image by Brigitte Tohm from Unsplash
I used to complain that of all my siblings, my parents gave me the most difficult name. The Chinese character for慈 (ci) has exactly 13 strokes--just for that character alone--and is a rather unusual one that is not easy to pronounce, even for some Chinese people. Over the years I have learnt to endure it being butchered in a mind-baffling multitude of ways, some of which almost come close to ingenious, without any facial muscles flinching. Chi. Chee. Zee. Zhi. Zzz. Jrrr. Qi. Si. See. And the list goes on. I even got called "Silk" by a class of kids I taught once, because the teacher I was assisting couldn't get it right and I was too embarrassed to correct her.
What gets lost is the meaning behind that difficult character; love--to be more specific, mercy/compassion; love from a higher being to a lower one. Just like how the Greek words agape, philos, eros differentiate between different types of love. God's precious and enduring love, if you want to take the complete meaning of my full name. Not easy to pronounce, maybe, but not easy to comprehend either!
I remember many years ago thinking about this, and feeling how apt it was that my parents chose this name for me, as my personality could be pretty well described by that Audrey Hepburn quote: "I was born with an enormous need for affection, and a terrible desire to give it." People categorized me (and I accepted it) as kind/loving/tender-hearted; I hated violence or conflict, I loved animals and children, I was easily moved when I saw suffering of any kind--I remember crying inconsolably once because an old man on a bicycle pulled up along the bus I was on, and as I watched him cycling precariously with his skinny legs among the big cars and flashing lights of Orchard Road I was suddenly, terribly aware how vulnerable he was, how easily he could be knocked over by one of the cars, how his bicycle didn't have any lights and it was late at night...
Which all sounds very sentimental and sweet, perhaps, (or maybe just a morbid and hyperactive imagination haha) but doesn't actually come under love. Let's be honest. English, though my favourite language and the strength of my being, has some deceptive limitations. We use the word "love" way too easily and too carelessly. When we talk about learning to live out a Christ-like love, we sometimes end up reducing it to a warm fuzzy inborn capacity to be tenderhearted; that sensitivity, that empathy, which is just innate in some people's personalities, right? Well, that's not enough. In fact, it's painfully inadequate.
Peter broke down the process in a way which reminds us how real love--far from being a natural, spontaneous, simple thing--is rather the product of spiritual discipline and maturity, of godliness, the fruit of the Spirit, the labour of studying the Word, of knowing God. It ought to be all those things, granted, but in our fallen world, it just isn't. Our hearts are still in the process, and painfully so, of being transformed.
2 Peter 1: 5-7:
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6 and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7 and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.
Love, from the very overuse of the term and concept, may have been reduced to a deceptively simple concept--or at least a seemingly straightforward one. But in this list we see the progression through other different virtues, finally only culminating with love.
Being able to truly love someone isn't just something that has to do with how nice a personality you were born with, or how nice a person you usually are. It's something we work at. Something incredibly hard to achieve as it's not only a progression but also a culmination of the other aspects of our spiritual life.
Think about why Peter chose each word in the verses above, and why they came in that specific order. We need hope to love, or cynicism and despair and human limitations would kill us. We need to know what perseverance and hard work and self control are, to love. We need to be wanting to obey God, desiring to obey God, actively seeking to obey God. And--I love how mutual affection comes right here, a perfect balance--we need to love the other person as an individual, to understand and embrace who they are, to affirm their strengths even as we recognize their weaknesses.
Here Peter is not describing a condescending generic love for the masses, for the "unworthy lost," for humanity in general but divorced from the actual gritty reality of loving individual, imperfect people.
Remember how Jesus, in all of the hundreds of people He ministered to, never once lost sight of them as individuals, never treated them as just another needy person, just another applicant. He stopped to heal those who would have been passed by and ignored, like the lepers. He affirmed the potential in those who were labeled unworthy, like Zacchaeus. He comforted the outcasts, aware of all their sins, all their struggles.
Are you struggling to forgive someone? Are you trying to love someone, to love wisely and well and selflessly as Christ did? Don't sit there expecting God to magically take away your irritation, and fill you with a warm fuzzy desire to "be nice to them." We can only truly love when the Spirit is working hard within us, when we are dealing with our own sin, when we are seeking God in our everyday life.
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With classes on every day and a busy weekend coming up, the last thing on my mind was getting sick.
Germs have no consideration for the ambitions of man, however, and on the contrary they seem to take a malicious delight in thwarting them. I struggled through one day after another doctoring myself with lemons and trying to sleep more, hoping that my immune system would pick up the next day and have my back, praying that God would let me "just get through this week". To my horror, what seemed like a simple cold soon became a clear case of flu, and my plans for the week were clearly doomed. One class after another, I had to cancel all my engagements, and vegetated on the sofa feeling like my legs had become gummy worms, until I didn't even have the energy to care anymore. I slept whole days through on that long-suffering sofa, passively watching life go by for the rest of my family, slipping in and out of sleep without even realizing it, with a total lack of ambition or interest in life. Even my two guinea pigs eating hay in their house had a more exciting life than me right then.
After falling so low, recovering basically entailed more lying on the sofa (somehow you still feel like it's an improvement from lying in bed) except with enough energy to do so without being perpetually in a semi-sleeping state. I found myself thinking over how my life has been recently, fleeting memories of people interaction, conversations.
This year has definitely been the most challenging (I hate that I say this every year and I hate even more that each time it is the truth! but I suppose that also indicates a grim sort of progress of sorts) year of my life, as I finished studying and took on more work than I ever had before. Every day a different class to teach; picking up new skills, trying to keep up old ones and ongoing projects; trying to keep up my writing, but without any acceptances to stimulate me, only one rejection after another to sigh over. I'm not fishing for pity here. To be honest one of the things which made me feel worse was the fact that I already have it so much better than so many people I know, so many of my peers, who are struggling just to survive financially, let alone have the time to pursue a dream, doing work they may not even enjoy. When I felt overwhelmed, even the temptation to wallow luxuriously in self-pity was soured by the knowledge that I was behaving like a big wimp.
But that's not the point; that's just the background. These few months since I've started this new phase of life, I felt like I had enough on my plate trying to manage my new schedule. Everything else--family commitments, church, social life--became simply so many more straws on top of the camel's back. Mentally exhausted, I felt like I didn't have the energy to talk to people; I got impatient and frustrated easily in my relationships, selfish about my time and energy, grudging anything on top of what I felt was my duty to give. I didn't enjoy living like that. I was aware that I had lost the sense of peace and purpose which I used to have, the joy in simple things like eating dinner with my family or having a good conversation with a friend. I looked forward hungrily to me-time, because it seemed like the only relief from the pressure and whirlwind of things to do which I seemed to be living in all the time, and started to lack the patience and calmness of heart even for these small things. And yet, me-time was more of a temporary distraction than a solution; social media, the latest episode of a show, my favourite Agatha Christie, (Destination Unknown, if you don't already know) they were just escapes, that didn't really leave me feeling refreshed and ready for the challenges of life afterwards. Frustrated, wondering why I never seemed to have enough time, never seemed to be on top of anything, or excited about anything anymore, I kept thinking the answer was to be more efficient, more productive; to cut, cut, cut all the unnecessary things that wasted time and took up energy. I cut the wrong things, obviously. My definition of "unnecessary" and "waste" had been severely warped.
Lying on the sofa, with that unreal sense of weakness and vulnerability, even humility, which physical sickness so uniquely impresses on you, I soberly admitted that I had made a stupid mistake.
An old phrase echoed in my mind; Elisabeth Elliott on a "life of unmitigated selfishness." Selfishness--that had been my mistake. I had become increasingly self-centered, in an attempt to cope with stress. I had lost sight of the things which were truly important, in the hustle of getting urgent things done. I had been living for the boxes on each schedule's page, living from class to class, project to project, deadline to deadline, and treated everything else as distractions.
John 13: 1 is a beautiful reminder of how Jesus responded to this very human challenge.
We often forget that Jesus, of all people, had the best reasons to be anxious and preoccupied, harassed, stressed. Imagine the power He held to heal, and the overwhelming burden that power itself implies; all the people He knew so clearly were hurting, suffering, needing Him. The very thought is enough to induce a panic attack. Add to that His merciful, gentle nature; His love for His disciples, knowing so clearly how devastated they were going to be, how ignorant and unprepared they were; the emotional pain of knowing Judas was about to betray Him, knowing so clearly all the thoughts going on in their hearts, the hatred of those plotting against Him. Add to that His acute awareness of His approaching death, the horrible physical, spiritual, emotional suffering it entailed, getting closer and closer with every moment...the full weight of countless souls' sins and salvation. And the very human reluctance towards pain, towards death, leaving this imperfect yet so appealing world that we love so desperately; all the words you would want to say to those you love before you leave, all the thoughts and emotions...
Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.
He loved us to the end.
Amidst all that, He never lost sight of His purposeful love for us, the love which drew Him to the cross. This was what remained steadfast in Christ, that heart of compassion, that gentleness which was in His touch on the leper, that made Him hear the blind beggar's cry above the noise of the crowd, to stop when He felt the sick woman touch His garment. The love with which He let the children climb into His lap, even as the disciples frowned and tried to make signals to Him to stop. The same love burned steady in the confusion, betrayal, pain and fear of Gethsemane; in the loneliness of the high priest's courtyard, the shame and suffering of the barracks, of the cross.
I want to be grounded by such a love. Amidst busyness, distractions, physical ills, frustrations, anxieties, fears. To have this love within me, for others. To have this love for Christ, even as He has for me. To find my peace, comfort, joy, priorities, within the context of such a love.
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Deadlines and tension headaches aside, let's take a look at the type of stress that impacts relationships between people. When you're running late, because SOMEONE took too long to get ready. When your computer looks like it's going to crash and everyone's trying to help and it's just making you freak out even more. When you've had a long day and it's just absolutely unfair that you should be the one washing those dirty dishes in the sink. When you're lost and each person has a different idea of which direction to go, each person reading the same map differently in a way that would make Roland Barthes proud.
One of the most effective ways to confront stress is to purposefully consider how you handle stress--as an individual--as a family--as a couple etc--before it happens. And by before it happens--before you yelp "iT's hApPeNing aLL tHe TIme"--I mean before it actively flares up into a specific stressful situation.
Because it reveals a lot about your weaknesses. Your personality. And the impact that has on your relationships.
Consider how so many parent-child relationships struggle with communication because of how they react to stress--parents scold, criticise, blame; the child gets resentful, defensive, withdraws...
And not just when you're already dealing with it! When we're full of the emotions it's easier to blame our situation, to blame others; the last thing we have the mental or emotional energy to do at that point is to examine yourself. Though from experience some of the most revealing, humbling, and soberly poignant self-realizations I have had about myself took place at such times.
I made this discovery when I realized that certain people are the ones you instinctively turn to whenever something bad happens, or you made a mistake, because you know they are the ones who--instead of blaming you and adding to your stress levels--will work together with you to come up with a solution, will help you think things over, will reassure or comfort you, have a steadying effect. One of my sisters is like this. She is the one we all automatically turn to whenever we are in trouble, whenever we need help. She keeps a calm head, she doesn't waste time telling us how we went wrong but instead sets about doing something about the problem in a supportive way that makes me feel more humbled and sorry than if she had started scolding and criticizing me (which almost always produces a tense, defensive reaction.)
And naturally, the next thought you would have after this would be, "and how about me?" This forced me to realize that--to put it nicely--I don't do well under stress. I am not, unfortunately, the kind of person you would want to have around when you're stranded on a desert island or trying to recover deleted files. In fact I distinctly remember one incident where I promptly flung myself on the sofa to bawl in despair after realizing I'd deleted several crucial photos from an event I was covering for a friend. Meanwhile said sister quietly researched on how to recover the photos, uttering soothing noises meanwhile, and interrupted my dramatics halfway with the announcement that she'd found a way to recover them. I think that tells you all you need to know about our personalities.
I have to admit that whenever my parents or other people talk to me about my plans, or correct me, I drop by default into a defensive attitude where I take everything very personally, where I feel the need to vindicate myself even if that means covering up the parts where I didn't do so well.
Pride, isn't it?
Even though at that time I know that they mean to build me up. Even though I know it's not a big issue. Pride is stronger, making defensiveness my default reaction, when I should be humbly and cheerfully accepting the help others are trying to give. When I run into trouble, I get impatient, emotional, tense, irritable, and withdraw into myself as I try to fix things on my own.
And inversely, when others run into trouble, I get exasperated, criticize, blame them instead of--or even while--helping them.
Pride, isn't it?
I realize how fragile our relationships and emotional wellbeing is if we don't prepare ourselves to handle stress--as an individual and also in relation to others--before we're plunged right into it. If we don't purposefully examine how we manage stress, it jeopardizes our relationships, even though it also shows us (often ugly) sides of ourselves in the process--the pride, the selfishness. Because once stress hits us, in the middle of our panic, anxiety, wildly trying to think of a solution, trying to calm yourself or someone else or both--let's face it, we're not exactly in a prime state to remember humility, patience, and gentleness.
Knowing my weaknesses--reacting defensively to any form of criticism, feeling entitled to the help and sympathy of others, etc--and knowing the origin of those weaknesses--pride--helps me be more critical and careful in my reaction the next time I find stress straining a relationship. When I catch myself getting annoyed and offended because I got less than praise. When I realize I'm more intent on fixing the problem and making it clear that it wasn't my fault, than comforting and supporting someone I care about.
Jesus Himself, our best example, was the kind of Person that outcasts and social rejects were drawn to, the kind of Person you felt safe and secure to confess your mistakes and admit your needs to, without being blamed or judged or looked down on. He was the kind of Person Who did not roll His eyes or get bitter when Peter, scared and nervous, denied Him three times, after bragging that he never would. He was the kind of Person who submitted meekly to His parents even when they'd scolded Him more harshly than they should have. The kind of Person who stopped the crowd following Him because He heard the cry of the blind beggar on the fringes, felt the desperate touch of the sick woman among the hundreds who jostled Him. In the midst of what so often must have been stressful situations, Jesus never lost sight of the relationship, of the person, of the individual needs above the external pressure of the situation.
Who, when we rejected and rebelled against Him, when we proved our unworthiness to be loved and saved over and over again, responded by giving His life for us, by giving His all to redeem and reconcile, to restore our relationship.
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...or in your life, for that matter.
Qualifier: I speak from the perspective of a young single adult who has no young siblings or children living with me, (unless you count two guinea pigs!) but who has been teaching Sunday School for several years, and also spends the rest of my week teaching children of assorted ages! These are just some thoughts I have developed, watching how adults interact with children--myself included--and seeing what has been helpful (and not!) for the children in a spiritual context.
1. Help them develop a love for reading the Bible. Help them see the excitement and fascination in the stories, the beauty of how the Old and New Testament reinforce and reflect and complement each other, the person of Christ as unfolded across both books as Messiah, King, Healer, Friend, Saviour. Help them to see the human, personal, side of the characters, to go beyond what may seem to them as stiff and formal words, to feel for them. I remember how a major change in Sunday School Bible reading happened when I started to unpack the Bible passages, not just as static factual events with a moralistic ending, but as stories which featured people very much like us, with feelings and thoughts and weaknesses and strengths like us. How God worked in their lives and spoke to them, just as He does to us. How they struggled to serve Him, how they made mistakes, how they learned to love Him--through joy, grief, shame, repentance, as we did. The children used to go through the motions of reading, sounding bored (especially those who had already read the story before) yet when I asked them to summarize what they had just read, they couldn't. I realized right then and there that just because they could read the verses aloud without physical difficulty didn't mean they actually understood or benefited from it from the content itself. So every few verses I would stop to summarize what happened, taking pains to help them imagine and relate to the characters, the situations, the conflicts/tensions, the ironies (I suppose my lit degree came in handy here.) To help them appreciate and engage with the passage.
Often, when they relate to the stories, when they start to feel and respond together with the characters, they grasp a lot of the spiritual truths on their own, instinctively; without needing me to hammer it in "ok now this is the interpretation, the take-away lesson." Often, they voluntarily give me examples of similar situations in their own experience, drawing parallels between the Bible stories and their own lives, so that the "application part" comes naturally. I'll always remember how, after we discussed what it meant to not have any idols, one little girl said suddenly with an enlightened face, "It's like my korkor (older brother) with his hair!"
And that's how they truly remember what they learned. Once they've engaged with the Bible, not just as a fun story, but reflecting truths that apply and can be seen in their own everyday lives, even within the limited circle of their short life experience.
And if you're not a parent or a Sunday School teacher and you're wondering how on earth this relates to you--you could always ask them about the Bible stories they've read, who's their favourite character and why; tell them about your own, what part of the Bible you enjoyed reading this week... Heck, be creative.
2. Encourage them to pray often, to feel comfortable and safe and loved talking to God, to share their fears and thoughts sincerely and naturally with Him. Give them opportunities to sincerely and simply pray, without making them self-conscious or overly aware of formalities; don't insist they close with "in Jesus's precious name" or tell them they "can't" pray for their pet hamster. Children learn quickly. They watch how you pray, they remember what you impress on them when it comes to how or what to pray about. They develop their own idea of what prayer means, and that reflects their idea of God, how they relate to Him.
From how you pray, does it come across as a duty, as a formal speech, as a ritual...as talking with a beloved Father and Friend?
3. Show them by your own example what the love of Christ means. Children are basically humans at the stage where they are the most receptive to love, and the lack of love. I mean, I think I'm pretty receptive to affection too, but in the nursery class I'm teaching now, the kids in the front row will start kissing my knees and trying to sit on my lap when it's storytime. !!!
Often, they are the most sensitive and appreciative of love, and as a Christian, you have the opportunity to show them through your example the gentleness, long-suffering, forgiveness, and self-sacrificial love that Christ demonstrated for us. So that when you tell them about Christ, they can imagine from their experience what such a love means.
Be kind. Take time to play with them, to listen to them, to talk to them.
4. Treat them seriously--purposefully avoid hypocrisy.
All right, this is a very big and complicated topic. I think I didn't manage to articulate it very well but I hope the main jist of it gets across anyway, because I feel it's very significant.
Listen to them, with respect for what they are trying to say, even when they're not good at articulating their thoughts yet. You'd be surprised how many insightful or unexpectedly probing, important questions/thoughts are going on inside that little head, once you sit down and take the patience to listen to the stammering, the pauses, the garbled syntax and confused references.
And don't talk down to them. I have realized, from watching others interact with children, and then changing how I interact with them--that there is a fine line between being playful/having fun and talking down. (If I manage to come up with a litmus test for that I'll add that to this post.) It's surprising how differently the same child will speak, act, and relate to you once they know that you take them seriously, that you don't see them as a cute stuff toy or kitten that only knows how to play and be teased (and some of them then go on to milk that to their advantage, manipulating adults and "acting cute" shamelessly. Unhealthy much? Go figure.)
This sounds weird, but really there is so much unconscious hypocrisy and insincerity--taken for granted even--in the way grownups interact with children. Children appreciate sincerity and humility a lot more than we give them credit for. You might think they're particularly gullible, but on the flipside, doesn't that show how much more they value and expect sincerity/honesty?
Whenever I share about my failures, or from my personal experience, I can really see them respond--they are responding to the fact that you're putting yourself on the same level as them, not playing the adult-talking-condescendingly-to-little-kids-that-I-clearly-see-as-inferior-to-myself card, or adult-ostenstatiously-dumbed-down. Which is a long title, but pretty much sums up a lot of adult-child interaction I have seen and experienced myself. There is something very damaging in encouraging the idea that adults are always 'better', and having reached some supernatural realm of perfection (which already comes quite naturally to children in their propensity to adore and admire and emulate; they are actually more used to humility than most of us) especially since the very way we define 'perfection', by implication, is often problematic.
One of them asked me if I cried when my pet died and I told them frankly, yes. They were surprised, and quiet for a while. "But you're an adult already," one of them pointed out finally, and I realized that to them, being an adult meant you were invincible, invulnerable, all capable. Oh darlings, who are we kidding?
Likewise, if you take this together with the many instances of hypocrisy, insincerity, and even falsehood with which many adults treat children (think promising rewards/telling scary stories/manipulative love--"If you're a naughty boy Mommy won't love you anymore..." and all the times we let them get away with stuff because they're cute)--well, it's depressing. What kind of security are we teaching them to have? What kind of standards are we depicting?
I remember, even as an older child, how damaging it was when another child got away with destroying/breaking one of my belongings, simply because his mom refused to make him apologize. She dismissed it with a flippant "oh dear, but he's just a kid, never mind lah, huh? You're the jiejie (older sister), you just don't mind it ok?"
I remember looking at that child, listening to what his mom was saying, and the expression on his face as he absorbed the fact that he could get away with something he obviously knew was wrong, as long as he played his cards right.
Again, having a friend refuse to let go of my stuff toy dog when it was time to go home, because he liked it. His mom, instead of telling him off, asked me to give it to him; "it's just a toy, you've still got others". I didn't want to, and I thought it was very rude and greedy of him--I expected his mom to make him return it, and when instead she asked me to give it to him, I felt a very strong, if confused, sense of injustice and betrayal. But because it was An Adult asking me I didn't dare to say no. I cried myself to sleep that night, even though it was "just a stuff toy", and I had "so many others!"
No. NO. Take them seriously.
Teach them to be honest, sincere, fair, and reliable by your own example. Don't dumb down for them. Don't have lesser moral standards for them just because they're kids. Don't dismiss their feelings or thoughts just because they may seem less important, or may not be well articulated. Don't underestimate the impact that you have in how they see themselves, and how they learn to interact with others.
5. Teach them to desire a relationship with Christ, and be aware that your Christian witness affects how they define what it means to be a Christian.
Help them to see, even as there is so much for them to learn--Bible stories, Scripture memory, worksheets to complete, catechisms to learn--that the most important thing is for them to believe in Jesus. The Gospel, in its most beautiful and most simple essence, should never be missing from the mass of Sunday School lessons and sermons and quiet bedtime talks. Its preeminent place should never be uncertain.
Ask yourself--calling myself a Christian, what kind of impression, on what it means to be a Christian, would a child who knows me get from my life? I know many dear older Christians who have helped me in many ways, but I especially appreciate those who showed me that being a Christian didn't mean having to constantly keep up to a specific image. Or always be on the lookout for reasons to disapprove of something. Or being unable to enjoy the simpler things in life. Or relate to people who didn't agree with your worldview. Come on, before I was converted I had the idea that after being baptized you couldn't be playful and make jokes because somehow it meant you weren't properly saved. How messed up was that, and yet that was the unspoken impression I'd received and formed.
6. Be comfortable with talking about spiritual things with them, and encourage them to ask you questions on what they're unsure of. I'm not sure how much of an issue this is with you. Most of us feel rather awkward discussing spiritual things with other adults. It could be worse, or easier, to do so with a child, depending on you. But most people don't bother to, because they assume that children can't understand/appreciate such thoughts. Don't mentally shelve them on the Jesus Loves Me This I Know level of theology! Be open to, and encourage them to ask questions about spiritual things. Be forewarned though; that probably means some very probing questions you'll have to think over and even study up on before you can answer. I remember when I was seeking, how it felt so unnatural and difficult to ask questions, even though I so badly needed answers, because I had never been in the habit of talking about these things with the older Christians in my life. Whereas this would be notoriously challenging to start with teenagers, it's different with children, who often have less expectations on what is "normal/awkward," less inhibitions, and much more trust/honesty in expressing their curiosity or questions. If they ask you questions about faith, about the Bible, encourage them, don't make them feel stupid or heretical; share from your own experience. The first time one little girl in my class asked me--she wasn't from a Christian background, so she didn't feel as much inhibition--"How do we know God is real?" I was struck by the reaction she got from the others, all from Christian homes and upbringing. They stared at her in shock and one of them nudged her to indicate she'd asked a taboo question, something akin to heresy. No, no, NO. I asked them one by one how they knew God was real, and they all gave pat textbook answers that rang hollow. I probed deeper and sure enough, they eventually acknowledged that they weren't really sure why those were the answers, they weren't very convinced, though they felt bad for doubting or feeling this way. That meant having to abandon the current lesson plan for a How Do We Know God is Real series, but it was worth it. We made some real connections that day, had some serious and insightful discussions. I hope they learnt not to be afraid to ask questions, to study the Bible, and get help when they needed it without feeling ashamed or guilty.
They're not children for very long. Treasure this chapter of life when they're at this stage. There are many blessings and opportunities in it, both for you and them.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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