Tag Archives: Body of Christ

“…no indifferent matter…”

Picking up from last time

The outward order of the Church therefore is no indifferent matter; it is, on the contrary, of supreme importance since it is found to be related to the Church’s inner meaning and to the Gospel of God itself.  For the good news that God has visited and redeemed His people includes the redeemed man’s knowledge of death and resurrection through his place in the one visible society and through the death to self that every member and group has died.  And in telling of this one visible society the Church’s outward order tells indeed of the Gospel (Ramsey, 43).

Why is this so important?  Why does it matter what we consider church?  Why can’t the unity of the Church be summed up in the things we have in common (e.g., the belief in one God, the faith in Jesus Christ)?  Why should we find a deeper, more complex (and more fulfilling!!) unity than this?

Paul’s letters to the local church in Corinth sheds light on these questions.

Corinth was an extremely active society, grammatically, anyway.  The constant appeals to “we have,” “we know,” “we are” neglect the richness of the thoughts, “God has given,” “God possesses us” and “we are not, in ourselves and of ourselves; but Christ in us is wisdom, righteousness, and sanctification.”  The people at Corinth see themselves in “an individualistic way instead of merging themselves and their gifts in the one Body and so learning to die and live” (Ramsey, 44).

How does Paul respond?  By proclaiming the Gospel, and by asserting the truth about the structure of the Church.  Their pride Paul confronts with the scandal of the cross.  Without the cross, the Corinthians are nothing, but Christ in them is “wisdom and righteousness and sanctification.”  This Gospel–of selflessness and obedience–is not only found by their connection with the Christ event of the past, but by present expression in the one Body.

By their place in the one Body they are to learn to be humble and dependent and to die to self.  Let them consider the Body and exist only as members of the Body, and they will learn of Christ’s Cross whereby men are lost as separate “selfhoods” and found as members of Christ and of one another (Ramsey, 44-45).

Paul didn’t waste any time or space: “Paul…to the Church of God which is in Corinth…called to be saints…with all that call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ in every place, their Lord and ours (1 Corinthians 1:1-2).  They are not alone in the Christian race:  “What? was it from you that the word of God went forth: or did it come to you alone?” (1 Corinthians 14:36).  They are not only alone, they depend on those, most especially the Apostles, who preceded them.

And who can forget 1 Corinthians 12, which expresses this principle of dependence fully?

The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you: or again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.  Much rather, those members of the body which seem to be more feeble are necessary…Now you are the body of Christ, and severally members of it.

“So Corinth learns the Gospel anew by learning the Church” (Ramsey, 45).  What the church, but its unity between members, unity with history, unity with the Christ, and unity with the Divine Trinity itself, is to express the Gospel, and the message of selflessness which this world has a very difficult time embracing.  The individual Christian and the exalted and spiritual group of Christians both learn of the Body and of the Cross together.

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No Parish is an Island

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

This string of adjectives, as proclaimed in the Nicene Creed, is usually quickly said, and sometimes feels as though a part of the many things we use to fill up the clause concerning the Holy Spirit.  But it is so much more than that.

In my experience, the four adjectives are usually only talked about as three.  Or, I should say, only three are normally referred to or talked about.  “Holy” is always interesting – how is the church “holy” and what is the “holiness” of the church to consist of.  We can debate for quite a while about what “Catholic” means.  And “Apostolic” can be tagged with a few different nuances, some worthy and others not.  But in many conversations, we might forget that we also believe in One holy catholic and apostolic church.

I’ve certainly hinted at unity, if not already written about it explicitly.  This post is focusing specifically on the unity of the Church–what it means to believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church–and what this means for Sunday morning worship.

Where does this unity spring from?  Is it enough to say that Anglicans and Lutherans each believe in the Trinity?  This is significant, but it’s only scratching the surface.  The unity of the Church rests much deeper than confessions or articles of belief.

As I’ve mentioned before, the word for “church” in the New Testament is ecclesia, the same Greek word used to translate qahal in the Old Testament, a word referring to the congregation of the people of Israel, the chosen race, called out by God himself.  By attributing this word to themselves, the Christians of the New Testament claim that “they are themselves the ecclesia of God.  To them belong the promises and privileges of the Israel of God, and their unity is a unity of race” (Ramsey, 40).

In the New Testament, ecclesia refers to both the Body of Christ and to the local congregation.  The distinction is important:

The very word ecclesia forbids us to think of any merely local community; the ecclesia in a place is the one race as existing in that place, e.g., the ecclesia of Corinth is the one called-out-race of God that exists in Corinth, as in many other places (Ramsey, 40).

P. T. Forsyth puts it this way:

The total Church was not made up by adding the local churches together, but the local church was a church through representing then and there the total Church…it was one Church in many manifestations; it was not many churches in one convention…The great Church is not the agglutination of local churches, but their prius;…the local church was not a church, but the Church…the totality of all Christians flowing to a certain spot, and emerging there (Lectures on the Church and Sacraments, 40).

The local church–the parish we attend on a Sunday morning–is meant to be a window into the one Church which we proclaim in the Nicene Creed.  By its worship, practice, and affiliations, the parish is to inform those within and without the Church as to what that Church is.

But we didn’t just pick up the name ecclesia.  It’s even deeper than that.  Church has at its core “fellowship.”  This fellowship can refer to a number of things, but the New Testament makes it clear that the unity which we are discussing, “this wide and deep and many-sided unity is made possible only by a real contact with the historical events” (Ramsey, 41).

That which we have seen and heard, we declare to you also, that you may also have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1:3)

“Fellowship is essentially fellowship with the historical events” (Ramsey, 41).  Jesus’ passion and death (as written about before) created the fellowship, and that fellowship has the honor of sharing in these events.  How does this come true, or how is this made real, in practice?  From personal experience, and as Ramsey knew, the celebration of the Eucharist is a sharing in the body and the blood of Christ, and a means by which Christians are “one bread one body” (1 Corinthians 10:16-17), not only because they eat and drink together, but because we are brought near and even participating in the Christ’s actual death in the flesh (1 Corinthians 11:26; Ramsey, 42).

But wait, there’s more.  The Church’s unity does not only depend on its historic continuity with the life of Israel and the death of the Messiah.  The New Testament articulates the unity of the church in the terms of the unity of God himself.

One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all (Ephesians 4:5-6)

Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one (John 17:11).

…that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us (John 17:20).

Karl Barth went as far as to say that “the oneness of God triumphs over the whole questionableness of the Church’s history” (Romans, 396).  Ramsey then says, “Unity is God’s alone, and in Him alone can anything on earth be said to be united” (42).  Again I point to places where this has been taken out of the ideal and made actual in the life of worship.  During the prayer of consecration of the elements (Prayer B), we pray to God saying “Unite us to your Son in his sacrifice.”  In other Eucharistic prayers we pray that “we and all others who shall be partakers of this Holy Communion, may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.”

We thereby pray to be united, not only to one another in receiving, but to God himself, through the merits of Jesus Christ!

This unity, and the whole of the Church’s inward meaning, must be expressed by the Church’s outward shape and structure.  Many will say that the outward structure of the Church is not important, but that worshiping in spirit and in truth, or that praising Jesus, is what matters.  Yes, God is wherever two or three are gathered in his name.  Yes, true worshipers worship in spirit and in truth (it’s practically the subtitle of this blog right now!).  But Ramsey will go on to say that “The structure, historic and apostolic, does matter.”  I’ll go on to look at this statement in the next post.

For now, perhaps because this is one of the soap boxes upon which I like to stand, will say that no parish, no Sunday morning worship service, can stand alone.  Calling a parish “independent” may only feed the individualism which has no place in the church (I am, of course, sure that this is not always the case).  A parish out on its own, even though it may contend for the Gospel, for truth, and for Jesus Christ himself, cannot fulfill the ultimate purpose of the Church, because the Church is not an independent organization made of individual subsidiaries having been bought out by the larger corporation.  The life of a parish should flow out of its union with the organism, Christ’s Body, which preceded it.

Don’t get me wrong – I am sure that many of these parishes do great things–spiritual, edifying things, for those who attend and for the community which surrounds it.  Usually a number of non-denominational churches will fall under this categorization, and I have attended many which do great work by God’s grace.  They are still blessed by God.  I’m saying that the potential for the message of the “one holy catholic and apostolic church” spread by such a parish, distant and not connected to others, is dampened, because the oneness which it is proclaiming in its praxis is the same as being satisfied that we each believe in the Trinity, or that baptism is practiced in some form (no matter how important it is).  The physical and spiritual unity of the Church of Christ, of the Body of Christ, is signified and enacted in an individual parish’s communion with other parishes, and with each parishes’ mutual union with God.

In other words, the Trinity cannot only be acknowledged–it must be known, and known intimately.  The Trinity, the relationship that is God, must be experienced and must consume the life of the Church holistically, in each and every one of its members, so that the message of reconciliation between God and humanity may be proclaimed loud and clear by the Church’s life, lived out in its members and parishes.

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One died for all, therefore all died.

“I did it my way!” is the theme song on the road to hell.

A good friend of mine said this during a sermon.  It was a moving sermon and it stuck with me.  I’ve used it as an example in my own preaching.  Now, I’m a fan of Frank Sinatra–some great music.  And this quote might seem harsh.  But at a basic level, the point isn’t ill-founded.  The history of sin begins with two people wanting to do something their own way.  Sin originated as a rebellion against God.  God told Adam and Eve to not do something.  No matter how they or we have rationalized the account of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the fact remains: humanity (Heb. adam) rebelled against God.  We preferred our own understanding, our own reasoning, to that of God.

Humanity began to die that day.

But as the light dimmed, while we were yet sinners, Christ died.  While we were dying, Christ died for us, and he died so that we might live.  But it isn’t life as we know it.  It doesn’t come through a pill, an exercise, even through a creed or catechism.  Our life comes through death.

For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh.  Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer.  Therefore if anyone i in Christ, he is a new creation.  The old has passed away; behold the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:14-17)

To know the true abundant life which God offers through Christ–to know life, we must know death.  We die the death that Christ died, though we do not experience physical death now.  But we die to self: we die to the idols that we have created for ourselves, we die to our greed for instant gratification, and we die to those things that prevent us from living in the light of Christ.  Life begins with an act of faith and initiation that verily means “death.”

Men are now found to be identified with Christ’s death in such a way that they think of themselves no longer as separate and self-sufficient units, but as centered in Christ who died and rose again (Ramsey, 29).

Christianity is never solitary.  The Church is the body of Christ, drawing attention not to a collection of people, but to Christ himself in his own being and life.  “As the body is one and has many members…so also is Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12).  Calvin said, “He calls Christ the church.”  The fact of the incarnation is only fully known if we know the Church, and if we know that the life of the Church is a part of Christ’s own life.

Believing in Christ is believing in One whose body is a part of himself and whose people are his own humanity, and “to be joined to Christ is to be joined to Christ-in-His-Body” (Ramsey, 32).  Jesus ask Paul, “Why are you persecuting me?” not “Why are you persecuting my followers?”  Christians are Jesus’ risen humanity in whom he suffers.

The journey of the Christian life–from conversion and justification and sanctification to the consummation–cannot happen alone.  Anyone who is justified is an individual, but the one who justifies (Christ) “is one with His people as His body.”  That person is released from self in justification, and is brought into dependence upon brothers and sisters in Christ.

Till we all attain unto the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a full grown man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ: that we may be no longer children…but may grow up in all things into him, which is the head, even Christ; from whom all the body fitly framed and knit together through that which every joint supplies, according to the working in due measure of each several part, makes the increase of the body unto the building up of itself in love (Ephesians 4:13-16).

Ramsey, following Paul, says plainly: “From the Church therefore the Christian never escapes; it is a part of his own existence since it is a part of the Christ Himself.  And without the Church the Christian does not grow, wince the Christ is fulfilled in the totality of all His members” (Ramsey, 33).

What does this have to do with Sunday morning?  Well, with Ramsey, I think that we should recognize that individualism has no place in the Church.  We die as individuals, but in this death we find ourselves in Christ.  Through membership in the Body of Christ, “the single Christian is discovered in new ways and becomes aware that God loves him, in all his singleness, as if God had no one else to love” (Ramsey, 34).  BUT: the individual is merged, and accepts a conscious union with Christ.  “The individual Christian exists only because the Body exists already.  The self is known in its reality as a self when it ceases to be solitary and learns its utter dependence, and the ‘individuality’ of Christians…springs from their death and resurrection in the Body that is one” (Ramsey, 33).

So for now, I’ll leave it at this: Church is not supposed to be about me.  I’ve heard a lot of people say that “Church just isn’t working for me,” or “Church isn’t doing it for me,” or something like that.  Well, frankly, going to church on a Sunday morning isn’t meant to be about me.  We need to be careful, of course: we should find a place that meets our needs.  If a worshiping community is detrimental to your faith, get out of there.  I’m getting ahead of myself, though…this will be discussed in further detail in a later post (and I’m eager to get on the road back to Wisconsin).

The Church is made up of those who have died to self, and have been risen to live in Christ, and by living in Christ, we live for and with and in each other.  And we gather together as those who are called out in Christ to be one with him, and in him we are one with one another.  And we gather together for a real and tangible purpose…

But for that I’ll wait to write.  For now, I’m on my way to Wisconsin.  Your prayers would be appreciated!  Stay tuned!

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The Passion of the Church

If you aren’t into languages, don’t worry–only the first paragraph is a little technical.  (Bear with me in a little technicality; do bear with me)

The word “church” does not occur frequently in the four accounts of the Gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).  In the New Testament, “church” normally translates the Greek word ekklesia, which is “a secular term for an assembly of people and is derived from the verb to call” (Avis, 1).  Ekklesia is also the word used to frequently translate the Hebrew qahal in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible).  I don’t want to get any more technical than that, so I’ll follow Avis’ conclusion:

In both Hebrew and Greek, then, the Church is the assembly of those who are called–called together (to worship God) or called out (of the world, to serve him).  It is worth noting in passing, however, that the English word ‘church’ (cf. Scottish ‘kirk’) comes from a different source: the Greek kuriake, ‘belonging to the Lord (kurios).

As I began, however, ekklesia only  occurs three times in Matthew (out of all the Gospel accounts): Matthew 16:18; 18:17.  When most of us try to put church and Scripture together, the first place we’ll look will be Paul.  It’ll be 1 Corinthians 12, or Ephesians 4, or Paul’s various greetings to the churches in other parts of the Roman Empire  We might think of the Revelation to John, with the seven letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor.

Granted, in some circles, perhaps Roman Catholic circles especially, Matthew 16:18 has had quite the history of interpretation.

But with these few references to the church made by Jesus himself, why does Ramsey begin by stating

The underlying conviction…is that the meaning of the Christian Church becomes most clear when it is studied in terms of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (xxiii.).

And,

It is the contention of this book that in this dying and rising again the very meaning of the Church is found… (xxiii.)

The first time I’d read this, I was baffled.  I didn’t see the connection, let alone understand it.  BUT: if we understand the mission of the Church in the world, if we understand the part which Christians play in the drama of redemption, then we might ultimately see why Ramsey puts it this way.

I wouldn’t be writing all this if the church were a neatly ordered, unified, simple organism or institution.  Questions surround it, as questions surrounded Jesus.  He became a puzzle for others to figure out.  Those inside and outside the church would agree that Jesus seemed to make himself a puzzle for others to figure out.  Even his disciples asked him to speak plainly (though they still didn’t get it).  Finally Jesus “abandoned His useful and intelligible works in Galilee in order to bring God’s Kingdom by dying on the Cross” (Ramsey, 4).

What we’re still left with, then, are questions which surround him.  And questions now surround the church that he established: why follow a man who gave himself up to death?  Why call ourselves by the same title?  Why be Christ-ians, “little Christs”?

Yet precisely there is the power of God found, if only the Christians know whence they come and whither they go.  They are sent to be the place where the Passion of Jesus Christ is known and where witness is borne to the Resurrection from the dead.

The faith that Christians live by is founded–created, even–in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  His Passion in Jerusalem and on the Cross is what won salvation.  “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14).

In many ways, the church looks like a messed up place: it’s scandalous, it’s formed of sinners whose sinfulness is exposed by the light of the one Christians worship, and there are so many questions which have no clear-cut or easy answer.  But if the Church is the Body of Christ crucified and risen from the dead, how can its life be different than that of Christ himself?

The church is full of those who claim to be baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ.  “Philanthropies point to the conditions of men’s lives, the Church points to the deeper problem of man himself” (Ramsey, 5).

Jesus taught his disciples that they would not understand his death or resurrection except by sharing in it

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Mark 8:43)

Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized? (Mark 10:38)

Always bearing about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life also of Jesus may be manifested in our body. (2 Corinthians 4:10)

The words of Jesus are spoken to the disciples, the twelve who were to be the refounded Israel of God.  This was only possible by being founded in death and resurrection.  The words of Paul went out to those who were persecuted, ridiculed and confused as to the faith they held fast to.

While it is true that the Church is founded upon the Word-made-flesh, it is true only because the Word was identified with men right down to the point of death, and enabled men to find unity through a veritable death to self (Ramsey, 6).

We could discuss indefinitely the meaning of ‘death to self,’ but perhaps another time.  The point for now is that in this death to self we are united in a unique way which nothing else can imitate.  As we continue to die to self, we enter into the death of Christ and are united to each other in this act.  The Church is the Body of Christ, made of the bodies of those who have themselves died to sin and evil, and are raised to new life through grace.

If you’re reading this, and if you’ve not experienced the Church this way, you aren’t alone.  I haven’t always encountered the Church in this way.  If we are truly engaged in a death to self, I think the Church as a whole would be in a much better shape.  I recognize immediately that the Episcopal Church is no flagship for reform or death to self.  I won’t go into it here, though I’ll eventually have to.  I will say that if any church wants to flourish, its foundation must be in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ made real and true within its own walls.

This is how Ramsey could make the subtitle of his book, “Recapturing a Biblical Understanding of the Church as the Body of Christ.”  This is how he finds the meaning of what the church is in the Passion of our Lord.

What does this have to do with Sunday morning worship?  I urge you, brothers and sisters, to stay tuned and read on.

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An Ecclesiastical Thesis

The Orthodox understanding of the Church as a living organism, the Evangelical focus on the authority of Scripture, the Roman Catholic treasuring of the sacramental life, and the Anglican stress on freedom within order, and local autonomy with episcopal oversight, are all articulated as essential for the unity of the Church.

So ends The Rev. Dr. Arnold Klukas’ introduction to Archbishop Michael Ramsey’s The Gospel and the Catholic Church.  At Nashotah House, we read this book for Parish Ministry 1 (Spring, 2010), and I find myself drawn to it again, seeking a method of articulating an holistic ecclesiology.

To understand why I go to church on a Sunday morning – why I go to church, and not sleep in or kayak or something else – I must understand what church is.  What is the nature of church?  What is the purpose of Sunday morning worship?  These questions surround the slightly more philosophical question, “What is the nature of the church?”

In spite of its many flaws, it [the church] remains Christ’s Body; and as a Body, the church’s outward order (its physical shape) expresses its inward purpose and meaning… (Klukas, xvii.)

I’ll return to this quote (and the rest of it) in a later post.  For now, it’s safe to say that the question I’m asking (or the way I’m answering it) will ultimately bring us into a circle: to understand why we go to church, we must understand the nature of the church, and the nature of the church is articulated in its coming together in community and worship.

So where do we actually begin?

He [Ramsey] says, “A fresh line of approach seems needed.  Those who cherish the Catholic [universal] Church and its historic order need to expound its meaning not in legalistic and institutionalist language, but in evangelical language as the expression of the Gospel of God” (Klukas, xvii.)

Ramsey’s conviction, and I think rightfully so, is that “the meaning of the Christian Church becomes most clear when it is studied in terms of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ” (Ramsey, xxiii.).  When I first read this statement, I didn’t understand it at all.  When I had finished his first and second chapter, I was only confused further.  Why go in this direction?  What is the connection?  (Can you tell that my first year was off to a good start?)

But what it boils down to, I think, is this:

The Church is the means by which Jesus continues to encounter humankind by providing the living organism by which his presence can be experienced (Klukas, xviii.).

That living organism, Paul says, is Christ’s Body.  Jesus’s Body combined a human nature and a divine nature, thereby overcoming humanity’s alienation from God.  The church, as the continuing life of his body, is to function as his continued presence in the world.  As His living Body, the Church continues to link the human with the Divine, the physical with the spiritual, and the temporal with the eternal.  The church, in putting it this way, was founded in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It is in the New Testament that identifies what the church is: its nature and purpose.  By reading and paying attention to what Scripture tells us about Jesus Christ and His Body, the Church, we can begin to develop an ecclesiology which is consistent with the biblical witness (and if you know me, this is always the best place to start).

I’ll start with that this week.  The next post or two will be content-based, specifically on why we find the meaning of the church in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  If this post has seemed a little jumbled or incomplete, I invite you to keep with it and read on.  I hope to post again soon.

For now:  What informs your thoughts on the church?  What place does Scripture hold in defining the church for you?  What do you think the New Testament says about the church?  I’d love your input, and it might give me more direction in subsequent posts.

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Expanding the Scope (The Springboard)

I’ve decided to add a third part to the introduction, which will help me spring into content rather than planning my time away.

A simple sentence in a short glossary does not suffice.  I struggle to define the church myself.  It’s not something we’re necessarily called to do, anyway.  Christians are called to be a part of the church.  If we try to genuinely define it or analyze the church, I would think that the best account of what the church is would come from within.  The issue, of course, is that we all have different backgrounds and histories within what we call church.

This is a blog about that: what we call church.  I’m beginning to expand the scope of my inquiry.  Church is the simplest way, I think, that we refer to both what we do on Sunday mornings and the network of Christian communities which make up what Paul calls the Body of Christ.  I could use two different terms to distinguish what I’m talking about.  “Church” could refer to what people do on Sunday mornings, while “Body of Christ” could refer to the worldwide community of faith.  But I think there’s a richness lost if we distinguish the two concepts this way.

What we do on a Sunday morning – let’s call it worship, for now – is meant to be a reflection of what the wider community of faith is engaged in.  When we participate in worship or liturgy on a Sunday morning, we are engaging in church.  We are uniting with other believers in lifting up our voices to God in prayer and praise, both of which are done in many different ways in different denominations.  There’s more to be said about this, and it will be dealt with starting this week.

In articulating my understanding of the church (both worship and the Body of Christ), I will engage in the voices of two prominent Anglican thinkers: Michael Ramsey, 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, and his The Gospel and the Catholic Church, and Paul Avis’ The Anglican Understanding of the Church.  Through reading these and engaging with them, I hope to be able to articulate a general idea of my own understanding of the church, and to use that as my starting point when trying to understand other denominations.  This serves two purposes: (1) I have a point of comparison, and (2) when I am confronted with something different, either starkly or subtly, I can evaluate and thereby change or strengthen my own convictions.

I’m not afraid of different, and I welcome anything that will challenge me.  I can’t promise that I’ll always respond well, but over time and through perseverence it can only help lead us all to a better and deeper understanding of who we are and how we live.

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