“Here’s your sign…”

Church spire

I have been thinking about signs. There are all sorts of signs in our lives. Sometimes we heed them, and quite often we obtusely ignore them. This will be a tired set of comments for those of you who know us, but there has been road construction in and around our house since July. They tore up the corner (we are not exactly on a corner, but there is not enough space between us and the corner for another house, if that makes sense) and the cross street adjacent to us in July. We live at a “T” intersection. They finally tore up the long part of the T, which is in front of our house, in August. We have had a huge hole in front of our driveway for the past month. They are replacing a sewer pump station, replacing poor storm drains, and putting in a paved trail area in the space between our house and the corner. Our town recently became part of the municipality and all these upgrades have followed. Apparently, there are curb requirements at intersections. We have never had a curb on our side of the street. And our side is where they pile the snow in winter, when they plow. So they are trying to put in curbs and also replace and flatten the dirt to repave the area. There have been “Road Closed” signs up for weeks. Apparently no one reads them. Each week, the crews flatten and grade this road. Each week idiots do their 4-wheeling best to tear up the grading and drive past the “Road Closed” signs. The only ones who do not have direct access to their home is us – and we’ve been taking the alternate route, adding considerable time to our commute. I was chatting with the work crew today, because I have to park our truck out on the graded dirt for the next three days while they attempt to pour cement curbbage in our area (did I mention it is pouring rain?). We spoke about ignoring signs. It is funny because it is only the convenience factor that has people ignoring the “Road Closed” signs; every single one of them can access their homes through the alternate route. In fact, at the top of our street (it’s a fairly decent hill) someone actually moved that “Road Closed” sign onto someone’s lawn, so they could drive through. It just amazes me. The workers and I discussed how it is taxpayer money (a state project no less) and grant money that people are wasting by 4-wheeling down graded roads and making them spend half their days redoing the roads. It was supposed to have been done a couple of weeks ago, but due to rain and traffic damage, they are way behind. They jokingly told us back in July that they hoped to be done by the first snows. And we all laughed. Perhaps they weren’t as far off as they joked. If only people would heed the signs.

And that brings me to reminisce on our feast day yesterday, “The Exultation of the Holy Cross,” as it is referred to in the Eastern Churches. We venerate and celebrate the Cross of Christ. Why would someone celebrate the Cross? Why would we even want to see a Cross? Many Christian sects around the world think it is wrong to celebrate and remember the Cross. Someone once told me a Catholic Crucifix is like wearing a photograph of a dead body around your neck. I guess I can see that. Somewhat. In the East and in Orthodoxy, we don’t normally wear a crucifix, but instead a Byzantine Cross.

Byzantine Cross

I am often asked why I wear this particular cross and what it means. People often assume it is some sort of Asian glyph. But it is not. To explain the meaning of it, the top cross beam represents the sign they hung above Christ, “Jesus Christ, King of the Jews.” The second cross beam is where they nailed His hands. The bottom one is where His feet were nailed. When they removed His body, the cross beam at the bottom slipped – the right side was raised, pointing to the Thief who obtained Paradise with Christ that very day; the left side, pointing downward, represents the thief who chose his fate in separation from Grace. It speaks volumes to me and is THE sign for me; THE sign that Christ gave His life for me.

There are signs all over, asking us to pay attention. My neighbors insist on ignoring the “Road Closed” signs and continue to “go around.” They cause ruin and lost time each and every time they ignore that sign. What do we ignore in our lives that also costs us? I know that God places signs all over the place for us to notice Him in our lives. Quite often they are small; but often they are 2 x 4s, slapping us up the side of the head. Have you ever been obstinate in something, continually seeking it, only to have it slip away? Or obstinate to the point of stubbornness? To the point where you throw caution to the wind and “do it anyway”? Have you ever ignored everyone’s advice (even when you asked for it) and gone and done something anyway? How did that work out for you? Most often, when I have pushed something, it does not end profitably for me. And profit is not just about money.

I dated idiots in my youth, thinking I could “fix” them. Yes, I dated some wonderful men who were great for me, but with whom I was not meant to share a life. But the proportionate of men who did not work out were “projects,” not dates. What was I thinking? Like I am some incredible woman and I know what’s best for them, so I can change them and make them better? Ha-Ha. I ignored every sign sent my way, all advice given to me. It is almost as if I was thinking, “I’ll show them! I know what’s best for me. But more importantly, I know what’s best for them!” Yeah. Stupid me. I have people in my life who consistently ask for advice, but they are not listening. They are preparing their response to me, in order to justify what they are going to do anyway. And hey, that’s just fine. More and more I give them lip service, because I know they aren’t truly listening, and are going to do what they choose, anyway. And that’s okay. But how often do we pray to God, seeking advice, while we’re already going to do something anyway??? How often do we go around those “Road Closed” signs and cause all sorts of damage?

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During the Exultation of the Holy Cross, we have some incredible prayers. There are several that I think apply to our world, and most especially to our Country. I only wish people would heed these signs, and pray some of these prayers:

Kontakion of the Cross: “O Christ our God, Who chose by Your own free volition to be elevated upon the Holy Cross, grant Your mercies to Your new people who are called by Your name. In Your power, gladded the hearts of our public authorities; strengthen them in every good deed so that Your true alliance may be for them a weapon of peace and a standard of Victory.

One of the Sessional Hymns for Orthros on this feast is: “O Lover of Mankind, we venerate the Wood of Your Cross, for You, the Life of all, were nailed upon it. O Savior, You opened Paradise to the thief who turned to You in faith, and You counted him worthy of blessedness when he confessed You by crying out, “Remember me O Lord!” Accept us, like him, for we cry out, “We all have sinned; in Your merciful kindness, do not reject us!

And we continually sing, throughout the Liturgy, “We bow in worship before Your Cross, O Christ, and we give praise to Your Holy Resurrection.”

How can we dismiss the signs Our Lord has left for us? We can witness to one another by wearing a cross. We can place stickers of them on our cars, hang them from our rear-view mirrors. We can offer them to others, as a sharing of this Sign from God. When we were first married, my husband had a wedding ring with a cross on it. He wanted me to wear one, too. At that point in my life, I realized I was not ready for the Sign of God on my hand.  I mean, what if I cut someone off in traffic? Used bad words in anger, while wearing a cross on my finger? I just could not do it. Nowadays, I feel naked if I do not have a cross on my person in some form, somewhere. I always wear one around my neck. For an anniversary my husband got me that matching ring with a cross on it, and when my fingers aren’t all swollen with arthritis, I wear it. Gladly, I wear it. Why? I need the reminder. I need the sign. I need it, whether anyone else does or not. Christ hung on that cross for three hours, for me. Whether or not there was another human being on earth, Christ would die for my sins, and mine alone. Each and every person, who believes in Him, was atoned because of Him. And His grace spreads… every where. We are so blessed with signs.

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Road Closed – Local Traffic Only. That’s the sign by my house. Which signs do you heed? Which signs do you ignore? Does your indifference to the signs you are given cause damage and cost those around you? Do you purposely thwart God and continually do it your own way? I saw a great little comment on Facebook this week:

“You cannot pray for an A on a test and study for a B. You cannot pray for a faithful relationship and still live an unfaithful life. Moral of the story is you cannot pray for something and act less.

Don’t question my God and His abilities when your actions don’t match your prayers.”

I love that. Don’t pray for something and act less. How often have I prayed for peace and been disgustingly cranky to everyone around me? How often have I brought peace to this world? How often have I begged God for something, but done nothing to help myself along? When we were discerning the radical move to Alaska, we sought sign after sign after sign. We asked that doors be not only closed, but removed and disintegrated. We asked that no other options present themselves to us, but to relocate. We sought peace in our decision. We sat in the presence of God and sought silent affirmation. We opened ourselves to His will. And we heeded the peace we found, the answers given to us. Just last night, on our drive home from Divine Liturgy, we thanked God once again for bringing us here. We are so blessed. We look consistently, and constantly, for God’s Will and His signs for us in our lives. We have missed a few, because He loves to whisper in this noisy world, but we have seen those errors and we try, fervently, to listen and watch for His will in our lives. It is the hardest thing I have ever done, being a Christian. But it is the most rewarding and peaceful thing, as well. As this world spins crazily on its axis and things get more and more insane around us, we cling to His Cross, to His Sign. We choose to listen to, and see His signs. We choose not to go around them. 

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“..an anchor for those who are tossed by waves…”

St.JohnChrysostom.PrayerToday I am seeking my anchor!  Often when my heart is hurting, I seek comfort in prayer. I light incense in the house, I look to my favorite icons, and I seek counsel from friends whose opinions I trust.  But I have to start my day on my knees (figuratively speaking).  And it is one of those days. The irony is that yesterday was a day for Gaga (the name my oldest grandson gave me) heaven! I babysat both my grandchildren for the entire day.  I was so thrilled. I got to play trucks with my two-year old grandson, and I got to coo at and cuddle with my 4-month old grand daughter. I even remembered all the words to, “I know an old lady who swallowed a fly”!!  That was my youngest son’s favorite song for me to sing to him while I rocked him to sleep for naps!  It was a great day…today, not so much.

Orthodox Notes.6There is an aspect to my life that some people do not understand. My parents did not really understand, and that is okay.  I always wanted a large family.  I came from a small one that spanned several oceans, and was scattered across three continents and was decidedly British in oh so many ways!  No aunts, no uncles, no cousins.  Which is completely the opposite experience of my husband! He comes from a very large, very close, ethnically-rich German-Russian family.  And both my husband and myself wanted a large family of our own.  We even tried to scare each other away while dating!  (I want six kids…how many do you want? Well, I want 8 kids! Ha-Ha!).  God had other plans for us.  From the very start, we had trouble conceiving and keeping our babies and have lost 7 children in various stages of miscarriage.  I longed for a full, noisy, messy, chaotic household and in answer to that, we became foster parents.  The training was intimidating, in and of itself. It makes you wonder how your natural children were still breathing and in one piece.  We prayed about fostering, and we worked on it, and finally we were licensed.  Fostering is a special thing. It is not for the faint-of-heart, nor for the unprepared.  We got our home ready, but it was our minds and hearts that were unprepared.  What were we unprepared for? This wash of completely unrequited love that just overflowed for these children left in our care. Most of their stories were sad beyond our experience.  For most, it was the first time they had ever experienced life in an intact family.  And they clung.  Boy oh boy, did they cling.  And to these kids, race was not even an issue.  I had care of two brothers once who called me, “Mommy” from the first moment I held them.  They were African American boys from the inner city. They arrived in the night, in footed-jammies and diapers, and that was it!  We lived in the suburbs, next to orange groves. They had no idea what oranges were.  They brought me one and said, “Mommy-mommy! Look! Orange balls that fell off that tree! Can we keep them?”  I had to show them that they were for eating.  They had never had a meal that was NOT in a paper sack until they lived with us.  The baby was used to drinking coca-cola out of his bottle.  For dinner one night, I accidentally cut up a slice of pizza for the baby and he had a fit! Screamed at me. He was used to the whole slice.  They both regressed into early infancy, wanting to be held and fed and diapered, rocked to sleep, and comforted; something common for most neglected and abused children.  They were soaking up all the cuddling, warmth, security, and love they never had as small babies.  And when they were wrenched from my arms, screaming, “Mommy, mommy, don’t let them take me!!” I about lost my mind from grief.  They were removed because the maternal grandparents saw us once, and saw we were white. From incarceration, the mother requested “no white families.”  It was so very sad.  In the area in which we lived, foster families of color were few and far between.  Fostering takes courage and fortitude, and learning to be an advocate for these kids.  We loved/hated it.  It messed with my older boys’ heads in that they fell in love with their new “siblings” only to have them taken away, and it was not something they wanted to repeat over and over again.  And so in the best interests of our family, we stopped fostering. We had been licensed for drug babies and small children and that darn phone rang and rang, with placement requests, for at least a year after we discontinued our licensing.

A couple of years later, through the grace of God and some amazing friends, we welcomed and fell in love with, and adopted our youngest son.  He was just a couple of hours old and in the hospital when I first met him, and when he was laid in my arms, the floodgates of love opened in my heart. He was mine…no one else would take him away. I cannot express the gamut of emotions that have come from having him in our family – for all of us.  Our older sons loved him so much, they insisted the three of them all be in the same room – late night crying of an infant and all.  The oldest of our sons took to sleeping with the baby when he was a toddler; they grew very close.  It was a beautiful thing to see. Our middle son had a few years with just he and our youngest at home (the older one had grown and left home) and they bonded something fierce.  It was so fun to see them together, the little one trailing after his brother.  And we have never looked back.  We never treated the son who was given to us differently than the sons we birthed.  He is ours as much as they are.

When we purposefully adopt a child, we become pretty darn protective of that child.  Even more so, I think, because they are adopted.  In our case, we are a different race than our youngest son, and it has always proved to be an issue.  The issue is for other people – not our family or close friends. Our older family members often questioned the wisdom of adopting outside of our race, but we never even thought about it.  I never think of it, until someone brings it to my attention.  A funny incident happened when my mom met him for the first time.  He was just 20 days old.  We brought him to Christmas Eve at my brother’s house.  I guess I had forgotten to mention his race when I was all bubbly and excited over the phone.  You “could have knocked her over with a feather” when she opened that blanket.  She said, “You forgot to mention he wasn’t white.”  And I looked at her, then at him, and said, “I totally forgot that part, I guess.”  We laughed but when you adopt, you just love. It doesn’t matter the gender or the race, it is a child who needs you. You just love.

DrBenCarson“You know, I was asked once by an NPR reporter why I don’t talk about race that often. And I said it’s because I’m a neurosurgeon. And she looked at me quite quizzically. And I said, ‘You see, when I take someone to the operating room and I peel down the scalp and take off the bone flap and open the dura, I’m operating on the thing that makes the person who they are.’ It’s not the covering that makes them who they are,” he said.

I love Dr. Ben Carson, and I love what he said above.  “It’s not the covering that makes them who they are.”  And I truly believe that. I have run into prejudice in all sorts of forms.  I personally have experienced it, and fairly recently, in fact.  Not to be too blunt about it, but I am an obese woman.  I could drop 100 pounds and still want to loose a little more.  (But I have a great personality! Ha-Ha!)  Seriously, I am heavy: I live with it each and every day.  And the world ignores overweight people; they generally don’t really see us.  I have experimented with hair color, length, style.  Only when I went from curly to straight, did people say anything.  And when I quit dyeing my hair and just decided to live with the gray, I only got a few comments (and they were mostly from people my age who are not ready to that, yet!)  For important events, I often wear make-up, and usually on Sundays, or when attending an important function.  No one ever notices.  No one notices when I plan and prepare and then wear a particular outfit that I think looks good.  People do not see me.  It is rather annoying and I long for the day of thinness to return.  But it annoys me, that to be noticed, I need to be thin.  “It’s not the covering that makes them who they are,” as Dr. Carson would say.  But in our culture, it very much is.  And that is a form of prejudice!

Which brings me to my need to cling to my anchor of prayer today. Our youngest, most precious, son is experiencing prejudice.  Now, sometimes you just can’t help stupid people; they are pretty much everywhere.  And I usually ignore prejudice born from ignorance and stupidity. When I get mad is when people purport to (1) be a Christian, (2) are in a position of leadership, (3) have the responsibility to be an example to young people.  Prejudice is most often one of race.  But prejudice exists in many forms.  My parents think I am going to hell because I am not a born-again Christian, who believes like they do and they are prejudiced against Catholicism.  Sad.  Other types are like what I experience being overweight. People can be downright rude about it.  It can also be about ability.  I have friends, and many who foster parent can relate to this, who have children who run the spectrum of FAS (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome) to extremely autistic, to pretty much everything in between.  There are children with special needs, who are not in wheelchairs or use crutches or canes, or who have amputated limbs, who operate pretty much like normal, until they are in certain situations (like formal state testing, for example).  They seem normal, so people do not expect issues with them and berate them for being  “slow” or “stupid.”  There are those who use such derogatory language around children, who soak it up like a sponge, that in turn learn to use it on other kids.  It is a big, ugly cycle.

Choose words wiselySo I am at this point of needing to deal with a situation that breaks my heart. We had such a great thing going for my son, and now it is all falling apart, and I am saddened.  For me, for those friends we dragged along to events that we all enjoyed, for family members who came with us, and the organization as a whole, because we are going to have to make big changes, and change is always hard.  We will walk away from this unless fundamental changes occur.  This is hard on everyone.  But how do you change people’s hearts, so that prejudice doesn’t become a part of who they are and how they operate in life?  And how do you keep it from affecting your own children? I start by praying for them. But I feel like I am against this mammoth thing.  *Deep breath here.*

And guess what? It’s still Lent!!!!  We have something like 25 days left.  And why did this all come to a head now? God placed it in this time and place for my benefit. Wow.  It’s pretty amazing.  Lent is an amazing time for all of us, and this Lent, He is asking me, leading me, to be a better person.

Lent is a timeSo I am examining and taking inventory.  Those little places inside my heart and my soul where I see strange lights seeping in need to be shored up.  Anger, frustration, frustration…all those negative things. Just 25-short days left in Lent!  (Remember when it began and we thought the end was so far off?). I need more reflection, more time, to fix myself so that when I do engage with others who have been cruel to my son, I can be fair.  I can be reasonable.  Because right now, I am not feeling so reasonable.  I am feeling protective.  It’s like I want to fill the moat with water, drop in some sharks, and pull up the drawbridge, keeping the world at bay.  But I know I need to bear witness to God’s love, even to those “who hate me.” In Matthew 5: 43-48, the Lord says this:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?

And so I wrestle with myself; I am doing a lot of deep breathing, and trying to relax. I return to my anchor among these waves of prejudice and poor example, and I drop to my knees and I pray. This affects my son’s future, it affects his now; it also affects every person involved, now and in the future.  And I know that I am not enough; I know I need God to handle this for me.  His wisdom, not mine. He must increase, so I must decrease. His words, not mine.  For God suffered prejudice on a Cross, for me.  Thanks be to God. Blessed Lent.

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“… displayed it to all…”

Holy Cross VerifiedI love miracle stories.  And this is one of my favorites, the finding of the True Cross of Christ.  It is not really necessary to believe in miracles, or to believe in visions or visionaries.  We rush to these things because once in awhile we need to be reminded that what we believe is honest and true.  Sometimes people travel great distances to visit the Holy Land, to walk on the Via Dolorosa, or the Way of Grief and participate in the Stations of the Cross, walking where Christ walked and touching places in history.  Many people make a regular occurrence of visiting monasteries or other places where they feel the presence of God more fully than in their favorite easy chair.  I have many friends who love to just visit the Eucharist daily, to just sit in the presence of God, before starting their day.  There are also lots of people who wear things to remind them of their faith, like prayer ropes or crosses.  I was lucky enough to purchase a plain, Byzantine cross at a monastery many years ago, that had been made by an artist, to help support the monastery. I wear it pretty much all the time, and it reminds me of my walk with God and as I touch it off and on during the day, it also comforts me.

390px-OrthodoxCross(black,contoured).svgBecause it is a cross normally associated with Byzantines or Eastern Rite Catholics and the Orthodox, most people do not readily recognize it.  I am often asked if I am wearing some sort of language symbol and most people suppose it to be an Asian-language word or symbol…like something you would get tattooed on yourself.  I usually chuckle at that, but it also gives me an opportunity to share my faith.

When my husband and I were choosing our wedding rings about 30 years ago, he really liked simple bands and the one he loved was a gold band that had a cross inset on it, with tiny diamond chips. (Very tiny chips! Ha-Ha!! We were young and pretty poor, as most newlyweds are!)  He wanted me to wear the matching band, but I had my heart set on another design.  And I realized that I did not want to wear a cross on my finger, because I was not quite ready to proclaim to the world that I was a Christian.  I look back on that now, and I am rather ashamed, but also treasure the growth God allowed to take place in me.  Wearing a cross around your neck or on your finger says something about who you are as a person.  Putting a sticker of a cross on your car, or hanging one from your rear-view mirror also makes a statement.  Having a religious symbol on your home or in your yard makes a big statement about the people who live there. Some people now tattoo religious symbols or sayings on their flesh…a permanent reminder of what they believe and a permanent statement to whomever they are in contact with, on a daily basis. And sometimes I think we all forget what statement we are making.  How often have we been run over by someone trying to exit the Church parking lot on Sundays, or cut off in traffic by a driver with a WWJD sticker on the back of their car?  How often, while wearing a cross, do we get nasty with someone at a store or while driving?  How often are we uncharitable to our neighbors, while flying a flag with a statement of our faith from our rooftops?  We often forget that we have forged a relationship with God and that we have chosen to wear or display that relationship on our person, our vehicles, or on our homes.

We attended this wonderful parish picnic at a Melkite parish out of town one summer.  It was a nice drive, the weather was wonderful, and we arrived early enough to be able to check out all the booths and sample some of the wonderful food being sold, before it got overly crowded.  In the Melkite Church, we were spoiled because everyone appreciates those who serve on the altar so much.  We were given little gifts of food and some wonderful coffee, as we strolled the picnic.  We had parishioners coming up to us, explaining what they were selling, and the aromas of the shawarma booths were making me salivate!  (Shawarma‎ is a Levantine  Arab meat preparation, where lamb, chicken, turkey, beef, veal or mixed meats are placed on a spit (commonly a vertical spit), and may be grilled for as long as a day. Shavings are cut off the block of meat for serving, and the remainder of the block of meat is kept heated on the rotating spit. Although it can be served in shavings on a plate (generally with accompaniments), shawarma also refers to a sandwich or wrap made with shawarma meat. Shawarma is eaten with tabbouleh, fattoush, tabboon bread, tomato, and cucumber. Toppings include tahini, hummus, pickled turnips and amba. It is now a fast-food staple worldwide. We are blessed to have a great Arabic food restaurant nearby where we can buy gyros with our choice of beef, chicken, or lamb shawarma!  So blessed!). There was a booth that caught my eye, and it wasn’t even food-oriented!  This booth had these great flags to put in front of your house. They are what are called garden flags in that you hang them on a stake in your yard.  And there were flags for almost all the Holy Days, as well as some of my favorite feast days.  I bought one of each and promptly went home and replaced my pretty flowered flag with a flag for the season of our faith. I loved being able to do that!  When we relocated up here, one of the first things I did was hang my flag by the front door.  I did not think a thing about it.  In about 60 days or so, I had a letter from the HOA telling me I had to remove the flag or pay $50 fines for each month it was not removed.  Apparently, nothing religious is allowed to be on your home, visible by anyone else.  I was flabbergasted.  I replaced my religious flag with a flowery-spring thing.  I was so irritated.  I could not believe there would be an ordinance about flags like this.  In addition, we were not allowed to place religious artwork in our gardens or front areas of our home. The list was specific and long.  Because we just lease and are not owners, I did not make a fuss.  About a month after that, the President of the HOA drove up to our house to chat, as we were working in the yard.  She told us that we could once again fly our flag because people complained about the fines and they got another company to represent the HOA.  She told me, “Please fly those flags. I love seeing them.”  Wow!  Was I shocked and happy. I walked into the house and grabbed a flag, and proudly re-hung it by our front door.  With packing up for our move, I brought the flag inside and I must say, I miss it being there.  It sort of grounds me.  And I also think our neighbors all appreciated our wanting to share a little of who we are in a quiet way.

Gerontissa GabrieliaI think that when we visibly demonstrate our faith before others, we become, perhaps, the only Jesus they may ever see or become acquainted with.  We need to pray when we place a cross around our neck, on our fingers, tattooed on our person, or placed on our cars, or on our homes.  We are a visible sign to others that God is present and that we are His followers.  St. Helen was determined to bring the True Cross to her son, the Emperor Constantine, and she traveled great distances and endured much hardship to do so.  She was a determined woman of faith and her faith never wavered in her quest to find the Cross of Christ, raise it out of obscurity, and bring it to where generations of Christians would worship the instrument of their salvation. It is a powerful thing and an incredible statement to and for others.  I love wearing my Byzantine Cross around my neck and the ring my husband presented to me, matching his, with the simple Cross on it.  The different styles of crosses confuse people, too, and it has started many conversations about what I believe.  It is also a reminder to be the Christian I am declaring to the world when I drive, when I shop, when I am with anyone else.  But more importantly, it is there for me, to remind me of the wonderful gift of faith Our Lord has given to me, and blessed my life with.

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