Boundaries Revisited

ShipOfFools_web_07292016“But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was,
and when he saw him, he had compassion.” (Luke 10:33)

Boundaries Revisited

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In the summer of 2002, Pastor Rob Bromhead at Centreville Presbyterian Church preached a sermon which referred to a book by Henry Cloud and John Townsend called Boundaries. What is a boundary? Cloud and Townsend write: Just as homeowners set out physical property lines around their land, we need to set mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual boundaries for our lives to help us distinguish what is our responsibility and what isn’t (25). The sermon intrigued me. That afternoon I went on-line and ordered a copy of the book.

Reading through Cloud and Townsend, two points made a big impression on me.

The first impression came from Cloud and Townsend’s reading of the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:30-35. They ask: why do we call the Samaritan good rather than great? They observe that the Samaritan saved the life of the man assaulted by robbers and cared for him (this made him “good”), but the Samaritan did not depart from his business trip to take care of him; instead, he delegated the man’s care and continued his trip. In other words, the Good Samaritan did what he could, but maintained healthy boundaries on his care giving.

This insight into healthy boundaries in care giving impressed me greatly because for years anxiety about not being able to “save the world” had left me feeling powerless to initiate simple steps of charity that were well within my reach. The healthy boundaries displayed by the Good Samaritan therefore empowered me to take steps to become more charitable myself. While I still could not save the world, I could offer charity to the needy person in front of me.

The second impression came from Cloud and Townsend’s observation about abuse. Abusers are people who disrespect other people’s boundaries. It is our responsibility to communicate our boundaries; it is their responsibility to respect them. Both parts are important in reducing the relational uncertainty that often causes pain, anxiety, and stress.

Thinking about stress, I remember working years earlier for a manager who was a screamer—if you offended his sensibilities, he threw a loud tantrum. After experiencing a couple of these tantrums, I went to a friend who knew him better to ask why she continued to work with him. She responded that she really enjoyed working with him because once you knew what his hot buttons were, life was easy—he was very consistent. In other words, my screaming manager had well-formed boundaries and, contrary to my initial assessment, his staff did not see him as abusive.

Cloud and Townsend’s teaching about abuse alerted me to problems in my own life. In the office and at home, I lacked safe time and space, and experienced a feeling of being out of control because I had let other people hijack my boundaries. In the office, when I began to assert personal boundaries, my supervisory took offense and over the next year engineered my early retirement along with six months severance pay to walk out the door. At home, I asserted personal boundaries by volunteering to serve as an elder at church in the fall of 2002.

My three-year term as elder began in January 2003 and in our first meeting I volunteered to serve as clerk of session. While many people view the clerk’s role as primarily being the chief note-taker, I viewed the clerk as the chief lay leadership role in the church. Thus, when Pastor Rob appealed to the elders to help out on Sunday mornings by offering personal testimonies (we lost our associate pastor), I told him: “I do not feel comfortable offering a personal testimony, but I will help you preach.” Over the next year I preached about once a quarter and began teaching adult Sunday school on a regular basis.

The engineering of my retirement took the form of a series of short term research projects under tight supervision. Projects that others might work on over several months, I had to complete in about six weeks. Topics were carefully scrutinized by supervisor and the final reports had to meet specifications acceptable to a bank examiner. When another colleague of mine was placed in this situation, he filed a discrimination lawsuit; in my case, I simply cranked out half a dozen studies that were published internally. But that was not the intent—the basic strategy was to put me on a treadmill and crank up the speed until something broke, which it did.

In early 2004, I found myself approaching an administrative deadline for early retirement with no word as to whether my request to retire would be granted. The stress was enormous because a campaign was underway to organize an employee union at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and management released no information to me or anyone else about who would be allowed to retire. Although I had applied to retire and my office planned a sendoff party on Friday, as of Thursday morning I had no decision from management.

Thursday afternoon, I was whisked into the office of the Senior Deputy Comptroller for Economics. Without the benefit of counsel or another job offer, I was confronted with the necessity of negotiating my departure package alone without much preparation. Would I get early retirement, the six month severance package promised, or find myself pushed out with neither? In order to retire without a position, I argued for early retirement and the six months severance because without both I could not make ends meet—both were granted.

Although I was not able to find another federal position, I interviewed for a software consulting position the following Monday and, in the coming days, I used my severance package to pay off my mortgage. In February, for example, on a whim, I attended the inquirer’s weekend at Princeton Theological Seminary and applied for admission, much to the dismay of my immediate family; for kicks and giggles, I was also studying Greek when time allowed. Early in the summer, I succeeded in finding a consulting placement and applied for a permanent position as a financial engineer with the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight (OFHEO). When the OFHEO position eventually came through in August, my high hourly wage as a consultant allowed me to argue successfully for about a 30 percent increase in salary over my prior federal salary, a completely unexpected windfall.

Particularly in view of my windfall, the sequence of events—sermon heard, boundaries established, windfall received, preaching felt—began to weigh on my mind and I remembered my pledge to God in 1992 over my son’s hospital bed: “Lord, do not take him, take me.” As time passed over the next couple of years, I felt God’s call, but did not know exactly what to do about it.


Henry Cloud and John Townsend. 1992. Boundaries: When to Say YES; When to Say NO; To Take Control of Your Life. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

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Karr Voices Memoir Clearly

Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir

Karr Voices Memoir Clearly

Mary Karr.[1] 2015. The Art of Memoir. New York: Harper Perennial.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Writing a memoir evokes a special brand of fear. No matter how you approach the topic, the fear is that your life story is not worthy of being told and the mere attempt to tell it is to be guilty of exaggeration and pride. No matter how good the writing, the fear is that you do not stand in the company of presidents, kings, and celebrities. Against this fear, one can only aspire to write clearly with distinction and to seek out a good book or two to aid in this vain enterprise.


In her book, The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr points to other motivations, somewhere between the writer “trying to make sense of the past” and “readers thirsty for reality” (xiv). Memoir invites the reader into the private life of the author in a verbal strip-tease, undertaken for catharsis or paid therapy (xxi). Something anyone can aspire to writing memoir, even if the readers may be limited to an immediate circle of friends and family. The primary requirement is having memories that you are willing to analyze against a particular theme and to share with readers. These memories need not be absolute truth, but they need to be spoken with an authentic voice.

Author Voice

Karr emphasizes voice as the authenticator of good memoir, writing: “Each great memoir lives or dies based 100 percent on voice.” (35)

The truth of memoir is not absolute—sworn on a Bible—truth, but rather a more interesting subjective truth—truth told with an authentic voice. It is subjective, in part, because we lie more often to ourselves than we do to other people. Karr validates her own accounts with the people she writes about (5). It is interesting, in part, because an authentic voice embeds the veils that we use to cover our inadequacies. Uncovering the veils and exposing the lies they cover up is painful, as Karr explains: “You have to lance a boil and suffer its stench as infection drains off.” (12) Yet, this catharsis liberates our true selves, a necessary step in healing and in personal growth, as Karr admits: “I often barely believe myself, for I grew up suspicious of my own perceptions” (22).

Part of authentic voice is admitting your motivation in writing. Karr argues: “Unless you confess your own emotional stakes in a project, why should a reader have any?” (97) While this advice might seem to be a terribly female observation to make—why can’t I just lay out my hypothesis, you say?—communications professors often admonish their students that complete communication requires both an idea and an emotion. Authenticity requires complete expression—why is that hypothesis so important that you spent at least a year or more examining it in great detaiI? Chances are good that the emotional stake is already substantial and its substance needs only to be recognized in your writing. A novelist might refer to this stake as an emotional hook to grab the reader.

Mary Karr

Karr’s voice shows ironic tension. She is consciously literary—dropping great quotes from famous memoirists and dotting her work with cutesy new ways of expression. The tension arises when you see her photographed wearing blue jeans and cowboy boots more fitting of her Texas upbringing.[2] “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” as Shakespeare writes in Hamlet.  Voiced tension is a source of conflict and, as such, is interesting.

Cowboy boots aside, Karr writes prescriptively in 24 chapters, each with its own theme. A particularly important theme in her writing comes in chapter 6: Sacred Carnality. One’s mind naturally runs to carnal, as in carnal knowledge. But, Karr uses carnal to mean sensual in description, as in the five senses—seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling (71). For those of us more comfortable in non-fiction, analytical writing, this carnality is necessarily forced, as she readily admits (75). By utilizing carnal description to move the action, dialog can be used more like a spotlight.


Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir is helpful addition to any writer’s library. Karr’s cites from numerous famous memoirists (check out the appendix listing) aptly makes the point that memoir is a wider genre than the usual political and celebrity autobiographies. The creative potential in memoir is also greater than the usual A-B-C chronologies. A favorite film of mine, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) was, for example, a memoir by William Herr:  Dispatches (1977). Karr’s book has already encouraged me to purchase a memoir that she recommended[3]; it has been a great encouragement in my own memoir project; and I have already gifted this book to a friend. Great book; read it.


Angelou, Maya. 2009. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” New York: Ballantine Books.

Herr, William. 1977. “Dispatches.” New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

[1];; @ArtSciencesSU; @MaryKarrLit

[2] @MaryKarrLit

[3] Angelou (2009).


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Christmas Prayer

christmas_tree_2016Heavenly Father,

We give thanks for your special presence with us at Christmas

when you came to us, abided with us, suffered with us,

and made us members of your family.

Such a gift! Such a surprise! So underserving!

We confess that we desperately need youthe light of the world.

Lights on a tree, lights in the yard, lights in the mall, all pall against your light.

Let us not forget; leave us not alone; be ever nearer each passing day.

In the power of your Holy Spirit, help us to look around us each and every day and extend your light even further.

Through Jesus’ special name, Amen.


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Breech Birth

ShipOfFools_web_07292016“I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.”
(Psalm 121:1-2)

Breech Birth

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

When my oldest child, Christine, was born, Maryam became so attached to her that she refused to hire babysitters and refused to leave her alone with anyone. On rare occasions, Mama Bozorg and I were allowed to watch her, but we were among the chosen few. As she drew closer to delivering our second child, Marjolijn Narsis,[1] Maryam’s attachment to her daughter became an important concern.

The night before she was born, Maryam had trouble sleeping and went into labor early in the morning. Her labor was irregular, however, and did not make progress towards regular contractions every ten minutes, as parents are normally advised. By five o’clock in the morning, I became concerned that, after having labor pains all night, something was wrong and we started having a debate about calling our sister-in-law, Julie. But Maryam did not want to leave Christine with anyone! By five thirty, I was pulling my hair out and called Julie.

Julie came over promptly. Maryam and I called ahead to Inova Fairfax Hospital and drove over together. On arrival, we checked into the natal unit and, thinking that delivery was hours away like with Christine, we were shocked that the doctors whisked us immediately into the delivery room; Marjolijn was a breech baby and needed an emergency Cesarean delivery. The delivery went fine, but the emergency surprised us and Maryam enjoyed a longer stay in the hospital than planned. When Christine and I arrived at the hospital the next day to visit, Maryam was very unhappy to see that her daughter happily holding onto her Dad rather than running immediately to Mom!

In the months that followed, the division of labor in the family changed dramatically. With one child, you can almost maintain your lifestyle as a young couple; with two children, lifestyle adjustments are mandatory. This dilemma becomes really obvious because a single child gets a lot of attention—I call it the pet kid phenomena—which simply cannot be sustained when you have two. In my case, I bought a new single lens reflect (SLR) camera when Christine was born and filmed her every move. When Marjolijn was born, I took fewer photographs, not for lack of interest, but because with two children in play at least one is always in motion. If that weren’t bad enough, Marjolijn experienced even more colic than her sister and we were tired all the time.

Our battles with colic strained a lot of relationships because hardly anyone wants a colicky baby around or to care for one. I remember, for example, being told undiplomatically one Sunday morning to move to the back of the church, Cub Run Elementary School, because my daughter, Christine, was making too much noise. Churches today mostly lack a cry room[2] and expect parents to disappear during worship or to delegate care to someone else, which we never did. Caring for our two girls accordingly required teamwork, whether in church or in taking part in family gatherings.

The fact that the girls were only 16 months apart meant that they was always very close and very competitive. When Stephen Reza came along 16 months after Marjolijn, the pattern continued. Our kids were not only siblings, they were best friends, and they were inseparable. And anyone who tried to separate the troika (or treated any one of them badly) felt their wrath! They also all spoke Parsi making it possible to have private conversations out in front of most anyone, including Dad. And Maryam, who insisted that the kids use her first name, was the leader of the pack.

[1] Marjolijn is named for the daughter of close friends of ours, Map and Jan, from the Netherlands who also happened to attend Lewinsville Presbyterian Church where Maryam and I were married. When Maryam and I were engaged, Map and Jan rented Maryam a room. Map was a stay-at-home mom able and willing offer plenty of helpful advice while Jan was an agronomist with the World Bank able to talk shop with me. Needless to say, we hit it off immediately and remain close friends.

[2] A cry room was a glass encased room at the back of the sanctuary where parents both care for their own infants while hearing and seeing the worship service. The one that I remember best was at Central Reformed Church in Oskaloosa, Iowa.

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Sacks: Why Stories Sell; Why We Care, Part 2

story_wars_review_11172016Jonah Sacks.[1] 2012. Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell—and Live—the Best Stories Will Rule the Future. Boston: Harvard Business School Press. (Got to Part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

If you believe that modern media is irrelevant to your religious life, then ask yourself a couple of questions.  For example, why are most sermons about 20 minutes? and where do you go when you get upset? Twenty minute is about the amount of time remaining in a 30 minutes television show after the time devoted to advertising is subtracted out. If you go shopping when you are upset, then consider what your grandmother might have done—50 years ago it was common to go to a chapel and pray on stressful occasions.[2]  Today, if someone wanted to pray in a chapel, the door would likely be locked.

These changes did not happen overnight and they were not accidental.

In his book, Winning the Story Wars, Jonah Sacks talks about the contribution of dark art of marketing to cultural changes that we have seen. Borrowing from the work of Joseph Campbell, Sacks describes the purpose of myth is to help us grow up because we yearn for maturation (85). But mature adults (self-responsible, free agents) threaten marketers who typically prefer us to remain adolescents where we suspended in an immature state dwelling on emotions like greed, vanity, and insecurity. In this immature state, we are meant to feel inadequate and incomplete where consumption of product X, Y, Z can presumably make us complete again (86).

Inadequacy marketing directly assaults the spirit of most religious teaching, irrespective of theology, because most religions aid our maturation and help us to contribute to society. Hence, the phrase—the dark art of marketing—is truly dark.

Sacks writes:

“all story-based marketing campaigns contain an underlying moral of the story and supply a ritual that is suggested to react to that moral.” (89)

Inadequacy marketing accordingly has two basic steps. In step 1, the moral always begins with “You are not…and plays off of at least one negative emotion: greed…fear…lust.” (89) The purpose in step 1 is to create anxiety (93). In step 2, the ritual proposed is implicitly or explicitly to shop and buy a particular product—pictured as a magical experience.

One of the classic success stories of inadequacy marketing is the Listerine (an early mouth wash) ad campaign. In 1922, Listerine was sold as a “good surgical antiseptic” (91). Sales were pretty minimal. This ad campaign introduced a young woman, “Sad Edna”, who lacked attention, sex appeal, and was basically inadequate for reasons that no one would tell her—she had halitosis (bad breath) which was ruining her social life (the moral of the story; 142). That is, until she discovered Listerine (the magical solution). In this case, the Sad Edna campaign both raised the fear of inadequacy and successfully introduced Listerine as the hero of the story.

Sacks sees inadequacy marketing as pervasive and destructive because drives us to pursue culturally and environmentally destructive consumption. In place of inadequacy marketing, Sacks offers “empowerment advertising” which follows John Powers’ three basic principles (1875):  (1) Be interesting, (2) Tell the truth, and (3) Live the truth (or change so you can; 103-107). An example of an ad by John Powers for neckties read: “not as good as they look, but they’re good enough—25 cents.” The campaign was an instant success, in part, because people found an honest ad refreshing and the ties available sold promptly (105).

Sacks devotes the remainder of his book to outlying how to use empowerment advertising.

Two basic ingredients of empowerment advertising are Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” and Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”. Before I close, let me define what he means.

Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” starts with the proposition that people desire to obtain self-actualization as a life goal, this goal may not be obtained until more basic needs are met. Thus, he posits a pyramid of needs with the most basic needs at the bottom (physiological needs) and self-actualization at the top. Sacks pictures the five categories: physiological, safety, love and belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization (ordered from bottom to top; 130).  While inadequacy marketing focuses on the bottom of the pyramid, empowerment marketing focuses on the top.

Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” outlines the basic plot of many successful stories and films in a repeating circle: 1. The ordinary world, 2. A call to adventure, 3. Refusing the call, 4. Meeting a mentor, 5. Crossing the threshold, 6. Tests, allies, and Enemies, 7. Approaching the dragon’s den, 8. The ordeal, 9. Seizing the treasure, 10. The journey home, 11. Resurrection, 12. Return with the Treasure (148). While the hero’s journey may seem long and drawn out, numerous famous films follows this formula. For example, films that follow the hero’s journey include: Star Wars (1977), The Patriot (2000), and World War Z (2013).  So does the biblical story of Moses.

The hero’s journey is interesting in empowerment marketing because in order to succeed the hero has to grow at least enough to complete the journey—a type of self-actualization in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. For Sacks, the hero in question is a “brand hero” who exemplifies your firm’s ideal customer and who is not, as in inadequacy marketing, a product. This brand hero is not a helpless consumer, but a mature and contributing citizen (149-150). The brand hero in the case of Apple, for example, is a creative employee who breaks out of the usual mold and may buy a Mac, but the Mac is not portrayed as a “magical solution”.

 Jonah Sacks’ book, Winning the Story Wars, is a great read and a helpful guide to understanding our recent culture wars as played out in film, online, and in our political campaigns. I read this book to improve my writing skills, but it is a must read for anyone who wants to understand what “all the shouting is about” in our society today.


Campbell, Joseph. 1968. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[1] @JonahSachs. @DrewBeam. @HarvardBiz.

[2] In Hispanic films, people still consult a priest and/or visit a chapel to pray, but not in English language films. The last example of a chapel visit in film that I remember was in the film Home Alone (1990) starring Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, and Daniel Stern.

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Prayer for Those in Pain

wedding-009Heavenly Father,

Prepare our hearts, oh Lord, for the coming holidays when we

must face that empty chair,

must answer questions that intrude too much,

and much remember events from the past that refuse to be history.

Turn down the lights a bit,

Let the old music play bit more gently,

Give me some space when I seem a bit distant.

In the power of your Holy Spirit,

Remind me, oh Lord, of your love in Christmas lights.

Shelter me in your arms again.

In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.



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Sacks: Why Stories Sell; Why We Care, Part 1

story_wars_review_11172016Jonah Sacks.[1] 2012. Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell—and Live—the Best Stories Will Rule the Future. Boston: Harvard Business School Press. (Got to Part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In the online world that surrounds us, we are bombarded with messages from morning to night: email, spam, pop-ups, video, print media, text-ads, robo-calls, and even old-fashioned, telephone solicitors. Because messages bombard us from morning to night, only the most sophisticated ads get and hold our attention. At the heart of these winning ads is usually a mythical story.

Against this backdrop, in his book, Winning the Story Wars, Jonah Sacks writes:

“We live in a world that has lost its connection to its traditional myths, and we are now trying to find new ones—we’re people and that’s what people without myths do.

These myths will shape our future, how we live, what we do, and what we buy. They will touch all of us. But not all of us get to write them. Those that do have tremendous power.” (6)

Among those competing to gain this power through telling such stories are authors, film-makers, advertisers, religious leaders, and politicians of all stripes. Because it is not clear whose stories will dominate our attention (17), the recent election is a reminder that a lot is at stake.

In this environment of competing myth-making, oral tradition has become increasingly important because social media facilitates immediate feedback between story tellers and their audience, reminiscent of a time when story tellers gathered with their audiences primarily around a campfire. Because “all wars are story wars” (29), Sacks sees story telling as critical, not only to marketers who can either lift us up or tear us down, but also to citizens who may find themselves manipulated into fighting real wars.

So who is Jonah Sacks? Sack describes himself as a: “story expert, filmmaker and entrepreneur”. His back cover and website includes this description:

“As the co-founder and CEO of Free Range Studios, Jonah has helped hundreds of major brands and causes break through the media din with unforgettable [ad] campaigns. His work on legendary viral videos like The Meatrix and The Story of Stuff series have brought key social issues to the attention of more than 65 million people online. A constant innovator, his studio’s websites and stories have taken top honors three times at the South by Southwest Film Festival.”

Sacks divides his book into two parts and eight chapters, preceded by a prologue and followed by an epilogue:

Part One: The Broken World of Storytelling

  1. The Story Wars are All Around Us
  2. The Five Deadly Sins
  3. The Myth Gap
  4. Marketing’s Dark Art

Part Two: Shaping the Future

  1. Tell the Truth, Part I: The Art of Empowerment Marketing
  2. Tell the Truth, Part II: The Hero’s Journey
  3. Be Interesting: Freaks, Cheats, and Familiars
  4. Live the Truth. (vii)

Once you buy into the idea that stories matter and matter a lot, Sacks starts by instructing us on what not to do—the five deadly sins—which are vanity, authority, insincerity, puffery, and gimmickry (35). Vanity arises as an early problem because “when you love what you’re selling” … “you assume everyone else will too” (36).  Sacks uses an unforgettable example when he compares the acceptance speeches of John Kerry and George W. Bush in 2004—Kerry talks mostly about John Kerry, while Bush talks about what “we” can do (37-38). The contrast could not be greater. The other four sins are equally hard to avoid and quick to kill the credibility of a story.

Sacks repeatedly returns to myth as an important component in story telling. He describes myth as neither true not false, but existing in a separate reality (59). He attributes three ingredients in myth: symbolic thinking, having three elements tied together—story, explanation, and meaning, and ritual (59-61). For example, in Genesis Sacks sees creation as a myth with these three elements:

“STORY:               God created the world in seven days and gave man dominion over it.

EXPLANATION: This is how everything we see around us came into existence.

MEANING:          So God deserves our gratitude and obedience.” (60)

An important observation drives much of Sacks’ own storyline:

“a myth gap arises when reality changes dramatically and our myths are not resilient enough to continue working in the face of that change.” (61)

In our “rationalist modern society” (62) where people refuse to think symbolically, the myth gap zaps meaning and leaves people in an intractable state of hopelessness. “Forward-thinking religious leaders, scientists, and entertainers” who attempt to “reunify story, explanation, and meaning in their work” are quickly pushed out of the mainstream (63). Thus, the myth gap remains and people suffer.

Jonah Sacks’ book “Winning the Story Wars” is a non-fiction, page turner. The hugely fascinating illustrations are by Drew Beam. [2] In part 2 of this review, I will examine in more depth Sacks’ exploration of modern advertising and why we care.

[1] @JonahSachs.

[2] @DrewBeam.

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Evangelist's Prayer

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Almighty Father, Beloved Son, Holy Spirit,

We give thanks that you bless us in so many ways—with your word and your presence, with family, good health, and our many needs. May we model your mercy by blessing those around us, that your love would indeed be multiplied over and over again. Go with us now as we speak into the lives of those around us in word and in deed, especially in this Advent season. Grant us strength for the day; grace for those we meet; and peace. In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

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