New Neighbors: Paw and Tulasha

Can you remember a time you felt alone? Really alone? I remember moving to a new school…twice in two years…during the middle school years. Walking into a new classroom with a new teacher and new students was so hard. Now imagine not speaking the language of that new school and that new teacher and those new students. That is a new level of alone.

My friends Tulasha and Paw amaze me. I have had the privilege to watch them grow up under the hardest of hard conditions and become strong young women. As you listen to a small piece of their story, try for a moment to put yourself in their shoes.

 

Miss Baker’s middle school English as a Second Language class was not so much about book learning as it was about belonging. It is where Paw and Tulasha each found a friend.

Their stories started in two different countries 1,300 miles apart. Tulasha was born in a Nepal refugee camp surrounded by family and friends who looked just like her and spoke her language. Though food and opportunities were limited, she had never known anything different. She would walk outside her bamboo home and always have a friend to play with and as a child that is more than enough. At age 10, everything she had known drastically changed when her family was placed under refugee status in the United States. Though she was excited to touch snow for the first time, school was not as exciting. The first year went all right because there were two students who spoke Nepali and could show her what to do. But then came middle school. No one spoke her language. The bus ride was long and other children mocked her when she could not understand their questions. This school required uniforms and Tulasha had only one uniform to wear all week. Other students noticed and ridiculed her. Tulasha felt so alone. She would cry after school every day and cry every morning before school. It all felt too hard.

It wasn’t until her second year in middle school that she was placed for one hour in an English as a Second Language class. This is where she met Paw.

Paw was also born in a refugee camp, but in Thailand, after her family fled the violence in her parents’ home country of Myanmar. She was 13 when her family received the news that they would be placed in the United States. Paw will never forget her first day of school. Her caseworker picked her up from home and took her into the new school. She knew no English and no one thought to explain to her how to take the school bus home. At the end of the day she followed all the kids out to the busses but did not know which one she should get on. She looked up at all the kids opening the bus windows and staring down at her but she did not have any words to ask for help. Not seeing any other option, she thought she remembered the way home, so she walked. After living in the country only one month, this petite 13 year old girl walked 2 ½ miles home all alone.

Two girls alone in a strange land with language and customs they did not understand. In Miss Baker’s middle school ESL class, Tulasha and Paw found a place of safety and they found each other.

Finally they were in a space with others who could understand their experiences. They understood the chaos of navigating a new world. They could relate to the pressure their parents gave them to go to school, study, and succeed. They couldn’t speak each other’s language—Tulahsa spoke Nepali and Paw spoke Karenni–so their common language was English. They laugh now as they think about how they spoke and wrote notes to each other in broken English. But they gave each other a comfortable space to practice. If they laughed at each other’s mistakes it was a laugh of mutual understanding—this crazy English language is so hard sometimes! For the first time since moving to the U.S., they were having fun at school because they each had found a friend. That same year Paw’s mom discovered an ESL class at a local church and brought her along. Imagine her surprise to find Tulasha there too! Finally they did not feel so alone.

Sadly, Paw and Tulasha went to different high schools. But their years together gave them a starting point for making new friends. Safe spaces, education, kindness, friendship. Each of these things offered through people and places slowly gave Paw and Tulasha the tools and perseverance they needed to move forward with a new life in the United States. They both graduated from high school last year and are finishing their first year of college—the first in their families to do so! They look back on those first years and can’t believe how far they have come. One from Nepal. One from Thailand. They would fly half way across the world to meet each other in Miss Baker’s classroom. Now neighbors and friends in the United States.

 

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Option B

Option B: what happens after Option A is not an option.

Life is chock full of small Option B’s. The restaurant doesn’t have what we wanted to eat that day. The road is closed. Rain falling on the day planned for the park. Little things requiring us to adjust and move on to the next choice. Toddlers often meltdown over these B options. Part of growing up is learning to adjust more quickly and easily. Some Option B’s, however, are much harder to adjust our hearts and minds to than others.

In reading the first few chapter of Luke, each of the main characters is experiencing Option B.

First comes Zechariah and Elizabeth. Luke 1:6 tells us that they were “righteous in God’s eyes, careful to obey all of the Lord’s commandments and regulations.” These are the kind of people who should live the “blessed” life. In those days, one of the biggest cultural signs of being “blessed” was having many children. Yet right after the verse that assures us that Elizabeth and Zechariah were really, really good people, we are told: “They had not children because Elizabeth was barren.” That is a big Option B. The logical thinking went: keep God’s commandments and you will be blessed. The sign you are blessed is many children. To show just how far into this Option B they were, verse 7 goes on to say that they were both very old. In fact, they were so old that even though an ANGEL appeared to Zechariah in the holiest part of the temple announcing that they would have a child, Zechariah could not believe the angel: “How can I know this will happen? I’m an old man now, and my wife is also well along in years.” (v. 18) They had already lived most of their lives accepting Option B.

Next comes Mary and Joseph, engaged to be married. If ever there were a time of planning and expectation about what Option A is to be, it is planning for a wedding and a lifetime together. Things happen in a certain order. Events unfold in prescribed ways. I’m not sure whether young Mary had the same romantic view of weddings that we in America do, but I know for sure that getting pregnant before being married was NOT Option A. In fact, the Bible tells us in Matthew that when Joseph heard the news he planned to break off the engagement. This would have been a generous choice as she also could have been killed as a punishment for getting pregnant before marriage. The public shame that came along with this pregnancy is hard for those in our current American culture to fully comprehend. Option B for Joseph and Mary hit them hard socially.

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The earthly parents of Jesus faced yet another Option B when they had to travel to another village due to an arrogant government leader who wanted to count all the people in his country (Luke 2:1-5). Mary was ready to have a baby any day and had to leave her family and the comfort of her own home to travel. Then this baby was born and placed in a manger (the place the cows and donkeys eat) instead of a bed for a baby. Option C after the village inn Option B was not available.

Later in Luke 2 we are introduced to Anna. Anna is also described as a righteous woman who stayed in the Temple night and day praying, fasting, and worshipping. But this was her Option B of somewhere around 60 years. She was widowed after being married only 7 years and she was 84 years old when she prophesies over baby Jesus.

I’m not going to gloss over the fact that I believe each of these Option B’s were difficult. Definitely each of them held social consequences. People looked at Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, and Anna in ways that no one wants to be viewed. We want others to think we are “blessed.” We want to feel “blessed.” Life, however is filled with Option B’s and they don’t initially feel like or look like blessings. In fact, they may not be blessings. They may be simply natural consequences of a messed up world. No one intended them. God did not wish it upon us with a golden scepter.

One thing God seems to show, however, in these stories in Luke 1 and 2. It is hidden away in Zechariah’s song of praise and prophecy after his son is (finally) born:

Because of God’s tender mercy,

the light from heaven is about to break upon us,

to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

and to guide us in the path of peace. (Luke 1:78, 79)

Somehow, someway, God makes a way where there seems to be no way. He takes Option B and gives us the strength and hope to forge a new path, one we never thought to take before and perhaps did not want to travel.

I think one of the gleanings from Luke 1 and 2 is accepting the fact that Option A happens less than we imagine. It is also believing the other options are not only worth trying but hold good, and sometimes even great, things as well.

Elizabeth and Zechariah got a son. He was a strong in spirit and words, and a little strange. (See Mark 1:6.) But they got a miraculous son.

Mary and Joseph parented the savior of the world. There were, however, more crazy Option B’s before that. See Matthew 2:13-18 for their refugee status story as one example.

Anna met and recognized that savior of the world…after decades serving in the temple day after day after day.

We find our way forward by receiving the options and responding with hope–hope that God has a purpose for us, even in the Option B scenarios. I find hope knowing that God has a purpose for me, just as Jesus knew His purpose: “I must preach the Good News of the Kingdom of God in other places, too, because that is why I was sent.” (Luke 4:43) Some days I clearly see that purpose. Others days are more difficult. Some days I make it through until another day His light shows more clearly.

 

Prayer: God, what is your purpose for me today?

 

 

References which inspired this post:

The Bible, New Living Translation

Artwork: Ecce Ancilla Domini by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Luke: Teach the Text Commentary Series by R.T. France

The title and some thoughts from interviews by Sheryl Sandberg about her book–Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy.

https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/04/sandberg-optionb/524640/

https://onbeing.org/programs/sheryl-sandberg-and-adam-grant-resilience-after-unimaginable-loss/

Summer Marathon

Go and read. Set a goal.

I like to set short term goals setting out a plan to reach them. If you are looking for a way to do the same when it comes to exercise and Bible reading, join me for a Summer Marathon: 10 weeks to 26 miles and 26 chapters.

GO (Walk/Run)

2-3 miles every week for 10 weeks for a total of 26 miles!

Of course you are welcome to tackle those 26 miles in whatever way that works best for you. 4 miles every 2 weeks, 1 mile twice a week, start with 1 mile a week and work up to 3 or 4, whatever works for you! A note from experience: Make a plan and work the plan. You can always adjust the plan as needed, but without a plan it won’t likely get done.

READ

2-3 chapters of the Bible for 10 weeks for a total of 26 chapters!

We recommend reading Luke + 2 chapters of your choice.

Once again, however, make this work for you. Is there a part of the Bible you have been wanting to read but haven’t gotten around to it? Here’s your chance.

An easy way to think about and journal or discuss what you are learning while you read:

  • What about God? What does this teach me about what God is like?
  • What about people? What does this teach me about what people are like and what I am like?
  • So what? What do I think God might be saying to me from these verses?

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TOGETHER

Find one or more partners who will walk/run at your pace. Pick a regular time and place and discuss the reading each week. Many people find that they are more likely to stick to a plan when they commit to doing it with others. Friends in the Lansing area are doing hikes in natural settings around the city.

My hope is to blog at least once a week with my learning and thoughts from Luke, some links to audio Bible readings or other helpful sites. I may even include some exercise encouragement and fun pictures from our Summer Marathon.

Join us for a Summer Marathon!

Bonus: If you like to check things off a list, download and print this handy miles and chapters checklist: 2017 SUMMER MARATHON checklist

New Neighbors: Shyam Rai

My friend, Steve called me one day with an idea. He thought he would like to use his charcoal drawing skills to draw pictures of some of our refugee friends and wondered if I would be willing to write their stories. He imagined a book or an art exhibit. Intrigued, I said I would think about it. Not long after, my videographer friend Andy sent me a message on Facebook. “I want to do something to support refugees. Do you have any ideas?” he wrote. A few days and a couple of conversations later, New Neighbors was born. And my faith in God once again increased. These crazy “coincidences” happen in my life often enough for me to recognize that God is still up to something in this world and that He most often works through people who are willing to love others. I sure do love the people God has sent my way. I would love for you to meet one: Shyam Rai.

“It’s like a dream,” he says. “Sometimes I think about my life in Bhutan and Nepal and my life in America seems like it must be a dream.” Shyam Rai’s life took a difficult turn before he was born. His father died leaving his mom and three year old brother alone to survive. His mom would trade labor for rice or oil. Once a year she would purchase one new set of clothes for Shyam–one outfit to be worn for the year. He did not own a pair of shoes until age 12 after he had quit school to provide for his mom. Once he started carrying oranges to market for a neighbor, he was able to purchase salt and food. Life was hard, but they were happy in the beautiful mountainous area of Bhutan.

Then the king of Bhutan started instituting a series of repressive acts against the ethnic Nepalese people who had been living in South Bhutan for 100 years: citizenships revoked, homes demolished, arrests and torture, and eventually eviction. When Shyam was only 13 years old, his relatives and neighbors began fleeing the country. As his mother wrestled with depression unable to clearly think through options, Shyam led as they left the only country he had ever known.

They arrived in a Nepal refugee camp on May 15, 1992 during a cholera outbreak. People were dying every day from diarrhea and disease. Thousands of people gathered under tents and bamboo huts.

Teenage Shyam began attending school finishing the equivalent of 7th grade before he once again looked for ways to support his mother and now his very young wife. As he was both hard working and industrious, over time he earned the respect of his sub-sector of the refugee camp and was voted in for the volunteer position coordinating the United Nation’s biweekly food distribution and arbitrating disagreements in the camp. Eventually he heard about the opportunity to be placed in another country. After 15 years of sitting in a refugee camp with few resources and no hope for a different future, he saw the possibility for a new life. He paid 25 rupees to the Prime Minister of Nepal to apply.

In January of 2009, his relatives and camp friends gathered around to tearfully say goodbye to Shyam, his mother, his wife and three young children as they boarded a plane to begin their journey to America. Five flights later they landed in Lansing Michigan where their immigration case manager offered them coats before stepping outside into the wintery January landscape.

And everything was different.

The airplane food looked nothing like anything they had ever eaten. He remembers looking at a salad and thinking, “Why are they feeding me the forest?” The children were given a small box of Fruit Loops and started arguing over it because it looked like a very spicy snack food they had eaten in Nepal. Imagine their surprise when it was not spicy at all but sweeter than anything they had ever tried! The first night in their house, they kept waking up hearing the furnace kick on and off. They had never heard such noises and wondered what people were trying to come into their house.

Shyam quickly realized that his greatest need was to learn English. As he thought over his life experience, he considered that Christians were people he had seen care about and help people. Though he was not a Christian, he thought if he could find a church, someone would help him. Through a beautiful working together of several followers of Jesus, Shyam and his family connected with Lansing Central Free Methodist Church and are now members of the Kripa Nepali Free Methodist congregation. Eight years after starting a new life in America, the Shyam Rai family owns their own home and two cars. His brother and sister and their families also now live in Lansing. Though Shyam still feels that his biggest struggle is that he only understands about 50% of the English language, his three children speak fluently and are excelling in school.

After being rejected by his home country and always considered a stranger in his refugee camp country, he entered the U.S. where he is thankful for freedom and equality. He didn’t need a dad or a lot of money to be given a chance. Shyam is now a citizen of the United States of America. It is a dream come true.

Under the Wings

Let me tell you about two conversations I’ve had. One was probably 25 years ago with my mom.

I was trying to make a decision and I asked my mom what she thought. My mom is quite wise and especially during those teenage and college years of my life she was very careful about how she said things to me as I was “a little headstrong” (some things never change!) She told me a story of a friend of hers who had been in a similar situation. And she told me how hard that woman’s life had been based on her choice. She didn’t tell me what to do but she shared wisdom from her longer life experience and a larger view of my life than I had at the time. And I listened to her hard words because I saw her love for me and her desire for me to have the best life I could have.

The second happened just a week ago. I was talking to a friend of mine about his growing up years in Haiti. He said his mom always disciplined him when he did the wrong things and as a child sometimes he felt like he hated her for it. Now as an adult, he looks back on those years and he realizes that his mother gave him a lifelong gift. She taught him about right and wrong. She taught him how to choose the right and avoid the wrong because the wrong brings consequences. She taught him self-control. It served him well when he left home at age 16, started life in a new country and had to figure out what to do on his own. She saw what he didn’t see as a child. That doing right now would train him to do right later. She was looking at the big picture and helping her son to become the best he could be.

One day, Jesus said these beautifully maternal words to the crowd:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37)

He was at the end of speaking hard words to the crowds around him. This teaching was at the end of three years of ministry Jesus had done in Israel. He had spent so much time healing people, eating with people, performing miracles—sometimes feeding a whole lot of people with a little bit of food. Sounds like some moms I know! He had invested so much, giving his life to serve and love setting an example by the way He lived of how he wanted others to live. He had also spent a lot of time trying to teach the people about the best ways to live. But so many of them did not get it. And in fact the ones who most missed the point were the religious leaders. They thought they had it all figured out. They had made their own rules and regulations and were happily making everyone else’s lives miserable by making everyone follow their ideas. And Jesus had decided to call them out, give them the bigger picture, show them the better way.

But once he had spoken the hard words to them, there is this beautiful picture he paints with his words:

–O Jerusalem, Jerusalem

You know when you hear your name twice it is important— there is passion in this statement.

–you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you

I feel like Jesus is saying, “I keep trying to tell you the best way. I keep sending messages and messengers but you are so stubborn.”

–how often

This is not just a one time sentiment. This is Jesus’ ongoing love for his people–I keep wanting to do this for you.

–I have longed to gather your children together

Again it is like Jesus says, “Come on. Come close. Listen. Let me be near you. Let’s all be near to each other.”

–as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings

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Look at that picture of the goose and her goslings.  The little guy with his head popped up. The one on the right with his eyes closed feeling safe and secure. This is not the first time God has used this imagery in Scripture. In the OT, Moses reminds the people of Israel what God has done for them:

Deuteronomy 32:10b-12

He shielded him and cared for him;
he guarded him as the apple of his eye,
like an eagle that stirs up its nest
and hovers over its young,
that spreads its wings to catch them
and carries them aloft.
The Lord alone led him;
    no foreign god was with him.

David in the Psalms three different times uses this imagery of hiding under God’s wings:

Psalm 91:4

He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
    his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

Psalm 17: 6-8

I call on you, my God, for you will answer me;
turn your ear to me and hear my prayer.
Show me the wonders of your great love,
you who save by your right hand
those who take refuge in you from their foes.
Keep me as the apple of your eye;
hide me in the shadow of your wings

Psalm 57:1

Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me,
for in you I take refuge.
I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings
until the disaster has passed.

For those of us who have had good mothers and fathers, we can feel the warmth of arms surrounding us. We know what it is to have someone protecting us, looking out for our best interest. For those of us who have not been able to experience this, something in our soul longs for this protection and care because somewhere inside of us we know that this is how it is supposed to be. Here is where Jesus comes in. He is the perfect parent. All those things that we have or have not experienced but know are the way it ought to be—this is because God created us this way. And he desires to lead us in this way. He wants to gather us under his wings like a mother hen. He wants to protect us by showing us the way that we may walk in it.

The catch? It is the same today as it was 2000 years ago when Jesus was talking to the people – the last phrase of this verse:

–but you were not willing.

Have you ever tried to hug a toddler having a temper tantrum? Have you ever tried to connect with someone who wants nothing to do with you? Have you ever had a crush on someone who didn’t know you existed?

God wants to gather us under his wings. But so often we are angry, self-centered, and unaware of the presence of God. And each day as we self-destruct. As we blindly blaze our own trail. As we blame our moms, our dads, sisters, brothers, husbands, wives, children, bosses, coworkers, the neighbor, the current president, the last president, and anyone else we can think of. I think Jesus looks over at us and says, “Oh Joanna, Joanna, how often I have longed to gather you and your people together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”

I pray that today and everyday you will choose to let Jesus gather you up. To hide under His wings. To listen to His wise words of instruction and discipline and direction for your best life. It is the very best place to be.

New Neighbors: Tatu

I love a good story. What I have found over the years is that real stories are often the best kind and so many of my friends have powerful real stories. The stories include hardship and hope, loneliness and community. They each display a combination of the lows of humanity and the resilience of persons. And each one has more than a little sense of the grace of God ever present. I would be honored if you watch, listen, share, and consider how you can welcome a new neighbor.

Today’s story tells about a mom of 17: how she raised them and how they raised her.

 

Tatu first became a mother in Burundi, Africa. Two children were born before she and her husband Jean-Pierre fled the country to protect themselves from ethnic divisions and civil war. Leaving behind farmland and everything they owned, they moved to neighboring Congo and started a new life. Not long after moving, Jean-Pierre’s brother lost his wife and could not care for his three small children. This is when Tatu came to be known as the “family mom”. She took in three children under the age of three to add to her two children–while she was pregnant with twins! Along with caring for her children, she would keep watch at the family business by day and once older children were home from school she would continue working at home. Always washing clothes and dishes, and cooking, cooking, cooking. Over time her family grew to12 biological kids and 7 nieces and nephews. She became known not just as the “family mom” but also as the “neighborhood mom”. All the kids would come to her house after school and she took in any kid and fed them like they were her own.

After a time, the ethnic division found its way to Congo and once again forced the family to flee. You see, Jean-Pierre and Tatu are from two different tribes. People would look at Tatu and know she was “not one of them” so they were targeted. Sadly, this persecution continued even once they arrived in the refugee camp. Tatu mostly hid in their small, grass roofed home until she could be accompanied by her older sons to leave the house. One night, they woke to shouts from neighboring homes. Their grass roof had been set on fire! Quickly after that, they were moved to a camp with more ethnic diversity, but Tatu was exhausted by the fight. She wanted to give up. She told her children, “We will die here or we will die in Congo. It does not matter anymore.”

This was when her children raised her up. They all said to her, “It’s OK. People are leaving the refugee camp. We have filled out paperwork. Let’s just wait. We are not going to give up.”

The kids were right. Very quickly, the family’s paperwork was approved and they were off for their 5 flights to the United States. On their last flight from Chicago to Michigan they started to get more nervous as they looked down from the airplane and could only see the endless water of Lake Michigan. Where was this new land?

They were quite hungry the first couple of days as the pasteurized milk did not taste the same and the chicken did not look or taste anything like the chicken they ate in Congo. They were thrilled when one of the immigration caseworkers who was also from Africa finally showed them where to buy supplies to cook food more like what they were accustomed to.

Though it was terrifying at the time, the family now laughs when they recall their first 4th of July in America. As the fireworks began, they thought for sure bombs were falling and everyone ran to hide in the closet and under the beds. Just a few months later, the first winter was brutal, so unlike the heat of Central Africa. She had never experienced such cold and spent most days with several layers on at all times. With a smile Tatu explains, “Though much is different in the United States, now I can sleep every night in peace. Now I know I will be OK.”

9 years after moving to the U.S., Tatu once again lives in a beautiful home owned by her family. She has adjusted to the freezing winters by purchasing a floor length down coat. Tatu, Jean-Pierre and their adult children are working and the younger ones are in school. She has even added another name to her titles: Grandma.

What words do her children use to describe her?

Caring.

Always there.

Loving.

Confident.

Always makes me shower before bed.

Passionate.

Hard-working.

Brave.

 

Tatu.

Live Good.

I took a long walk in the rain yesterday. This is not something I usually do, but my thoughts were a jumble and the weather matched my mood. News of an unexpected death weighed heavy on my soul. I chose that word on purpose: soul. Somewhere deep inside of me I knew that with this man gone, the earth had shifted under my feet.

A few months ago, I wrote down these words from Victor Hugo knowing eventually they would make their way into my writing. I found their place today.

Now, for us, in history where goodness is the pearl of great price, he who has been good stands almost above him who has been great. (Les Miserables, p. 836)

I think this is it. My friend, Brad Lockwood, was good in such a way that he stands above great. For two straight days now, I have returned to Facebook over and over reading the tributes from dozens of people shocked by his passing but unable to just sit in their sadness. They felt compelled to say something about this man. And all the stories are the same, different details, but the same. Why? Because Brad was a man whose actions matched his words regardless of who he was with and he was consistent year after year in his place in the world. That did not win him any of the world’s greatness awards, but it made him a really, really good man.

He played many roles: husband, father, lawyer, lead worshipper, pastor, Teens For Christ choir director. Some people change who they are to fit the role. Brad changed the role to fit who he was. Everyone who has met Brad can tell you he was funny, smart, generous, grace-giving, and a lover of people. He was loyal to a fault–loyal to the Jesus he loved and loyal to the better selves of each person he knew.

There is a tendency in times like these to paint a beloved person as perfect. Brad was not perfect. I think he, greater than anyone, knew his flaws. This is why he loved Jesus as much as he did. He daily drank in the inexplicable grace poured out on the people of God. Full of mercy, he then carelessly flung it out on those around him. And the recipients received his hugs, his laughter, his words of truth, his crazy connection ability and loved him for it. A whole bunch of people also loved Jesus for it as well.

The earth shifts when the good ones move to the better place. I want to say that worn out thing about a hole being left that no one else can fill, but it can’t be true. On my walk in the rain, I saw a mother goose and her six goslings. The first babies I have seen this spring. New life wobbling past me as I contemplated death. That was when the earth shifted. A life well lived lives on in the new lives. It is my turn. It is our turn. We don’t need to be great because we can be good.  We can all be good, by the grace of God, in our places. We can give hugs. We can bring laughter. We can speak truth. We can connect with those around us. We can sit with Jesus each day filling up on grace and pouring it out around us. We can be who God made us to be and bring ourselves to every role we play.

Brad lived the good life. It is hard to let the good ones go. So let’s not let him go. Live good.