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New Hike Begins

Today I once again strap on my backpack and walk a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail.   This summer I am doing the far northern section of the trail in Washington, near the Canadian border.  I will be starting at Rainy Pass in the North Cascade National Park but most of my hiking will be in the Pasayten Wilderness.   This will wrap up my hiking of the PCT in Washington.

Pasayten Wilderness

Pasayten Wilderness in Northern Washington

As in years past I will post pictures and reflections when I return.  My intentions on this solo hike will be to use it as an opportunity for contemplation and meditative walking.   I plan to hike about 65 miles so I will have time to slow down and be still.  I’ll let you know how it went.

If you are curious how past years went, here are some of my posts from previous hikes.

My 2014 hike in Southern Washington starts here 

My 2013 hike in Central Washington starts here

My one attempt at a backpacking cooking show is here

The joy of the Lord is our strength. Nehemiah 8:10

Broken and Unbroken Promises

I have been neglecting my blog for several months for no good reason.  Recently I was contacted by the congregation where I was confirmed, Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Bremerton, WA.  They are celebrating their 70th anniversary this fall and was seeking stories from former congregation members.  My confirmation experience became a kind of crossroads in my spiritual life so I will share it here as well.

Emmanuel Lutheran BremWA

Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Bremerton, WA

Pastor Orville Crawford was my 9th grade confirmation teacher and our class of about twenty boisterous teenagers met most Wednesday evenings in the basement of Emmanuel. We struggled to memorized Luther’s Small Catechism. Being a good student, I struggled less than others. God had given me a sharp mind that grabbed new concepts quickly. I was also active in the small Sunday afternoon Luther League activities, so Pastor Crawford knew me well.

In the spring, as our Confirmation Sunday drew near, Pastor Crawford had a concern. At that time, communion was restricted to confirmed members and thus our first communion would come the Sunday following our confirmation. We were to receive communion as a class, sitting together in the front of the church, just as we would do on our confirmation Sunday. Pastor Crawford was concerned that not all the class would be present for the first communion because it would fall on Memorial Day Week-end that year. So he asked me, “John, how many of your confirmation classmates will be there for the First Communion?” I had no idea, so I said, “I don’t know, but you can count on me being there!” I remember how confident my promise was to him.

Our confirmation Sunday went smoothly. I was very excited to confess my faith in Jesus Christ and become an active member of the congregation. However, that afternoon some friends approached me about going on a backpack trip the next week-end into the Olympic Mountains. It would be my first such trip. I was torn. I remembered my promise to Pastor Crawford, but also wanted to try backpacking. My parents said it was my decision, since I had completed confirmation. With only a brief hesitation, I decided to go backpacking.

Lower Lena Lake

Lower Lena Lake where we camped. It rained most of the week-end.

When I returned I discovered that I was the only member of my confirmation class not present for the first communion Sunday!

Yet when I next came to worship Pastor Crawford did not chastise or judge me. He simply welcomed me to the Lord’s Table, delighted that I was there. I felt loved and forgiven.

What I learned from that experience is that God’s Grace is not about what promises I make to God, but about God’s promises to us. I might make lofty promises to God or God’s people, only to discover that I fail to keep them. Yet God does not hold that against me. God is always willing to welcome me in love. Jesus promises to forgive and heal us. “This is my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.” Also as an ordained pastor, I have worked to follow Pastor Crawford’s example of grace and hospitality.

The ironic thing is I learned to love backpacking as a member of Emmanuel’s Luther League.  Every summer during high school we made a long hike in Olympic National Park. That love (along with the love of God) continues with me as I prepare to return to the PCT in Washington next week.

Breath Focus

This post is the fourth in a series focusing on my path to Christian Mindfulness. The series starts here.

At the second class of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) we were introduced to a simple form of meditation.  We sat on a yoga pillow or chair in an upright position, keeping our body in a relaxed but vertical position.  The instructor gently directed us to close our eyes and to focus on our breathing. We kept a non-judgmental focus as we breathed in and out, simply observing how each breath felt and where we experienced it.  I noticed my attention focusing on my nostrils as each breath passed in and out of my body.  (Afterwards I observed that this kept my observation safely near my “head” since this is my place of security.)

With the instructor’s gentle guidance I was able to stay focused.  However, as her vocal instructions became fewer and fewer, my mind tended to drift away on wandering thoughts, “Am I doing this correctly?”  “I did this once before in CPE, and it was different.”  “Will this work when I go home?”

I was instructed that each time I noticed my mind wandering away to return my attention with gentle compassion to my breath.  This was a frequent occurrence since I found my mind wandering off on some tangent ever few breathes.  The instructor had warned us that no matter how many times our mind wanders, simple let go of the thought, idea or feeling  and bring our attention back to our breath.  I remembered the struggle I had had on the PCT, where my mind kept shifting to various thought streams. The solution was to consistently and gently return to the moment. Patience and perseverance were critical components.

Our homework each week was to practice this meditation every day, slowly expanding the amount of time we invested in meditation.  By the end of the 10 week class, I was able to meditate for 30 minutes, though I continue to have wandering thoughts that distract me. I continue to patiently bring my attention back to my breath (or my sacred word.)

I thought of my mediation practice as a new form of prayer.  Later that summer I would discover centering prayer that closely resembles this form of breath meditation.

Jon Kabat Zin, the principle founder of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Class, offers a guided meditation exercise at this link 

Next post: The Key Ingredients for Meditation

 

 

 

Homework: The Body Scan

This post is the third in a series focusing on my path to Christian Mindfulness.  The series starts here.

Our homework for the first week of MBSR was to do a daily “body scan.”  This was a guided meditation exercise in which I laid on the floor on my back.  I listened to a thirty minute audio recording during which my instructor systematically guided me through my body, focusing my attention on different parts.  She started with my feet and with a gently voice helped me observe any tension and/or sensation occurring there.  She gave me visualization cues to help my feet relax.  Then she moved on to my legs and through the rest of my body.

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The corpse pose in yoga is useful for the body scan

The process was relaxing and peaceful. I remember having a similar experience in my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) class in seminary decades ago.  My CPE supervisor was active in meditation and he led us in a similar exercise each Friday afternoon.  That pleasant memory reassured me that scanning my body was a healthy and life-giving form of prayer.

As a Christian I have experienced a love/hate relationship with my body.  My Christian belief sees the goodness of God’s creating human bodies, including my own.  I was taught and still believe that God chose to become a human being in Jesus Christ (John 1:14) and that my body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 3:16).   Yet my Christian heritage also has elements that negate or de-emphasize the body, seeing it as corrupt and evil.  My sinful appetites (the lust of the flesh, I John 2:16) are centered in my body.  I was taught that my body was not to be trusted, since it was weak and prone to sin.

Growing up, I  learned to live mostly in my head. I was a bright child intellectually and grasp new ideas and concepts quickly.  I received most of my affirmation from being a good student, which also focused my attention on the thoughts and ideas revolving in my head and less on my body.  I was not much of an athlete, so my body did not receive much consideration growing up.  I was a gangling naïve nerd that basically ignored my body.

iStock_000016821441SmallThat began to change when I began to train for my first marathon in 1999.  As I ran I learned a lot about my body (what ached, what thrived) and became more familiar with it.  Yet even my running seemed to be in my head.  Running friends shared how running helped them calm their minds and relieved their stress.  My running rarely did that.

As I continued to practice the body scan meditation, I discovered tension that rested in my shoulders, as if I were carrying the load of the world’s troubles. I often fell asleep, showing me how tired I was. I explored the knot or ache that sat in the bottom of my stomach and how often I ate for emotional reasons.  My body was trying to tell me something, but I was so busy living in my thoughts that I rarely listen. Now I was learning to listen.  My home work was starting to lead me home.

In what ways do you listen to your body?

Stop and Ask for Directions

This is the second in a series of posts on my path to Christian mindfulness practices.  The series started here.

Mountaintops were not the only places I recognized my run-away mind.  I remember getting trapped in catastrophe-thinking-patterns after some criticism at church.   My sermon hadn’t gone well, I made some flub leading worship, or too few people showed up for new member class.  My thought pattern would devolve into a revolving rant that “I was worthless” or “I am a terrible pastor.”  Occasionally I recognized the untruth in these thoughts, yet I struggled to let them go.  I would pray asking for God’s help, but at times prayer only added power to the whole destructive thought pattern.

In 2013 my life hit bottom.  For a variety of reasons, I separated from my wife.  I moved into the farmhouse owned by the church where I was serving at the time.  My wife and I started marriage counseling shortly afterwards and I started visiting with another pastoral counselor for myself.  Though we both wanted the marriage to work, we each had our turf to protect. I was lost and uncertain what path to take.

Then one day, after describing my mini-tantrum over a broken mailbox, our marriage counselor mentioned that I might benefit from a Mindful Based Stress Reduction Class.  By God’s grace that suggestion stuck with me as my answer to prayer.  I went on-line, found where a class was being offered locally and registered.  What did I have to lose?  Like a driver hopeless lost without a phone or map, I figured I needed to stop and ask for directions.

Full Catastrophe Livi

The text book of MBSR

The Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) class started on a Monday morning in March of 2014.  I entered the storefront yoga studio to discover I was the only male in the class of fourteen.  The instructor welcomed us and led us through a meditative body scan. What I immediately appreciated was that the class was not a series of lectures, but actual practices that engaged our body, mind and spirit.  The piece of wisdom that stood out that morning was the instructor’s insistence to practice the various exercises and meditation daily, whether one felt like it or not.  The benefits would not be instantaneous, but if we practiced over the ten weeks we would see benefits in our lives.  I made the decision to practice daily and trust that the Spirit of God would work.  I was not disappointed.

 Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding.Proverbs 3:13 

Next time: some of the lessons I learned through the MBSR class.

 

 

Path to Mindfulness

Nearly three years ago I started a path that eventually lead to my own Christian mindfulness practice.  Over the next weeks I will describe my journey.

The vista was spectacular, what I had dreamed it would be.  But my mind kept jumping to internal perspectives.

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Beauty surround me but I had trouble seeing it. 

I was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) near Glacier Peak in Washington State.  I was in the middle of an eight day hike that I had been planning for months.  That day the trail followed a high ridge whose side dropped a thousand feet into a deep green river valley.  Beyond the valley were several snow capped peaks.  The sky was clear, the alpine flowers brilliant and the view stretched for miles.  Still my mind could not stay centered.

IMG_3289As I walked I noticed that my mind kept jumping back to Minnesota, to worries about work or family.  Who could I find to help with the church stewardship drive next fall?  What sermon series would be helpful to the congregation?  How were my children doing, each starting new work adventures?  These were not “bad” thoughts, but they certainly distracted me from being centered on the present path.
I remember stepping back (inside my head) and noticing how these different trains of thought were jumping around.  Who exactly was this observer inside my head noticing the jumps? I prayed, asking God to care for these different concerns, but my prayers seemed only to add to the confusing cacophony of thoughts and ideas rolling around in my head.

IMG_20130817_143516_947As the trail began to descend from the ridge, I was surprised to be passed by a fellow solo backpacker.  He was moving at a fast clip with a light pack.  He had the harden look of a PCT thru-hiker, but he was southbound. May a yo-yo hiker, I speculated.  I watched him quickly disappear around a corner.   My mind thought, “Moving that fast he must be missing out on truly seeing the spectacular view.”  But another thought followed, “But are you any different, with your mind jumping around?  Are you present to this moment?”

I knew that I wanted to change my busy mind but unsure how to go about it.  So I asked Jesus for help.

Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.  (Matthew 7:7-8)

Next post: Introduction to MBSR

Jesus is Dangerous

This post (longer than most) is based on a sermon I gave last Sunday at Trinity Lutheran in Lindstrom, MN based on Luke and Mark’s Gospels.  I dressed in a “Biblical” costume and told the Palm Sunday story from the perspective of Levi, a priest in the temple of Jerusalem.  Inspired by C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, I seek to move the congregation beyond mere observation. 

Levi enters from side door, speaking to unseen persons behind him.

Just a minute.  I agree something must be done and I will help, but first I have to meet with the visitors.   Maybe I can get their support.

(Turning to the congregation to greet them) Good Morning.

My name is Levi and I am one of the priests who serves here in the Temple of Jerusalem.  On behalf of High Priest Caiaphas, I want to welcome you to the Passover festival here in Jerusalem.

I know that some of you have come a long way to be here in Jerusalem and this is your first time in this magnificent Temple.  I hope you are impressed with the huge stones and craftsmanship.

I must apologize for being a bit late. You see we have a problem.  A big problem and it is growing.  You might think it is just a problem for the priest and servants of the temple.  But it is a problem for each of you as well.

Model of the Second Temple in Jerusalem By Berthold Werner - Own work, Public Domain,

Model of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.  By Berthold Werner – Own work, Public Domain,

First just a bit of background.  This temple has been here for more than 50 years, built by the great King Herod.  It reminds us of the great temple built by King Solomon, a thousand years ago, but Solomon’s temple was destroyed centuries ago and the second was built over its foundation.

As you know temples are important.  They give us a sense of calm and peace in an age of great uncertainty.   I am guessing most of you came here today to find some peace and calm, some rest for your soul.  Here in the rituals and music of the temple we can feel safe; we are able to block out the terrible evils of the world.  Like the dread Roman army that occupies our land.  Or for you it might be the problems in your families or work or at school or with friends.  We can escape for a time.

We need places like this temple to find rest for our weary soul.  In a sense, to find oil to replenish our lamps.  The temple can be a safe haven, a safe harbor, in a dangerous world.

But that is our problem.  Danger has come here, into the temple itself.

The danger is a man named Jesus of Nazareth.   A troublemaker first class, that we need to take care of.

I heard of Jesus several months ago.  There were reports coming from Galilee, that province up north, about a man doing miracles and teaching.  A prophet like John the Baptist.  Stories and rumors of his deeds came to our attention, but we, the priests, ignored them.  We have sufficient problems keeping a great institution like the Temple running to worry about some crackpot prophet in distant Galilee.

Oh a few scribes were sent to observe him, to test him. And I am sure he is a crackpot.  For example, this Jesus claimed the power to forgive sins.   Just who does he think he is?  Only God can do that, and only when we have a sacrifice here in the temple.  Jesus seems to think he could speak for God.   How could he be a prophet, nothing good can come from Nazareth, that tiny insignificant town.

The stories kept growing.  5,000 people fed, a lake storm quieted.  But you know how people like to embellish the truth.   I am sure none of you would fall for such preposterous rumors.

I and the other priests tried to ignore these stories and Jesus.  To talk about him only seem to inflame the crowds.  But then last Sunday, our hands were forced.  We have to deal with him, because he came here to Jerusalem.

Jesus rides into Jerusalem

And in no quiet way either.   He came like a king, riding a donkey. I bet some of you saw it.  As you well know, there are always huge crowds coming to Jerusalem for the Passover festival.  And the crowd, like foolish children, cut down palm branches and took off their robes and laid them in the street.   They shout Hosanna, Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.  Hosanna means “save us.”  How could Jesus possibly save us?

I certainly hope none of you were shouting his name or cutting down palm branches.  I hope none of you were drawn into his promises and claims.

Jesus is dangerous and to be avoided at all cost.

Then after the parade, Jesus came into our temple and cleaned out all the money changers and sellers of turtle-dove and lambs.  He threw over table and pushed people out of the courtyard.  He made some speech about how this is to be a house of prayer.  Well certainly we can pray here, but how are we to do our business without the money changers to take the filthy Roman coins and exchange them for proper Jewish coins?  Or how are people to make a sacrifice for Passover without sheep or turtle-dove.  I see that none you are carrying a turtle-dove with you.  There is a practical side to running a temple after all.

“Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple” by New Zealand artist Michael Smither, 1972 (Victoria University of Wellington Art Collection, New Zealand)

Jesus is dangerous and he has stirred up the crowds.  Some think he is the Messiah, the anointed one of God.  Last night I was a supper with Simon, my cousin.  Jesus was there as well.  I told Simon not to invite him, but Simon went ahead in spite of my advice.  I looked Jesus over carefully. He was a simple ordinary man.  He ate with two hands, he drank wine, he even laughed at Simon’s bad jokes. Nothing unusual there.

anointing_jesusNothing unusual until a woman from the street came into the room.  She is not the proper woman I would allow into my home.  She carried an alabaster jar of perfume. I could tell this was not some cheap perfume, but the very expensive kind. She walked right up to Jesus, broke open the bottle and poured the whole bottle on his head, just like he were a king.  I immediately object to this waste of money.  I said, “This ointment is a waste.  It could have sold for several thousands of dollars and the money given to the poor.”   I thought for sure Jesus would join in my rebuttal.  He would see the waste.

But no, He rebukes me and gives praise to the woman. That she has done a very good deed.

Good deed, my eye.

Jesus should not be anointed.  He should be locked away in prison.

You know what he said about the temple.  One of his disciples told me that he said, “This temple will be destroyed.”  This beautiful, magnificent temple destroyed.  God forbid.

How can we worship God without a temple, without the institution?

Where are you to go to offer sacrifice for God’s forgiveness if the temple is destroyed?  How will you know you are forgiven unless blood is shed?

For Jesus to talk about the temple being destroyed, he should die!

That is what we were discussing back there before I greeted you.

How to stop Jesus!  Stop him from making more trouble.

And most of us agreed, he must die.

Oh we could execute him by stoning him to death for blaspheme against God, as Jewish law permits.  But the crowd may interfere.

So someone had the idea, “Let’s take him to Pontius Pilate. (Pilate is the Roman Governor), “We can use Jesus’ claim as King as the reason to execute him.”  After all the Roman form of execution, crucifixion, is such a horrible way to die.  But it will show all his followers that Jesus is a fake King.

The Crucifixion by Matthias GrunewaldDon’t you think it would be fitting for King Jesus to have the cross as his throne?

And after he is dead, we can go after all his disciples.

All his disciples, except for one.  One who was smart enough to come to us and help us.  I met him at Simon’s dinner last night. The disciple agreed to find an opportune time to turn on Jesus, when the crowd is not around.  A smart man, that Judas Iscariot.  You can learn from him.

Which leads me back to you.  What role will you play in this unfolding story?

I am sure most of you see the danger in Jesus.

Do you really want a King who tears down temples and says that God is free to go anywhere, be anywhere?

Don’t you feel safe with God here in this box, where you can come for comfort and support?

Do you really want God out there in your everyday world, in every nook and cranny of your life, who can surprise and disrupt your lives? Won’t you prefer to run your own life?

One thing I will guarantee.

garden tombBy the end of this week, Jesus will be dead and buried in a cold dark tomb.

And that will be the end of his story and his mission.

And within a few months his name will be forgotten.

I see some skeptical looks on your faces.

Do some of you actually believe Jesus’ talk about rising from the dead?

Don’t be so foolish?  How many resurrected people have you met?

The resurrection of Jesus is as likely as this magnificent temple being destroyed.  It will not happen.  Trust me.

I must go.  I need to meet that very smart man Judas and pay him for his help.

Remember, I have warned you.  Jesus is dangerous.  He could turn your life upside down and inside out.

Are you sure you want him as your king?

The Shirt Off My Back

Four bikes were outside when I arrived for our Saturday morning run.

“No one told me that they were riding this morning?” I thought as I walked inside.

I noted the four who wore cycling gear as they greeted me, though several others were dressed to run.

“Hey, no one told me about a ride this morning.” I said, a bit miffed at being left out of the loop.  As I said this, I felt this surge of anger bubble up inside me, not sure where it was coming from.  My voice and actions became more dramatic, nearly shouting, half in jest, half in anger, “Why didn’t you include me in the text message.  Don’t I count!”

The others laughed at my outburst (as I had wanted), but I also realized that I had overstated my case and began to apologize.  Tim, one of the cyclists, said, “You need to take some time to center yourself.”  He was right.

Preparing to race, Shannon is in pink vest

Preparing to race, Shannon is in pink vest

Shannon, also a cyclist, apologized that she had sent out the text invite and used an old thread that did not include me and several others.  I calmed down and said it was okay, especially since I knew Shannon would not do it intentionally.  Shannon is a gracious and generous child of God who gives of her time and energy to help others.  She is a physical therapist who opens her workplace early on Sunday mornings so that our group of runners can do strength training as way to avoid injuries. She regularly travels to Haiti on mission trips and feels comfortable praying for our group.  I consider her a friend.

l525182534As the runners and cyclist prepared to leave, Shannon approached me to see if I had a spare shirt.  It was cooler than expected outside and she needed another layer.  I looked in my running bag and pulled out the only long sleeve shirt I had: my finisher’s shirt from my last marathon.  I teased Shannon that she needed to return it freshly laundered.

After a short prayer, the group headed out the door, cyclists and runners.  I had a great run that morning and headed home prior to the cyclists’ return.  It had been a gorgeous Saturday morning and, after my initial outburst, I was grateful for having a great group of runners to challenge and encourage me.

Later that afternoon, Tim called me to tell me some bad news. During the ride, Shannon had taken a fall.  Fortunately she had a good bike helmet that had protected her head.  Still she had to go the ER where she discovered that she had broken her collarbone.

I texted Shannon that I would be praying for her quick and full recovery.  She texted back that she appreciated the prayers, she was doing all right but that she owed me a shirt, since they had to cut off her jersey and my shirt in the ER.

When I read the text, two thoughts in quick succession flashed into my mind.

The first thought was: “That was the finisher’s shirt from my last marathon.   That can’t be replaced!”

The second deeper thought was, “John, which is more important, a shirt or a friendship?”

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.  Matthew 25:40

The Super Bowl of Emotions

Cam Newton dab

SEATTLE, WA – OCTOBER 18: Quarterback Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers celebrates. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

One of the story lines leading up to the Super Bowl was the enthusiastic play of Carolina’s quarterback Cam Newton.  Every time he scored a touchdown he had a special dance that he enjoyed performing.   Some people took offense at his display of exuberant emotions, but others saw it as a part his passionate personality.

Cam Newton sulking cmp

Sunday showed a different side to Cam.  He barely responded to questions from the media after the loss.   He was clearly in a lot of emotional pain and he walked out of the news conference early.  He was not the model of what many would call a “good loser.”

I am writing about this not to drawn any moral judgment to Cam Newton, but rather to how emotions can rule our lives.  Cam Newton strikes me as a person who rides the roller coaster of emotions to the fullest extent.  When he is happy and excited, he revels in the emotion.  When he is disappointed or crushed, he let it all hang out.

This is such a sharp contrast to what I learned growing up.  I was taught (in both overt and in subtle ways) that to show any emotions was not appropriate.  I came out of a stoic Norwegian culture that emphasized staying in-control.  It was not appropriate to ride the roller coaster of emotions; keep an even keel and a pleasant smile.   Don’t let my highs get too high, nor my lows too low.

What I have come to discover is that neither path works very well.   I have at time chosen to ride the emotional roller coaster, but the ride can overwhelm my inner being and good judgment.   I have done and said some rash, harsh things to friends and family in “the heat of the moment.”   I have allowed self-pity to rule my days in destructive ways.

But to ignore my emotions can be just as destructive.  To bury my anger or ignore my disappointments can be just as destructive.  They tend to cause internal stress that calls for attention.

More recently I have practiced a middle way.   I acknowledge whatever emotion I may be feeling: anger, disappointment, hope, joy, fear, sadness, but I do not let it rule my judgment.  I observe how the emotion may be affecting my body, my breathing, my outlook, but I hold it at a distance.  The emotion is certainly real, but it is not in control and it will dissipate over time.  I step back and observe what my “reactive behavior” might be and discern whether that behavior would be helpful in the long run.  It usually will not be.  I don’t bite my tongue, but I certainly hold my words for a moment.

This is a practice of mindfulness.  I imagine it as part of my dressing myself in Christ.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. (Col  3:12)

How do you handle your emotions?