Kingsman The Secret Service: Seeing What Others Don’t (Movie Review)

KingsmanMatthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class, Layer Cake) has taken Mark Millar’s graphic novel The Secret Service and turned it artfully into an artful send-up of the James Bond movies, and a social commentary on plenty of the issues that plague the world today. Kingsman: The Secret Service has its fair share of explosive moments and explosively offensive ones, but all in all, it’s an entertaining blast of a film for those in Oscar artsy fatigue.

Manners maketh the man.–Harry Hart quoting William Homan

Like Timur Bekmambetov’s Wanted (another Millar title), Kingsman follows the exploits of a novice, the rogue street kid Eggsy (Taron Egerton), as he learns at the feet of gentleman spy, Harry Hart (Colin Firth). But the main theme there isn’t all that Vaughn follows: there are the beautifully slowed-down fight scenes a la Guy Ritchie, and the colorful, nearly animated color shots of action and lavish backdrops. Eggsy enters a Hunger Games-like training under the watchful eye of Merlin (Mark Strong, excellent as an Alfred-like mentor), following in the footsteps of his own father who died years earlier in the service. Meanwhile, the megalomaniac Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson, complete with lisp and a New York Yankees cap) and his henchman, Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) are plotting world population reduction. It’s a Bond-like storyline, complete with a fitting baddie.

While a Bond film has never made me question whether or not Bond would live, I was new enough to Millar’s Secret Service to have moments of doubt about who would survive from the Kingsmen. In fact, like Game of Thrones, Vaughn shows a significant disregard for holding onto anything nostalgic that you might expect: everyone, unlike Stallone, is expendable. But it’s the mashup of funny and dangerous that make the film wildly entertaining.

If you’re aware enough of world population, global warming, or rampant cellphone use, then Valentine’s proclamations have a bit (come on, he’s batty!) of truth to them. His use of a Westboro Baptist Church-like cult as the testing point for his sim-card mind control will frustrate some, but it’s social commentary in itself about the violence proclaimed in the name of Jesus. [The fact that he ‘unleashes’ humanity’s closeted violence makes for some interesting brain fodder, too: are we all inclined to that hate naturally or is it something that we’re supposed to fight in each of us?] If you’ve seen a Bond movie, you know some of the situations are ridiculous, like Bond-and-villain repartee or sexual situations (all of which Vaughn mocks). If you’ve watched a movie and wanted the stakes to actually feel higher, then this is the film for you. But it’s got a heart, too.

There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.– Harry Hart quoting Ernest Hemingway

Early on, Hart and Eggsy have a conversation about what Eggsy can do with the rest of his life, and why he’s wasting so much potential. [For the record, there’s a bit of commentary here about a young man growing up without a father figure.] Eggsy asks what Hart sees, and Hart sees a young man who wants to make a difference and do good. It’s not something anyone had ever seen in Eggsy but Hart did. In I Samuel 16:7, Samuel is wrestling with finding the man God wants to be the next king of Israel, and God says, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” In Kingsman, after all of the gags, social commentary, and R-rated exploits, there’s a story about recognizing that you can’t judge a book by its cover (or at least its cockeyed hat and rough boy posturing). Eggsy’s journey to the man he could be makes this story better than its contemporaries in spoof/action flicks.

Kingsman: The Secret Service won’t be for everyone but I thought it was laugh out loud funny, and genuinely exciting. rating: buy it!

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Don’t Worry, Be Joyful (Sunday’s Sermon Today- Gospel of Luke)

Fresh out of business school, the young man answered a want ad for an accountant. Now he was being interviewed by a very nervous man who ran a small business that he had started himself.

“I need someone with an accounting degree,” the man said. “But mainly, I’m looking for someone to do my worrying for me.”

“Excuse me?” the accountant said.

“I worry about a lot of things,” the man said. “But I don’t want to have to worry about money. Your job will be to take all the money worries off my back.”

“I see,” the accountant said. “And how much does the job pay?”

“I’ll start you at eighty thousand.”

“Eighty thousand dollars!” the accountant exclaimed. “How can such a small business afford a sum like that?”

“That,” the owner said, “is your first worry.”

Ah, yes, money and worry go hand and hand, don’t they? We all would love to pay someone to bear our worries for us, but the thing is, we don’t need to pay someone: Jesus points out that God wants us to be worry free.

Jesus is asked to settle an inheritance claim in Luke 12, but he knows this is a systemic problem of greed within his culture. He tells the crowd that “life doesn’t consist of an abundance of possessions” and then tells the story of the rich man whose ground provided an excellent – abundant – harvest. It doesn’t say whether he just got lucky, or whether the hard work he had labored over paid off. But it says that he had so much harvest that he couldn’t keep it all with the buildings that he already had. He had more than enough.

So, he decided to destroy the barns he already had and build bigger ones – the American dream, right? And then he would sit back, and not work, just living it up in one great party. And that drove God to say, “Tonight, you’re judged and you’re going to die- because you wanted to keep it all for yourself.”

Scary stuff, right there. Most of us want more than we have. Whether it’s a case of more stuff, better stuff, more money, easier money, we struggle, claw, sweat, worry, and work for more, more, more. It wasn’t God’s judgment that the man shouldn’t reap more, but he was judged for how he used it – or rather, his lack of using it for the greater good.

This rich man worried about how to keep, a rather selfish, individualistic word, instead of how to share. He wasn’t worried about his daily bread; he was worried about his bread twenty-five years from now.

This man was worried about himself, not about those around him who had less, even not enough. He lacked satisfaction, he lacked humility.

But Jesus doesn’t tell the parable as a means of judgment; it’s a warning, a teaching moment, and he’s sharing it with his disciples so that they’ll get it. Because he continues with further lessons on worry that still seem applicable today:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes….Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?”

“For the pagan world runs after [what they will have], and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”

“Do not be afraid, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

I have a tendency to worry about things – but I’ve learned that there are ways around it. Of course, you can worry about worrying … but what good will that do?

Scientists have shown that worrying about what might happen can cause your body to overwork itself; you can develop high anxiety, unrealistic fear, hypersensitivity to criticism. Worrying will interfere with eating, sleeping, relationships, task completion, and even lead to various addictions.

Worrying sounds as dangerous to your health as just about anything else!

Seek God’s kingdom, Jesus says. Focus on what God wants for your life, and you’ll have everything you need. Don’t be afraid, Jesus says, like the angels to Joseph, Mary, and the shepherds, because God wants the best for you — there’s good news here.

And Jesus lays out how exactly we seek God’s kingdom: give away what we have and open our hearts up to what God wants. It’s much easier when our heart isn’t about stuff and is about people, it’s much easier not to worry and instead find joy when we’re focused on God’s kingdom and what God wants for our lives.

It’s much easier when we focus on others (God included) and less about us.

I’ve told the story before, so forgive me, but I was ready to bail on college… just a few days into my freshman year. I kept hoping it would get better, but one day I called home, telling my mother I was ready to come home, that I wasn’t happy, that I wasn’t fitting in, that I didn’t have any friends.

My mom’s response? She asked me how much I was thinking about other people? She reminded me that in high school I had focused more on helping others – and that I’d been at peace, that I’d had joy. It was a spiritual … comeuppance. (One of several I’ve received from my mother over the years.)

Lately, I’ve been getting another spiritual comeuppance, from Brant Hansen’s book, Unoffendable. I’m still in the first few chapters, but Hansen asks us to consider how much time we spend being offended, assuming we’re better or more important than we really are. Like the man who thinks he needs more barns rather than sharing his wealth, we think we have the right to anger – another thing stealing our joy – when someone doesn’t do the way things we would do them, or their opinion doesn’t agree with ours, or they take the parking space we thought we’d get, or [fill in the blank].

But if we’re going to be like Jesus, then we should be… unoffendable. We’re here to love and to grow; judging and evaluation and all of that is from God, not from us. Because all of us have sinned and fall short of God’s glory. All of us lack the ability to be like God without God’s grace to grow us into being more like Jesus.

But worry, anxiety, and anger make it all about us and not about God, the source of all things good.

I wonder how today we could find focus outside of ourselves. On who God would have us focus.

Maybe you need to pray the Lord’s Prayer everyday and really live into it, “thy kingdom come”.

Maybe you need to commit to spending time in silence every day during Lent, listening to the whisper of the Holy Spirit.

Maybe you need to surrender an action that causes you to be farther from God, or another person, like an addiction.

Maybe you need to take up the burden of someone else – and help them fight through it, knowing that God loves and cares about them, too.

I wonder – not just a good Christmas word – I wonder, what it would look like if we lived into this dream of God’s kingdom as a reality that Jesus believed in.

I wonder what would happen if we heard God speak – and heard the cries of the needy in our community – and listened.

I wonder what would happen, if we lived a life not of worry but of joy. Joy in action…

This Lent, in the words of St. Francis of Assissi: “May God bless you with the discomfort at easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart. May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and the exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace. May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection and starvation, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy. And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe you can make a difference in the world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.

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The Overnighters: Dealing With The Aftermath (Movie Review)

Director Jesse Stone delivered a masterpiece with his documentary, The Overnighters. When I discussed the story of Pastor Jay Reinke with him in November, he hinted at a post script interview with Reinke after the film had been edited. Now, with the film on DVD and digital download, you can unpack the story of Reinke and see what he had to say after the explosive revelation at the end of the film.

In The Overnighters, Reinke serves a church in North Dakota that becomes the lighting rod for an issue of hospitality and church generosity. Hundreds of people flock to the Concordia Lutheran Church, not because of the church itself but because of the way that Reinke welcomes the homeless, those souls seeking work in the oil fields who can’t find a place to stay elsewhere.

Reinke’s story is full of grace: he sees an opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus by welcoming in a stranger and caring for the needy. He challenges his church to grow. But Reinke’s story is a cautionary tale, too, because he takes it too far, he crosses too many boundaries, breaks through barriers intended for his own well-being. How, and why, should be left for the masterful work of Moss’ story as told here, but let’s be clear: you’re going to want to see this wrap-up postscript here, too.

I’ve recommended this film to those who love Jesus, who love a documentary, who pastor churches. I’ve recommended it to those who wrestle with church policy questions and the way to live out how to be more like Jesus in the world. But I found the post script interview to confirm what I’d thought all along: that Reinke’s desire to help others heal their brokenness was an honest response to his desire to see his brokenness healed, and any mistakes he’s made were the result of the sin we all succumb to in our fallen humanity.

Grace still exists though, and it works for Reinke. Watching the documentary and its final words, I can only hope Reinke finds peace, like what he offered to so many other people, for himself.

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Horrible Bosses 2: Now They’re Their Own Bosses (Movie Review)

In the original film, Nick (Jason Sudeikis), Kurt (Jason Bateman), and Dale (Charlie Day) worked together in a comedic Strangers on a Train scenario where they would kill off each other’s Horrible Bosses. In the sequel, their Shower Buddy idea is going nowhere, and they set out to kidnap Rex (Chris Pine), the son of a businessman who has double-crossed them (Christoph Waltz). It leads to the same sorts of laughs as the first (maybe even a few more of them) as the threesome settles in to their relationships without maintaining much of a backstory.

Seth Anders has written or directed some seriously films of varying comedic genius, depending on your definition of funny: Mr. Popper’s PenguinsWe’re the MillersDumb & Dumber To. But here, he takes John Francis Daley’s (BonesFreaks & Geeks) and shows exactly how difficult it is to overcome yourselves and any desire you have to go out on your own in business and in life. The film itself shows more of a streamlined plot after Pine’s Rex fakes his own kidnapping while these three stooges are trying to plan his kidnapping than the tri-part original, and it makes for a stronger backbone for a film that has less ‘one-offs’ and more conceptual ideas.

Somehow, regardless of how brutally stupid and ridiculous this film is, there’s something earnestly funny about Sudeikis, Bateman, and Day. [Disclaimer: I went to high school with Day and never knew he was this funny.] They genuinely seem to like each other in interviews, and it carries over to their rapport here. While they’d have enough comedic juice to carry most movies, Pine is the wild card who delivers. He’s not Captain Kirk, or Jack Ryan, but instead a tortured son who longs to be loved by his rich father who snaps when life gets too hard: he’s so over the top that he steals the scenes he’s in.

Overall, this isn’t great, but fans of the three main folks, or of the actors of tidbit cameo roles (Jennifer Aniston, Jamie Foxx) will dig the special features like “Endless Laughter Guaranteed” or “Off the Cuff: One-Liners You Didn’t See” where we get more of these funny people (sort of) off camera. Even so, I’ll have to leave this somewhere below spectacular. rating: rainy day it

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And The Oscar Goes To… (Well, It SHOULD Go To…)

I’ve seen more of the films this year than in any previous year. I’m still smarting from a film like The Artist winning a few years ago; I think it’s ridiculous that a retread remake like True Grit even gets nominated. But this year, there are some big movies with some clever direction and some big stories and issues to wrestle with – and none of that has anything to do with summer blockbusters!

So here goes: it’s a list that includes my who will win and who should win for the main awards. Sometimes, those aren’t the same thing. If you want to pop-off and follow a link to a review of one of them, I’ll wait!

Best Actress: Gone Girl’s Rosamund Pike (over Julianne Moore, Reese Witherspoon, Felicity Jones, Marion Cotillard) I imagine there’s some growing steam for Moore after the Golden Globe’s win, and it’s highly possible she should win, but I haven’t seen it. Instead, I’ll go with the so-normal-she’s-scary/here-comes-crazy turn by Rosamund Pike in Gillian Flynn’s adapted Gone Girl. Seriously, Doogie Howser doesn’t stand a chance [will that get riffed given that NPH is the host on Sunday?], and Ben Affleck didn’t know what hit him. I’ll never watch it again, but Pike gets my nod- and Flynn should win for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Best Actor: Birdman’s Michael Keaton (over Eddie Redmayne, Bradley Cooper, Steve Carrell, Bradley Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch) I imagine Keaton will walk off with this one but I imagine Redmayne should. He’s been impressive since Starz’s Pillars of the Earth, and his turn at Stephen Hawking has been amazing in the clips I’ve seen. In fact, this is the one most likely to flipflop if I get to watch Theory this weekend. I’m still not sure how J.K. Simmons gets put in the Best Supporting Actor conversation; he clearly seemed to be the lead to me, over hapless (but solid) Miles Teller. For now, I’ll go with Keaton, who plays Riggan Thomson like his hair is on fire. As the director/producer/lead actor in his own screenplay, he’s so nuanced that he allows others to shine, like Ed Norton and Emma Stone (who may win in the supporting roles because of his performance). Funny, tortured, amorous, neurotic, Keaton’s Thomson does it all.

Best Animated Film: Big Hero 6 (over The Boxtrolls, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Song of the Sea, The Tale of Princess Kaguya) I know this isn’t a major, but I’m still shaking my head that The LEGO Movie wasn’t nominated. It was easily the best animated flick of 2014 – and it would’ve been a hoot to see Will Ferrell at the Oscars. [It’s sad that he may have had his best pre-old guy role shot…] But Walt Disney’s story of grief, pain, community, and heroism is the best of the rest; even if Boxtrolls has strong animated characteristics, it’s story is TERRIBLE. (And as a throw in, I’ll say that Best Animated Short nominee, “Feast,” is even better than Big Hero 6!)

Best Director: Birdman’s Alejandro G. Inarritu (over Richard Linklater, Bennett Miller, Morten Tyldum, Wes Anderson) I imagine that Inarritu/Birdman and Linklater/Boyhood will split: one will get Best Director and one will get Best Picture. I’m just not buying Birdman; in fact, I found it so mind-numblingly unwatchable the first time that I didn’t finish. But I wasn’t all that interested in Birdman until Inarritu’s innovative one-shot techniques made me feel like I was actually backstage of Thomson’s play and found it wildly entertaining. [I’ll be shocked if it doesn’t win Best Cinematography.]

Best Picture: Birdman (over Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Imitation Game, American Sniper). I thought Cooper was solid and that American Sniper was powerful. But I’m a fan of Michael Keaton’s and my respect for Inarritu has already been stated; the story of a former action hero-great who is now trying to make his way in the world of theater, to get back in touch with his purpose in life? This is a midlife crisis story that uses Inarritu’s one-shot cinematography and also delivers a story. [For the record, my biggest beef with Boyhood is that it settles for its “shot over twelve years” gimmick but it lacks mightily in the story department.] So, Birdman wins, but if I had my way, it’s the politically-charged, socially-proactive Selma that would be walking away with Best Picture. But would the snobbish Academy really allow back-to-back civil rights films (following 12 Years a Slave last year) to make it? Nope. They took that tension right out of the conversation by denying Selma a nomination. There’s always Best Song…

What I’ve seen (alphabetical order): American Sniper, Big Hero 6, Birdman, Boyhood, Gone Girl, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Judge, The LEGO Movie, Selma, Whiplash

Notable ones I haven’t: Foxcatcher, The Imitation Game, Still Alice, The Theory of Everything*, Wild*

Argue, debate, agree. What do you think should win? What will?

*= hopefully by Sunday! Check back for updates.

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On Mercy (Mustard Seed Musing – Lent)

I’ve guest-written this for Jason Stanley’s blog as he covers Lent daily on his blog. I highly recommend Jason’s writing – and the diversity of writers he’s recruited for this Lent. Go check it out!

Mercy. It’s not a word we hear frequently in today’s society. Judgment? Fairness? Crime and punishment?

Those terms are more comfortable in our black and white worlds. But in Psalm 51, David knows he needs mercy, even though he doesn’t deserve it, because the prophet Nathan pointed it out to him. He couldn’t see his sin on his own, but his ‘friend’ helped him recognize what he had done. In reality, David committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband killed (2 Samuel 11). That’s why he’s here, begging for God to forgive him.

The story of transgressions and judgment of this Psalm remind me of the ‘modern day parable’ of The Judge. Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall) hasn’t forgiven his lawyer son, Hank (Robert Downey Jr.), for his teenage actions, but when Joseph stands accused of murder, Hank is the only one who will step in and defend him in court. The elder Palmer had rarely handed down mercy, but in this moment of truth, he desperately needs someone to compassionately represent him.

Mercy is that elusive characteristic, so much harder to grasp than peace or love (which are hard enough to act on, even when they’ve been defined). Mercy is that thing our hearts don’t understand until we really need it, because our lives are driven by in versus out, good versus evil, black versus white with no room for gray. Mercy isn’t getting what we deserve or what we’re owed but what we hope for when we know that we’ve been caught in the act, and found guilty. It’s the thing we desperately crave when we know that what we’re due is … horrible. Truly, if we fairly assess our own lives, as we’re called to during Lent, we’ll recognize that we’re all as guilty as sin, and only loving mercy can set us free.

But receiving mercy, that’s only the first step.

If we beg mercy from an all-knowing, just God, then we must move forward in faith that we’ve been forgiven, and that we’re called to show mercy to others. It’s because David is forgiven that he’s able to show mercy to others, notably Mephibosheth and Absalom; it’s because he experiences mercy that he’s able to extend it to someone else. (It’s also true that Joseph Palmer is able to extend it to Hank because he recognizes he’s received it first.)

So, who has shown you mercy? I imagine it’s more than God. I know my wife, my children, my parents, my coworkers- they extend mercy to me regularly. When I’m mean, or grumpy, or selfish, or (fill in the blank). I’ve been forgiven by the God of the universe who didn’t owe me that, but I’m also shown mercy by the people in my life who know what I’m really like, and love me anyway.

Do you know that you’re forgiven? Are you able to forgive others? May you extend mercy as you recognize how it’s been extended to you.

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Livin’ On A Prayer (Ash Wednesday Sermon)

Livin’ on a prayer. Bon Jovi, circa 1986, nailed it in the musically excellent department, chronicling an economically-challenged couple who work hard, stick with each other, and hold onto hope livin’ on a prayer. The album Slippery When Wet was one of my favorites as a teenager, because I loved the rock’n’roll vibe. The older I get, the more I think the song should be an anthem for our lives of faith, and in Lent, it takes on a whole new meaning.

In Lent, the Christian calendar urges us to repent. Tonight (or today, depending on when you’re reading this), we launch into forty days of reflection on the life of Jesus and the call to discipleship. Sure, at the end, we’ll arrive at Easter and we’ll celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from death and the victory of heaven over death. That’s done, finished, an actual reality.

But for forty days, we’re called by the pattern of the church year to consider how badly we need Jesus, how short we fall, and how sufficient the grace of God is. We’re called to consider how we’re supposed to live to be more like Jesus – and the end result is that we’ll recognize we can’t do it on our own.

We need help – we need God – we are in fact, at our most faithful, living on a prayer.

In Luke 11, Jesus’ disciples observe him praying, and one of them asks him to teach them how to pray. That’s where we get the Lord’s Prayer from: a disciple of Jesus saw that Jesus was praying, wanted to be able to pray like Jesus, willingly asked for instruction, and received the pattern of prayer from Jesus that we now use regularly on Sundays.

hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.’

Jesus gives says we should give God the recognition deserved, that we should pray for the kingdom of God to be a reality. That we should seek what we needed day by day; that our focus should be on being forgiven as we also forgive. That God would protect us from falling into evil.

It seems pretty simple but while the prayer ends there, Jesus’ teaching on the subject continues with a set of allegories on praying to God that would have worked for his hearers. He lays it out that they’re praying to God like a man asking a friend for bread to host sudden company, or a father who’s son asks for food. Jesus wants his disciples – remember, that’s us, too- to know that God wants to grant us what we ask for when we boldly approach in prayer.

When we pray like we’re taught to.

When we pray with boldness.

When we pray with our hearts turned toward God.

Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”

That sounds a lot like Jeremiah 29:11-13, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”

When we live on a prayer, God’s will for our lives become known most fully; when we live on a prayer, God gives us what we need; when we live on a prayer, we find God.

This Lent, for the next forty days, I want to challenge you to pray the Lord’s Prayer every day. I don’t mean to recite it, or mumble it, or read through it; I want to invite you to pray it with your whole heart, and ask God to use you for the kingdom of God.

This Lent, I want you to encourage you to pray the prayer, and I want you to see how God will use you, every day. Ask God to show you how you can be the hands and feet of Jesus to someone in your life. Maybe it will be one person who will be brought to mind as you pray about your needs and the needs of others. Maybe it will be a series of strangers who become people God shows you in a new way.

Jesus taught the disciples to pray, and then he taught them how to serve. It’s the vibe we get from Pope Francis, who says we should pray for the poor to be fed and then go feed them; it’s why I think we should pray “thy kingdom come” and then go out this Lent to be the kingdom.

Or to quote St. Augustine: “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.”

May this Lent be a time where you are called to prayer, and may your prayers call you from your comfort zone to people who need to feel God’s love through you.


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