Advent Sermon

One of my favorite sermons was written for Advent in 2008, while I was expecting our first baby. It was later published by the Young Clergy Women International in their online Fidelia magazine in 2012. You can read it here or I have included it below.

That was such a magical Advent for us: waiting for the baby Jesus and awaiting the birth of our own baby in April. It felt so meaningful and special, and I am so grateful to have been encouraged by my superior to use my physical body as a part of my telling the story. I had never done anything like that before, and would have never thought it could be so helpful.

This year, I am not much in the Christmas spirit. I went looking for this sermon to remember that happy time. Maybe it will help someone else to read it too.

Hopeful Signs: An Advent Sermon on John 1:6-28

We expect some of the same things around Christmas: the same message, the same songs, the familiar traditions of it all.  We still have to work to prepare the way of the Lord.  For my family, this Christmas is different.  Advent is different.  Pregnancy has made it so, and I have come to understand that Advent is very much like pregnancy.  Let me explain.

First, Advent is pregnant with hope.  I am a visual representation.  A baby is full of potential and possibilities. There is so much hope for the future, as we dream about what this child will be like and realizing that she may be nothing like what we are thinking she will be. What are you hoping for this Christmas?  If you’re hoping for presents under the tree, it might not be the same as last year?  Hoping for perfection, probably be disappointed?  Hoping for something different?  A Christmas miracle of healing?  Meaning?

Even as we are full of hope this Advent, we have to manage our expectations to know what is realistic so that we are not disappointed.  It did not take too long after we learned about this baby for me to learn that pregnancy is not all fun and games.  It is a painful, annoying, stressful, fun, exciting, awesome, amazing experience.  Some pregnancies are happier than others…too many involve sickness, complications, relationship issues, etc.  People have been overwhelmingly joyful at our news.  Strangers come up and talk to me.  It monopolizes many everyday conversations.  It is a common experience that binds us together.  Pregnancy is a long time, for others not long enough.  It provides a range of emotions:  fear, joy, excitement, nervousness, illness, and tiredness.  Advent offers a range of emotions too.  There’s the joy, excitement, and nervousness about how it will all come together, and tiredness from doing it all.  I think Advent can be summed up by that line in the Christmas carol, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight” from O Little Town of Bethlehem.  The waiting gives us time to experience all the hopes and fears of both pregnancy and Advent.

Secondly, Advent, like pregnancy, is not all about you.  This pregnancy seems to be all about me right now.  I have never been asked how I’m feeling so often.  Never have so many strangers been interested in me, and in touching my belly, and sharing their good and bad pregnancy and delivery stories.  But it is not all about me; it is much more about this baby.  Even before we learned our good news, I had started taking folic acid to prevent birth defects and scaled back on caffeine.   Once we found out, I really worked on my diet and eating healthier and started taking prenatal vitamins.  It didn’t take very long for me to realize that I was no longer in charge of my body.  This little baby has a lot to say about when I sleep or not, when I eat, and how much energy I have.  My life, my daily routine, has changed dramatically because it’s no longer all about me. With Advent, it is also easy to think it is all about us.  We have so much to do.  We have so many gifts left to buy and wrap.  We have to write our Christmas cards.  We focus on OUR waiting/preparations rather than on Christ’s coming.  We focus on our hopes rather than on the hope of Christ.

John the Baptist knew that it was not all about him.  He was clear on his identity, who he was and who he wasn’t.  In the Gospel reading, we hear that  John the Baptist did not give the answers that the leaders were hoping for.  They wanted him to be all these things, (Elijah, the Messiah) but all he would admit to being was a voice in the wilderness.  He came to testify to the light, but he was not the light himself.  In other Gospels we can read more about John’s own miraculous birth, what he wore and ate, and more about his ministry.  But here, the main point is John’s identity.   “I AM NOT” the Messiah….what he isn’t.  In Advent, we have to take care to not get a Messiah complex: so busy trying to be all things to all people.  Scurrying in Advent instead of waiting is dangerous.

John the Baptist came to testify to the light: Christmas is not about the tree and presents, but those are just a way to point to the gift of Jesus.  Or, maybe they become distractions so we don’t have to see the homeless, the hurting, the hungry.  We have to remember our identity as Christians, the reason for the season, to restore justice, and release the oppressed this Advent. This season is all about Jesus, and celebrating Jesus’ birthday.  We should be giving Jesus gifts by giving meaning to all his children by sharing the Good News of Christ.

Finally, Advent, like pregnancy, should not be rushed because it happens too quickly anyway.  We can’t skip ahead to Christmas, or we are missing out.  Similarly, those expecting have to enjoy the adventure and not wish it away.  As much as I want to meet this little girl, I also want enjoy the adventure of being pregnant.  It is a miracle, and an awesome experience to think that there is a baby in my tummy.  What a gift from God!  I receive a daily email from a site that gives me an update on the baby’s size, explaining what is going on with my body, and other hints and tips.  I love that email, each day and it reminds me of opening a little window in an Advent calendar.  It’s just another peek into what is coming, a hint at the whole picture.  Every day you get a little closer.

My prayer for all of us this Advent is that we experience it as a joyful journey. May we all keep our eyes open to hopeful signs this Advent season.   In the name of the one whose coming is worth waiting for, Amen.

Tamoxifen

As part of my treatment plan for breast cancer, my oncologist prescribed me Tamoxifen for ten years. Tamoxifen is an “old” drug, meaning that it has been well-studied, and it’s cheap! It is an estrogen suppressant. You can read a study about how being on it five years has fifteen year benefits here. I have been taking it since I finished radiation in 2016. I have completed 72 months, and I’ll continue for 48 more.

For someone with estrogen-positive (ER+) breast cancer like me, Tamoxifen is the “usual” treatment post-chemotherapy and surgery. Because I’m post-menopausal, I could switch to a different hormone therapy, but the side effects are basically the same. Now that I’ve adjusted to it, and I’ve read many of the studies, it seems like Tamoxifen remains the best option for me.

There are many side effects that I experience. Hot flashes, night sweats, fluid retention, itchiness (I often scratch myself until I bleed while sleeping), fatigue, downy facial hair, and joint pain are the ones that affect me most. It can interact with certain other medications, so I am limited sometimes in what I can take. Even grapefruit can interact! I have to be careful with supplements as well.

The scariest side effect for me is the thickening of the lining of the womb, which can lead to cancer. My Grandmother had uterine cancer, so I discussed this particular risk with my oncologist at length before I began taking it. Recently, I had some symptoms that sent me to my internist. She ordered a pelvic ultrasound, which noted some thickening of the endometrium (the uterine lining). The radiologist’s remark was that it was consistent with how long I had been taking Tamoxifen, so I no longer worried. Still, my internist wanted me to follow-up with my gynecologist. When that appointment (finally) arrived, I was expecting a discussion and potentially a physical exam. However, she believed I needed a biopsy, mostly out of an abundance of caution. I did not realize that the biopsy would take place right then and there. One good thing was then I had no time to worry about it. However, it was uncomfortable, and I almost passed out after it was over, which is apparently normal. Luckily, I did not have to wait too long before receiving my results. No cancer. Thank you, God.

This was yet another example of how my journey continues. This time I didn’t even want to share about the biopsy. I mostly just stayed internally focused and waited. I realized that I wasn’t scared to have cancer again, but I did not want to put my family through another cancer. As someone who has both been the patient and the family member, it was easier for me to be the patient, because then I felt like I had some agency and control.

I apologize to those of you who are finding out in this blog, rather than directly from me. It was not my intention to hurt you or keep things from you. In the moment, it felt like I needed to focus on me. When I learned it wasn’t cancer, it was easy to dismiss and pretend it wasn’t a big deal. Now that I have some distance, I realize that me minimizing it does me no good. I don’t write this for sympathy, (I’m fine!), but just as one more piece to the story. I am grateful for a vigilant medical team, even though tests cause me anxiety. Gratitude doesn’t even begin to describe the relief I felt when I learned I was ok.

As I take my Tamoxifen each morning, I am thankful for the many studies that have been done on it. I appreciate that taking it makes me feel like I am actively doing something to prevent breast cancer from returning. Finishing another bottle and counting down feels like triumph.

I may complain about my side effects and worry about a possible recurrence, but my underlying feeling is gratitude.

Garage Sale

This month I have been consumed with a garage sale.  The prep took 3 weeks of sorting, making decisions, and letting go.  The actual sale was 3 days of sorting, making decisions, and letting go. It was all worth it, and now I am exhausted.

My girls don’t really play with toys anymore.  When K was B’s age, she still did, but now B doesn’t, probably because she would have to play alone.  It was sad to see some of the toys go, and others, like Monopoly Jr., I was ready to part with.  The purge was big, the amount of trash and recycling was big too, and I am sure there is more to do.

I had a harder time letting go of picture books than the girls did.  For me, many had so many memories of bedtime snuggles, giggles, and bonding.  Some I had to keep. More I could finally add to the pile to give away.

Besides the need to rid our house of all the excess stuff, I was motivated for the sale because of my goal for this year.  On my birthday, I kept hearing the song “Come and Find the Quiet Center” in my head. It is #2128 in The Faith We Sing, if you have that hymnal.  You can listen to it here.  Specifically, the lines from the first verse:

            Clear the chaos and the clutter

            Clear our eyes that we may see

            All the things that really matter

            Be at peace and simply be.

This is my intention for this trip around the sun.  The garage sale was a step in clearing the clutter.  It was shocking some of the things we found: an infant sled and swing in the attic! Things we thought we had already passed on to others.  Broken toys that needed to be tossed.  Puzzles that are way too easy for my teen and tween. 

The chaos is going to be more challenging work.  I want my mind to be less chaotic and more at peace.  I have been in therapy off and on for twenty years.  I highly recommend it!!!  Therapy is my favorite, even when the sessions are tough.  I am always learning.  My current therapist and I have been working together for four years.  While I can see my growth, some goals haven’t changed.  I am certainly more at peace today than I was four years ago, but now I crave even more peace.

Two years ago I left my last ministry position.  It was a necessary change for me personally and for my family, but it was tough.  In many ways, I still grieve that choice, even though I know it was the right decision.  The time has passed quickly.  I am not ready to take on another position yet, nor do I have an idea of what my next employment will look like. This in-between unknowing creates chaos in my type one brain that wants to know everything yesterday.

I know I write a lot about grief, but there is a lot we are all grieving.  Covid-life caused all of us much grief.  Returning to “normal” has caused some of us grief, because it is a new normal, not a return to the ways things used to be, because we have changed and the world has changed.  I’m even grieving toys and picture books, despite having not touched either in several years.  It is the sign of a new stage.  I love where we are, and yet I miss those little girls too.  I miss the silly and the imaginations.  I already miss summer, even though we have a few days left before school starts.  I don’t miss the items we sold, and yet the process of the garage sale still caused grief.

The last two days I have been physically exhausted. It seems like I am more tired than should be normal.  Of course I judge myself whenever I need that much rest, and then I worry I’m getting sick.  In reality, I think I am recovering from the physical and social work of the sale, as well as all that grief.  The joy of being rid of everything is certainly there too, but it was a lot of work to prep.  I am not sure if I recommend it, only because of the amount of work.  When I go downstairs now, I feel peaceful.  We have cleared the clutter.  The excess toys and furniture are gone and the room is open and feels bigger.  I no longer feel stressed on my way to the laundry room.  It was all worth it.

Do you have clutter you need to clear?  In your house or your mind?  What about chaos?  I may be writing more about this as I continue to work on this goal.  In the meantime, I’ll be humming and repeating “be at peace and simply be.”

Unlocking

This last year or so I have focused inward, and my outward focus is mostly limited to those with whom I live. I feel like I am about to emerge from that time, but I’m not completely ready yet. This time has been a gift, and it has also been odd. Covid-time came at a great time to me personally. It gave me a great excuse to withdraw and focus inward.  Last fall I discovered the book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May.

This winter I listened to the book twice, and read it once.  The book interested me because of the Soul Leaders Retreat I attended a few years ago that focused on each one of the seasons.  I knew I was in the season of winter, and I knew I had found the right book when I read May’s definition of wintering.  She writes, “Wintering is a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider.”  It describes well the transition period I have been in for the last 20 months.  Further she asserts, “Winter is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximizing scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs.  Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but it’s crucible.” 

While one of my goals has been healing and grieving, another primary goal is figuring out what is next for me. I soon realized that the answer was not going to come quickly. The work I have been doing is necessary for the answer to come. As May claims, “Transformation is the business of winter.” She says that “you’ll find wisdom in your winter, and once it’s over, it’s your responsibility to pass it on.” I hope to do just that. My winter is not quite over, but I do think the light is lengthening and spring is coming.

I recently read Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live by Martha Beck.  In her map of the change cycle, I am very much in Square One: Death and Rebirth.  I was able to complete the book’s exercises up until and including that part. And then I just had to take notes and return it to the library. However, thinking through the exercises like: If I were sure I’d succeed, I would… or If I could be certain it was the right choice, I would… did give me some insights.

I celebrated Easter with Joy, and I believe in Resurrection and new life.  However, I am also comfortable with the fact that my transformation is still in process. I am still cocooned, no longer a caterpillar, but not ready to break out with my new butterfly wings. Stay tuned. 

Annie Jr.

This weekend my older daughter performed in her middle school production of Annie Jr. She played an orphan, and she loved her role. My husband and I went to opening night, though by then she had already performed the play for each grade at school. We could not have been more proud.

Her facial expressions were perfect, and in the finale, I could even pick out her voice. All of her hard work paid off. The entire production was impressive. I was grateful that my mom and Marty’s mom were able to come, and her aunt and uncle that live here, as well as many friends. I told her after opening night that I felt a little like the Grinch at the end of the movie…I felt like my heart grew two sizes, as it swelled with pride.

When I was in 6th grade, I too was an orphan in my town’s high school production of Annie. I love that our preteen selves got to have this experience. It brought back a lot of happy memories for me, and of course we have been singing Annie songs since she fell in love with the 2014 movie verson with Jamie Foxx. It was fun to share my memories with her, and compare choreography.

She is already counting down until her birthday, and so I know exactly how many days until she is a teenager. Time is fleeting. My grandma used to always tell me time went by faster as you age, and now I know she was right.

I often tell my therapist that when I grow up, I want to be like my kind, curious, centered, brave, independent daughter. I hope these next few years as she grows and matures, she is able to hold on to the joy of her younger self. I pray that we can maintain our positive interactions, and that she will trust me with her thoughts and feelings. Though I know I can’t protect her from the challenges that lie ahead, I hope she always knows that Marty and I are her biggest fans.

Lent

In the Christian Church, Lent is a period of 40 days (excluding Sundays) leading up to Easter. Sometimes people give something up, fasting from a specific food or activity to help them focus on God. Others take something on, like a spiritual practice, to bring them closer to God. It is often used as a time for people to prepare for being baptized and/or becoming members of a church.

The timing of Lent varies from year to year. Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox. Lent begins 40 days prior, always on a Wednesday known as Ash Wednesday. Many people celebrate Carnival, Mardi Gras, and Shrove Tuesday in the days and weeks leading up to Lent. A time of excess and celebration is in stark contrast to the penitential period of Lent. In many churches, Christians receive the sign of the cross made out of ash on their foreheads. They wear it to remind them that “from dust we have come, and to dust we shall return.”

Ash Wednesday is my favorite day on the liturgical calendar. I love the symbolism of it. I love how my thumb and fingers get totally black from drawing crosses on foreheads. I love wearing the cross on my forehead. Each cross ends up looking as unique as the one who wears it.

Every Lent, I think my life is going to be changed. More often than not, my life has not changed much, but for those years I allowed myself to be transformed by the power of God, my life changed dramatically:

1997- as I answered the call to ministry

2001 -as I re-answered it when I decided to enter seminary

2003- as I sought the healing I needed to deal with my parent’s divorce

2005-as I realized that somehow in the midst of dealing with a new job and my mom’s cancer, I had become a minister.

2009 – pregnant with my first child and wondering if I would make it until Easter Sunday without giving birth (I did)

2016- Undergoing chemotherapy treatments

2020 – Realizing I was burned out and needed to step away (spoiler alert: the pandemic hit, and I unlearned the lesson as we all learned how to do online church)

I remain hopeful each year during Lent that I will allow Jesus to transform me into who God has called me to be rather than clinging to my own desires to stay comfortable. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans,  “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect”  (Romans 12:2).  May Lent 2022 be a time of transformation.

Normalizing Callbacks on Mammograms

My first mammogram was an abnormal experience at 37. It was diagnostic, but instead of having a cyst aspirated, I learned I had cancer. Since I finished treatments, mammograms have been a yearly task to prove that I am still well.

This year was a little different. I went in with my usual good attitude, and I even took a selfie in the waiting room. Each year I use my mammogram to remind others to schedule theirs. During the pandemic especially, many women did not have their annual screening.

It ended up that I had my cardiologist appointment the same afternoon. As I was waiting to be seen, myChart notified me of a new result. Of course I checked it immediately, and waded through all the medical jargon. What I did understand was “need additional imaging evaluation.” [expletive]

For the next twenty minutes while I waited for my cardiologist, I googled every bit of information I could find, and read all I could. My anxiety level began rising. Instead of thinking positive, I was immediately thinking about the last time, and how it would compare to this time. How would I tell my husband? My children? My family and friends? Then I would switch to positive thinking, briefly, and try to convince myself that it was nothing. Callback are normal, and most of them are nothing.

I told my husband and one friend. I could not be fully present that night with my family, as my mind kept playing out possible scenarios. I did not sleep well, and in the wee hours of the morning, I saw the official letter from the radiologist, instructing me to call the next day to schedule an appointment. As soon as everyone was at school, I made the call. It was a Friday, and the next available appointment was Tuesday. I knew the weekend was going to be hard.

Of course I had told several people about having the mammogram. When they asked me about it, I did not want to lie. I tried to be evasive with one friend, but she would not accept that. I did not want to talk about it. Every time I did, it seemed more real.

By Saturday, I was a mess. I could not stop myself from thinking of all the implications if I had cancer. I reached out to my clergy covenant group, and a couple other friends and asked for their prayers. Specifically, I asked them to pray for my mental health as I waited. Patience is not one of my virtues, and my overthinking brain was getting the best of me.

I tried to distract myself and stay busy. When Tuesday finally arrived, I appreciated the support from my friends and kept my phone with me after changing into the gown. After the mammogram, I had to wait for the ultrasound. I decided to write what I was feeling. Here is what I wrote:

Mammo done. Ouch. More painful than usual. She showed me the spot. And she told me not to let my mind go to dark places. I said too late. Sitting here scrolling to distract myself.  Wondering About other woman waiting. 

What does it mean to be well? Or sick?

Sat I let myself go to the dark places. Sun and Mon better. Trying to be distracted. I imagine my future with cancer. It isn’t bad. I am strong enough.  

After reading J’s post-funeral post about missing her husband, I know I’d rather have cancer than lose M. Or have a child sick. Or have him be sick.

I usually tell my fam everything. It feels weird to censor myself. And I didn’t want to tell.

Next was the ultrasound. This time I got to see my Thursday mammo compared to the one that just happened. I could not tell anything, of course. The ultrasound technician finished, and said she was going to return with the radiologist. I moved to my back and looked at the ceiling. There was a mobile, and distracted myself by thinking about how much the girls loved their butterfly mobile when they were babies. The tech returned, alone.

“It looks better,” she said, but I didn’t know what that meant. She explained that the new images provided a clearer view, and that all was well. My next step was an annual mammogram next year.

“That’s good news,” I said, trying to digest it and making sure I understood her correctly. She led me back to the changing room, and I was fighting back tears of relief. I did not want to cry in the changing room. I did not want the other women waiting to hear, and I just wanted to get to the safety of my car. By the time I arrived there, I could not cry anymore. So I began the texting. “All is well.”

Then I felt ashamed. Guilty for asking people to pray for me, for making them worry about me needlessly. I felt bad for sounding an alarm, when nothing was wrong.

However, it was a challenging experience. Many women have had to worry about callbacks and go through the agonizing waiting and wondering. Like me, many women keep it to themselves. Some do not tell anyone and carry the burden alone.

I share my experience for two reasons. First, a call back from a mammogram is normal, and it is usually nothing. However, that does not take away the fear. I want to normalize talking about it. It is ok to worry. You do not have to worry alone. It is ok to share, whether it turns out to be something or not, the fact that you have to endure waiting is hard. Please know that you can always reach out to me. I can hold your truth confidentially. I will walk with you, pray for you, and be a support. What is routine to our medical providers often does not feel routine to the patient. Be gentle with yourself. I’m here for you. And don’t forget to schedule your mammogram and other preventative health screenings.

Suicide Prevention

Someone that I cared about a lot recently died by suicide. He was 16. I could go on and on about how great he was. His smile was contagious, and every time I think of him, I smile.

More importantly, I want you to know this resource: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

(en español: 1-888-628-9454; deaf and hard of hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

Please put this number in your phone. Put it in your kids’ phones and all those you love. In some areas, you can just dial 988. That will be available everywhere across the U.S. later this year.

For those in Minnesota, call **CRISIS (274747) from anywhere in the State of Minnesota to reach the local County crisis team.

In Hennepin County, we have these local options as well:

Adults 18 and over

Call 612-596-1223.

Children 17 and under

Call 612-348-2233.

Again, if you’re local, please put these numbers in your phone and your kids’ phones and give it to all your loved ones too.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has declared a national emergency in child and adolescent health. The effects of the pandemic are far-reaching. We have been in this new isolated way of life for 22 months. This is the third school year affected by Covid-19. It is ok to be admit that things are hard right now. We wish for normal, and I don’t think any of us thought it would last this long. We need to be gentle with each other, because we all are facing tough times.

Losing a young person is never easy. When someone dies by suicide, we ask what could I have done to help? We can never know what is in someone’s head. We do not know the pain that someone may be experiencing. Often the person feels like the most loving thing s/he can do is leave. A suicidal person may feel like a burden, or that s/he makes everything harder/worse/complicated for family and friends. In the dark moment, choosing to exit may feel like the only choice. I have only gone to that very dark place one time, and I am thankful that it was brief, that I chose to just go to sleep, hoping the next day would be better. It does get better!

The opposite of hope is despair. In seminary, I took a whole class on hope and despair. One of my favorite books is Miriam Greenspan’s Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair. In it she writes:

“Despite its bad reputation and the sense of shame associated with it, despair is a legitimate and eminently human emotion. More than grief and fear, it has a moral and social dimension that calls us to pay attention to and make meaning out of human suffering.”

Hope and despair, faith and doubt, pain and healing are all parts of our spiritual journey. We all may have “dark nights of the soul,” as St. John of the Cross named it. It is human to have a whole range of emotions, some that are uncomfortable. The only antidote is each other. We need one another to love and be loved, to care for one another, and to walk together in the sunshine and the rain. Despair wants us to isolate. When we need each other most, we often shut others out. We think we have to face our pain alone, but that is not true. Stay connected. We were literally made for each other, to see each through.

This youth I lost was someone I had confirmed. I had watched him wrestle with what he believed and what he did not as we talked in class and as he wrote his faith statement. My senior pastor and I had placed our hands on him and prayed. In fact, when my senior pastor and I had lunch a few weeks prior to the student’s death, we talked about him. Though we had both left that congregation, we still talked about this kid. He was that important to us. He was that important to many.

Sadly, we do not always tell someone how important they are. We assume they know. If only he could have heard what everyone said about him at his service! If only we told one another what we truly feel now instead of waiting until after death.

I do not believe that death by suicide is an automatic sentence to hell. To that person, the pain means the hell is here on earth. I believe that God was with my student before, during, and after his death. Even if his pain did not allow him to recognize God, I believe God was there. Because of our free will, we are able to choose not to live, even though that grieves God. I know in my heart that God embraced my student.

Spiritual Practices

Luther Seminary’s online magazine, faith+lead, is doing a series on spiritual practices this month. I wrote about how I adapted my spiritual practices while enduring cancer treatments. You can read it here.

Even without health challenges, trying a new spiritual practice can be fun and helpful. What helps you connect with God? What practices might you want to try this year?

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