how we live a life filled with times of worry, aloneness, days of grief, fear, and sometimes mourning that engulfs us hard and long.

No person escapes such times, for they are an inevitable part of life. So we meet hard times face-to-face, up close, and we survive. We are, as the Bible says, “troubled on every hand, yet not distressed; perplexed, but not in despair . . . cast down, but not destroyed,” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9)

To be sure, we are left with scars of the soul and spirit. Yet we live on, knowing that after times of despondency, we are stronger than we were before. There is no deeper consolation than the words of Scripture proclaimed by the Prophet Isaiah.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they shall not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned,
Nor shall the flame scorch you.

— Isaiah 43:2

I hang on Isaiah’s words, and I have rested on them so many times when sadness overwhelmed me and fear had its way. These Isaiah words are enough, more than enough for my disconsolate times.

But then I happened upon just the right message of consolation for me in this particular time of my life. And I found it in a most unlikely place. It’s a delightful little message of real and true comfort that speaks so sweetly to me, and perhaps to all of us who need a friend and an extra boost of encouragement in a time of worry.

Are you upset little friend? Have you been lying awake worrying? Well, don’t worry . . . I’m here. The flood waters will recede, the famine will end, the sun will shine tomorrow, and I will always be here to take care of you.

― Charles M. Schulz

Amen.

Despair

192EA03D-9DFB-4D4A-BB22-A481D2086FCDDespair has its way at times. It sneaks into my spirit and dwells there for a while, Although despair is thoroughly unwelcome and unwanted, it has a way of making a home in me at times. It has its way. It does its damage. It enslaves me with a devastating kind of bondage. It forces me into an uneasy and oppressive place.

Despair’s most damaging legacy is fear. These days are, for me at least, days of fear. I watch the current president and listen to his words in horror. He speaks with hostility. He gives welcome to divisiveness, racism, misogyny and disrespect. His words are often divisive, rude and insensitive. He uses his power to build an unsettled nation. I despair for the nation, and I despair for a world filled with violence, war, hunger, poverty, and natural disasters born of climate change.

My faith tells me that there is a remedy for despair, that fear can be conquered, and that peace might be restored in me. The poetry of Wendell Berry is a beautiful reminder.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief.

I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light.

For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

— From Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things“

When despair casts its damaging spell within me, my faith still holds. They are waiting for me, always, the peace that is a balm for grief and despair, the presence of still waters and the stars sparkling in my night sky. This otherworldly beauty causes me to rest in the arms of faith and to recall the many times of despair in my life that served only to make me stronger and more resilient.

Thanks be to God.

Peace on Earth. Good Will to Us All!

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We rarely sing one of my favorite Christmas Carols. Its words always cause emotions to well up within me. Although the words of this carol were written in the mid-1800’s, they still speak to the bleakness we face in these days.

It was on Christmas day in 1863, when Henry Wadsworth Longfellow — a 57-year-old widowed father of six children, the oldest of which had been nearly paralyzed as his country fought a war against itself — wrote a poem seeking to capture the dissonance in his own heart and in the world he observed around him. He heard the Church bells that December day. He heard the singing of “peace on earth,“ but he also despaired of a world of injustice and violence that seemed to mock the truthfulness of any sort of peace. Yet Longfellow’s words eventually led to a sense of confident hope even in the midst of bleak despair.

Such confident hope will also guide us through our own reality — a reality that constantly reminds us that the presence of despair, violence, injustice and intolerance destroys the hope, peace, justice and lovingkindness we so deeply desire for our world.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep, ‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.””

Amen

Stars in Our Darkened Skies

IMG_6048In these tumultuous days, so many people are grieving. And for them, the skies above are dark, starless, devoid of any promise of hope.

In California, wildfires that are still burning have been called “the greatest tragedy that California has ever faced.” At least 40 people have died and more than 200 people are missing. An estimated 217,000 acres have burned, more than 5,700 structures have been destroyed, and approximately 75,000 people have been evacuated. Evacuees are returning home to a heartbreaking new reality.

The Las Vegas mass shooting reminded us that any community, any event, any neighborhood can become a place of grave danger.

In the September earthquake in Mexico, 255 people died. More than 44 buildings were completely destroyed and another 3,000 were severely damaged, forcing thousands of people to evacuate and leaving countless more mourning their tragic losses.

The 2017 hurricane season has been catastrophic. Hurricane Harvey killed 75 people, mostly in Texas, while Irma killed 87 people in the U.S. and its territories. As of yesterday, 48 people have died in Puerto Rico as Hurricane Maria left so many people without shelter, clean water, electricity or hope.

At least 500 people are believed to have been killed or seriously injured in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, in one of the most lethal terrorist acts anywhere in the world for many years. The death toll from yesterday’s attack, which was caused by a truck packed with several hundred pounds of explosives, stood at 276 today as more bodies are removed from the rubble spread over an area hundreds of miles wide.

Perhaps some people feel abandoned by God, lost in their grief, not knowing where to turn. Perhaps some people look upward to find comfort and find instead a starless sky that speaks only of sadness and loss. Words of consolation seem empty. Sermons are never enough comfort. Sometimes prayers are not enough either. And yet our faith offers us the image of one who comforts and who understands our deepest sorrows. This comforting presence is beautifully portrayed in the poetry of Ann Weems. These are her words.

In the quiet times this image comes to me: Jesus weeping.

Jesus wept,
and in his weeping,
he joined himself forever to those who mourn.

He stands now throughout all time, this Jesus weeping,
with his arms about the weeping ones:
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.’

He stands with the mourners, for his name is God-with-us.

 

‘Blessed are those who weep, for they shall be comforted.’

Someday. Someday God will wipe the tears from Rachel’s eyes.

In the godforsaken, obscene quicksand of life,
there is a deafening alleluia rising from the souls of those who weep,
and of those who weep with those who weep.

If you watch, you will see the hand of God
putting the stars back in their skies
one by one.

– From Psalms of Lament, Ann Weems

If we have anything at all to share with the thousands of our brothers and sisters who mourn today, it is this image of a weeping Christ who “was acquainted with grief” and who always — always — puts the stars back in our darkened skies, one by one. That is hope. Amen.

Mercies and Blessings

IMG_6014Like many of you, I have experienced dark nights of the soul. I have faced illness, betrayal, disillusionment and loss. I have faced the dark side of life more than a few times. In the midst of those times, I found the courage of faith, the gift of hope, and the promise of Scripture.

If you have known me through the years, you may know that one of the New Testament passages that gives me strength is in the fourth chapter of Second Corinthians. The following words are part of that chapter.

We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed . . .

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

– 2 Corinthians 4:8-9, 16-18 18 (KJV, NIV)

The passage speaks of “wasting away.” When I was so ill for all of 2014, I can honestly say that I believed I was wasting away. It was a frightening emotion, one that I would rather not hold in my memories. But my memories of that time also include mercies and blessings, blessings of gradual healing, blessings of compassionate and competent health care, blessings of being surrounded by a loving faith community, blessings of my husband’s devoted care, blessings of hope and faith in a God whose mercies covered me in so many ways. Clearly, my blessings came through adversity.

Today while listening to Pandora, I heard a song that touched me with its faith-filled lyrics.

. . . What if Your blessings come through raindrops?
What if Your healing comes through tears?
What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near?
What if the trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise?

What if my greatest disappointments or the aching of this life is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can’t satisfy?
What if trials of this life — the rain, the storms, the hardest nights — are Your mercies in disguise?

– Written by Liz Story • Copyright © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc, Universal Music Publishing Group

I learned that through serious illness, the fear was greatest at night. The nights were the hardest. But I also learned that what I had read so many times was true — God’s mercies are new every morning.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

– Lamentations 3:22-23 (ESV)