Ben

Ben

by Angie Nasrallah

(part 3 in a series about Keeping our Young People in the Church) 

“What we love is what we orient our lives toward.   Christian liturgies shape our vision for the good life and aim our hearts towards God. ”  — The Areopagus podcast, “Are We Doing Youth Ministry Wrong?”

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Matthew 6:21

These words have me taking a deep breath!  As you know, I’ve been contemplating how to keep our young people in the faith.  We want our young people to treasure Christ and His church.

Benjamin is a young man who is thriving in the Church and is making a big decision to commit his life to prayer and service.  I want to share some of his story.

We’ve been  blessed to know Ben since he was just 11.  Already, he had a special twinkle in his eye, a spiritual awareness unlike other kids his age.   Ben always crossed himself when he ate even a bite of apple or sipped from a water bottle.  If you told him you weren’t feeling well, he would say, “Lord have mercy” and offer a prayer on the spot.   From his tall stature, dark features and  thick chestnut-colored pony tail, you can tell he’s part Cherokee.  But, mostly, he’s all-American boy!  At 21, he attends junior college and owns his own landscaping business.  Like many of us, he comes from a family recently converted to Orthodoxy.

Talking with Ben, he takes great care to listen and give his undivided attention and I think this is part of the reason he purposely doesn’t keep a smart phone.  I’m the one who is distracted and rushing things along.  Yet, Ben takes his time and this is a good lesson for me.   Last month, we sat on my back deck and talked about his upcoming plans to visit the Holy Mountain in Greece and then to enter the Hermitage of the Holy Cross Monastery in Wayne, West Virginia.

“What is it that draws you to the monastic life?” I asked peering out over my back yard.

“I’ve never liked change much,” he confided drinking from a glass of tap water.   “I enjoy standing and praying and I know that when I’m at the monastery I won’t have to change or shift gears every day.”

I nod.

Ben is spiritually wise.  I think I understand what he means.  Ben has oriented himself toward a life of prayer and Christ.  His compass is pointing straight toward the monastery, where he will pray for all of us his entire life.  What a sacrifice and what a calling!!

Growing up in a non- Orthodox home, I never understood the idea that God can call people into the Monastic life.  God gifts certain people with prayer and that gift overflows into those around them.  Ben’s father, Jimmy, credits Ben for bringing a consistent prayer routine into their home:  “He encouraged us to pray regularly! Then, it was his sister and the rest of us that were praying with Ben.”  So, as it happened,  Ben’s desire to pray positively impacted the whole house.

In talking with Ben and writing this post, I discovered something completely different than I thought I would:  Sometimes it’s our children that point us to Christ!  Our kids can help us get our bearings, but we have to be attentive.  A small child, frequently scared by bad dreams, may be asking to have regular evening prayers.  A teenager, apprehensive about the future may be asking for guidance on how to prepare.  How do we respond?  If we are brave enough, we can respond with the proper orientation.  We will make adjustments like setting aside time each night to pray with our kids, or we will encourage our young men to look to God for answers rather than relying on themselves.   We will establish Christian liturgies in our homes that become their hearts’ treasure.

Later in our conversation, I asked Ben what words of advice he had for young people.  I think he was surprised at this question.  “I’m not very wise myself,” he said.  But, a day later, he sent me this:

“Everyone in our society wants to be different.  But, what happens is that everyone ends up getting into the same temptations. All of us, though we want to be different, end up floating down the stream with all the other dead fish.  To be different truly, means to not just do whatever you feel  like doing, but to become like Christ; He is the only perfect and “different” one there is.  To be different in our world means to get up and do your morning prayers and prayers before you sleep, and to pray without ceasing between both!  Who does that in society after all? ”

Ben sent more, but these comments were enough to keep me busy for awhile.  Isn’t this struggle really about me and how I respond to God every day?   Looking at Ben and his life encourages me to be brave in the effort.

Just after Christmas, Ben will leave for the Hermitage of the Holy Cross!

Looking to Christ

 

 

You’ve Got to Set an Alarm!

You’ve Got to Set an Alarm!

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Second in a series on keeping our youth in the church.

Yesterday, on a rainy Sunday road trip day, I had the benefit of sitting beside my lovely 20 year old daughter as she took a driving shift. We were headed home from a family reunion in Florida and talking about the struggles of staying active in church during the college years.

“You’ve got to set an alarm,” she stated.

“In high school, you just woke me up for church. In college, I have to be motivated to set the alarm so that I will get up,” she said confidently, one hand at the wheel, left foot tucked up onto the seat. I gazed out at the rural scene moving past my wet window pondering her comments.

“You’ve got to set the alarm!”

These words are telling.

That’s a pretty simple idea; but it’s complicated. It’s complicated because maybe as a college student, you don’t want to set the alarm to get ready for church. Maybe you are the only college student going to a particular parish. Maybe there isn’t a priest at the local parish. Maybe you don’t have a car.

Regina had all of these problems her first year at Appalachian State. Somehow, she still kept setting her alarm and going. Thankfully, she found a ride most Sundays and was able to connect with the people at her small mountain parish as they plugged along looking for a permanent parish priest.

“Sometimes there would be just a handful of us singing Typika,” she said.

“But, I still wanted to be in church because it reminded me of home and I knew that going was good for me,” she confided as we raced along past a peach grove and some cows.

Somehow, I suspect that her desire to set the alarm was established long before she graduated from high school. Regina was about five when we converted to Orthodoxy. She has walked this faith with us for many years. One impactful experience she had as a young girl growing up in a household of boys was that she was the St. Lucia girl. Each year, on the 13th of December, I would set my alarm and wake her up just before daylight. Eagerly, she would arise, and put on a white night gown and come downstairs. There I would have Little Debbie cakes and a single candle burning on a brass candlestick. Groggily, she would take the candle and the cakes, and walk around to each room saying, “Jesus is the light of the world,” whereupon she would offer each boy, or Dad, a “St. Lucia” cake. It was her special thing. The Scandinavians have remembered and honored St. Lucia since 304 when she died a Christian martyr during the Diocletian persecutions.

Our priest also asked Regina to offer the festal cakes during the St. Lucia Vesperal service on the evening of the 12th. We have always loved this tradition and it has given her a special function in the service.

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I’m not going to say that being the St. Lucia girl is why Regina is setting her alarm on Sundays now that she’s in college. Yet, something stuck. She sees the importance of being in church and worshipping the Light of the World even when it’s not very convenient. So, I think one can make the connection that involving our young ladies in little traditions like this is worthwhile and may one day pay rich dividends. Over the years, these experiences layer in on a foundation of faith and tradition that keep our youth connected to what’s really important.

Like setting an alarm; it’s simple, yet very important.

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You’ve Got to Set an Alarm!

You’ve Got to Set an Alarm!

IMG_2610

Second in a series on keeping our youth in the church.

Yesterday, on a rainy Sunday road trip day, I had the benefit of sitting beside my lovely 20 year old daughter as she took a driving shift. We were headed home from a family reunion in Florida and talking about the struggles of staying active in church during the college years.
“You’ve got to set an alarm,” she stated.
“In high school, you just woke me up for church. In college, I have to be motivated to set the alarm so that I will get up,” she said confidently, one hand at the wheel, left foot tucked up onto the seat. I gazed out at the rural scene moving past my wet window pondering her comments.
“You’ve got to set the alarm!”
These words are telling.
That’s a pretty simple idea; but it’s complicated. It’s complicated because maybe as a college student, you don’t want to set the alarm to get ready for church. Maybe you are the only college student going to a particular parish. Maybe there isn’t a priest at the local parish. Maybe you don’t have a car.
Regina had all of these problems her first year at Appalachian State. Somehow, she still kept setting her alarm and going. Thankfully, she found a ride most Sundays and was able to connect with the people at her small mountain parish as they plugged along looking for a permanent parish priest.
“Sometimes there would be just a handful of us singing Typika,” she said.
“But, I still wanted to be in church because it reminded me of home and I knew that going was good for me,” she confided as we raced along past a peach grove and some cows.
Somehow, I suspect that her desire to set the alarm was established long before she graduated from high school. Regina was about five when we converted to Orthodoxy. She has walked this faith with us for many years. One impactful experience she had as a young girl growing up in a household of boys was that she was the St. Lucia girl. Each year, on the 13th of December, I would set my alarm and wake her up just before daylight. Eagerly, she would arise, and put on a white night gown and come downstairs. There I would have Little Debbie cakes and a single candle burning on a brass candlestick. Groggily, she would take the candle and the cakes, and walk around to each room saying, “Jesus is the light of the world,” whereupon she would offer each boy, or Dad, a “St. Lucia” cake. It was her special thing. The Scandinavians have remembered and honored St. Lucia since 304 when she died a Christian martyr during the Diocletian persecutions.
Our priest also asked Regina to offer the festal cakes during the St. Lucia Vesperal service on the evening of the 12th. We have always loved this tradition and it has given her a special function in the service.

IMG_0287

I’m not going to say that being the St. Lucia girl is why Regina is setting her alarm on Sundays now that she’s in college. Yet, something stuck. She sees the importance of being in church and worshipping the Light of the World even when it’s not very convenient. So, I think one can make the connection that involving our young ladies in little traditions like this is worthwhile and may one day pay rich dividends. Over the years, these experiences layer in on a foundation of faith and tradition that keep our youth connected to what’s really important.
Like setting an alarm; it’s simple, yet very important.

IMG_0272

IMG_0160

Keeping Our Young People in Church

Keeping Our Young People in Church

Keeping our teens in the church is no easy task.  Throw in what you know about contemporary culture and the Prince of this World and the task seems insurmountable.  Our culture and the evil one  seek to draw in and shred our young people, stealing their faith and their moral compass and then using them to perpetuate the cycle.  Popular culture is attractive and very few of us want to go or are able to go completely against the trend of current attitudes, entertainment and thought.

The Orthodox Christian Church is counter culture.  What do I mean by that?  In as much as the culture does not reflect the church, it is opposed to it.  Even if our kids are running in Christian circles, the Orthodox life is very dissimilar.  Consider these examples:  If you are an Orthodox Christian, you are in church on Sunday mornings…and counter to even other Christian churches, you are in church on Saturday evenings for Vespers.  You  don’t drink coffee and have pancakes on Sunday mornings before Liturgy because you are fasting before receiving the Eucharist.  You aren’t eating meat on Fridays because you are fasting as part of a Christian lifestyle.   You are in church most evenings during Holy Week!  You get married inside a church with a priest.  You make it a priority to get married before you live with your mate.  The list could go on and on!

The point is:  Being an Orthodox Christian can be challenging for anyone in our modern age.  For teens, it’s even harder.  If  the typical American Christian teenager is like a trout swimming upstream, then the American Orthodox teenager is like the rare golden trout found only in rivers above 10,000 feet!  No wonder a recent study indicates that teens and college aged adults are leaving the Orthodox Church and the Christian faith in vast numbers.  According to The Pew Research Center’s recent study on behaviors, values and opinions of the teens and twenty-somethings that make up the Millennial generation:  “nearly one-in-five adults under age 30 say they were raised in a religion but are now unaffiliated with any particular faith.”  (http://www.pewforum.org/2010/02/17/religion-among-the-millennials/)

These facts are daunting.  How am I to raise my kids so that they know Jesus?  How am I to prepare them for the cultural war?   How do we, collectively as a church, keep our young people engaged in matters of faith?

I have struggled with these and many more issues.  Raising five kids who will desire to follow in faith the Lord Jesus…that is the heart of my efforts.

I would like to tell you I have figured this out.  I would also like to tell you we have a formula that you can just follow and your kids will all stay in church for the rest of their lives.  But, I cannot.   What I can tell you is that we pray a lot.  We go to church a lot with our kids.  We talk a lot at the dinner table.

I hold onto this piece of scripture:  “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”  Proverbs 22:6

In this series, I am going to spotlight places where I see teens and young people staying connected in the church.  Hopefully, these examples will encourage us in our longing to keep our youth in the cradle of faith.

tonsuring

 

The Wallet

The Wallet

 

“My escape is to just get in a boat and disappear on the water. ” Carl Hiaasen

Boys of all ages and shapes love the freedom and excitement of a boat ride on a full lake in May.  There is a freedom on the water.  Hair blowing, sunglasses on, the smell of gasoline…all is well at the beginning of summer.

Just a couple of months after my son turned 16, he and a school friend were out on the upper Lake Hartwell in our little blue skiff enjoying those first days of summer break.  Of course, these radiant waters, like the sirens to the Greek sailors of yore, were calling my teen boys to test the parameters of the new Yamaha engine we had just installed.  They had to make and crest waves.  They had to turn donuts.  And, they had to push the ability of the small craft to stay afloat amidst a variety of maneuvers mixed with speed and wind.   Ultimately, what happened next was quite predictable.  They flipped the boat and swamped all the contents.  Paddles and jackets and half consumed water bottles could be seen floating along with a plastic bag and briefly, a hat.  Although stunned, the big boys weren’t injured and were able to right the small boat and return home.

As the adrenaline wore off,  the teens began to work through all the things that were in the boat just minutes before it went asunder.  There were water bottles, food packages, fishing poles and tackle, sunglasses, wallets, and cell phones.

“Oh no!  My wallet was in my pocket!” was the gasp I heard.  “All the gift cards I got from my birthday were in the wallet.”

“Did you have cash in there?”  his dad inquired.

“Maybe $5 – $10 bucks,” was the assessment.

For months, stories were told of the perilous incident.  Various theories surfaced of how the boat flipped, where it happened, and why the boys were able to right the craft.   Everybody  was profoundly grateful that the boys were safe and that the whole business only amounted to  some lost items.  We were thankful God had spared them from their own bad judgments.

And…just as quickly as that fantastic summer-freedom feeling came, it went.  Like the release of water from Hartwell Dam on a sweltering August day, those carefree times were gone.  Summers, Christmases, proms and graduations whirled by in a fast current of ceaseless days.

Then, on a recent December afternoon, a package arrived at our non lake house.   The padded manila envelope was addressed to my oldest, now almost 22.  Home for the holiday, he found the package and opened it.

“Ya’ll come here and see this!” was the call.  The family gathered ’round our kitchen counter while he emptied the contents onto the flat surface.

What took place next was truly astonishing.  Carefully, and with great curiosity, my son opened a flat and dingy rectangular object.  We all stood there gazing, and upon closer inspection, realized what it was!!  A smile of recognition came to my boy’s lips.

“This is my wallet!”  he blasted.  “This is the wallet I lost when we flipped the skiff.”

Sure enough!  It was the wallet of a 16 year old boy, a perfect time capsule of a by-gone era.  The wallet, lost by a boy, was now opened by a man!  The case itself was constructed of grey duct tape.  The contents, although water battered,  were undisturbed:  gift cards, a driver’s license and a library card.  The remnants of a heavily water tattered $5 and $1 bill were displayed along with a few tarnished coins.  And, there was a note.  The note told of how the young finder had seen the wallet near the boat ramp on GA 123 in Toccoa, GA.  She collected the wallet and intended to return it to its owner, but, as often happens, time got the better deal and it ended up in the top drawer of a dresser.  The writer of the note, finding the wallet one morning and realizing it had not been returned, mailed it to my son along with a little sticky note affixed inside:  “Looks like you had a $1 and a $5 in the wallet — Thought I would replace that for you.  Cherish the memory!”

 

I was at a loss for words, which is unusual!  What a kind and generous thing to do, return a water-logged, trashed duct-taped wallet to a kid you will likely never meet!!

While my son was contemplating the gift cards, I was struck by the generosity of a person I will never be able to thank!  A person who took the time to be kind!  That can be a rare thing.  But, people are good!  Lake people are good and I will cherish the memory.

We Got the Grad!

We Got the Grad!

There’s a lot of hype associated with getting that perfect graduation picture.   You know, that intense feeling that you need a perfect memory of you with your first born child wearing  his college regalia right after the ceremony.   Throw in some traditions like, “your grandfather had his picture taken from this very spot” or “all graduates take their pictures by the this campus feature” and you have the perfect storm.

It was the morning after my son’s graduation.   All smiles, we approached the quintessential grad photo location on Florida State’s palm studded campus:  Westcott Fountain.   Dozens of happy parents and students were waiting for their “moment” to take a picture with their grad in front of the historic fountain.  Both my husband and I had our pictures taken here some 30 years before.   Of course we would wait forty five minutes in the heat for our perfect picture moment.  This was “what you did!”

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There was plenty of joking and playing around while we waited.  It was a glorious day; that North Florida heat was beating down on the bald and the young.

peake & chase

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regina & peake

getting a photo

I nervously tinkered with my aged camera, checking out my lenses in the sun, working my filters.

Finally, we were up.  I told the folks behind us, ” We may be a minute. There are quite a few of us.”  The group behind us looked at their watches, “No problem.  We’ll give you a couple of minutes.”

Yikes!  A couple of minutes to get four grandparents, five kids, an uncle and a best friend into a picture, all looking the right direction, all in focus, all smiling.  This is going to be fun.

grad in the sun

riley w grad

wait i dropped it

First, we got the graduate.  That was easy, a few lens changes and the lighting was fine.  Then more joined.  Finally, we got the whole bunch and had the best friend take the family group shot.  Whew!  What a relief!

We can use these for our Christmas picture…what a great looking family…so proud of our graduate…isn’t she a neat mom with her camera set up… you go girl…now we can get out of the heat…isn’t that lady together! These thoughts and more went through my mind.

By now, we had been moved off to the side for the next group’s time in the sun.

“Momma Naz,” I heard Chase say.  “I think I got some good pictures.”

“Thank you for taking ’em!” was my reply.

“I didn’t happen to hear a shutter click though.  You must have a really quiet camera,” he added.

“What?” my hyped-mamma, camera ears heard the words you never want to hear.

“There was no click? What do you mean you didn’t hear the shutter?”  I ran over, grabbed the camera and scrolled to the most recent shot.  There were no family pictures.  No pictures with grandparents.  No picture with my Uncle who had driven up from Port Richey.  No Christmas card shot!  My heart sunk.  Chase had taken the cell pictures first and, after the delay,  the camera had automatically shut off!

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Ugggg! What are we going to do now?   I had to think fast.

The older family members were melting.  Tempers were flaring.

“Well get ’em off the cell phone,” said the graduate.

The grandparents and the favorite uncle left.

Tears were starting to come.

“NO!!”  I suddenly felt like Clark Griswold in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation!  We would get that damn picture.

harder than we thought

enough

I took a side angle of our group in front of the camera hoping no one would get too upset with us.  I prepped Chase on how to turn on a camera.

Round two was shot, with mostly smiles but a few growls.  I ran to the camera.  Better to check just in case.    The horror!  Every frame was blurry!!

blurry

“Let’s get out of here!” was the agitated command from the rear.   The graduate gave an evil eye.

“NO!”  Clark Griswold snapped again.  We will do this!   I prepped Chase on how NOT to turn the camera to manual focus.  “Keep it on AutoFocus,” I barked.

Round three. Half grunts, twisted lips and mangled brows, but we got it in focus.  Strangely, I felt vindicated, like someone had done me some wrong and now we were even.  Maybe it was my sun-baked brain telling me that taking pictures is my only important role in the world.

The truth is, no one did me wrong and I’m not a great photographer.   I just got too hyped up about getting some stupid graduation photos.  And, of course, Murphy’s Law kicked in to remind me that my priorities were all wrong.

Of course, there are more important things!  We got the grad!  Whether I captured a decent picture or not, he’s still a grad. He finished it and I am so proud of him!

family with grad

peake mom &

Confessions of a Previously Pro-Choice Woman

Confessions of a Previously Pro-Choice Woman

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There’s been a lot of talk lately about life, abortion and women’s rights.

I’ve been thinking about my own struggle with these issues.  Perhaps my story can give perspective to others who grapple with these things.

As an only child, I grew up in a home with two loving parents, both of whom wanted to limit their family size to one!  My mother, influenced by the thinking of the day, was concerned that there would not be enough global resources to support the world’s growing population by the year 1980.  My father, who had two children from a previous marriage, was reluctant to even have a third child.  This small, quiet environment of restricted society was my crucible.

As I grew older, and went to college, I was convinced that it was absolutely outrageous that women should be straddled with all of the burden of pregnancy, especially when men can walk away at any time.  The idea that our society didn’t hold men accountable at the same level as women for the caring and raising of children — that was egregious to me!  So, I became all about pro-choice.  A woman had a right to choose if she wanted to keep her child!  What if, God forbid, a woman was raped!  Or, what if, the young girl was pregnant and couldn’t support a child because she was still in school?  These questions plagued me.

At this point, I never considered the child. The child never played a role in any of these scenarios.

Somewhere along the way though, God changed my heart.  It didn’t happen all at once, like at a seminar or during a sermon.  It happened because He, in His infinite wisdom, changed the way I thought about children.

Maybe, the change began when my husband and I were unable to have a child as soon as we decided, “Let’s get pregnant!”  Two years, several fertility treatments and a lot of prayer brought our first child, a boy.  It was during that experience that I realized how precious life is, and how wonderful it is to welcome a new baby into the family!

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At first, I wanted to have “a couple of kids” like everyone else.  “Maybe we’ll have a boy and a girl, ” I told my husband.

But, when I found out I was pregnant with my third, I was irate with my hubby!

“How could you do this to me?”  “Everyone is going to think we are freaks!”  I yelled in a hormonal fit!  Three kids, this close together is not what I signed up for!

My loving, non-reactionary husband, was calm.

“You are going to be okay!  I don’t give a damn what people think! I am excited that we have another beautiful life coming into our lives.”

His words were reassuring.  But I had a ways to go.

After my third child, a friend gave me a magazine called Above Rubies.  This publication devoted to encouraging mothers was a concentration of articles and testimonies focused on the joy of having children and families!  I devoured this reading and the seed was planted that children, (note the plural)  are a gift, not a burden.

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Surprisingly, I now wanted a fourth child, and wasn’t mad when I discovered we were pregnant yet again.

Unfortunately, with this pregnancy, a new struggle occurred. In public, complete strangers would stare and make comments about my family as if I were “irresponsible” to have yet “another” child. “Are all of those yours?” they would ask.  “You know what causes that, don’t you?” They would question sarcastically as they saw my rounded belly! Sometimes, I think people just wanted to make conversation, but other times, you could tell that a person was truly agitated that we were making “too many” babies!

babies

 

My father showed up at the birth of my fourth. He was smiling and gave me a dime.  “Put this between your knees and squeeze!”  He chuckled. “It’s the natural form of birth control.” He thought he was being cute. Holding my newborn son in my arms I looked at him and thought, “Which one of your four siblings would you want to erase, Dad?” I kept silent.

Still I continued to receive pressure from both family and friends to “quit having kids already.”

My uncle said to me when I was pregnant with my fifth, “Isn’t that about enough?” This is quite an audacious query to put before an eight-month pregnant lady!  Why did he feel he had the right to make such a comment?  I really believe he thought I was out-of-line to have more than my share of children.

In 1957, journalist Mike Wallace interviewed Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood.  In this interview, Sanger revealed what became an agenda to change the way our society thinks about fertility:  “I think the greatest sin in the world is bringing children into this world.”  My uncle, like so many in our culture, had bought into this line of thinking.

“You guys can do whatever you want, but I think you’re crazy,” a close family member told me one day when I told her of my impending fifth birth. How is a young mother to deal with this kind of pressure?

Looking back, I realize that the struggles I’ve had with abortion, birth control, family life and women’s rights are all related!  There is a culture in our country, perhaps even the dominate culture, that doesn’t value children.  Many don’t see children as a gift from God.  Many don’t see them as precious.  Rather, many around us see children as a burden, an expense, a hassle.   As a nation, I believe we aren’t going to progress on this issue until we address this pervasive thinking.

Our ideas about abortion won’t be changed at the clinic or at the women’s march.  Our ideas about life and family will only be changed in the heart when God shows us that we are more complete, more joyful even, when we give of ourselves to others and to our children.

To wrap this up, I want to tell you about something that miraculously happened in my dad’s heart with the birth of my fifth!  When I told him that we would be having another baby he said, “I am glad.  You are a good mother.”  He came to the hospital and held his new grandson.  “You did good!” he said softly.  What a change in this man!

God is the healer of hearts, the changer of minds and the giver of children!!  Glory be to Him!

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