A Crack in Time

Fearful over death? Are you anxious about when that day will be?

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Another day in bed, unshaven, unshowered, and unwilling to move, I seemed to enjoy this depressed and discouraged state; it became a safe place for me to curl up in the blanket of my misery and misfortune. This dark place had been the spiritual and mental prison I checked myself into for about two weeks in 2009, a place of no prayer or hope.

About two weeks prior, the emergency room doctor admitted me to the hospital for a herniated disk, yet the doctors also found a surprising side diagnosis; polycystic kidney disease; a non-treatable and incurable condition where the kidneys and liver are covered with innumerable cysts that will eventually cause them to shut down, requiring dialysis or a transplant. An ambulance had transported me to the hospital for a back injury, a reward for trying to lift a large speaker, by myself, for an upcoming church service.  During the imaging on my back, the technician saw thousands of cysts covering my kidneys and several dozen stones inside them. Once discharged, all I could seem to dwell on were dark and daunting questions that challenged my faith, haunted my mind, and attacked the foundation of my worldview. Questions like; “Who will take care of my children?”, “Will, my wife, find a man that will love her more?”, “What will become of the church I started?”, and most striking, “Where is God?”. I could not help but think about everything that potentially could fall apart if I were to die so early in life; I had just turned 40 and felt like I had so much left undone both personally and professionally. So, I remained in bed, surrendered to the darkness of my pity, resigned to the fact that death was upon me.

My phone rang; it was either the first time in a week that someone had called or the first time I paid attention to it; either way, I listened to the message once I received my voicemail notification.  One of our church members was in the hospital, and the diagnosis was potentially life-threatening. At first, my flesh shouted, “you are hurting as well; why are people not reaching out to you?” but within minutes, I started to pray and cry out to God for this dear saint I had come to love. Then it hit me, I would leave my house, for the first time in over two weeks, so that I could visit and pray over this church member. Pain marked that entire ride, physically-as I was still recovering from a herniated disk, and spiritually-for the thought of my death continued to consume me. Parking in the clergy space at the local hospital, I remained in my car for what seemed an hour or more; praying for the courage to be around people, the strength to focus on someone besides myself, and the faith to put aside my focus on death, even if just long enough to pray over someone. 

Every step on the sidewalk leading up to the hospital entrance received the drops of my tears; I couldn’t stop thinking past me, my death. “God,” I cried out in an audible burst, uncaring of the audience and crowds, “please help me; I need you.” And God responded. A scripture I had given in counseling and through prayer to many others over the years shot in my mind and found a home in the fertile fields of my hopeless heart; “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27, ESV). That word, “appointed” hit me like never before as my foot landed on a crack in the pavement; God has a date set on his calendar for my death. Time seemed to freeze as I stood there, foot on that crack, contemplating that verse and praying for its roots to take hold in my heart; hoping for a fast-growing tree whose cover would bring relief from the torching fire of my fears. It was there, on that crack, the joy of my salvation was restored because of the message received; God was not done with me yet! My death is on God’s calendar, not mine. And, until that day comes, medical diagnosis or not, I am bulletproof. I can show you that crack to this very day; it is my Crack in Time, the place where God reminded me of His sovereignty and where I recommitted my life of service to God. 

Walking into that hospital was one of the best days of my life; I could not wait to enter that hospital room and share the hope that was within me with the struggling church member. Once beside her bed, she told me the diagnosis was cancer, and the doctors didn’t give much hope. We prayed. Back in my truck, I prayed again, with confidence, “Father, if this is not the time on your calendar for your daughter, please give her the joy that has overwhelmed me in this very place” I then drove to my office, ready for a day of service to my Father with a focus on others. Oh, the sweet lady the doctors didn’t give much of a chance to live but another few weeks in 2009? I texted her the other day; she is doing well and remains a beacon of joy in this hopeless world.

Scripture: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” (Hebrews 2:14-15, ESV)

Question: Do you fear death? 

Prayer: Father, I have struggled with the issue of dying, of leaving my family behind, wondering what will happen to those around me when I am gone, worried things might fall apart, and the people I love might need me. Please help me see that because of your Son, death is no longer something woeful to fear, but something too wonderful to face. Remind me that until you call me home, here is where I will remain, and when that day comes, you will take care of everyone I leave behind just as you have taken care of me throughout my life. Thank you for overcoming death and making it the door that ushers your children into our forever home. In the name of Jesus Christ, I pray, amen.

A Bridge Over Troubled Spiritual Waters

Will we see our pets in the next life?

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“You got a dog?” exclaimed one of my daughters as we pulled back a small blanket from my wife’s lap to reveal a new puppy, a miniature Dachshund we named Rachel. For almost 17 years, Rachel would prove to be a source of joy and comfort for our family, especially through some challenging seasons; a job loss, a scary medical diagnosis, and an empty nest, to name a few. A few years ago, Rachel became blind, developed a heart condition, and suffered severe digestive issues. And while many encouraged us to “put her down,” she was family, and we counted it a joy to make the necessary accommodations of love. 

As I pulled back a small blanket from my lap to reveal Rachel to the veterinarian a few weeks ago, there was no joy in the room, for her body was shutting down, and we were preparing to say goodbye to our strong little girl. As she closed her eyes for the last time, the memories flowed as freely as the tears. Behind the wheel that afternoon, I struggled silently with a theological question that had haunted me for many years, will we see Rachel again?

Some argue we will be reunited with our pets, as presented in the famous poem, Rainbow Bridge (in part):

When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable. All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor.  Those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by. The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind. 

But what does the Bible say? It would appear there is much more scriptural support against seeing our pets again. One of my favorite theologians and church leaders, Thomas Aquinas, believed that to keep animals as pets was cruel and that they should be able to run in the fields and fly in the air unhindered by leash or cage; therefore, God would not honor such forced relationships on earth through a reuniting in heaven. We have many scriptures that reveal humans are the only part of God’s creation standing as uniquely eternal, which is what goes on in the next life (Genesis 1:26-27, Psalm 32:9, Psalm 49:12).

Yet, some scriptures imply we will see our pets again. Take Isaiah 11:6-9, a prophetic scripture giving us a detailed peek into the window of the new heaven and new earth. In this picture of peace and unity we find;

“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
  and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
    and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
    their young shall lie down together;
   and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
    and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy
    in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea”

Did you notice how many animals God lists in this picture of our future? Ten! One is tempted to ask, why is it important for God to have animals in heaven? We also can’t neglect the most popular and powerful of all animals’ stories in the Bible; Noah’s Ark. Interesting that God saved, or redeemed, all of the animals through the flood with Noah and his family.

As all of these scriptures and thoughts rushed into my grieving mind on the way home from the veterinarian that day, I still was not convinced either way. Until I remembered I Corinthians 13:4-8a; 

"Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; [  it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends." 

As I dug the hole in our backyard for Rachel, I smiled, through tears, because of the hope that we will see her again. The love we had for Rachel for 17 years will never die. Is it too much to believe that God will allow that undying love to walk beside us on our way to that mansion on the hilltop? We will cross that bridge when we come to it.

Scripture: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” -I Cor. 13:12, ESV

Question: Do I recognize that all gifts, including our pets, are from God who should be praised for His love?

Prayer: Father, thank you for allowing pets to be used as tools of comfort and joy. May I never praise or worship your creation more than you as the Creator. And, while I want to see my beloved pets again, may the source of my comfort and joy always be found in you.

Short-Timer

This is not your best life.

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In the military, there is a term; short-timers attitude; it merely describes a soldier that is nearing the end of their tour with just weeks or months left before a transfer. One particular tour of mine that I felt the full effects of this label was while stationed on the United States Coast Guard Cutter Sweetbrier in Cordova, Alaska. Even the best of writers would be hard-pressed to romanticize my tour there, scrubbing barnacles off of buoys in the Bearing Sea 12 plus hours each day for a year. Yet, I will never forget what I heard over the ship’s intercom system that day, “Seaman McCracken, please report to the Yeoman’s office,” for the only reason that announcement would come was that the command had approved my transfer request to Radioman school. Leaving the Yeoman’s office with my orders in hand, I ran, literally ran, back to my bunk, drew the curtain, opened the envelope, and read-word for word-my orders. I was to report to Training Center Petaluma California for Radioman School in 30 days. Once word got around, I only had 30 days left; my shipmates labeled me Seaman McCracken the short-timer.

Still, that label didn’t mean anything to me until one event, and from that moment on, I got it. It came around 0300 (that’s 3 AM!) when I was jolted out of a dream by the ship’s general quarters alarm system, a shriek that resonated through the ship like a screaming banshee before a death. Not too far off as our ship had taken such a severe roll in a storm that the next announcement was “prepare to abandon ship.” I made my way up the ladder to the Muster Deck and past open lockers exploding their contents on the ground. By the time the ship’s crew were mustered on the deck with our life jackets and we unsecured all the small boats, the danger had passed, and the Captain dismissed us. On the way back to my rack, I remember vividly announcing to myself with a voice that purposefully carried to anyone listening, “I only have three more weeks of this!” and at that very moment, I realized I was a short-timer!

From that moment on, nothing bothered me like it used to; being woken up in the middle of the night to cover a shipmate’s bridge watch because he was sick, no problem-only three weeks to go, cleaning up someone else’s vomit in the paint room because I was the lowest ranking sailor on deck, no problem-only two weeks to go, boarding a Japanese vessel in the dark of night, rounding every corner wondering if it were my last, no problem-only one week to go, being dropped off by helicopter to an isolated island lighthouse for solar conversion, even though I am scared of heights, no problem-I am leaving for sunny California tomorrow! Then, it all came to a head when the Chief Boatswain’s Mate put me on the cleaning crew to remove the rust from the ship’s hull while in dry dock in Oregon with a needle gun the following week. No problem, “Hey Chief, not me; I am flying out to California tomorrow morning!” I was able to put up with almost anything knowing that my days were numbered and that I had a much better destination in my future. That is what being a short-timer is all about.

Folks, I know this world is getting worse. Every morning we hear about how COVID cases are rising, of another political scandal, violent protests in our streets, racism, murders, sex-trafficking, and much more. We have to say goodbye to friends and family that have lost their fight with cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Our bodies are marked with pain, our minds are filled with anxiety, doubt, and fear, and our spirits are troubled, causing our eyes to shed more tears than we ever anticipated. However, let me remind you, Christian, you are a short-timer. Your days on this earth are numbered by God (Hebrews 9:27) and are promised to be short-lived as a vapor (James 4:14). Christian, this is not your home; you are a stranger, a pilgrim, a tourist! Therefore, don’t let this world get you down, hinder your walk, impact your faith, or impede your purpose. And, not only are you closer to home each day, but you have received orders to a place even better than sunny California; you’re bound for Heaven! So today, as you navigate this sinful world, do so with confidence and joy, knowing you’re a short-timer with a heavenly destination.

Scripture: “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” (I Peter 2:11-12, ESV)

Question: Am I getting discouraged over the things in this world because I have forgotten my true home?

Prayer: Father, my heart needs to be encouraged. This world is getting to me, I have lost my joy, and I am struggling with all that is going on. Please help me remember that this world is not my home, that this life is not as good as it gets. Father, I ask for you to give me the strength and faith to have a short-timer’s attitude so that I can be that patient and long-suffering giver of grace that this sinful world needs in times like these. Thank you for the gift of tomorrow, and may I live today in light of that very gift. In the name of Jesus Christ, I pray, amen.

Death Becomes Him

How can death be precious?

My eyes opened after a night of sleep; I focused on my wife across the room, who was marked with sadness. She spoke, “There is something I have to tell you. Mike Ledbetter passed away last night.” My heart sank, my mind quickly retrieved special memories, and my eyes teared up. Mike was my friend. He had joined our congregation about seven years ago, and as a retired missionary, both he and his wife proved to be a tremendous evangelical asset to all of us. But today, his story changed.

With over a quarter of a century of experience, I can say with certainty, over the next few days, I will hear, “We lost a good man,” and, “I am so sorry for your loss.” Those statements irk me as they are not accurate, and they chisel away from the message of love and what the Gospel can do. Mike is not lost; in fact, he is more found than he has ever been. The bible is very clear that for the Christian, the next life is far better than this one, which is why David cries out in Psalm 116:15, “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.” (NIV)

Streets of gold, walls of jasper, the foundation of precious stone, gates pearl, angelic beings worshipping around the throne of God, a peaceful river, the Tree of Life uprooted and replanted from the Garden of Eden, Jesus Christ Himself standing and ready to personally receive each of us (Rev. 21), and the list goes on and on. The next life is better. But, is Mike Ledbetter lost now? The Apostle Paul answers this very question by encouraging all followers of Jesus that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (II Cor. 5:8).

You see, when I opened my eyes this morning, I became inundated with all of the reminders of the effects that sin has over this world, from the news on the television to the argument in the street outside our camper. I woke up to another day filled with violence, politics, child pornography, protests, and sex trafficking, just to mention a few. Mike closed his eyes down here and opened them up to be with his Savior forever. Mike, lost? No, he is more found than he ever has been. Mike is home, happy, healed, and healthy, and there is no amount of convincing that will ever bring him back; he just waits for us all to join him. That is what the power of love and the Gospel can do!

Perhaps you’re struggling with the recent passing of a loved one. Or, you may be anxious about your death, what will become of you? Friend, may this devotion today provide you with peace and joy in either situation; to know the truth is to set you free.

Scripture: “Having the eyes of your heart enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:18 ESV)

Question: Am I allowing my feelings to drive me, or are my eyes wide open to the truth of God’s promises concerning the next life?

Prayer: Father, when those times of sadness and missing overtake our lives, please remind me of your truth and of the hope we have through your Son. May I focus more on what my loved one has gained and to celebrate the difference that they made while on this earth and that I have the opportunity to be with them again very soon. Thank you for loving us so much that even death is not something to fear but a gift of love. In the name of Jesus Christ, I pray, amen. 

Narrow Minded

The road most travelled is not always the best

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My wife Laurie and I both love to hike. We discovered our mutual interest when stationed in Guam, both serving in the United States Coast Guard. While on that WWII historic island, we were made aware of several trails leading to places where reminders of an era gone by lay in wait for another picture-taking tourist. Things like abandoned tanks, downed airplanes, and even caves that once housed forgotten Japanese soldiers were but some of the treasures we found. Over the years, we have hiked many a trail, both in America and abroad. And, while the sights may change, there is one constant; most paths are either wide or narrow, and both are that way for a reason. 

I was studying through the book of Matthew the other day, and something hit me that I had never noticed before; it was one of those waking and shaking scripture moments. In chapter 7, verse 13, we find these words, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

When city planners set out to create our infrastructure; our roads or paths, they intentionally designed each path; in other words, each path is purposefully either wide or narrow to accommodate the anticipated crowds. Going into a big city, for example, you will find several lanes of paved roads. In contrast, the road to the bait shop is narrow and perhaps either dirt or gravel when in the country. Why? Paths are intentionally designed to accommodate the traffic. Don’t miss that. Paths are built to be either broad or narrow, depending on how much interest there is in the destination. 

Why don’t many take the paths less traveled? Because it’s more difficult and requires work. Taking the road less traveled means, you will encounter obstacles and inconveniences that not everyone wants to deal with. Am I saying that the Christian road is more difficult than the worldly road? A resounding YES! The Apostle Paul compelled Christians to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1a ESV); being a living sacrifice is neither pleasant nor comfortable. But I will give you some good news today, while the path less traveled is difficult, it always allows access to a treasure that is not available to anyone else. One can’t see the beautiful Roanoke Valley’s views from the Hawk Observatory unless that arduous 3-mile hike up the narrow path is navigated. Likewise, those who chose to take the broad path in this life will never experience heaven’s views nor enjoy all of the bountiful treasures that lie in wait.

Even the American poet Robert Frost proclaimed;

I shall be telling this with a sigh 
Somewhere ages and ages hence: 
Two roads diverged in a wood, 
And I-I took the one less traveled by, 
And that has made all the difference

Scripture: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” -ESV

Prayer: Father, may we appreciate more and more the treasures that lie down the path less traveled, and may that help us to have patience when we encounter obstacles. Life is hard, but Father, I know that one day it will get much better. As I continue in my journey today, may your presence strengthen and encourage me, and may the destination inspire me to persevere. In the Name of Jesus Christ, I pray, amen. 

Is It Well?

When sorrows like sea billows roll, is it well in your soul?

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In the song Even If, by MercyMe, Bart sings, “It’s easy to sing when there’s nothing to bring me down, but what will I say when I’m held to the flame like I am right now. I know You’re able, and I know You can, save through the fire with Your mighty hand, but even if You don’t, my hope is You alone.” Job in the Old Testament proclaimed the premise and theme of this song when he lamented, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” (Job 1:21 ESV) 

I can think of no better example of someone whose faith was sorely tested, yet remained in love with God, than Horatio Spafford. In 1873 Spafford was trying to recover from significant financial loss due to the great Chicago fire of 1871. In an attempt to get away with his wife and four daughters to rest, Spafford booked passage aboard the Ville du Havre, a ship that was to cross the Atlantic and arrive in Europe. Some last-minute business dealings forced Spafford to send his family ahead of him, planning to board another ship and join them the following week. Enroute, the Ville du Havre collided with another ship, the Loch Earn. On the deck, Spafford’s wife Anna assembled her four daughters and led them in prayer, that if it were God’s will, He would spare them. Within minutes the Ville du Havre was overtaken by the dark waters of the Atlantic. Moments later, a sailor spotted a woman hanging on to some wreckage; it was Anna. Nine days after the incident, Anna finally arrived in Wales, where she wired her husband with only six words, “Saved alone. What shall I do?”

Upon receiving word that all four of his children had perished, Spafford boarded another ship and made his way to join his grieving wife. Spafford had just one request of the ship’s captain; that he took him to the accident location. After the captain informed Spafford of their position over the tragic site, Spafford left his room and made his way to the deck. Leaning over the railing and looking through tear-stained eyes over at the watery grave of his children, Spafford began to write lyrics for a song.

When peace like a river attendeth my way
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say
It is well; it is well with my soul

Over the years, Horatio and Anna Spafford continued their unrelenting pursuit of Christ, always trusting God and never abandoning hope. What about you? Have you ever experienced the kind of trials that rip your heart out? Are you familiar with grief and pain? Do you wonder how a couple, like the Spafford’s, could trust God so implicitly and love Him so unconditionally? The answer, I believe, is found in one of the lesser sang stanzas of the same song, It Is Well With My Soul, whos lines read:

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come
Let this blest assurance control
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate
And has shed His own blood for my soul

Spafford believed, really believed, that God loved him so much that He sent His Only Begotten Son to suffer, bleed, and die for him and that in rising, Christ gave Spafford abundant and eternal life. Folks, I hope today you realize how much God loves you. And that you never allow the things around you to affect your love for the One above you. So, when sorrows like sea billows roll, is it well in your soul?

Scripture: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” -Philippians 4:11b ESV

Prayer: Father, during those times when I feel like the rug of my life has been ripped from under me, may I be reminded of your love. When I consider the cross and all that your Son endured for me, the shame, the beatings, the nails, the rejection, the isolation, and the pain, may I spend more time focused on that love and less time focused on the distractions to that love. Father, I am weak. I need you. Please help me stay focused on the power of your love. In the name of Jesus Christ, I pray, amen.

The Tear Collector

What if your tears were that important they were sought out and collected?

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Collecting “things” has always excited me. While my collections’ objects have changed through the years, from baseball cards and coins to Beanie Babies and pens, my desire to amass things that I hold of value has not changed. I remember in my younger days, during my baseball card phase, seeking out that allusive rookie card, finding the perfect plastic holder, and displaying it proudly on a shelf. Once in a while, I would take it down, admire it, look up its current value, show it off, and put it back in its protected spot. What we collect reveals a piece of our heart; what we care about, what we love, who we are.

Did you know that God is a collector? And, what He collects will surprise you! I know what you’re thinking, God owns everything, why does He need to compile anything? If I am right, that what we collect reveals what we care about, what we love, who we are, then being exposed to God’s collection has a designed purpose. God wants us to see His collection. God wants to show off what He cares about. God wants to reveal a piece of His heart. So, what does God collect? Our tears. In Psalms 56:8, David proclaims, “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle.” How amazing and life-changing this truth can be if we but meditate on it for a bit. Our tears in God’s bottle? God is collecting our tears. All of those restless nights, tossing and turning, crying out in desperation, agony, pain, anguish, and sorrow from a hurt heart and troubled mind. Every one of those tears, God picks up as treasures to add to His collection. Each tear is that important to our Father. Every single tear you shed has a purpose and a place in the heart of God. I wonder how often He takes down that jar and admires it and protects it, as I did with my Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card back in the day?

God collecting our tears is yet another confirmation that Christianity offers something that no other religion in the world provides, an answer to suffering. Yes, every other religion has attempted to deal with the problem of suffering by telling us to avoid it, pray it away, grin and bear it, accept it as karma for your past life, etc.. Yet, Christianity tells us to “count it all joy” (James 1:2) when trials come. How can we rejoice and consider it joy when we feel like the rug of our lives has been ripped out from beneath us? Because we know that our Father is a genius at working all things out for us and that He has a plan and purpose for every trial that comes to us. When you feel like your world is falling apart all around you and the tears start to flow, remember who is collecting them and remember that for God to collect them must mean that God is right there as each tear falls. Those falling tears are so important to God that He is willing to be present when they fall to make sure they are collected in His jar.

So, the next time you cry out in pain and desperation, take note of that tear about to fall and remember how important it is to God that He is collecting it. Perhaps, since you know God has His jar out, about to add your tear to His collection, you might want to strike up a conversation with Him; it may help.

Scripture: “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle” -Psalm 56:8 ESV

Prayer: Father, usually when my tears fall, I feel alone, like no one understands or cares. Thank you for letting me know that you are right there and do care, that putting my tears in your jar means that you have not forgotten about me but care deeply for me. I look forward to seeing your collection of my tears one day and hearing each story that goes with them. Until then, please give me the strength and faith to trust that you know what’s best for my life and to always be grateful to The Tear Collector. In the name of Jesus, I pray, amen.