Suffering

Do I Deserve Anything?

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“Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough,” Oprah Winfrey once said. Life is fleeting. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma are proof of this fact. While I have not been directly impacted by these super storms I see the results. I have a cousin who lives in southeast Texas and had to leave because of Harvey. I work assisting people with mortgages who have suffered property loss from Irma. Seeing the photos from my family member and hearing the strife my clients undergo make my issues small.

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Over the past several months, I battled the sin of complaining. I whined over simple things: kids messing up the house, co-workers annoying me, routine bills, etc. You name it and I probably complained. I am not happy or proud that I engaged in such behavior, but that was who I was recently. The stress and negativity grew and grew. Finally, I went to Confession this weekend. According to St. Augustine, “The confession of evil works is the first beginning of good works.” The saints words ring true. During the last few days, I experienced a shift in mentality. Instead of thinking, “I need _____” or “I deserve ______ to happen “phrases such as “How I may help?” or “Life is a gift” become more natural for me to reflect on.

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Receiving a new start on my path towards holiness, through the sacrament of Confession, I experience a clearer sight of the truly important things in life. Counting my blessings and donning an attitude of gratefulness became more natural after I received the graces to forgive in the theological medicine box. Do I deserve anything? I pondered this question a lot yesterday and today.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 1999, “The grace of Christ is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it. It is the sanctifying or deifying grace received in Baptism. It is in us the source of the work of sanctification.” The dictionary defines gratuitous as given or done free of charge. God needs nothing in return. Life is a blessing. God’s grace sustains me. I cannot add or take away from God’s power and authority. Do I deserve anything? No, as a selfish creature before our wonderful Creator I did not deserve anything. Why am I given such blessings? The answer is that God’s freely chooses to love me and lavish gifts on his adopted children.

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Do I deserve anything? No, I am a sinful, narrow-minded person. Through the grace I received in the Sacrament of Confession, God reminds me that just because I am not entitled to the blessings in my life do not mean that He will take them away. The trials, sufferings, blessings, and joy are all part of my life to help me grow in holiness. How do I combat an attitude of privilege? I need to don the cloaks of humility and gratitude. I will close this reflection with lyrics to Your Grace is Enough by Matt Maher:

Great is your faithfulness oh God of Jacob
You wrestle with the sinner’s restless heart
You lead us by still waters into mercy
When nothing can keep us apart

So remember your people
Remember your children
Remember your promise, oh God

For Your grace is enough
Yeah Your grace is enough
Yeah Your grace is enough
Yeah Your grace is enough for me

Great is your love and justice God of Jacob
You use the weak to lead the strong
You lead us in the song of heaven’s victory
And all your people sing along

So remember your people
Remember your children
Remember your promise, oh God

For Your grace is enough
Yeah Your grace is enough
Yeah Your grace is enough
Yeah Your grace is enough

For Your grace is enough
Yeah Your grace is enough
Yeah Your grace is enough
Yeah Your grace is enough for me

So remember your people
Remember your children
Remember your promise, oh God

For Your grace is enough
Yeah Your grace is enough
Yeah Your grace is enough
Yeah Your grace is enough

For Your grace is enough
Yeah Your grace is enough
Yeah Your grace is enough
Yeah Your grace is enough for me

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A Letter to the Downtrodden

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Dear Fellow Souls and Pilgrims on this Earthly Journey,

Hopelessness seems to cover the world. Hurricane Harvey decimated large parts of Houston. South Asia continues to experience chronic flooding. People suffer across the globe in large and small ways. Today, I wish to share my recent episodes of depression, I am not writing to complain about my situation, rather I hope to unite my suffering [albeit quite small in comparison to others] to others in great need. I want to be in communion with my fellow man. According to Helen Keller, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” I cannot grow as a decent human being without learning from the school of suffering.

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Depression hit me again the past few weeks. Similar to an ocean, anxiety and sadness move in waves with brief periods of respite before the next deluge of depression comes crashing onto my shore. I feel a sense of hopelessness. What is going on with my life to trigger these feelings? To be frank, I am not sure. Life appears to be going well: I have an amazing wife, family, good shelter, and a job. I had a recent change in anxiety medicine and changes are occurring rather frequently at work. Still, these concerns should be minor compared to people suffering loss due to the recent natural disasters. Depression shrinks my perspective. I see through narrower glasses.

Perhaps, you are similar to me. If you suffer from depression, whether it is severe or mild I want to unite myself to your suffering. I wish to take up my cross if only it may help widen my scope. Prying open a narrow gaze is painful. However, authentic and natural development involves growing pains. If you are downtrodden, as I am currently, share your experience. Talk with people you trust. Talk to God—it works. Prayer is effective because it is communication with Him who created the universe. Oftentimes, I need to fall unto my knees and become downtrodden before I am able to gaze upward in prayer. Saint Mother Teresa once said, “Joy is prayer; joy is strength: joy is love; joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls.”

Although, I know my depression may likely come back again, I am aware of a strength to get me through the valley of tears—prayer. Prayer ultimately leads me toward an even-keeled path in my pilgrim journey on earth.

With great love and hope to alleviate your downtrodden soul,

Matt

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A Simple Catholic Man’s Pursuit of a Joyous Life- Part 1

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Well, I achieved what I thought was the impossible for myself—completing my 100th blog post! Filled with lows, highs, and average experiences, a transformation occurred within my faith life over the course of the past several months. To be honest, as I mulled the title of my hundredth post for many weeks—an anxiety set in. I thought, “What if the title is not perfect or how will I capture the most views?” In the end, the Holy Spirit, I felt, truly inspired me to settle on a title I had the entire time—hidden in the recesses of my mind. It was also existed in plain sight as the subtitle of this blog. A Simple Catholic Man’s Pursuit of a Joyous Life is the most honest and real way to describe my writing over the course these past few months. Struggling with inner conflict, depression, while achieving successes, gaining insight from the Holy Spirit, and living through mundane daily routine has shown me that joy is not an instantaneous attainment. Rather, finding true joy takes an entire lifetime.

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According to my favorite modern day philosopher Peter Kreeft, joy is to be distinguished from mere happiness. He states in his work Joy, “Joy is more than happiness, just as happiness, is more than pleasure. Pleasure is in the body. Happiness is in the mind and feelings. Joy is deep in the heart, the spirit, the center of the self…St. Thomas says, ‘No man can live without joy’”. The Boston College professor is most certainly right—at least based off of my experiences. Life experiences have taught me more than books or a formal education on the subject of joy. I learned that suffering when encountered against the armor of faith and prayer, instead of destroying my being, I experience joy—I encounter the person of Jesus Christ.

C.S. Lewis talks about the elusive nature of joy in this life in his work Surprised by Joy. Lewis states, “All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be’.” I would definitely say that Lewis is on to something. I find momentary joy on my pilgrim journey towards Heaven, but it is not lasting. No matter my successes, both worldly and spiritual, I still long for something greater than any award, pleasure, or spiritual consolation I have received.

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Without re-hashing my pursuit toward a joyous life in grand detail and boring you with the minutiae or writing pages upon pages I will share my top five most joyful moments I experienced since my journey began. Please feel free to read [or re-read] and share these posts via the links below. My ardent goal is to reflect Christ’s light daily in hopes to providing joy for a least one soul each day.

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1. A Letter to Jeremiah- https://mattchicoine.wordpress.com/2017/06/06/a-letter-to-jeremiah/ 

2. Lewis, Tolkien, and the Creative Power of Music- https://mattchicoine.wordpress.com/2017/06/27/lewis-tolkien-and-the-creative-power-of-music/ 

3. Why Wearing the Armor of Weakness Makes Me Stronger- https://mattchicoine.wordpress.com/2017/07/15/why-wearing-armor-of-weakness-makes-me-stronger/ 

4. Organized Chaos or Chaotic Order: Which Do I Prefer?- https://mattchicoine.wordpress.com/2017/05/25/organized-chaos-or-chaotic-order-which-do-i-prefer/ 

5. Sweat, Stress, and Shenanigans: Why Do I Even Take the Kids to Sunday Mass- https://mattchicoine.wordpress.com/2017/08/14/sweat-stress-and-shenanigans-why-do-i-even-take-the-kids-to-sunday-mass/

Joy occurred when I learned of the will of God and acted in obedience to the Father’s plan. While God’s providence may not always feel like a thing to go after, what I have learned is that joy is beyond feeling. Kreeft tells us,

Every time I have ever said yes to God with something even slightly approaching the whole of my soul, every time I have not only said “Thy will be done” but meant it, loved it, longed for it – I have never failed to find joy and peace at that moment. In fact, to the precise extent that I have said it and meant it, to exactly that extent have I found joy.

I will continue to pursue the joy of the Good News in my daily life. Sometimes I will feel defeat and desolation. Other times I will experience great moments of spiritual consolation. Neither end of the spectrum defines joy properly. Continual prayer and loving my fellow mankind are the truest signposts toward my pursuit toward a joyous life! Finally, I will take today to thank God for the endurance to write, patience to listen to the Holy Spirit, and opportunity to celebrate this little success in my life.

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Sacrament of Time

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My wife and I stood outside surrounded by our family and close friends at the local Catholic cemetery. It was a cool November afternoon. Gray clouds lined the sky and appeared to be about ready to burst at any moment. The priest from our parish recited the funeral rite. Throughout this process, my wife and I simply existed. I did not truly take in the meaning or fully process the prayers uttered by Fr. John. Instead, the world seemed to have frozen in silence—a horrific silence. We lost our unborn son Jeremiah. The event of our miscarriage immediately effected and crippled my wife. For me, despair and desolation did not actually set in until several months later. I spiraled into a deep depression. I wrestled with belief in a good and generous God. I doubted my Creator’s providence and presence. Hope seemed futile.

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Fast forward almost 2 years; this event has been without question the turning point of my life [so far]! According to the prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you” (Jeremiah 1:5). Since the death of our son, his namesake’s words hit much closer to home. What I have come to realize is that St. Paul’s words in Romans 8:28, “We know that all things work for good for those who love God,* who are called according to his purpose” is not a pious clique. There exists actual weight, real impact, tangibility to his words. Let me explain. Yesterday, I had a day off from work. I decided to take my three kids to Jeremiah’s grave-site and place flowers on the grave. Before we left for the store, I was trying to wear out the children so they would not be too hyper at the cemetery. I made some paper airplanes for my son and daughter to toss.

Along with making paper airplanes, my son wanted to color on the extra paper. I gave him the closest pen I could find. Soon into the process of drawing, he asked me how to spell three words. I was thinking, “Good, at least he is sitting down and this coloring is keeping him preoccupied. Also he is thinking about school since he wants to learn to spell.” It was not until we were traveling in the car after purchasing the flowers that my son’s true plan came to light. “Daddy, could we please get a little bag to put this book I made for Jeremiah into. I don’t want it to get wet” [it was starting to rain at this point], he said. I was floored by his reply. He actually took what I said to heart and sacrificed play time to make something for his unborn brother. That was probably my proudest moment as a parent. What I have learned in the past two years is that God works all things for the good through the Sacrament of Time! Below are two ways I learned about this ordinary and sometimes forgotten gift from God.

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1. Time Exists to Show Mercy: According to Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College, in his work Time, “We must restore our spiritual sanity. One giant step in that direction is to think truly about time.” He goes on to talk about time existing within prayer as opposed to prayer existing in time. Prayer is communication with God. In other words, Kreeft is saying that time should be viewed under the lens of communication with the Divine. “Prayer determines and changes and miraculously multiplies time…prayer multiplies time only if and when we sacrifice our time, offer it up. There’s the rub. We fear sacrifice. It’s a kind of death,” the Catholic professor tells us. Through my experiences, I have learned that time grants me opportunities to display mercy as well. Forgiving others and showing mercy is tough. Time is one of God’s gifts to make mercy easier. In the offering of many, many prayers of laments to God in the months after our miscarriage the seed of mercy was planted and came to fruition. But it was not until I sacrificed my time and prayed that I gained the ability to show mercy toward myself and be able to learn to forgive God.

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2. Sadness Remains, but it is Transformed: Time heals all wounds. We hear this phrase mentioned frequently when a person experiences a hardship or loss of a loved one. This adage does not contain the full truth. In reality, time does not eliminate sadness or wounds, rather it transforms them. I still experience sadness when I think of my unborn child. However, the sacrament of time has transformed this sadness from a despairing sadness to a joyful sadness [I know if sounds like oxymoron term but I am not sure how else to describe it!].

Time and prayer turn suffering from a destructive force to a purgative, and possibly redemptive force. I have had a few people tell me that they were influenced and inspired by the funeral service we provided for our unborn child. “Your testament and story give me inspiration to have grave markers in our backyard to remember our miscarriages. This was helped me move on and provide healing,” a friend from high school told me when she heard about my loss.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The sacraments are efficacious[effective] signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us” (CCC 1131). Formally there are seven sacraments, but in reality time when approached in the right manner may be transfigured into a sacrament as well. Time exists in prayer not the other way around. Kreeft tells us, “Eternity is not in the future but in the present. The future is unreal, not yet real” (Time). Instead of worrying about the past and future let us embrace now, the present. Let us embrace the sacrament of time– now!

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Why Wearing Armor of Weakness Makes Me Stronger

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St. Ignatius of Loyala said, “If God sends you many sufferings; it is a sign that He has great plans for you and certainly wants to make you a saint.” As a Catholic I admire the witness of the saints. From a theological and cerebral perspective Ignatius makes sense, but to a person in the midst of trials his words just bring frustration. I believe I am in a period of consolation at this point in my spiritual journey. As a result, my reflection on the Spanish saint’s words may take on a different form now than during a low point in my life.

What I have found to be interesting during the past few months that I have been writing is that my more popular and greater trafficked posts relate to topics on my sufferings: from my anxiety over daily items to my great tribulations in life so far. Today I believe there are three specific reasons why writing about my own limitations appeal to others.

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1. Suffering is Universal: J.R.R. Tolkien refers to the objective reality of widespread sorrow in his legendary work The Lord of the Rings. Below is a brief conversation between the soon-to-be heroic hobbit Frodo and the wizard Gandalf:

Frodo: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.

Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.

Before I unpack the truth of Gandalf’s words I will provide a little background on the nature of hobbits. According to both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, hobbits are creatures that traditionally kept to themselves and stayed out of the political affairs of Middle-Earth. Hobbits enjoyed farming and living a quiet, peaceful existence. Is that true of yourself? Perhaps you are an individual that prefers solitary and silent times for reflection. If you are not like a hobbit that is certainly alright as well, but there may be times in your life when you may desire the craziness of life to slow down. I know that is definitely true for me. I am naturally a hobbit at heart.

Life always seems to throw a wrench into my plan. Just like Frodo Baggins’ life was interrupted by the War of the Ring and Gandalf’s strong urging to bear the ring, so too I experience expectations thrust upon me that I am ill-equipped to face. Suffering is universal. It is inevitable. Humans do not have to travel long or far in this world before suffering rears its ugliness! This is the primary reason why I believe my writing on my personal suffering appeals to others—because people suffer daily.

Sometimes quotes from a fictional character seem to ring truer or strike a chord closer than words I can provide myself. Frodo’s best friend Samwise Gamgee sums up humanity’s worry against suffering best, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” We put ourselves into a paradox if we avoid suffering—we never step onto the road of life, but it is only stepping on the road that we are able to life. Avoidance of suffering is not fully living!

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2. Honesty is the best policy: To continue on the fact that suffering is universal, I think that by truthfully acknowledging my limitations and sinful nature I open myself up to let others into my life. My favorite authors include C.S. Lewis, Francis de Sales, and G.K. Chesterton [to name a few]. The reason for this is due largely to their candor and admittance of their limitations. I experience Lewis, de Sales, and Chesterton’s humanity through their writing.

In a similar fashion, I have noticed that my own personal favorite and best works are done when I am most honest—not when I utilize the best vocabulary or sentence structure. Half of the times, I am not even aware of what I am going to write about on a particular day or even how I am going to finish a post. Words flow from my mind more easily when I draw upon my experiences of suffering and strife. I cannot explain why that is the case. I can only say that my honesty about my past suffering acts as a cerebral embolectomy for my occasional writer’s block!

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3. Fellowship Leads to Fitness in Battle: My battle against personal vices [anger, greed, impatience, pride, etc] is daunting. What makes my encounter with these evils more bearable is community. Through the fellowship of my family, faith community in the Catholic Church, and my readership I am soothed. I am reminded again of Tolkien’s trilogy during my personal struggles. In the third book The Return of the King, weariness weighs down on Frodo as he ascends Mount Doom in his attempt to destroy Sauron’s Ring. Listen to the hero’s lament when the evil of the ring tempts him:

Frodo: I can’t recall the taste of food, nor the sound of water, nor the touch of grass. I’m naked in the dark. There’s nothing–no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I can see him with my waking eyes.

Sam: Then let us be rid of it, once and for all. I can’t carry the ring for you, but I can carry you! Come on!

The main hero in the story experiences weakness and laments to the last individual from the original Fellowship formed at the beginning of the journey— fellow hobbit Samwise. Here a fellowship becomes incarnate in Sam. He is not the strongest, smartest, or most clever hero, but he is present in Frodo’s greatest time of need. It is only through Frodo’s donning of the ‘armor of weakness’ [making himself vulnerable and feeble to his friend] that true fellowship happens. Instead of becoming weaker when I show my limitations and failure the fellowship around me [wife, family, faith, and friends] is galvanized and I am made stronger. Together a fellowship stands the test of temptation and vice.

A Letter to Jeremiah

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Below is a letter I wrote to my unborn son Jeremiah who left this life on All Soul’s Day 2014.

Dear Jeremiah,

Words will never fully describe the yearning I have to see you again in heavenly bliss. I will try my best with this letter. Life was tough in the months ensuing your death. While pain set in quickly for your mother, I remained aloof from the suffering—for a time—eventually I broke down and trembled at our sudden and inexplicable loss. Though I never blamed God, our Father, for taking you away from us, I did question the good in the situation.

To be honest, I have not fully recovered from our tragedy of you passing from this life to the next, ironically on All Souls’ Day. The pain does get a little bit less each day. Your mother and I were at a crossroads on a cool summer night. It was June 2015 the month you were supposed to be born. All around us people we knew were having babies and we were only reminded of our pain and thinking what might have been. I prayed out to God “I just want something good to happen in my life!” Weeks later we discovered your mother was pregnant. Despite this amazing news, we were cautious and often thought of losing you months earlier.

Half-way through the pregnancy we learned that we were having another baby boy and we settled on a name—Josiah. Later we learned that this name means “healer”. I do not think that was a coincidence. I firmly believe God answered our prayers and used you as a powerful intercessor to keep your brother Josiah safe throughout the pregnancy.

I want to thank you for the gift you have provided your family! I am grateful to have heard your heartbeat before we lost you. That memory gives my daily strength and every milestone Josiah has I think of you. I ask for continually help and intercession in your union with our Heavenly Father.

Your siblings and your mother deeply miss you and we hope to be united with your after our pilgrim journey in this life is completed.

With great love and gratitude,

Your father

P.S. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you” –Jeremiah 1:5 (New American Bible)

How the Unchanged One Changed Me

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“Everything changes and nothing stands still,” the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus once claimed. I first heard these words as a sophomore in college during an Intro to Philosophy class. Years later, this truth resurfaced under the guise of different words in a response to a question I posed to my interviewing manager for the job I am at today. I asked, “What is the single greatest piece of advice you have been given to succeed at this company?” The interviewer paused and pensively stated, “Be prepared to deal with change and learn to embrace change!” Ever since that 2015 summer afternoon I have frequently pondered the meaning of these words and what exactly they mean for other aspects of my life. Today I want to share my experiences and knowledge that I have learned about the importance changing for the better meant, and still means, for my daily life.

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As I mentioned in last week’s post Organized Chaos or Chaotic Order: Which Do I Prefer? I am on the autism spectrum. Change always posed a challenge to me. Growing up as a cradle Catholic I benefited from the guidelines of the Catholic Church teachings through which I developed a black/white dichotomous view of morality. Either you are holy or you are not. That was my though process and my coping mechanism to reconcile differences I noticed in the world. Not until suffering found me on a personal level did my judgmental and simple morality start to transform. Losing my job and suffering a nightmarish miscarriage led me to the end of my rope. Let with nothing in the aftermath of this change-filled maelstrom I turned to God. To be frank, I did not feel His presence at all but through the urging of my mom and wife I went to Eucharistic adoration on a weekly basis. Here I sought out the Unchanged One for stability and support.

Fast forward to 2017 and I am more at peace and learning to realize the importance of changing my mindset from negative to positive. My son’s official autism diagnosis in 2016 helped provide some clarity for my situation as well. I am not defined by my inherent inner struggle with change. Although I have moved toward the right direction I still have a long ways to go in embracing change on a daily basis. Encountering God as the Unchanged One through Eucharistic adoration and through Matt Maher’s song Deliverer gave me hope and perspective to change for the better. I learned that suffering is redemptive and clinging to the Unchanged One changes a person. I am not the same person that I was in 2015. I am transformed and I thank the Unchanged One every day!

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If you are struggling with life’s changes in little and grand ways please consider relying on the Unchanged One to transform you. If I could go back in time, I would tell Heraclitus that he was half-right. I would change to his maxim “Everything changes and nothing stands still” to “Everything changes and nothing stands still. Only meeting the Unchanged One and standing still in His presence will let us authentically change.”