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September 1-7, 2010–Honor Thy Father?

Contributed by Jack Saarela, Lutheran Campus Ministry, Yale University

Warm-up Question

Has trying to follow Jesus ever put you at odds with your parents wishes or values? 

Honor Thy Father?

Mark tells us in his gospel that at the very beginning of his public ministry, Jesus walked on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and saw James and John in a boat mending their fishing nets. That’s the scene depicted in the painting on this page. “Immediately,” (one of Mark’s favorite words) Jesus invited them to be his disciples. Apparently, without a second’s hesitation, they laid down their nets, and set off to follow Jesus. Then Mark inserts an interesting detail: “ . . . and left their father Zebedee in the boat.”

Imagine the older man sitting on the bow of the boat in the painting as Zebedee, father of James and John, and head of the small family-run fishing operation, “Zebedee and Sons”.  James and John may have been excited, flattered, or expectant at the prospect of following Jesus. But I wonder how Zebedee felt, what he thought about Jesus’ coming along out of the blue and calling his sons away to be his followers. Do you think Zebedee was pleased as punch to assume all the burdens and responsibilities of the family fishing enterprise on his own, solitary shoulders?

Discussion Questions

  • What do you think? How does Jesus look to you if you’re Zebedee, left alone in the fishing boat?
  • Can you name any time in your life when your being a Christian disciple has led to tension within your family? Within your group of friends? 

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, September 5, 2010 (Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost)

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Philemon 1-21

Luke 14:25-35

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

In my ministry with students at the University of Florida, we used to offer a Bible study series every few years entitled, “Things We Wish Jesus Had Never Said!” We didn’t have any trouble coming up with a long list of texts from the gospels containing very hard, challenging words from Jesus.

Today’s gospel text was almost always among them. William Willimon, Methodist bishop and former chaplain at Duke, asks, “What is this, Jesus on a bad day?” Jesus seems to be in no mood here for compromise or halfway measures in the matter of following him. “Hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters”? . . . “Yes, [hate] even life itself”? . . . “Give up all your possessions”? And then, to top it off, “carry the cross”? Ouch!

Yes, part of the challenge of Jesus’ words can be explained by the fact that he is using hyperbolic language to catch our attention. And sure, Jesus doesn’t imply “hating” in the sense of an emotion, but rather a kind of detachment from family and possessions that allows us to keep them in proper perspective as secondary and tertiary loyalties in our lives, when our first love ought to be serving God and loving our neighbor.

Nonetheless, it’s not at all easy to keep family commitments and pursuit of income and possessions in their proper place. My experience is that it’s impossible, as are a lot of other things Jesus asks of us. Love my neighbor as myself? Turn the other cheek? Sometimes, maybe, but it’s not my first instinct.

That’s why I find Jesus’ words later in the gospel of Luke to be such good news. In chapter 18, Jesus appears to make another set of impossible demands of a rich young man (to go sell all he has and give the money to the poor). The man is saddened, and turns away. One of the disciples then asks Jesus, “Who, then, can be saved?” Jesus replies with the good news I’m talking about: “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.” (Luke 18:26-27)

For mortals like you and me, it’s virtually impossible to follow Jesus on the terms he establishes. But through the action of the Holy Spirit, God makes the impossible happen.

Discussion Questions

  • Can you think of other sayings of Jesus you wish he had never said? Words of his that are difficult to hear and challenge our assumptions?
  • Some suggest that mainline Christian churches like the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are not growing because we fail to raise the bar for being a Christian, and settle instead for an “easy believism,” practicing and living out our faith as an “optional extracurricular activity.”  Do you think they are right? Why, or why not?
  • How do we accept the free grace of God in Jesus (the fact that God makes impossible discipleship possible for us) and yet not just sit back and “let God do it”? 

Activity Suggestions

Closing Prayer

Lord Jesus, it’s not that I don’t want to “follow your more dearly and love you more dearly”, it’s just that it seems set up for my failure. Your demands and expectations are so high! But I believe that even my wanting to follow you is already the work of your Spirit within me. Make what seems impossible for me possible today. Amen

October 14-21, 2009 – Grocery bagger with Down’s syndrome inspires hundreds

Contributed by Angie Larson
Clive, IA

Warm-up Question:  What would be the job that you would least want to have?

grocery-bags200Joe worked as a bagger at the local grocery store for nearly 7 years. Joe, age 25, has Down’s syndrome. He worked quietly and carefully placing groceries in bags and thanking customers for coming to shop. A bagger is not a particularly prestigious job, but Joe didn’t see it that way. He enjoyed serving. The manager of the store gathered together the employees for a sales pep talk. Joe, as a good employee, attended and listened intently. The manager encouraged all of the employees to take ownership and creativity in the grocery store and to each come up with an idea that would encourage and support their customers.

Joe left the store in search for an idea. He went home and talked to his father about putting an inspirational cartoon or quote in the customers’ bags as they left the store. Joe chose a quote and his father helped him copy and cut the quote into slips of paper so Joe could add them to the bags with the groceries. The next day at work Joe quietly slipped his thought for the day into the bags and passed them to the customers. It made Joe happy, and his customers too.

A couple of weeks later the manager of the grocery store was alarmed to see a line of 20 people in the lane where Joe was bagging. He opened up multiple lanes for people to move to. He was surprised when people wanted to remain in Joe’s lane to receive his inspirational quotes. One woman told the manager that she comes in every day to pick up something just to get Joe’s quote. Joe’s quiet kind service turned a mundane job and shopping experience into one of community and care. 

Discussion Questions

  • What’s your first reaction after reading this story?
  • Do you do something everyday that seems mundane and ordinary? How can you make it into something special and extraordinary?
  • Joe felt a passion for simple service and it inspired many. Who do you know that serves simply that gives them joy?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, October 18, 2009.

(Text links are to oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year B at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

In the gospel text, the disciples are experiencing rivalry within their community. The brothers James and John desire to rise to the right and left hand sides of Jesus in his kingdom. At this point, they do not realize what this means for them; they believe that Jesus’ kingdom will be some sort of kingdom on earth.

James’ and John’s blatant grabs for power create a conflict for the community of Jesus and the other ten disciples. When the other disciples hear this scramble for power and recognition, Jesus uses it as a teaching moment for them as well. Jesus teaches all twelve disciples that in order to be great you must be a servant. This concept must have been as hard for the disciples as it is for us today.

Jesus came to teach us how to serve each other — including strangers. Joe wanted to serve in his grocery store in a humble, subtle way that made a difference to hundreds of grocery shoppers. We are taught in our society, as in societies before us, that rising to power and rivalry is the way we get to the top and get recognized for our accomplishments. We sacrifice our values and sometimes our friendships to be able to be competitive and gain prestige or power. Joe didn’t care about prestige or power; he wanted to be able to serve the best he could. How many of us try to serve in all aspects of our lives by trying our best in humble, subtle ways?

“Jesus came not to be served,” as many would imagine of a great ruler and king, but he came “to serve”. Serving and repsecting others builds and strengthens community and does not divide people or pit them against each other. We are to go and do likewise and serve our neighbor.

Discussion Questions

  • How would you respond to James and John if you were one of the other disciples? Would you be drawn into the competition? Why or why not?
  • What is one mundane activity that you do daily? How can you use that to serve another?
  • Realistically, do you think you would be like Jesus, James, and John, or the other ten disciples?
  • How does the gospel and your faith guide you in how you treat and care for others? How you think about them? Does serving others come naturally, or does it pose challenges for you? Why?

Activity Suggestion

  • Take Joe’s example and be creative to reach out to those in your congregation and community. Develop a biblical quote of the week campaign. Prepare slips of paper with a favorite inspirational Bible verse. Pass out a few to each youth and ask them to pass it along to at least 20 other people. They can do this by slipping the verse to a few people, copying it into a text message, or putting the verse on someone’s Facebook wall. Check in the next time you meet to see how it went.
  • Create a list of occupations. List anything: from rocket scientist to farmer to tollway attendant to waitstaff at a restaurant. Ask youth to brainstorm how they could serve others in a creative and meaningful way for those occupations… in any occupation. Talk about the concept of vocation and what God is calling each of us to do with our particular skills, abilities, and interests.

Closing Prayer

Blessed Savior, thank you for serving us. Help us to remember to serve others. We know that at times we look for power and prestige, but we ask you to help us redirect ourselves during those times. Bless those who serve others with their lives. Enable us to learn and live extraordinary lives of service in your humble way. In your name we pray. Amen.

June 17-24, 2009 – UFO or sign from God?

Contributed by Rod G. Boriack
Chicago, IL

Warm-up Question: What’s the freakiest, unbelievable thing you’ve ever seen or witnessed? Who did you tell?

(CNN Video, ” Possible UFO caught on tape,” June 16, 2009)

Denna Smith is a writer who hopes to work with Tyler Perry someday, but, she says, even she couldn’t make this story up.

“We were like what is that, we were all stopped and we were astonished,” said Smith.

Smith and her family were at Kings Dominion Amusement Park in Richmond, VA when they saw a black floating ring in the sky. “Is this the end of the world, what is going on?” Smith wondered.

Kings Dominion says the ring is smoke from a ride called Volcano. UFO investigator, Cameron Pack, agreed. Pack said he’d be convinced it was just smoke if it weren’t for pictures of a similar sighting at Fort Belvoir, taken sometime in the 1950s.

Smith says she’s positive it wasn’t smoke. “Smoke usually looks smokey and cloudy. This ring of smoke was a perfect circle. It was lined up so tight like it was a cut in the middle of the sky,” said Smith. She also doesn’t think it was a UFO.

“It was like a sign, God gives you signs and I just felt like that was a sign and I’m not sure what that sign meant but it meant a great deal to my family because when we got home we all got in line and prayed together. We were freaking out,” Smith continued.

Pack says he plans to follow up with Kings Dominion. Smith thinks his investigation could turn up something. “I still believe it is still out there we just don’t know where it went,” said Smith.

Discussion Questions

  • OK, here’s the hot question… do believe in UFOs? Have you seen one or something you thought could have been a UFO? What do you think they are? (visitors from another planet, signs or messages from God, natural phenomena like clouds, hallucinations, smoke, not sure, etc.)
  • If you saw this unusual ring in the sky how might it affect your beliefs about certain things? What new questions would it stir up in you?
  • Who would you tell about your UFO sighting? Only your closest friends, everyone, absolutely no one, your most trusted best friend? Post it on YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter for everyone to see?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, June 21, 2009.

(Text links are to oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year B at Lectionary Readings

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

Those crazy disciples! Always dazed and confused when it comes to figuring out Jesus, who he is, what he’s all about, and the unbelievable, miraculous things he does. And they were around him all the time; imagine what the crowds and strangers thought and wondered.

These days, we say “seeing is believing.” But it’s never that easy… take the UFO siting, for example. 100 people see the same thing, even video it, and they’re still wondering what they saw. You go to a movie and and don’t even notice the special effects, realistic scenery, or crowd scenes that have been created digitally through CGI (computer-generated imagery).

Who is this Jesus? He heals sick people, makes storms go away, tells parables that sound like riddles, knows Jewish scriptures backwards and forwards, brings dead people back to life, commands demons to leave people, talks about the future as if he knows exactly what’s going to happen, and says he is the son of God. Wow! How do you take all that in and make sense of it all?

And in 2009 we still wonder about Jesus! Go figure.

The words Jesus spoke to the howling storm winds and the frightened, confused disciples in the sinking boat are powerful, simple words probably meant for us: “Peace! Be Still!” “Why are you afraid? Where is your faith?” Have faith and trust God. The facts, miracles, stories, and events are too tough to sort through on our own based on simply human knowledge, experience, and text books.

Have faith and trust God. Take it all in and trust God. Jesus’ message to us is pretty consistent and clear throughout the Bible even though we may be unsure or confused:

  • We are created and loved by God.
  • All our weaknesses and sins are forgiven.
  • God has given us new life — eternal life.
  • We are free to live our lives differently as followers of Jesus… as servants of others, working for justice, loving and forgiving others, seeking peace, welcoming strangers, encouraging each other in faith, and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with everyone — everywhere.

Peace! Be still! Have faith!

Discussion Questions

  • When it comes to your faith and what you believe, what are the questions you wrestle with right now? (Take some time to cultivate trust and open conversation about the questions raised. Meet the questions with respect and empathy. Encourage other young people to respond to each other, but not to fix, answer, or solve everything. Notice any common questions or any that are particularly tough.)
  • What would you say you are pretty solid about in your faith and beliefs? What do you feel pretty certain about? (This doesn’t imply that you never have doubts, questions, fears, or curiosity. These are things we all experience as God’s Spirit helps our faith grow, learn, stretch, and deepen throughout life in an ever-changing world.)

Activity Suggestion

Covenant to learn more about or revisit what Lutherans profess to believe. Explore what other groups of Lutherans believe and practice. It can be easy to get hooked on the differences, but also note the things we share in common as Christians. You can find some resources at

Closing Prayer

Gracious and holy God, give us diligence to seek you, wisdom to perceive you, and patience to wait for you. Grant us, O God, a mind to meditate on you; eyes to behold you; ears to listen for your word; a heart to love you; and a life to proclaim you; through the power of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

(Prayer for “Those seeking deeper knowledge of God,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, page 76)

May 13-20, 2009 – A zillion friends and counting

Contributed by Rod G. Boriack
Chicago, IL

Warm-up Activity:Give each person a piece of paper and something to write with. In one minute, write down the names of as many of your friends as you can. Follow-up questions:

  • How many friends are on your list?
  • How did you decide on who to list as a friend when under the pressure of time?

When we use the word friend or friendship these days, it may not be so easy to describe what we mean. There are friends, and then there are FRIENDS. Social networking Web sites like FaceBook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Twitter, and others have stirred up our understanding of what it means to be a friend or to be part of a community. FaceBook alone claims the following statistics:

  • More than 200 million active users
  • More than 100 million users log on to FaceBook at least once each day
  • Average user has 120 friends on the site
  • More than 3.5 billion minutes are spent on Facebook each day (worldwide)
  • More than 25 million active user groups exist on the site
  • About 70% of Facebook users are outside the United States

Just for youth and young adults? Think again… it’s estimated that FaceBook has seen a 276% increase in 35-54 year-old users in the past 6 months.

Never in history has it been possible to have so many friends and to keep in touch with so many people worldwide!

Discussion Questions

  • How many of you have a FaceBook page or some other on-line social networking page?
  • How many friends do you have on your page?
  • What’s the best thing about being part of an on-line community? What are the limitations (if any)?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, May 17, 2009.

(Text links are to oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year B at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection 

In this chapter of John, Jesus spends some time trying to help his disciples understand what it means to be a friend, a follower, chosen by God — a disciple. It seems that he’s always trying to straighten them out. Love and friendship… what could be easier to understand?

It’s maybe not as simple as it seems though. In the Old Testament there’s a passage in Isaiah where God says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways.” In this week’s Gospel lesson, Jesus has something different in mind when he speaks of friends and love. He is thinking of a relationship that is deeper, more intense, and more committed than the disciples are accustomed to. Jesus is speaking of a friendship and love that is willing to sacrifice everything — including one’s life — for another person. It’s the kind of friendship and love that Jesus has for us.

Even today we struggle to really understand and accept the kind of friendship Jesus describes. We’re still unsure about what it means to follow Jesus’ example and what he is asking us to do. Maybe we even dig our feet in sometimes and say “there’s no way I’m gonna do that!” “Love my enemies or sacrifice my life for a friend — no way.”

But it is the way, and Jesus is asking us to make it our way.

Last fall, fast-food chain Burger King created the “Whopper Sacrifice” campaign, a FaceBook app that gave people a coupon for a free hamburger if they deleted 10 people from their friends list. The value worked out to trading each friend for about 37 cents worth of fast food. By the end of the promotion, people had deleted 233,906 friends from their FaceBook pages.

The marketing campaign is over, and the Whopper Sacrifice Web site now simply says: “In the end, your love for the Whopper Sandwich proved to be stronger than 233,906 friendships.” “Were you sacrificed by somebody? Send them an Angry-Gram…”

We can shrug it off as just advertising; it’s no big deal. On the other hand, what does it say about who we are and how we love each other?

Discussion Questions

  • How would you describe the differences between how Jesus describes a friend and how we might describe a friend? How are our descriptions similar? What about our descriptions of love?
  • What stands in the way of our considering every human being as a friend? As a neighbor? In today’s world — 2009 –what helps us connect with each other in ways that are respectful, caring, understanding, and even loving?
  • How does God move us closer to each other through the sacrifice and example of Jesus?

Activity Suggestions

  • Get in touch with a friend who you haven’t talked to or connected with in awhile. Tell them of your care and concern for them, and that you haven’t forgotten them.
  • Use your social networking or on-line community page to mention the kind of love that God has for us. Encourage your friends to take the risk of living and loving like Jesus… post each other’s ideas of what it involves. Offer each other encouragement that also reflects forgiveness and patience.

Closing Prayer

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son. Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred that infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in love; and, through our struggle and confusion, work to accomplish your purposes on earth; so that, in your good time, every people and nation may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

(Prayer for the human family, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, page 79.)

May 6-13, 2009 – A tribute to players snubbed by the NFL draft

Contributed by Matthew R. Nelson
Walla Walla, WA

Warm-up Question: Read John 15:3. What does it mean (for you/for us) to be cleansed by the words of Christ?

Not everyone who is chosen in the annual NFL draft will secure a spot on the roster of the team that chose them. For some that were not picked, the prospects of eventually making an NFL team are minimal at best.

There are always some oddities in the 256 pick process called Draft Day. This year, the quarterback from Kent State was picked to be a potential receiver by the Patriots. The Cardinals used pick #131 to make Greg Toler the first student athlete ever chosen from St. Paul’s (VA), a Division II school. Also selected from Division II were Abilene Christian teammates Johnny Knox and Bernard Scott, who were taken at #140 by the Bears and #209 by the Bengals, respectively. The three players from Division II schools outnumbered draft picks from nine major collegiate institutions and equaled those from four others.

Other surprises included Demetrius Byrd, chosen by the San Diego Chargers with their last pick in the seventh round. He remains hospitalized with serious injuries resulting from a car accident; injuries that might even prevent him from playing again. The Broncos in the 2nd round picked North Carolina tight end Richard Quinn, even though he only had 12 catches in two years with the school. And one of the pre-draft favorites of some, Purdue quarterback Curtis Painter, was picked by the Colts in the sixth round, even though he lost his starting job temporarily in 2008.

As always, some players were picked higher in the draft than some expected, some were picked lower, and some players who were expecting to be drafted were not. The person making the pick in the draft decides the value of a player and his potential. In spite of very meticulous research and a clear set of needs that teams hope to fill with draft picks, some players will exceed expectations and many will never live up to them.

Discussion Questions

  • The New Student Bible (NRSV) notes that the same Greek root for ‘cleansed’ refers also to pruning, (vs. 3). What types of things does God prune from you emotionally or behaviorally in order that you might abide in Christ?
  • Read John 14:30-31. Why do you think Jesus moved from the privacy of speaking with his disciples to a more public forum? Walking or riding would surely attract more people, and the events that followed lead directly to the crucifixion.
  • What questions would you have for Christ if you were in the disciple’s shoes on that day?
  • Before (John 14:28) and after (John 16:5) the lesson today, Jesus speaks of departing or leaving the disciples to continue in ministry and mission. Do you think the disciples felt empowered or abandoned as Jesus spoke to them?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, May 10, 2009.

(Text links are to oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year B at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day

Gospel Reflection

Jesus had already foretold of his betrayal and of Peter’s denial. Now he is speaking of departing, of leaving them to continue in his mission. Questions must have been racing through their minds. Understanding this, Christ simply and calmly says, “You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.” (John 15:3)

That’s it! The essence of Jesus’ message to his disciples and to us is that amidst all of our concern, amidst all of our doubt, and even amidst any shortcomings that we might have, we have been chosen and should begin our mission and calling immediately, fully cleansed and prepared. 

Christ’s example in life, and his the sacrifice on the cross have grafted us into the living vine, and the vine grower’s field. Now, with the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit, the advocate, each of us will experience the blessing of being a blessing as our gifts and talents are used to glorify God in this world.

The NFL draft is an interesting process full of hope and anticipation for hundreds of collegiate athletes who hope to continue their football careers. A football career would mean a lifestyle far from the ordinary. Even with a college degree to fall back on, life without football means a future uncertain, and a plunge into a different kind of competitive job market. Football is their skill, and football is their desire.

Being chosen in the draft, however, is not the end accomplishment of hard work. It is the beginning of a new relationship with a team that will take all of your past experiences and skills, and mold them to better their own mission, to win a Super Bowl. Through continued work and practice, players are stripped of poor habits and cleansed in their discipline to perform on the field. Coaches and trainers teach, and then lead gently and not so gently from the sidelines during each game.

Jesus chose his original disciples as he began his adult public ministry. He chose ordinary people, from fishermen to tax collectors. These ordinary people witnessed and experienced some extraordinary things as they walked with Jesus. They bonded with their teacher, and he bonded with them. Their sense of privilege in being chosen by Jesus and their sense of belonging must have been tremendous, right up until our lesson today.

Discussion Questions 

  • What are the gifts or skills you believe that God has given you in order that you might glorify his name?
  • Have you experienced the joy or rejection of being chosen or not chosen to participate in an activity or sport? Answers might range from school and neighborhood games to more serious auditions for music, plays, and team sports. Share something positive about that experience. Was it positive at the time, or do you look back at it more positively now? Why? 
  • Being trained and then left to do something is a part of all work experiences. Describe a situation or time when you thought you weren’t ready for the task at hand? How did you feel? What did you do? How did you work through the situation? Did you pray about it and ask God for help? What did you ask for?
  • Sometimes being a Christian singles you out for criticism, making us just a little different than many of our friends. Jesus tells his disciples in John 15:27 that in spite of the world and of persecution of any kind, that we are to testify on his behalf because we have been with him from the beginning. How do you feel about that? Why?

Activity Suggestions

  • Sing “His Banner Over Me is Love.” One version with chords is available at take a note pad to worship. Without writing names, look at other members of the congregation and write down what you think their gifts and talents are. Post the list in the Narthex or in the church bulletin or newsletter. Title it “Gifts we have that glorify God.”  
  • Sometimes we overlook or undervalue our own gifts, (question #1 above). Write each group member’s name on a piece of paper. By their name, write one gift or talent you think they have. Give them to your group leader, who can write the gifts and talents on the chalkboard or dry erase board, without names. This gives everyone the opportunity to say something positive about others, but doesn’t single anyone out. You can lead the activity verbally if you feel comfortable doing so.

Closing Prayer

Lord we praise your name and thank you for first choosing us. Send now the Holy Spirit, the advocate, that we might know your continued presence and work to glorify your name. Amen.