Diego Turned Angel

On Child's Level.pngI’ve never considered myself to be certifiably insane, but – deciding to be a long-term sub for the last month of the school year? – maybe I should reconsider the state of my mental health.

After I resigned from my cushy (and soul-numbing) corporate job in April, I took a three-week long term substitute teaching assignment at a nearby elementary school. I figured it would be a good opportunity to learn some key teaching skills before I started my full-time teaching job in August. And I was right.

What I hadn’t taken into consideration were the facts that:

  • These 5th graders in my class had already finished their state testing and so felt like there was no more learning to be done.
  • They believed that they ruled the world (as the oldest grade in their school).
  • Summer (and graduation from elementary school) was less than one month away.
  • It was a Title I school.
  • I had basically zero experience with classroom management.

Suffice it to say, I nearly died those first few days. I had kids threaten to have their parents sue me when I said the wrong thing, had kids tell me they hated me and I was the worst teacher ever, had parents calling in wanting a parent-teacher conference because they believed their child was being bullied, had to get a counselor involved because a fifth grade boy was following girls into the bathroom and touching them inappropriately… It. Was. Madness.

But I survived. And I am better for it. And, looking back, it was actually a lot of fun. Because – for the first time in nearly eight years – I actually had purpose. I actually felt challenged. And I finally made an impact.

Diego was one of the kids I nearly sent to ISS the first day I subbed. He talked incessantly and, as soon as I got the class calmed down and on task, he (as a natural leader and the class clown) had the power to get them all off task again. I felt like I was constantly battling him for the class’s attention.

And Victor. He was the most simultaneously hateful, cynical, apathetic person I have ever met in my entire life. He loved to argue with me in front of the class just for argument’s sake. He knew I couldn’t physically touch him, so he openly defied me on a daily basis when I asked to speak with him privately outside. He refused to go in the hallway, and I couldn’t physically force him, so for a long time, I lost the daily battles of power struggle with Victor – the most arrogant, abrasive student I can imagine I will ever have in decades of teaching.

But as the weeks went on and I learned students’ names and personalities and values and insecurities, I slowly learned how to individualize not only my teaching but also my motivation and discipline of each one.

On my last week of subbing, the students were supposed to be engaging in silent reading time. Diego repeatedly got off task, reading out loud in an intentionally loud voice and distracting other students. When I asked him to read silently, he claimed not to be able to read without saying the words out loud (this was a lie). He – like Victor – refused to go into the hall with me, so I knelt down on his level and whispered to him quietly.

“Diego,” I sighed. “I know you think I don’t like you, but I do. I think you’re adorable. You’re smart, funny and a natural leader. You have so much potential!”

I shrugged my shoulders and continued as I knelt beside his desk on his eye level. “You are not a bad kid. But right now you are making bad choices. I can see the kind of man you could be, and I really want to see you reach your full potential. You are natural leader with a lot of power to do a lot of good in the world. But in order to do that, you need to start making better choices.”

To my surprise, Diego’s eyes started to water. He was tearing up, and I realized he probably had never been told by anyone that he had potential; that he had value and worth and power to do good in the world. So I went on, “It’s really up to you. I only have a few days left here, so it won’t affect me either way. But every day, you make choices that have consequences, and those can be good or bad consequences. I hope for your sake – and the world’s – you choose good.”

Diego just hung his head and wouldn’t make eye contact with me after that, so I left him alone, but he was surprisingly quiet the rest of the day.

The next morning, the class was working individually on a math worksheet, and – to my surprise – Diego raised his hand and asked for help understanding how to add fractions. He’d never expressed interest in learning before. Encouraged, I knelt by his desk and gently explained to him how to find common denominators so he could add (or subtract) fractions easily. I watched the lightbulb flash in his eyes as he “got” it, and he worked a few problems on his own to show me that he understood the concept.

Later that afternoon, some girls got in trouble for selling homemade “slime” (that ended up clogging the school toilets), and a lot of the kids – exposed to this entrepreneurial spirit for perhaps the first time – were trying to figure out how they could make some side money selling something at school. Diego came up to me and asked simply, “Will you give me five dollars?”

“Why would I give you five dollars?” I asked, not unkindly.

Diego looked thoughtful. “What if I gave you something?”

“Like what?” I asked, forcing him to think through what he was asking.

“Hmm… like a cake?” he suggested.

“That sounds nice,” I told him. “What kind of cake?”

He furrowed his brow, thinking hard. “Maybe chocolate or strawberry?”

I smiled. “Diego, if you bring me a chocolate cake tomorrow, I will give you five dollars.”

I had little to no expectation that the little man who’d given me so much trouble would actually follow through in baking a cake, but the next morning, Diego bounded into my room, beaming with delight he tried to hide a bit as he dashed up to me holding a little 9″x9″ foil pan.

“I brought it!” he exclaimed, and I peeled back the foil to see chocolate icing covering what looked like a homemade box cake.

I smiled at him and pulled a $5 from my wallet. “Here you go,” I told him. “You earned it!” His delight as he accepted the money made me smile all the more.

In retrospect, I probably couldn’t have done that exchange with Diego if I was a full-time teacher or if I hadn’t been about to leave that school campus, but I’m thankful for the way it worked out because not only did I finally make a meaningful, positive connection with a formerly disruptive student, but Diego also learned some important lessons about entrepreneurship, determination, and the power of our choices. He finally had someone show him tough love and believe in him for becoming more than he was.

The next day was my last day, and I had essentially no hope for a reconciliation with Victor, but even he surprised me. Early in the day, I kept Victor outside of the computer lab to talk with him before he went in. I gave him a similar speech to the one I’d given Diego, and like the other boy, Victor started to tear up. I don’t think either one had ever experienced a loving “I believe you for better” heart-to-heart. And at the end of that school day, Victor – the thorn in my side and bane of my existence – was the first to volunteer to stack chairs on the desks before recess. He picked up loose papers and helped me tidy up the classroom without being asked, and my heart was warmed by his transformation.

After a tough few weeks, God gave me two amazing reminders of why I’m going into teaching. It’s going to be hard but good. It’s going to be challenging but worth it. There are days I will want to cry in frustration, but I believe there will be great purpose and impact on individual lives. And that’s what I want to be about in this next year and in this next season of life.

A few weeks later, Seth and I were at dinner with some friends – old and new – and one of the new girls asked what I did for a living. After a few moments, we made the connection that she had formerly been a teacher at the elementary school where I’d subbed. “Oh my gosh! You’re THAT sub! I heard you did an amazing job, and all the teachers there want to have you back as the sub for their classrooms!”

I smiled and thanked her, storing up those words in my heart. As we drove away in his truck hours later, Seth turned to me and said with a squeeze of my hand, “Your reputation precedes you. I’m proud to have you by my side.”

I’m glad to be there. It’s nice to be appreciated.

Authentically Aurora

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Life is Lived in the Grey

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I started going grey at 22. I remember standing in the bathroom of my college’s volleyball colosseum and cringing at the strands of metallic white hair I saw peeking through the rest of my dark brown locks. For years I plucked the hairs or just let them grow out, but this year – once I turned 30 – I decided to finally take action.

That first week I turned 30, I quit my corporate job, took off for four days to drive alone through the hill country, and scheduled an appointment with a new hairdresser to dye my hair for the first time ever. Anyone who didn’t know me would think I was going through a mid-life crisis, but Ashley and others knew the changes were a long time in coming.

The Colorist was a nice woman in her fifties – nice but not warm. Tall and slender with angular features and jet black hair, she came off as astute and knowledgeable as she talked me through my options. I’d planned on dying my hair outright, but once she understood that my priorities were hiding the grey and having low maintenance, she suggested highlights instead.

“Highlights will camouflage the grey hairs,” she explained to me, “though they will still be there. If you completely dye your hair, you’ll have to come in to have the roots touched up twice as often.”

“Okay, that makes sense. Thanks.” After her education, I decided to have highlights done, but I emphasized that I wanted them to look natural. “I don’t want big, chunky highlights.”

“Alright, I’ll give you more of a natural, sun-kissed look,” she agreed. She went to work, and in the meantime, I looked around her salon station, noting the trophies lined the counter. She was good at her job and had been at it for decades. The Colorist told me that working on “virgin hair” was her favorite, so getting to do my highlights was a special treat. We made some small talk, but not much, and when she was finished, she sent me off to have my hair blow-dried by a male hairdresser named Jonny.

Jonny was channeling Adam Lambert, circa 2009, complete with shaggy black hair, dark eyeliner and multiple rings on each hand. He seemed nice but frazzled, having misplaced his hairdryer. I thought that was odd, since he was a hairdresser junior enough that his primary job was blow-drying the hair of other hairstylists’ clients.

Once Jonny found his hairdryer,  he went to work on different sections of my hair, moving through them slowly – and then stopping completely when the back end of his newly-found hairdryer started to smoke. He turned it off and on, shaking it and then shaking his head in frustration. He turned it back on and continued to dry my hair, keeping a wary eye on his questionable equipment.

Having finally found his groove, Jonny started to make small talk with me. He asked if I was married, and when I told him I was dating Seth, he asked how we met. I told Jonny about church and meeting while teaching Sunday school.

Ever since starting to date Seth, I’ve had an easy gateway into talking with people about faith. Nobody wants to talk about God, but everybody wants to talk about my love life. Since Seth and I met at church, I can pretty easily bridge that gap into the typically taboo topic of faith.

Sure enough, Jonny latched on to the topic. “Wow. That is just the perfect story, isn’t it?” He was genuinely enthralled. “How cute is that?! You two are just perfect. She teaches girls Sunday school; he teaches boys Sunday school… It’s like a movie!”

Jonny and I got to talking more in depth, and I thanked God that I didn’t have anywhere to be. Every time we talked about something that really interested him, Jonny would turn off his blowdryer so that he could better hear me and make sure I heard his response in turn. As a result, it took him TWO HOURS to dry my hair. I was in the salon for three hours total – a trip that normally takes me less than half that time! But it was worth it.

Jonny obviously felt comfortable with me, because he asked me a lot of good questions about God and what I believe. “You’re supposed to love God with all that you are, right?” He asked. When I nodded, he went on, “But if you marry Seth, you seem like the kind of girl who would also want to give her husband 100%. I know you’re going to be a great wife. You are so pure and kind-hearted. But how can you, as a good Christian, give both God and your husband 100%?”

“That’s such a great question, Jonny. I’m glad you asked me.” I paused, trying to think how best to respond. “Jesus said that anything we do for others, we are doing for Him. When we love and serve other people, we are loving and serving God. God wants me to love my husband well, and – if I were to marry Seth – loving Seth would be a way of loving God. So the two aren’t mutually exclusive; they support one another.”

“Huh. I didn’t know that. I give food to homeless people all the time,” he told me, and I could tell he really wanted me to think he was a good person. “So am I doing that for God? Does that count?”

I smiled. At first, Jonny had been intentionally pushing my buttons, trying to see how judgmentally I’d respond when he flippantly told me about waking up next to his girlfriend or how cool it was to get to cut her hair when they showered together. But when I looked past those comments and just focused on the heart of the conversation, he started to open up more.

“That’s so great – I love that you have such a giving heart. I believe God gave you that generosity because the world desperately needs people like you. And it’s wonderful that you are helping the homeless. But God says that anything we do apart from Him is fruitless, so I’d say it comes back to motives. When you feed the homeless, are you doing it because you want to feel good about yourself or because you want to glorify God and do His work?”

Thinking about James 3, I added, “I think what you are doing is great, and you should keep doing it, but to go to heaven, we have to be in a right relationship with God, and to receive rewards in heaven for what we’ve done, we have to check our motives and abide in God.”

Jonny nodded thoughtfully. “Okay. That’s good. Maybe I can change my mindset and motives.” He finished up drying my hair and asked delicately, “Um, when you had your hair cut last, did you by chance come in on a Saturday?”

I blinked, surprised. “Yes. Why?”

“Well… sometimes our hairdressers are rushed on Saturdays, and it looks like some of your layering is off. Did you have it cut here?”

I nodded, and Jonny continued, “Then I should see a certain technique.”

He lifted the ends of my hair with a comb, shaking his head. Then he glanced around furtively. “I’ll fix it for you. No charge.” He smiled at me. “I like you.”

I smiled back. “Thanks, Jonny. I like you, too.”

Authentically Aurora

Receiving Dividends (Part 2)

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It was nearly 3:30AM by the time I finally got back to bed after intervening with the taxi driver and security guard. I’d told the taxi driver I was a Christian and that’s why I’d stepped in to help. The security guard had shaken my hand and asked for my unit number for his report.

I couldn’t sleep when I got back to my apartment; I was full of energy and adrenaline. So I started writing a note to the drunk guy in unit 71 who started the whole ordeal. I was upset at first – he was at a men’s club, which repulses me, and he came home drunk, which is irritating. He was so far gone he didn’t understand that he needed to pay the taxi driver for his fare.

But as I started writing, God changed my heart, and the letter in Part 1 is the result. I slipped on my white sandals and walked down to his unit where I shoved the folded up letter in the crease of the door. As I wiggled the paper to make sure it was secure, I heard footsteps coming slowly down the hallway. They weren’t the shuffling footsteps of someone groggily getting home late. They were slow and deliberate; it was surely the security guard.

Not sure if he’d reprimand me for leaving a note, I turned the opposite direction to avoid making eye contact, leaving my note to unit 71 still visible in the door. Safely back at my apartment, I threw off my shoes and collapsed into bed. A few minutes later, I heard a scratching at my door, but I was so exhausted that I just rolled over and figured it was fine. I’d triple-checked that my door was dead-bolted.

When I woke up hours later, I did my usual morning routine before I happened to walk by my front door and saw a piece of yellow, ruled paper sticking out. Snapping it up, I felt somewhat apprehensive. Was it from the drunk tenant or the security guard? Was it a thank you or an angry rant?

I unfolded the paper and read:

“I would like to say thank you again for being Spirit led and for being such a great neighbor. You truly are a beautiful person inside and out, and I speak eternal blessings over you and your house now and forevermore. You are a true example of Christian Love. If you ever need anything, please don’t hesitate to call me. Grace and peace -“

He signed his name and left his phone number, along with his title: “Security”. It turns out I wasn’t the only Christian being Spirit led last night. And we are better together than we are alone.

“The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ… We have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit… Yes, there are many parts, but only one body… Some parts of the body that seem weakest and least important are actually the most necessary… We carefully protect those parts that should not be seen, while the more honorable parts do not require this special care. So God has put the body together such that extra honor and care are given to those parts that have less dignity. This makes for harmony among the members, so that all the members care for each other.” -1 Corinthians 12

Authentically Aurora

Paying Debts (Part 1)

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To My Neighbor in Unit 71:

I don’t know if you’re going to remember this in the morning, but you came home last night from a men’s club completely drunk at 2:30AM. I’m one of your neighbors, and I got woken up by you arguing with the taxi driver – and then the security officer – because you refused to pay the taxi for driving you home from the men’s club.

After about ten minutes of lying awake listening to the three of you argue, I came down and paid your bill. I did it partially for myself – so I could go back to sleep – and partially for the poor taxi driver so he could get on with his night, but mostly I did it because, like you, I’ve had debts paid for me by someone else, not because of my own worth or merit, but because of their own character.

Do you live up to your own standards for yourself? How much less so do we live up to God’s standards! All of us sin – miss the mark – and I believe our sin separates us from a perfect and holy God. Because God is perfectly just, there has to be a punishment for sin: eternal separation from Him in hell. But because God is also perfectly loving, He made a way back to a right relationship with Himself through sending His Son Jesus who willingly died in my place and yours, taking the punishment we deserve. But Jesus didn’t stay dead. After three days, He rose from the dead, defeating sin, death and the power of the devil.

God desires to have a relationship with you. Just like I already paid your taxi debt – not because you deserved it, but because I extended grace to you – God has already paid the debt of your sin through Jesus. But you have to accept this free gift and believe it’s true in order to be made right before God. And I hope that you do.

I go to [church’s name] and will be there at 9:00AM on Sunday. If you have questions, it’s a good place to find answers.

Your Neighbor

Authentically Aurora

Overqualified to Love?

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I absolutely love teaching Sunday school. It’s part of what made me realize I wanted to pursue a career in teaching. Granted, 7- and 8-year old church kids are very different from the broad spectrum of angsty junior highers I’m planning to educate in math, but I expect that the experience of relationship-building and investing in the next generation will be rewarding all the same.

One of the greatest parts about being involved with kids’ ministry at my church is that I have genuinely developed relationships with my girls. I’ve had multiple parents ask for my contact information because their daughters requested to have me as a babysitter. And almost nothing fills my heart with more joy than getting to babysit these sweet girls during the week.

Most of the moms are relieved to have a reliable babysitter (and overjoyed when they find out I do it for free), but when Cristin’s girls started to beg me to babysit, she was hesitant to ask me. This is because Cristin knows that I have an engineering degree and work at a major oil company. When she finally did ask me, she was almost embarrassed, saying, “It’s okay if you don’t want to. I know you are way overqualified for this.”

I wanted to hug her. Overqualified? To love on your sweet girls? To feed them dinner and play games with them and tuck them into bed? No. No one can be overqualified to love. It is a part of the human condition – the most beautiful part, really – to pour our hearts into serving one another; an outpouring of love.

Our schedules never seemed to align, but finally – finally! – the day Seth and I got back from California, Cristin and I agreed that I would come to babysit that evening. Cristin’s sister was in town with her children, making for a total of 6 kids to babysit, ranging in age from 2 to 12. Cristin knows Seth from church, so she suggested, “You can bring Seth along if you like. I trust him, and it might be more fun for the two of you to watch six kids together!”

I thought it was a great idea, so Seth and I got home from California, unpacked our bags and prepared to drive over to Cristin’s for a really fun date night of babysitting together. We were legitimately excited, so when Cristin called to cancel last-minute, I was disappointed.

“Two of the girls just started throwing up,” she told me. “It looks like I’ll be staying home tonight. You and Seth go enjoy your evening.”

I didn’t mind taking care of sick kids, but I thought Seth might not be too keen on that, so I explained the situation to him. Without even prompting him with my own opinions on the matter, Seth replied back, “Let’s go over anyway! I don’t mind taking care of sick kids.” One of many reasons I adore this man.

Cristin really appreciated our willingness to still babysit depite the kids’ illness, but she insisted that her kids would be more comfortable having Mommy take care of them. “My sister and I were going to a concert tonight, and we’d hate for the tickets to go to waste. Would you two be interested in going?” And she named a Christian rock band that is a favorite of Seth’s. This was a concert he and I had talked about going to see, but tickets were sold out. Are you serious?

Cristin and I went through the whole “We couldn’t take those tickets” … “At least let us pay you for them” … “Alright, if you insist” conversation, and soon Seth and I were in Cristin’s driveway to pick up our tickets for our newly renovated date night.

Cristin welcomed us inside, and we walked as a group to the various bathrooms of the house where each of her girls was bent over a toilet and wrapped in a bath robe. My poor babies. I got down on my knees and hugged them tightly and was surprised at myself when I started tearing up. I love these girls so much, as if they are my very own.

Back downstairs, Cristin handed each of us plates of homemade mustard salmon with green beans and a side of garlic bread. She’d already made us dinner as a thank you for babysitting; now she was sending us to a dream concert with dinner to go. Seth and I were astonished. Over the course of an hour, we’d gone from planning to babysit 6 sick kids to getting free dinner and concert tickets to one of our favorite bands. And all we did was say yes.

Authentically Aurora

Streams in the Desert

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Most days I wonder why I’m still here.

Not why I’m still alive (that escalated quickly, ha) but why I’m still at this job. It’s no secret that I don’t love my workplace, but even when things are especially frustrating, I know there is purpose to this season of life. Otherwise God wouldn’t still have me here.

Today I got a reminder of God’s goodness to provide streams in the desert.

Last summer, I mentored one of our company’s interns, and at the end of the summer, she was awarded a full time job. Now we meet about once a week to grab coffee and catch up.  She’s a sweet girl from China, and I really enjoy the authenticity of our conversations.

I met with her this morning and, as we prepared to get back to work, she closed our conversation with, “Every time I meet with you, I feel like I leave a better person. You are a good person. Talking with you makes me better.”

Internally, several things happened at once. My heart was warmed by her encouraging words, and my brain signaled that I should correct her thinking that I am a good person. I thought for an instant that it might be the right time to tell her about Jesus – that there is nothing good in me apart from him – but the moment didn’t seem right.

Meanwhile, she continued, “I was upset this morning before I met with you, but you have such a big, happy smile that I cannot help but be in a better mood. I always love meeting with you.”

I gave her a hug and thanked her for her kind, encouraging words. It is wonderful to receive affirmation from friends (and especially from colleagues)! But I also sensed that there may be more work for me to be done here – at least in this relationship. I believe God is not finished with the mere streams in this desert. He desires to transform it into a fertile land.

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33 He changes rivers into deserts,
    and springs of water into dry, thirsty land.
34 He turns the fruitful land into salty wastelands,
    because of the wickedness of those who live there.
35 But he also turns deserts into pools of water,
    the dry land into springs of water.
36 He brings the hungry to settle there
    and to build their cities.
37 They sow their fields, plant their vineyards,
    and harvest their bumper crops.
38 How he blesses them!
    They raise large families there,
    and their herds of livestock increase…

43 …Those who are wise will take all this to heart;
    they will see in our history the faithful love of the Lord.  (Psalm 107)

Authentically Aurora

In Support of Syria

Syrian Refugee HelpHave you ever been someone’s answer to prayer? I don’t just mean figuratively, where someone tells you that you are a Godsend because you turned down the volume to Little Einsteins while she, in all her mother-of-five-ness sits slumped on the couch covered in day-old baby vomit.

Have you ever been a very literal answer to someone’s very specific prayer? This happened to me on Sunday morning.

Our pastor preached on the importance of international missions, frequently referencing the current tragedies facing Syrian refugees. Our church is sponsoring two trips this year – one to Greece and one to Jordan – both in support of Syrian refugees. I am already giving financially to these efforts, but during the sermon, I reevaluated if I should personally be among those going on the trips.

I’ve been on several international mission trips – some medical, some evangelical – in countries ranging from South Sudan to the Philippines. But this year, I believe I am being asked by God to stay and help people right here in my city. There is no need to travel around the world to meet the needs of the desperate and victimized. I live in a very international city that is a hub for both refugees and human trafficking (which often go hand-in-hand). This city is my home, and I believe my ministry in 2016 is to people I encounter during the course of my day-to-day living.

Once I established that I am not being asked by God to go on either of these international trips, I started praying and asking God what I was supposed to take away from the sermon. What was God’s purpose for having me hear those words that morning? God’s response was to draw my thoughts to a particular friend: Leanne.

Leanne goes to my church and has never done international missions before, but she had previously expressed to me both an interest in and a fear of doing mission work. And what God told me that morning is that Leanne has been tasked with taking the good news about Jesus to Africa, and her journey starts with taking a step of faith in going on a short term trip.

I spotted Leanne across the sanctuary and saw her head bowed in prayer near the end of the service. I prayed for her from across the room, wondering what God had spoken to her during church that morning. When the service ended and everyone got up to leave, I navigated my way through the crowds to Leanne just as she made it to the tiled hallway outside the sanctuary.

“Hey! Leanne!” She turned as I called out her name.

When I reached her, I put my hand on her shoulder and asked, “Hey, what did you think of the sermon today?”

Wordlessly, she raised one hand and directed my gaze to it. “I’m shaking,” she told me. “My hands are shaking. That sermon was for me.”

I smiled. “I know. That’s what I came to tell you. Are you going to go on one of the trips?”

“I don’t know!” She exclaimed, forehead lined with anxiety. “The Greece trip is kind of tugging at my heart, but I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. At the end of the service, I was praying, ‘God, I don’t know what you’re trying to tell me. Will you send someone to tell me what to do?'”

My eyes widened as her words registered. I was the messenger! The moment Leanne began praying, I believe God appointed me to be the answer to her prayer. So I relayed to Leanne what God had revealed to me. “Go on the trip to Greece.”

Leanne smiled. “Thanks for being obedient to what God told you to do. I guess now it’s my turn.”

We hugged tightly, both of our eyes moist, and I realized with a smile that now Leanne wasn’t the only one shaking. Our God is so good. He is not a God of confusion but a God of peace.

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. -James 1:5

Authentically Aurora