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Of Davids and Rizpahs, and Just and Lasting Peace

Ideas are like seeds. They are like seeds that grow to create a culture that promotes individual salvation, exclusivism, triumphalism, fundamentalism, passivity, patriarchy and apathy. But ideas can also create a culture of communal salvation, inclusivity, compassionate service, radical hospitality, advocacy, partnership, and prophetic witness. Jesus used the seed as a metaphor, in the Gospel according to Matthew, to describe the “Kingdom of God” when he described it as a mustard seed that grows into a tree. Ideas create culture, and culture empowers people to act. Thus, ideas are dangerous.

When Trump began to talk about America for Americans during his campaign, it was just an idea. Today, he has set back America by at least 200 years, bringing back racism, sexism, classism and Islamophobia. Trump’s ideas are dangerous to minority groups, women and LGBT, the working class and the poor, and nations that dare to go against the U.S. Empire. Jesus’s idea of “the Kingdom of God” was and is also dangerous. It was a critique and a direct challenge to the Kingdom of Rome then. Jesus could have used so many other words besides ‘kingdom:’ family, household, community, people, but he did not. He preached about “the Kingdom of God” to dismantle the empire, the dominating force that denied people life and dignity. Then it was Pax Romana. Today it is Pax Americana. But is the message we preach about “the Kingdom of God” still dangerous for the oppressors? Or worse, is the Church’s preaching now dangerous for the oppressed? We must reflect on the following questions: What seeds are we planting in our congregations? What ideas are we preaching in our pulpits? What culture are we promoting in our society? What actions are we allowing to be institutionalized and perpetuated in our Motherland?

War on drugs, martial law, charter change, cancellation of the peace talks, tax reform, federalism. The killing of criminals, the bombing of Lumad communities, the closure of Lumad schools, the arrest of political prisoners, the curtailing of freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. The government under the leadership of Duterte is planting seeds, promoting ideas, creating a culture, enforcing actions. Are these dangerous to those who abuse power and authority, or are these dangerous to the already powerless and oppressed? Are we challenging these ideas or are we enabling them in our silence? Does Duterte still embody the struggles and aspirations of the Filipino people, especially the 16 million who voted for him in 2015? Why is it that people can continue to support him and defend him? Finally, can Duterte bring peace to our land?

As I was reflecting on the current Philippine political, economic and cultural context, I was reminded of the story of David, the so-called ‘greatest king of Israel.’ At the beginning of his story, he was the underdog. Not unlike Duterte. His father did not think he was important among all his sons and he was not even asked to be present when the prophet, Samuel, came. Then, as small he was, he defeats and kills the Philistine champion, Goliath, with a sling and a stone. He was the anointed one and even Jonathan and Michal, the children of Saul, chose him over their own father. David, the underdog, rose to power and became the champion of the people and the chosen one of God. Most of us repeat these stories again and again in Sunday school and in the pulpit. David in our minds is the greatest king of Israel. But was he?

Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament scholar, points to the stories we have forgotten in glorifying David. After escaping from slavery, after entering into a covenant with God and becoming a nation called Israel, Israel becomes like their oppressors and builds a kingdom. Brueggemann critiques the dynasty of David, saying that this king ‘paganized’ Israel and inverted everything that Moses and the Israelite people fought for. In the Exodus story, the Hebrew people escaped from slavery to create an alternative community where each of them was accountable for the quality of life of the other. In David’s monarchy and dynasty, a new kind of tyranny oppressed the people. And like any empire, David’s monarchy was not content in ruling over one nation. Like other kingdoms, David wanted to expand his empire. However, this was not David’s greatest sin. In the creation of a dynasty and in building a temple for God, David ‘owned’ God. No longer was God to be worshipped in the mountains; no longer did God lead the people through a cloud of fire. The acts of God were limited to one bloodline and God was contained in one place, the temple. David’s greatest sin was to claim that his dynasty embodied God. And as John Dalberg-Acton said, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The story in II Samuel 21: 1-14 reveals the corruption of David. It begins with a famine of three years during David’s reign. In the narrative, when David asked God what caused it, God said that Saul was guilty over the killing of the Gibeonites. David, then, asked the Gibeonites what it is that he can do so that they may have justice, and they answered, “let seven of his sons be handed over to us, and we will impale them before the Lord….” (v.6) David, the king, handed them over. He took the two sons of Rizpah, the concubine of Saul, and the five sons of Merab, the daughter of Saul, and the Gibeonites impaled them, a form of torture where a victim’s body is pierced with a stake, like an animal for roasting. Seven sons from the house of Saul were tortured and killed. Rizpah guarded the bodies “from the beginning of harvest until rain fell on them from the heavens; she did not allow the birds of the air to come on the bodies by day, or the wild animals by night.”(v.10)

Two characters play vital roles in this Biblical narrative on human rights violations: David and Rizpah.

David, the king, has power of life and death over the people. He may attribute to God and the Gibeonites the judgement upon the seven sons, but as king, he chose to have mercy on the son of Jonathan, Mephibosheth, who was the grandson of Saul. David, the king, chose to let one live and let seven die. Who is David today? Who has the power to dictate who lives and who dies? Who authorizes the killings and empowers the killers with impunity? Who uses the name of God to justify violence and death? Do we dare to name their evil deeds and reject them?

The other character, Rizpah, Saul’s concubine, guarded over the bodies of seven sons: two of them were her own and five of them were the sons of Merab who was silent in the text. But we cannot condemn Merab. We must condemn those who strike so much fear in the hearts of mothers like her. It takes a mother to raise a child, but it takes a brave woman to struggle for justice. Rizpah’s struggle took courage: she left the comfort of her home and community; she stayed for months on a mountain which had the stench of death; she defended the rotting bodies of seven males from wild animals. Her very presence in the face of death was a challenge to David, the king, who would have wanted her to accept the death of seven sons in silence. Just as her sons were victims of human rights violations, she could also be the victim of the same. Who is she today? Who is she whose son or daughter has been killed even if they begged for their lives and claimed to be innocent? Who is she who has to suffer the pain of burying her own children? Who is she who refuses to be silent and demands justice from those who hold the power?

Furthermore, the seven sons say nothing in the text. We do not hear their cry as they are taken away from their loved ones; we do not feel their pain as they are tortured to death; we do not see their dead bodies after they are killed. Who are they today? How many have suffered the same violent deaths? Did they have any dreams for themselves and their loved ones? Did their deaths end crime and bring peace to their communities?

Today, if we allowed the Davids of our time to torture and to kill, will there be peace?

Today, if we asked the Rizpahs to accept the punishment and death of their children, husbands, wives and friends, will there be peace?

Today, if we sacrificed the sons of Rizpah, and sacrificed more, will there be peace?

David, in the Samuel text, believed that the killing of the seven sons in the household of Saul was the way to peace. We have been told by the Duterte Government that the killing of ‘terrorists’ and those involved with drugs, and more, is the way to peace. But we know that violence and death is not the way to peace.

But what is peace? Is peace the absence of conflict? Is peace achieved by the laying down of arms by those in a revolutionary army? Is peace ensured by building alliances with world powers like the United States and China? Is peace attained by uniting everyone in Congress and Senate to act as one body under the president? Is peace fulfilled when foreign investors invest capital and profit in their operations in the Philippines? Perhaps, these can achieve the kind of peace desired by those who have power and authority. The rich will become richer and the powerful will become more powerful. And when this happens, the ordinary people will be denied more and more the most basic of human rights.

There a definition of peace that makes sense for ordinary people like you and me. It is simple. Peace is the absence of fear.

Peace is the absence of fear.

There is peace when a mother is not afraid that her children will go hungry or be killed in the streets.

There is peace when a student is not afraid that he or she may no longer be able to go to school for lack of money.

There is peace when a farmer is not afraid that the land his family has tilled for generations will be taken from him.

There is peace when a laborer is not afraid that she has to leave her children to work in a foreign land to earn just wages.

There is peace when Lumad children are not fearful for their lives in their own land.

There is peace when a nun, a priest and a pastor is not fearful of persecution and death as they preach, teach, and advocate for fullness of life for all.

This is the peace we seek. It is not about wealth and power but about the most basic services and privileges being available to the Filipino People. It can be achieved through socio-economic reforms which ensure the common good, justice, and equity.

Finally, in the pursuit of peace, we must choose between the Rizpahs and the Davids. We cannot be in the middle. Shall we join the Davids who hold the power and authority, and sacrifice and kill those who they call their enemy? Or shall we stand with the Rizpahs, the powerless and the victims, who will not allow those who have been killed to die in vain but will struggle for a world where mothers no longer have to bury their sons and daughters, and where there is just and lasting peace.

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It was a privilege to listen to the lecture of Prof. Ingrid Walls on the Transatlantic Slave Trade which transported 6 to 60 million Africans from the coasts of Africa to Latin America for 300 years, beginning in the 15th century. These were African people from different tribes who were leaders, warriors, cultural bearers; mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. Before they became captives and slaves, they were members of vital communities. Even hearing it from a woman who did not experience it herself is heart-wrenching.I was however struggling with her pronouncement that during the period in the slave ships and plantations – “God was present.” She shared that this has been the pronouncement of those who survived the slavery. This was very hard for me to comprehend. I thought, how could God be present in acts of rape, torture, slavery, genocide…? Perhaps, because our faith has always spoken of God as omnipresent or always present, we believe that God is present even in oppression and injustice. 

Thus, to make sense of this, I feel the need to differentiate between “the presence of God” and “the Kingdom of God.” These two are not the same. The first, “the presence of God,” is faith-based, gives hope amidst suffering. The second, “the Kingdom of God,” must be a concrete manifestation. The ‘presence’ is not equal to the totality of ‘the Kingdom.’ Why is this important? Because we must not find fulfillment in the ‘presence’ and pursue passionately and concretely “the Kingdom of God” on earth as it is in heaven.

Photo from Britannica.com

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What makes a woman beautiful?

Is it the bones and spirit of her ancestors embedded in all of her cells?

But what if they were broken women, can she create another story to tell?

Is it pronounced by those who desire her and repeated until it is believed?

But what if the spell is broken, will her charm be perceived as deceptive?

Is it the youth that comes for a moment that makes one blossom and sparkle?

What happens then when she is old will her brilliance dim and then be forgotten?

Should beauty be so compelling and palpable that it sways the powerful to bend?

Or can beauty be silent and unknowing, a secret to keep until the end?

BTR, children, hope, life, Reflection, theology, Uncategorized

The Goddess and the Girl God, Understanding the Self-Limiting God and Social Trinitarianism

My Master of Divinity thesis was on the Roman Catholic Church’s violence against the native Filipino women as a colony of Spain for over 300 years. It focused on the demonization of female priestesses called babaylans who held a leadership role in the cultural life of the people and who were respected alongside the males who led in the political and economic life of the community as datus and pandays. Babaylans were midwives and healers, matchmakers and ritual leaders; they determined when to plant and to harvest; and when to go to war and make peace. As a member of her community, her knowledge about their shared life facilitated peace and harmony. Her experiences as a daughter, sister, mother and wife, gave her wisdom in life that could not be found in books. She is trained by an older babaylan and is tested for her ability to connect with the gods and to respond to the needs of the people. When the Spanish missionaries came, they viewed the babaylans as ‘soldiers of the Devil’ and the rest of the natives as heathens and pagans. It was a holy confrontation and not a holy conversion as the natives resisted and struggled to hold on to their own native spirituality. The Spanish missionaries demonized the babaylan, all her life-giving qualities were inverted, and they created stories about the manananggal. The manananggal was a woman witch who sucked fetuses from the bellies of pregnant mothers, was a cannibal who had to eat all the members of her family to obtain her full powers, and was an ugly woman who deceived males by appearing to be beautiful before she ate them. All these were an inversion of the babaylan’s qualities as midwife, as a well-loved and respected leader of her family and her community, and a beautiful woman who embodied fertility, leadership, empowerment and freedom. The Roman Catholic Church wrested the power, freedom and dignity of the babaylan and the Filipino women and soon after, the women were at the bottom of the hierarchy where God was at the top, followed by the Church, the Spanish Government, the Spanish people, and the Filipino males. Today, in the Roman Catholic Church all over the world, there is still an all-male priesthood. Today, in the United Methodist Church, while there are tokens of females in leadership, it is still a male-dominated church. After a seminary education that has made me irreversibly feminist, I have felt tortured in church communities that continue to marginalize women and girls in their prayers, sermons and proclamations. At the center of this is the belief that God is male. And when God is male, the males are gods.
Jurgen Moltmann’s discourse in “The World of the Trinity” on how God created the world from chaos despite God’s omniscience, omnipresence and infiniteness exhibits characteristics of God that may be described as feminine. Moltmann proposed that God’s ‘self-limiting’ created a space which God did not fill so that ‘the Other’ can be created to be in the image of God but of an essence that is not absolutely God. Otherwise, God would just have created somebody like God. Through God’s self-limiting, God created ‘the Other’ with freedom, power and possibility to becoming something independent. In my earlier reflection, I already said that God in creation was like a mother who conceives and births, and raises a human so that he or she can become what they want to become. A few years ago, while sitting with the congregation and listening to a sermon on a male god who exhibited power, authority, and dominion; who demands our undivided loyalty and without whom we are nothing, I wrote this –

I am a child of the Goddess.

was imagined in many waking dreams even before I was conceived.

I was birthed with blood and tears by the Goddess as an entire community labored and awaited my coming

Many arms embraced me and many breasts nourished my soul.

Many hands raised me up when I fell down and when I was lost, many more led me home.

I heard so many voices. Some whispered sweet comfort and some cheered me on towards the goal.

And when I was ready to be on my own, they let go of my fingers and watched me with tears until I was out of sight.

I crossed rivers and climbed mountains, ran after my dreams and opened my soul to others.

I was changed and will never be the same. I birthed myself again and again.

Then the Goddess came to me in a dream. She invited me to come home and willed me to remember my beginnings.

I was afraid that she would think I was strange and send me farther away. But she said, you have come home and found your own soul.

You have discovered your own goddess within.

In articulating about a Mother God, the Goddess, there is another face of God that can be exhibited. The self-limiting God Moltmann articulated is experienced by so many mothers. Birthing a child is both a creative and arbitrary act, a powerful and restrictive moment and a life-giving and sacrificing juncture. And that is what Moltmann described in the creation process of self-limitation (or tzitzum). Unlike the ‘sovereign’ God who is always the authority, always in control and all-powerful, the Goddess creates a free Creation and an open future.

This self-limiting God also allows us to imagine a non-hierarchical and egalitarian understanding of the Trinity. The Social Trinitarianism proposed by Moltmann was developed to counter a monotheistic idea of Christianity that would validate political and clerical hierarchies and relationships of domination and control. In his discourse on the perichoresis of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, he deconstructs the three-pointed triangle where God, the Father, was at the top, with the Holy Spirit and the Son at the bottom. He emphasizes their relationship as relational and not hierarchical, and indwelling and in unity.

Again, I will look at the human relationship between mothers and their children. My mother, Lydia Galima, died at the age of 52 when I was only 22 years old. For the past few years, I have encountered many of her old friends and they tell me, “You look just like your mother! Even just by the way you stand and the way you turn your head…” When they hear me preach they say, “You are truly your mother’s daughter.” These words are music to my ears because I grew up wanting to be like my mother who was an educator and dean, a concert artist and a leader in so many circles. But until she died, I often felt like I will always be in her shadow. She was the greatest influence in my life and when people say I am like her, I imagine that she would be pleased with how I have become the person that I am. Reading, Matthew 3, 17 and Luke 3, 22, when God is pleased with the Son and is baptized with the Holy Spirit, I imagine the relationship of God the parent with the Son, in the relationship between me and my mother. She birthed and raised me and influenced me most of all, but we are separate persons. More importantly, she gave me the freedom to become who I wanted to be and still I was able to embody her most important characteristics.

When I gave birth to my own daughter, Lauren Francesca, I wanted to give her the ‘spirit’ of my mother. She is the one who performs and sings like my mother, the one who has the will to pursue her goals and the one whose compassion touches people’s lives. My mother and daughter have never met but I recognize that they share the same characteristics. Perhaps we three, like the Trinity, share the same characteristics. Three generations of men will exhibit hierarchy. Three generations of women, from my experience, exhibits a unity, an indwelling and equality. Moltmann’s Social Trinitarianism is a profound theological proposal that is a model for life-affirming relationships.

But let me push the theological imagination even further. From ‘God the Father’ to ‘Mother Goddess,’ can we imagine a ‘Girl God?’ The maleness of God has long been affirmed in tradition and the maleness of the Son has also been historically grounded, giving males power over females for centuries. Recently, I encountered a woman by the name of Trista Hendren who had publications for children and women. One of her first children’s books was entitled, The Girl God, which celebrated the Divine Female. After some conversations with her via the internet and her inclusion of one of my articles in her book, Whatever Works: Feminists of Faith Speak, I began reflecting more deeply on this idea of a Girl God. Then I wrote this,

If God was a girl, every girl will be treated like God

Every girl will be awaited in her coming, and her birth will be celebrated by all creation.

Every girl will be nurtured, respected and honored for her innate power.

Every girl will be spoken tenderly to and listened to whenever she speaks. 

Every girl will not be insulted, slapped or hurt by a father, a brother, an aunt or her mother.

Every girl will be safe in her home and wherever she goes, and will never fear for her life.

Every girl can be a leader, an artist, a dancer, a poet, a priestess.

Every girl can have a dream and pursue it.

Every girl can say “no” and “yes” and change her situation.

Every girl will love who she loves and make decisions for her own body.

Every girl will know that she has power and empowers others whoever they may be.

So imagine God as a girl. It will change the world.

Some people will find it heretical to think about God as the Goddess and as the Girl God. But really, all our images and symbols of God are fiction. The Goddess and the Girl God are not threatening. They do, however, place females in positions males used to monopolize. But unlike males, they will not be characterized as authoritative and powerful, but as loving and empowering. Justice is first taught at home. When the home is a place where there is domestic violence, it is very challenging to create a society where there is justice. Imagining God with feminine characteristics and with a female body is necessary to transform relationships in our homes, churches and society. For me, the Mother Goddess and the Girl God is good theology.
Photo of Dalan Raquel by Dovie Raquel

hope, life, Old Testament, Reflection, theology, Uncategorized, women

Birthing the ‘Other’

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” Genesis 1: 1-2
 In “the World of the Trinity” of Jurgen Moltmann, he tries to explain how God can create from a formless void when God was understood as omnipresent and omnipotent. As all powerful and ever present, how can there even be a time and space where God was not present? According to Moltmann, God’s ‘self-limiting’ in the act of Creation to create “the Other” and allow the other to evolve with freedom explains our capacity to reason and act independently, the suffering which is the consequence of individual sin and structural evil; and the characteristics of our relationship with God which is consensual, liberating and empowering. 

 Pursuing this discourse, I would like to articulate from a feminist perspective: God is like a good mother who conceives a child in her womb, infusing the unborn with all her gifts, creating from the best characteristics and possibilities. God is pleased with the creature in God’s womb. It exhibits God’s fertility and God knows the child is of God. But God does not conceive to hold, to possess and to control. God creates out of love and to liberate. And so God suffers in the birth of “the Other” in a moment and in a space where there is uncertainty and vulnerability. At birth, God looks at “the Other” and sees that which has been created is unique and separate even if is in the image of God. God expresses love so that the Other can respond in love. God honors and respects God’s creation so that the Other can honor and respect in return. God liberates so that the Other can also be liberating. But God does not create the Other for God alone. God creates so that the Other can also love, honor and liberate other Others. 

 

We often characterize God as powerful, willful and in control. This discourse of a self-limiting God is a profound theological understanding. God denies self, creates space for others, honors the evolution of the Other and liberates. To be in God’s image is not just hold power and perfection but also to limit self and to be vulnerable. For the males and females, elder and youth, leaders and followers, this way of relating enables egalitarian, mutual, and life-affirming relationships where the power is not possessed by one but shared. In Moltmann’s discourse of the Doctrine of the Trinity and Creation, God does monopolize power but empowers. This is an important theological understanding for church and society today.

 Pregnant Woman doula by AlishaVernon

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Love & Suffering

It is very difficult for me to understand Moltmann’s Trinitarian theology of the cross. The belief that God, the father, abandons Jesus, the son, on the cross, is not God-talk to me. The idea where the forsakenness and connectedness of father and child are most evident at the cross is not God-talk to me. It sounds like sadomasochism, a disorder, where love is expressed through humiliation and pain. As a mother, I cannot imagine how a parent can abandon a child. The greater scandal is how a parent would make a child suffer for the sins of others! Can we, as parents, imagine any justification for the sacrifice of our own children? There is something very, very wrong with this theology.

How can one’s great love be made evident through the sacrifice of another? It is no different from Jephthah who sacrifices his nameless daughter in Judges 11: 30-39. It is no different from the practice shared by Alex, a classmate from Ghana, where a virgin girl is sacrificed to atone for the sins of another in her family. This kind of language about God and suffering is very bad theology. If we believe this to be true, do we then say that all suffering in the human experience is because of the abandonment of God? Are the hungry people in Ethiopia abandoned by God? Are the Syrians dying in Aleppo abandoned by God? Are the refugees being denied entry into safer countries abandoned by God? Are the faithful being killed because of Christianity abandoned by God?

Jesus’s humanity and divinity is a mystery. If I reflect solely on the human experience of Jesus under the Roman Empire, then the suffering which ended in a deadly crucifixion is the result of Jesus’s ministry and preaching of feeding the hungry, forgiving sins, healing the sick and visiting the prisoner. His preaching of the Kingdom of God is a direct challenge and rejection of the Kingdom of Rome. God did not kill Jesus. How could God have done that? It was the earthly powers of the time that killed Jesus. As a human being born in a manger, among people who were refugees, under the violent Roman empire, Jesus was vulnerable like any human being. Despite his vulnerability, Jesus created a movement of, for, and by the poor. He was not in Jerusalem, the center of power, but in the margins where fishing communities, farmers and the poorest struggled for life. Jesus probably knew he would suffer and be crucified. For this was the fate of many like him who dared to speak against the powerful. Did he know that he was going to be resurrected? The thought probably never crossed his mind as a human being. But like Archbishop Oscar Romero who spoke against poverty and killings in El Salvador and was assassinated while holding mass, like Bishop Alberto Ramento who took the side of the farmers in the fight for agrarian reform who was killed inside the parish residence, and like so many martyrs who stand with the poor until death, he probably believed his spirit will rise up among the people even if he were killed. For me, that is the power of Jesus’s resurrection. It does not just happen to Jesus! It happens to those who believe in what he struggled for which is liberation in all forms! Ultimately, and I will end with Jon Sobrino’s proclamation, Jesus’s resurrection is a symbol of utopia as it makes possible ‘freedom to incarnate, to liberate others and to practice love.’ The human Jesus taught us how to love. The resurrected Christ calls us to follow him and do the same.

(Reflections on our class on Moltmann)

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The Kingdom of God is irreversible, new and counter-history

There are three words I encountered in Moltmann’s discourse on the logic of hope in the Kingdom of God: ‘irreversible,’ ‘new,’ and ‘counter-history.’ These are so powerful and promising. First, ‘irreversible’ or the irreversibility of time proposes that the vision of the reign of God is not a ‘return to the Garden of Eden’ or any historical moment evident in the scriptures. It means that God calls us to move forward and not to go back in time. The problem is the Church is always talking about tradition and Biblical times, dissuading those who imagine and propose beyond what is already known. Which brings me to the second word, ‘new.’ Many churches talk about God being unchanging and constant, imagining God to be unmovable and unrelenting. Over centuries, we have seen many ‘new’ things which have made the world a better place – women’s education, rights and even ordination, ecumenism and inter-religious cooperation. These have been made possible in my context and it may be new to others, but it is the newness that God’s promises in the Kingdom of God. Finally, ‘counter-history,’ a very radical word, is exactly what God promises in God’s kingdom. When I encountered this, I thought, we often pray that there were no more poor people and pray that the rich share. Actually, to be counter-history is not just to eradicate poverty but also to make unlawful wealth and greed. To be rich in the midst of poverty is something that is not of the Kingdom of God. To be counter-history is also to remove all forms of inequality. Moltmann’s logic of hope enlightened me on the depth of God ’s promise. It is so good that it goes far beyond our expectations and imagination.

(I didn’t know pine cones bloom. I picked these two yesterday and when I saw them this morning I was surprised. They looked different. They ‘blossomed.’)