What John Teaches Us About Youth Ministry

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There’s a legend about John the apostle that’s tucked away in a book you may have never read—especially if you’re a children’s or student minister. Let’s face it, musty second-century sermon manuscripts aren’t top-of-shelf reading material for those of us who spend our days shopping at Costco for Goldfish crackers, leading early morning discipleship at Chick-fil-A, sanitizing toys in the nursery, or ordering pizza for Wednesday night gatherings. But let me tell you a secret: If you’ve missed this story, you’ve missed a treasure.

At the conclusion of one of his sermons, the second-century pastor, Clement of Alexandria, gives us a beautiful and early account of generational ministry. The story begins shortly after John, the beloved disciple, was released from prison on the isle of Patmos. By this time in John’s ministry he was an old man. Most evangelical scholars believe John wrote the book of Revelation from Patmos in AD 95–96. Even if the disciple was a teenager when he followed Jesus, he would now be in his 70s. He’s likely an octogenarian.  

Clement begins his story by telling us what John would do after his release from prison:

After the tyrant’s death [likely Clement is referring to the Roman emperor, Domitian], John returned from the isle of Patmos to Ephesus and used to go, when asked, to neighboring Gentile districts to appoint pastors, reconcile churches, or ordain someone designated by the Spirit. Arriving at a city nearby [probably the city of Smyrna in modern-day Turkey], he settled disputes among the brethren and then, noticing a spirited youth of superior physique and handsome appearance, commended him to the appointed pastor with the words: “I leave this young man in your keeping with Christ as my witness.”

Now that he’s in his later years, John serves the church as an itinerant preacher and traveling advisor. He moves around from church to church, sitting on ordination committees and helping church leaders settle disputes—not all that different from what a retired pastor might do today. As a wise senior saint, John was also on the lookout for young talent. And he found a handsome and spirited young man in the church at Smyrna. Seeing leadership potential, he commended this youth to the local pastor for training. Then, when John returned to his home church in Ephesus, the pastor took the young man home, raised him, and when he had confessed faith, baptized him.

Maybe the young pastor had an underdeveloped theology of discipleship. Maybe he was burdened with a particularly challenging church; we do know the church in Smyrna had experienced the trauma of heavy persecution (Rev. 2:8–10). Clement doesn’t tell us the local pastor’s motives. He just says that after the young man was saved and baptized, the pastor “relaxed his oversight.” And at that point, things went sideways. Clement described it this way:

Some idle and morally lax youths corrupted the young man with lavish entertainment and then took him with them when they went out at night to commit robbery or worse crimes. Soon, he joined them and like a stallion taking the bit in mouth, he dashed off the straight road and down the cliff. Renouncing God’s salvation, he went from petty offenses to major crimes and formed the young renegades into a gang of bandits with himself as chief, surpassing them all in violence and bloody cruelty.

The young student fell into the wrong crowd, and this bad company corrupted his good character (1 Cor. 15:33). It’s a story everyone in youth ministry has experienced. Leadership gifts in a young person can be both a blessing and a curse. The Holy Spirit can use charisma and confidence for good, but, if the young person chooses to indulge their sinful nature, that same potential can be twisted for great evil. More privileged kids, like the prodigal son, will chase a party and popularity. A neglected young man, like this one in Smyrna, may join a street gang.

Responding to a youth who has strayed from the faith

How should we respond in that moment when a young person begins to turn away from the faith? Certainly, the fallen youth bears some responsibility. But can we say each prodigal is just a “bad seed”? That’s what the pastor in Smyrna thought.

Time passed, and John paid another visit [to Smyrna]. Then, the apostle said, “Come now, pastor, return now the deposit that Christ and I left in your keeping . . .  I am asking for the young man and his soul.”

“He is dead,” groaned the pastor in tears.

“How did he die?”

“He is dead to God. He turned out vile and debauched: an outlaw. He is in the mountains, not the church, with a gang of men like himself.”

The rest of the story makes clear that this pastor’s “blame-the-kid” approach to a straying youth isn’t the right one. But allow me to ask the question again: How should we respond when a young person begins to turn away from the faith? Is it a time for self-reflection? Should we ask, “What did we do wrong? Was there something missing in our youth ministry model?” Perhaps. But I find John’s more active response to be much more challenging.

The apostle tore his clothing, beat his head, and groaned. “A fine guardian I left for our brother’s soul! But get me a horse and someone to show me the way.” He rode off from the church, just as he was. When he arrived at the hideout and was seized by the outlaws’ sentries, he shouted, “This is what I have come for: take me to your leader!”

When John approached and the young leader recognized him, the young man turned and fled in shame. But John ran after him as hard as he could, forgetting his age, and calling out, “Why are you running away from me child—from your own father, unarmed and old? Pity me child, don’t fear me! I will give account to Christ for you and, if necessary, gladly suffer death and give my life for yours as the Lord suffered death for us. Stop! Believe! Christ sent me.”

Think about that for a moment. As soon as he heard about the straying son, this 80-year-old pastor mounted a horse and rode into the mountains to chase him down! It reminds me of what our Lord taught us in Matthew 18:10–14:

See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.

What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.

Clement tells us that the young gang leader “stopped, stared at the ground, threw down his weapons and wept bitterly.” He flung his arms around the old apostle and begged forgiveness. John assured him that he’d found forgiveness from the Savior, and the Father rejoiced!

Brothers and sisters who serve in children’s or student ministry, this is your mission. Remember this story the next time you’re stacking piles of cotton balls for a preschool craft. Remember John the Apostle the next time you’re playing knockout with the middle school boys. This is your mission. You’re carrying the good news to the little ones, and you’re chasing them down when they stray. Believe this good news. And call the kids in your care to believe, because Christ sent you!

This post first appeared at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission blog.


Quotations from Clement of Alexandria, “Who is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved?” inThe Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A. D. 325, Volume II, Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire),ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and Cleveland Coxe, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, reprinted 2001), pp. 603–604. The translation I’ve adapted here is from Eusebius: The Church History, A New Translation with Commentary trans. by Paul L. Maier, 4thed. (Kregel, 1999), pp. 111–12.

Captain Marvel and Christian Identity

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As Christians, we're raised with Christ (Colossians 3:1), and we have a new life that is rooted in this new identity. This truth makes me think of Captain Marvel.

A few weeks back, I took my girls to see this latest Marvel Studios film. Well... it's the latest until this Friday when Endgame comes out. There are some minor spoilers ahead for those of you who are catching up. Just skip this if you haven’t seen the movie.

Like most fans, I loved the opening tribute to Stan Lee and the Flerken cat, Goose. But the most beautiful thing about the movie to me is the fact that the lead character, played by actress Brie Larson, is called "Aunt Carol" about a hundred times in the movie before she's ever identified by her superhero name. In fact, Carol Danvers is not identified as Captain Marvel at all until the end credits.

In a world that over-values public persona, Captain Marvel stands as a reminder that your family identity, the person you are to the people closest to you, matters so much more than your platform or public image.

She should also remind us as Christians that the identity God gives us in Christ is the grounds for what we do for him. Who we are in Christ is fundamental. It stands as the foundation for our Christian activity. Take some time today to remember who Christ has made you to be... a disciple (Matthew 28:18-20), a member of his family (John 1:12-13), a servant (John 13). Then, choose to live your life in accordance with your identity. Live up to what you've already attained. Live a life that's worthy to the great calling you've received (Philippians 3:16; Ephesians 4:1)


By the way, my friends Garrick Bailey and Timothy Paul Jones have a podcast called Three Chords and the Truth.They wrestle over apologetic questions about the truth of Christianity and then take a theological look at a classic hit from the history of rock and role. In a recent episode, they spend some time discussing God, humanity, and gender in Captain Marvel. Give it a listen. I think you'll enjoy it.

5 tips for establishing a devotional routine with your toddler

When our daughters were toddlers, we had a regular bedtime routine. It usually involved reading a story, saying prayers, giving hugs and kisses, and listening to some music before bed. Their stuffed toys got involved, too. Mr. Lamb would read along, and Smiley the Dog would share in hugs and kisses. Once the nightly rhythm was established, every part mattered. Knowing exactly what to expect helped our kids feel safe, confident, and secure.

And when one part was missing—well, I remember one vacation to a theme park. We’d been out late watching fireworks, so we skipped some of the normal bedtime steps. On top of that, we discovered Smiley had been left on a tour bus earlier in the day. Needless to say, sleep was fleeting that night! I learned just how much my kids count on a regular rhythm to thrive.

Christians know that rhythm should include religious instruction, but toddlers are always on the move—no wonder most parents struggle to corral them for any sort of formal family devotional time. Adding to that difficulty is the fact that young parents are often on the move, too. They’re busy establishing a career while raising toddlers and preschoolers at the same time. It’s hard to be present with your children when you’re on call or working overtime or third shift.

I believe God is aware of our seasons of life, and I’m thankful he doesn’t give us a family devotions model that’s overly formal. Moses told Israel to teach their kids during the regular rhythms of life—mealtime, bedtime, drive time, and so on (Deut. 6:7).

With that guilt-free vision in mind, here are five quick tips for establishing a regular devotional routine with your toddler.

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1. Find a Time That Works

In our family, we were able to establish the most regular routine at bedtime. If you work third shift, that’s not going to be feasible. Choose a regular time around the table—maybe at breakfast—instead. You’ll be surprised just how much your kids hold you accountable once a family worship pattern is established. It’ll be something they count on and look forward to. Start with one small thing, like reading a short story or saying a prayer. Be consistent. It’s better to gather the family once per week than to exasperate your kids with failed attempts to meet every day.

You’ll be surprised how much your kids hold you accountable once a family worship pattern is established.

I recently spoke to a dad who for several years worked what he described as the “grave shift.” During that season, a nightly devotional was impossible, so he leaned heavily on teaching his kids in small doses throughout the day. My friend’s wife would read to their kids at night before bed, then he’d take a five- or ten-minute break from work to call and pray with them.

I’ve found his regular intentionality to be incredibly encouraging. While not having a set devotional time may seem less than ideal, a regular, “slow drip” approach to family discipleship is actually quite effective. In this way, we can teach our toddlers that relating to God isn’t just something we check off our list at the end of the day; it’s the way we live.

2. Read Something Simple

Two- and three-year-olds have an attention span of two to three minutes. Their vocabulary is limited to 200 to 1,500 words. Like a careful parent cutting up their child’s food into digestible chunks, it’s important to keep your routine short and understandable. Our youngest kids need to learn the vocabulary of faith—basic Bible words like sinpromiseprayer, and the name of Jesus—before moving to more abstract concepts like forgiveness.

If you’re just beginning a family devotional time with your toddler, find a resource that keeps these developmental considerations in mind. You might try Ella Lindvall’s Read-Aloud Bible Stories, David Helm’s Big Picture Story Bible, or my Beginner’s Gospel Story Bible.

3. Talk to God

Bow your head. Close your eyes. Tell your kids to fold their hands. (So they don’t hit each other during the prayer! That trick has worked for centuries.) Then, talk to God. Make it something quick and memorable; remember their short attention span. In our family, we adapted this short prayer:

Thank you God for [child’s name]. Help her to grow up to love Jesus and trust in Jesus. Please help her to have godly friends and a godly husband when she gets big. Please protect her from harm and danger this night. And from Satan and his schemes. In Jesus’s name, Amen.

4. Use Music for Memory

Our kids wanted to listen to music as they fell asleep at night. A friend recommended an album of lullabies that put the questions and answers from the Children’s Catechism to music. (If I had toddlers today, I’d use the The New City Catechism albums and the music of Rain for Roots.)

Our kids memorized great truth simply because they sang it nightly. Other great music albums like the ones from Seeds Family Worship and PROOF Pirates have more of a beat and are less helpful at bedtime. But we made sure this music was in our car so we could sing along (sometimes loud and silly!) while we drove around time.

5. Give Your Kids Your Full Attention

Your devotional routine isn’t just a time for you to impart information to your kids; it’s time for them to spend time with you. So put your phone away. Look your kids in the eye, and let them know you’re listening to them. Show them affection, and not just when it’s time for bedtime hugs and kisses. Cuddle. Have a short wrestling match.

It’s through the attentive presence of loving parents that kids learn about our loving Father.

This post first appeared at The Gospel Coalition. 

Help and hope during a disability diagnosis: The story of Hannah

Eight years ago, our middle daughter, Lucy, was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, ASD. Lucy is profoundly affected by Autism. Her sensory processing and cognitive function is severely delayed. It wasn’t until a little over a year ago that we finished toilet training, and we still help with most of her daily care tasks. We—usually my wife Megan—brush her teeth each night. And unless it’s Thursday, when we eat spaghetti, Lucy is not all that interested in food. So, we have to spoon feed or prod her to take another bite every 30 seconds or so.

These sorts of parenting tasks are normal for a toddler, but Lucy is 11 years old.

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I’ve never been able to have a sit-down conversation with my daughter about her emotions. Lucy’s brain just doesn’t work that way. On the cold February day that Lucy was diagnosed, the psychologist told us the verdict, and then, with a deadpan expression on her face, she told us that 80 percent of couples who have a child with special needs get divorced.

I’m happy to report that the veracity of that specific statistic has been questioned in recent years, but studies show that the divorce rates among parents of children with disabilities are higher, and the risk of divorce lasts longer into adulthood than for parents whose children don’t. In that moment, we took the doctor’s words at face value. She essentially said to us: “Get help now!” Megan broke down crying immediately. What she had suspected for quite a while had been confirmed, and now she was grieving. Our life had changed. We’ll likely be caretakers for the rest of our lives.

While grief is a natural part of any special needs parent’s journey, it’s experienced differently by parents affected by Autism because of the range of possible outcomes. Many children with Autism grow up to be well-functioning adults. Most of these kids experience the social and communication struggles of Autism without intellectual delays. However, just over half, 56 percent of children with Autism have an intellectual disability as well. Our daughter fits within this category, but when she was three years old, we couldn’t be sure. So, we wrestled with conflicting possibilities for her future—possibilities that were and are outside of our control. Leading special needs ministry author Amy Fenton Lee writes about this predicament:

Should a mother grieve the life she envisioned for her child? Or should she buckle herself in for a bumpy ride. . . remaining hopeful and doing everything humanly possible to help her child reach their full potential? Sadly, the pressure is great to keep silent and process her emotions alone. Conversely, if she grieves publicly or openly conveys her concerns she may shape others’ view of her child. In fear of creating a self-fulfilling prophesy for her child’s future, a mother may remain tight lipped avoiding conversations revealing her daily realities.

As you can probably imagine, the way most parents of young children with Autism respond can vary from day to day. They experience conflicting emotions of grief and hope. Some days are filled with more sadness; others have more determination and hope. It’s certainly been this way for us.

A privileged man and his suffering wife

Recently, I’ve been processing the way our family grieved while studying the story of Elkanah and Hannah in 1 Samuel 1:1-20. As you jump into this passage, you see right away that Elkanah had a lot going for him. Elkanah had a legacy; his family heritage could be traced back four generations (v. 1). Elkanah was ambitious and wealthy; he was a man with enough money to pay two dowries and then support two wives and their kids (v. 2). Elkanah was also a religious man; he committed year after year to bring his sacrifices to the Lord’s tabernacle in Shiloh (v. 3).

The passage tells us that Hophni and Phinehas were the priests in charge of running worship services there. One chapter later, we discover that these guys were regular scoundrels (1 Sam. 2:12). When the people of Israel brought their sacrifices to Shiloh, they would steal some of the best cuts of meat for themselves instead of offering them to God.

By contrast—and I believe the author of 1 Samuel wants us to notice this—Elkanah carefully provided good food for his wives and kids. He was a caring provider and a family man. In his own day, he was the kind of man you’d want to emulate. But Elkanah’s wealth, his religious devotion, and his diligent care for his family couldn’t insulate him from suffering.

God brought suffering into Elkanah’s life through his second wife, Hannah. Verse two introduces us to her suffering in a matter-of-fact way: “[Elkanah] had two wives; one was called Hannah and other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.” Hannah was infertile. It wasn’t just that she didn’t have children. Hannah couldn’t have children. In verse five, the text says, “the LORD had closed her womb.”

Slow down for a moment and feel the significance of this. Hannah experienced the pain of grief. I’m certain Hannah expected to have children. She married a wealthy, strong, committed husband. She wanted to start a family. But kids never came, and it was painful.

In addition, I’m certain that Hannah also experienced awkwardness. When a couple desires to have kids but can’t, there are a lot of awkward moments. At Thanksgiving, unaware Aunt Edna might ask, “So, honey, when are you going to start a family?” And it’s hard to be around an overly fertile Myrtle at the women’s Bible study. I’ve known some couples who mark their calendar for the next Child Dedication Sunday as a day to sleep in. It’s just too hard to be there.

Hannah felt all of this, but I believe she felt fear. You see, in that culture a woman who didn’t have a son, didn’t have a future. Her welfare as she got older was dependent on her children. A son for her would be like Social Security and Medicare. If Elkanah died an untimely death, she couldn’t count on her sister wife to take care of her. She needed a boy who would grow to be a man and a provider. She needed a son to be her defender at the gate (Ps. 127:5). But she had none.

Elkanah’s pity versus true empathy

Hannah was hurting, and Elkanah could see it. What would he do? Now, it’s important to see—if you haven’t figured this out already—that Hannah is the hero of this story. The way she grieves, and the way she expresses faith in the midst of her grief is nothing short of amazing. She’s an example of how to practice lament.

One of the bad habits we learn in Sunday School is the tendency to identify with the heroes in the Bible’s stories and see them as our primary examples. But if I’m honest with myself, Hannah isn’t the person in this story with whom I should identify. I’m not really much like Hannah. I’m much more like Elkanah. And Elkanah doesn’t respond well to Hannah’s suffering.

Notice what Elkanah does. Verse five says, “But to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her.” It’s tempting to think Elkanah is being really sweet here. He genuinely loved her. As far as we can tell from the text, he didn’t blame her for her suffering, and that’s good. But then he begins giving her a double helping of food, and it’s hard to see how this helps: “Oh honey, I’m so sorry that you’re sad. Here’s another helping of mashed potatoes.” It’s sad. In that moment, Elkanah did just what most well-to-do, religious husbands would do. He plays God. He’s throws all of his resources at her problem, hoping against hope that he can write a better story for her. But his pity doesn’t help Hannah feel better.

To add insult to injury, what Elkanah does is a direct violation of God’s law (Deut. 21:15-17). Because Peninnah had born the firstborn son, the oldest who would receive the inheritance was the only one at the table who should have been given a double portion. Just as Rebekah favored her younger son Jacob (Gen. 25:28), and Jacob in turn favored his son Joseph (Gen. 37), so Elkanah disobeyed God and made Hannah his favorite. And, of course, the favoritism backfired.

Peninnah gets jealous, and she becomes vindictive. Verse seven tells us that she goads and provokes Hannah. You can imagine the things she said: “I don’t even know how I keep all of you children fed; there’s just so many of you!” This sort of prodding went on and on. Not just day after day, but month after month and year after year. Hannah’s emotional pain became so intense—especially at the annual feast time—that she would refuse to eat. So, Elkanah responds again in verse eight – and here is where it’s so clear in the text that he just doesn’t get it: “Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than seven sons?” Elkanah is essentially saying: “Baby, you’ve got me. Aren’t I enough for you?” Instead of grieving with Hannah, Elkanah makes her pain about him.

This is so convicting to me, because I’ve done and said the same kinds of things. After Lucy’s diagnosis, I immediately got to work—setting up therapy sessions, investigating government programs to help us pay for treatment. Those were good and necessary things, but what I didn’t do was stop and feel. In fact, I’ve tried to handle Megan’s pain with my work ethic or exasperation more times than I can count. And when I’m making Megan’s pain about me, she tells me that it just makes her feel distant—like I obviously don’t understand; like she hasn’t been heard.

One of my regular prayers for myself and the church—both my own church and the larger church—is that we’ll grow in empathy (Rom. 12:15). This is an especially felt need for families with disabilities. Some disability ministry leaders have estimated that 80 percent of people with disabilities are unchurched. And according to a 2004 Lausanne Committee paper, only five to 10 percent of the world’s disabled population has been effectively reached with the gospel, making the disability community one of the largest unreached—some say under-reached—or hidden people groups in the world. In my experience, it’s fairly regular for families to drop out of church after a diagnosis.

If you know someone who is currently going through a diagnosis process, one of the best things you can do for them is to be there, to listen without sharing opinions or ideas, to ask questions, and to allow yourself to feel the pain. Amy Fenton Lee suggests asking questions like these:

  • While I can’t know exactly how you feel, I do know the journey to a diagnosis is usually somewhat labored. Where are you emotionally at this point in your family’s journey?

  • Do you feel any relief having some new information to work with, or does this knowledge feel overwhelming?

  • In your experience or observation, how is parenting a child with this disability different than parenting a child without this disability? How is it similar?

  • How can I pray for you today? How can I pray for your child today?

Hannah’s profound faith

By the time we get to verse nine of 1 Samuel 1, Hannah is at the end of her rope. As soon as the festival dinner was over, she left the table and headed to the tabernacle to pray. She “came to church,” and she broke down in tears. Hannah’s instincts were good. When we’re hurting, God wants us to come to him. But, sadly, Hannah was let down again. Hannah was pouring out her whole self, body and soul, in sobs to the Lord. Then, old Eli, the priest, who was supposed to represent God’s compassion to his people, just judged her. He saw her disheveled and in tears, mouthing the words to her prayer, and he assumed she was drunk. He outright rebukes her, “Put away your wine” (v. 14).

Maybe that’s you. Maybe you’ve been hurting from a special needs diagnosis, and you followed your good instincts. You went to a small group or even your pastors, but it was just so clear they didn’t get it. They couldn’t feel your pain. Here’s the hard truth. Sometimes spouses will let us down. Sometimes pastors will let us down. But after we exhaust every option, God is still there, and he knows us in our weakness.

The amazing thing about Hannah’s faith to me is that she sees this truth, and she doesn’t demand that God make everything right in her life. I pray the kind of prayers that will fix my problems—“Heal my child. Get Lucy into that new school. Prevent our favorite therapist from moving away.” But Hannah is willing to give up the very thing that will help her circumstances. She prays (v. 10), “LORD Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the LORD for all the days of his life.” I read this and I think: “Hannah, what are you doing?” She’s got one shot at a son who can take care of her when she’s old, and she’s going to send him away into the ministry. Sister, that’s not going to help your financial situation!

But this is an amazing prayer because it shows us that being heard and known by God is more important for Hannah than changing her present experience. Psalm 63:3 says, “Your love, O Lord, is better than life. So, my lips will praise you.” Hannah is confident enough in God to let him write her story. Hannah is confident to seek first God’s kingdom and let him take care of the rest. And God shows up right on time. He reaches down into the ashes of her mourning and he brings resurrection! Look at verses 19-20:

Early the next morning they arose and worshiped before the Lord and then went back to their home at Ramah. Elkanah made love to his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. So in the course of time Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel (1 Sam. 1:17-20a).

I love those words: “The Lord remembered her.” God answered Hannah’s request, and he gave her a baby. Then, Hannah named the baby Samuel. It’s a play on words. Samuel sounds like the Hebrew phrase “heard by God.” This baby was a reminder for her that even when no one else was listening, God heard her. While I want to grow in empathy, and I pray that the church will grow in empathy, that’s not where our hope for families with disabilities rests. Our hope is in the God who hears. God won’t always give us what we ask for, but he knows our pain. He hears us. And he delights in reaching down into our brokenness to make something beautiful out of our weakness—just as he did with Hannah.

This post first appeared at ERLC.com