How Do I Grow in Love?

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The New Testament often distills the Christian life down to its most basic essence: faith and love. For instance, Galatians 5:6:

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

Or consider Paul’s summary exhortation to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:13:

Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

Of course, other descriptions apply as well – but, in the broadest sense, faith and love pretty much cover it. Faith towards God – belief in his promises, in who he says he is for us in Jesus Christ – that’s the vertical element. And love, directed towards others – that’s the horizontal element.

Which, of course, leads to a question: how do you grow in love? You know you’re supposed to love your wife, or your neighbor, or the other members of your church. And you do love them – but you want to grow in that love. What do you do? What does that look like? A change in emotion? More warm-fuzzies? More sentimentality?

Here’s a simple answer. Love expresses itself in actions for someone’s good. If you want to grow in love, grow in taking actions – real, concrete actions – that do good to another person.

You’re probably thinking, Wait: isn’t love an emotion, too? Yes, emotions are a necessary part of love. If you claim to love a person but never have any feelings of warmth, affection, enjoyment of their presence, happiness for their success or sadness over their loss – then you probably don’t genuinely love that person. But the emotions of love, like any other emotion, are such an up-and-down, unstable thing that if we’re really going to grow in love, we can’t just sit around and wait for an overwhelming emotion to strike us. The call to love is too vital for such inactivity. Instead of waiting for the Emot-O-Meter to rise, take action. Do something. What does that look like?

A meal delivered when the new baby comes. A card written on the anniversary of a significant loss. Help with an oil change. A day given to pack boxes and load the moving truck, a word of gratefulness for a service rendered, a word of encouragement when someone has stepped out in faith. “Doing good” has a thousand outfits but a few of them are formal dress. Most of the time, love wears its street clothes.

So here’s an assignment: consider a few people around you that you are called to love. Pray for them, and ask God for a concrete idea to bring good to that person. (Be content to think small.) Then go and do it! You’ve just taken a step of love. Now repeat.

Oh, and don’t forget – you can give love because you’ve already received love. Remember the apostle John’s words: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” Even today, the God who saved you through the gift of his Son is plotting kindness towards you in a thousand disguises: food, protection, friendships, moments of worship and spiritually enlightened eyes and fellowship in prayer. We’re simply imitating him, the God who is kind in all his works (Psalm 145:17).

So go, put on your street clothes, think small, be creative, and demonstrate love. It’s a family trait.

Photo by Kophe

You Are Not Your Labels

We tend to find our identity in labels. For example, the label “nerd” applies quite nicely to me. I like video games, obscure Star Wars quotes (“He’s no good to me dead!” – name the reference), and all the latest tech gadgets. The label “creative” also fits me pretty well. I love bringing new ideas to fruition and coming up with new ways to approach old problems. I’m also book junkie, a sports lover, and a coffee snob. I’ve got no problem with these labels. They represent part of who I am. And you probably have a number of labels plastered on your forehead as well. Gearhead, gamer, jock, outdoorsman, redneck, political junkie, etc. For the most part these labels are neutral.

But all of us have also adopted labels which are not so good. “My grandpa was an angry man, my dad was an angry man, and I’m an angry man.” Or, “I’ve always struggled with body image issues. It’s just who I am.” Or, “I’ve always wrestled with same sex attraction. It’s just a part of me.” Or, “My mom treated me like trash. My husband has treated me like trash. Therefore I must be trash.” Or, “I’ve just always been a worrier. I can’t help who I am.”

We assume that was has been always will be. We willingly adopt the labels that come with the struggles: angry, anorexic, loser, trash, failure, addict.

When we believe the labels we more quickly give in to temptation. “I’ve always been a slave to porn. It’s just who I am. I might as well keep giving in to it.” Or, “I’ve always been impatient. I can’t help it. I’m always going to be this way so I might as well learn to live with it.”

But the solid, firm, Biblical reality is that we are not our labels. 

In Galatians 2:20 Paul said:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.

When Paul said he had been crucified with Christ he meant that his old, sinfully enslaved, wickedness-loving self had been killed. It was crucified with Christ and it died. When Paul’s old self died all the labels that went along with his old self also died. Paul was a violent man, but the “violent” label was nailed to the cross. Paul was a self-righteous fool, but the “self-righteous” label was pinned to the cross as well.

For Paul there was only one label that mattered: Christ lives in me. That reality defined who he was. The old, “labeled” Paul had been crucified with Christ. The new Paul had only one label: “Christ In Me”.

The same is true for us. Our old self was crucified with Christ and now Christ himself lives in us. We are not ultimately defined by our struggles we are defined by our union with Jesus Christ. Our old self, with all its labels is dead and buried. Those old labels don’t apply to us anymore. We may still struggle with the same temptations but those temptations no longer define our identity.

We are in Christ and Christ is in us. Period. That is our identity. All the old labels can go to Hell (I mean that literally).

There will be times when it feels like we will never change. Like we will always be angry, have an eating disorder, give in to lust, worry, or be greedy. But God’s reality must always trump our perceived reality. We will not always be the same. Why? Because Christ lives in us. When Christ lives in us the old labels no longer apply.

Every day we must live in light of who we truly are. When we are tempted to be angry we must remember, Anger belongs to the old me. When we are tempted to lust we must remember that lust belongs to our old self. When we are tempted to worry we must remember that our old, worrying self was crucified with Christ.

We are not our labels. We are Christ’s.

You Are NOT Who You Think You Are

Take a long look at yourself in the mirror. If you look closely you will see all the labels that have been slapped on to you over the years. Some of these labels have been put on by others. Parents, schoolmates, coworkers, friends, pastors. Some of the labels have been self-administered.

FAILURE // ADDICT // CONDEMNED // LOSER // CUTTER // GLUTTON // ANGRY // LUSTFUL // ANOREXIC

In your mind, these labels define you. You have always been an angry person. You’ve always had an eating disorder. You’ve always been addicted to porn. You’ve always been an outcast. That’s just the way it is, some things will never change. You feel like you can identify with the words of Jack Kelly (see Newsies) who said, “We was beaten when we was born.”

You feel trapped by your labels. You don’t want to be constantly angry. You don’t want to be a slave to sexual sin. You don’t want to constantly live under a cloud of gloom and condemnation. But you don’t know how to escape. You’ve been this way for so long that you no longer have hope of change. You are convinced that you’ve always been this way and will always be this way. Yes you are a Christian, and yes you will always be this way. Right?

WRONG. DEAD WRONG. SATANICALLY WRONG.

One of Satan’s greatest lies is that you will always be trapped by your sin. If he can convince you that you will never change, the odds are high that you never will change. You will believe all the labels that have been slapped on to you. You will believe you have no hope of changing. Your grandad was a lazy loser, your dad was a lazy loser, and now you’re a lazy loser.

The good news of the gospel is that you are no longer defined by your past sins, by your biology, or by your family history. You are defined by one thing: your identity in Christ Jesus. 

In Romans 6:6-8 Paul says:

We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.

Your old self, the self that was enslaved to anger, lust, eating disorders, and laziness has died! Your old, sin-loving self was crucified with Jesus Christ and was buried with Jesus Christ. It cannot return and it cannot rule you. Your old self was defined by sin and biology and family history and wounds. Labels belong to the old you.

Your new self is defined by one thing: Jesus Christ. You belong to Jesus Christ, and he has set you free from sin. You died to sin and now you have the power of the living Christ coursing through you. Jesus is the great label destroyer. You are not an addict, you are in Christ. You are not defined by anger, you are defined by Christ. You are not a failure, you live in Christ and he lives in you.

It’s time to stop letting yourself be defined by labels. Those labels belong to your old self, and that old self is long gone, buried with Christ. You may struggle with anorexia, but that sin will not rule you because Christ rules you. You may battle with lust but that sin will not define you because Christ defines you. You may feel like a loser but you are NOT a loser because Christ the victor dwells in you.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:17, ESV)

+photo by antigallery

Does Your Inside Match Your Outside?

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” MT 5:8

Once a father told his child to sit down. The child refused. Again the father told his child to sit down and again the child stubbornly refused. Finally the father said, “If you don’t sit down I’m going to give you a spanking.” The child sat down and said, “I’m sitting down on the outside but I’m still standing up on the inside!” Reminds me of what Jesus said to the Jewish leaders:

You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me…’ MT 15:7-8

Outwardly they honored God. They sang songs and prayed and tithed. But they had no love for God. Their hearts – their inner persons – were impure – they acted religious to be noticed by men, not to please God.  They were hypocrites.

The word hypocrite comes from a word meaning actor. A hypocrite’s an actor, a pretender. He professes some value or belief but his private life does not match it. He’s not pure in heart.  So to be pure in heart means our words match our thoughts. Our outer life matches our inner life.

When God saves us he gives us new hearts:

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. Ezekiel 36:26-27

God gives us new hearts that want to follow and obey him and pours his Holy Spirit into us who motivates us to sincere obedience.

A friend once requested I ask him about his TV watching every time he traveled for work.  This man sincerely wanted to please Jesus and didn’t want to sin when no one else was watching.

To be pure in heart doesn’t mean we never sin.  But it means that now we don’t want to.  We hate it when we do, and are grateful for Jesus’ constant cleansing (1 JN 1:9).

A few ways to cultivate purity of heart:

  • Read your Bible regularly for it convicts, warns and encourages us.
  • Ask God for inner purity. David prayed, “Create in me a clean heart.” Regularly ask God to deliver you from evil and temptation.
  • Be careful what you take in through your eyes and ears.  Flee temptation.  Thomas Watson said, “In a duel a man will chiefly guard and fence his heart, so a wise Christian should above all things keep his heart pure.” 
  • Fellowship – confess your struggles and temptations and ask for prayer of one or a few wise, trustworthy believers. 

The reward for pursuing purity? “They shall see God.”

Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure (1 John 3:2-3). 

Because of our glorious hope to see Jesus, the infinitely pure one, face to face, we purify ourselves now, by the power of the Spirit.

 

Are You Making People In Your Image?

In a post last week we discussed how seeing every person as made in God’s image helps motivate us to love those who are different than us. We were thinking primarily on evangelism, on loving the lost whose preferences and priorities seem like barriers to us. In those situations, seeing the image of God in the tatted up biker or the suited-up choir boy compels us to find common ground and share the hope of Christ. It’s hard. It stretches us. But then isn’t comforting to know that if God saves those people, he’ll change them so they get rid of all those weird differences? They might even begin to look a bit like you. Because everybody who is saved and becoming mature (like you) is bound to begin to think and act more like you, right?

Ouch. It hurts to air my secret thoughts that baldly. But if I’m honest I often work from this hidden assumption: the more people mature, the more they look like me. (Don’t leave me hanging here! Admit it, you do too.) For some reason, though, my church and my family and my relational world are constantly full of people so different than me! Boy do they have a lot of maturing to do.

Thankfully there’s more of God’s truth functioning in my heart than that. I know diversity is a good thing, something God has designed. But I need a theological foundation for that belief, because it is hard to escape the sinful tendency to think all godly people look and think alike. Here’s where the doctrine of the image of God comes in. It’s not only for evangelism or theology tests. It needs to be part of the way we view our spouses, our kids, our church family, and every close Christian relationship we have. In salvation, God is remaking people in his image – not yours, and not mine. That means differences are by God’s design. No single human being can come anywhere close to reflecting the fullness of the infinite God. The more your spouse, child, or fellow Christian becomes like Christ, the less they’ll look like you.

A personal story here. I’m the oldest of five kids, raised in a Christian household with godly parents and siblings. I became a pastor one year after college. My sister after me got married and started a family. This seemed like the start of the normal American Christian path. Then something happened. The remaining brothers and sisters started seeking the Lord for their own futures, and started saying crazy things about what God was showing them that didn’t at all sound like my plan for their futures. I wanted to sputter like a broken motorboat engine, “But, but, but, but….that’s not what this was supposed to look like!” My siblings, however – and God – ignored my engine noises and proceeded down paths leading a lot of places I hadn’t expected. And gradually God has reminded me that this is okay, because he’s remaking my siblings in his image, not mine.

Can you relate? That’s the challenge: are we content to help people become like God, even if that means becoming less like us? Parents with teens, can you let go of your dreams for your child’s future (athletics, ministry, taking over the family business, whatever) and allow God to mold them in his image? Wives and husbands, can you let go of your plans to finally make your spouse “see things your way,” and instead thank God for putting you with a person who differs from you? Pastors, are you fighting the temptation to make a church of clones and instead simply be an assistant to the master Sculptor as he refashions your people according to his own designs? And church members, is it enough to you that God is at work in your pastor or in your fellow believers – even if that means they upset the equilibrium of sameness in your church?

Diversity stretches. It breaks down walls, walls that need breaking. No Christian can reach their potential in Christ confined by the limits of man-made uniformity. Our recreation in God’s image, when it is complete, will one day shout the glory of God to the entire cosmos (see Eph. 3:10). And you know what? That is worth a little stretching and wall-breaking in the present.

 Image by Easter Island Traveling

 

I FEEL Prone To Wander, But Am I Really?

original photo by PhillipC

[This is a guest post by Bob Mundorff, who is on staff at my church.]

A lot of great points were brought up in the comments of Mark’s blog post a few weeks ago about being “prone to wander”. It seemed that some folks were uncomfortable with Mark’s criticisms.

Understandably so. You can’t argue with the fact that we “feel” prone to wander, as the song says. That is so true. I “feel it” too! And that is the very reason I need to hear and consider what Mark was pointing out last week. See, I have this tendency to elevate my feelings and
experiences as a higher authority than God’s word. “I feel it” – yes, but that doesn’t make it true!

We’re often like a disoriented GPS. Our minds get disoriented from the truth of God’s word with our feelings and experiences. We need to recalibrate our minds, and the best method of doing so is not by singing or telling ourselves what we feel or have experienced, but by singing or preaching to ourselves the truths contained in God’s word and the power of the Gospel.

That’s what Paul meant when he said that you are “to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true
righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:22-24). Being renewed in the spirit of our minds means realizing who we have become because of our union with Christ. We realize who we have become and then we be who we have become! If we keep telling ourselves that we’re
prone to wander, we can actually hinder what God is calling us to in this verse and many others.

So when he says in Romans 6:11, “you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus”, it doesn’t mean, “pretend” that you’re dead to sin and alive to God”. It doesn’t even mean, “just keep telling yourself” this. It’s more than the power of positive thinking
or mind over matter. God wants us to renew the way we think about ourselves and our new relationship to sin. The truth of this new thinking is grounded in the concrete reality of who we are in Christ because of the Gospel! For the Christian, the power of sin has been ‘brought to nothing’, not just ‘reduced dramatically’.

The Christian is a new creation. The old man who was enslaved to sin is dead! (2 Cor. 5:17; Romans 6). The implications of the Gospel are so much more than just a future declaration freeing us from the penalty of sin. They reach down into our present day life and deliver us now
from the desires of the flesh (Gal. 1:4, 5:16-17). Does this mean we will no longer sin after conversion? No. But for me, it’s a matter of emphasis.

Am I going to emphasize the power of sin in my life? When I do that, I shrink the Gospel’s power down, making sin’s power unbiblically big. When I do that, it’s easy to live a defeated life. That kills my faith! Rather, I am constantly trying to renew my thinking by emphasizing the power of the Gospel for righteousness and holiness! When you feel “prone to wander”, join me in fighting the good fight of faith with the truth of God’s word.

I’m tired of struggling the miserable struggle of unbelief. Aren’t you?

Romans 7 Is Not About Christians (Part Deux)

photo by vectorportal

Yesterday I had the chutzpah (I love that word) to claim that Romans 7:7-25 was not about Christians. I ruffled a few feathers and bloodied a few theological noses, but overall everyone, including those who disagreed with me, was gracious and kind. Today I’ll give you a second reason why I think Romans 7:7-25 isn’t about Christians. As usual, please keep the comments civil, don’t make any references to Hitler, and please don’t use the words “logical fallacy”. Thank you.

The second reason I believe that Romans 7:7-25 is not about Christians is the content of chapters 6 and 8. If Romans 7 is about the Christian, then Paul must have had a serious mental meltdown (I wanted to say “brain fart”, but come on, that’s immature) while he was writing the chapter.

In Romans 6 Paul is celebrating the fact that we have died with Christ and been set free from the power of sin. In verse 14 he says these incredibly encouraging words:

For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

Sin will have no dominion over me! Why? Because I’m not under the law any more. I’ve died to the law of Moses. The law of Moses did not give me power to obey God’s commands, it only informed me of God’s commands. But I’m not under the law any more, I’m under grace, and God’s grace is pulsing with power. God’s grace at work within me ensures that sin will have no dominion over me.

Then, in Romans 7:6, Paul says:

But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.

I am released from the law and I now serve in the new way of the Holy Spirit. The old written code (The Law of Moses) could not empower obedience, but the Holy Spirit does empower obedience. I’m released from the old code and I serve in the new way of the Spirit. Yes Paul, yes, I’m with you. I’m free, just like you!

Then the strangeness begins. In verse 7 Paul begins writing as one who IS under the law. He comes face to face with the Mosaic command “You shall not covet” and he suddenly finds himself unable to stop coveting. It’s like coveting takes over his life! He has the desire to do what’s right but he can’t carry it out (vs. 19). The commandment which was good actually ended up killing him (vs. 10)

In verse 25 he says:

So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

In other words, he desires to obey the law of God in his mind, but is simply unable to do it. He does not have the power to do what the law commands. He is “captive to the law of sin [note that phrase] that dwells in his members”. That sounds like the experience of a religious Jewish man seeking to obey God’s law, yet unable to do what he desires.

Then, in Romans 8:2-3, Paul says these wonderful words:

For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin [have you seen this phrase before?] and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.

Wonderful, sweet, life-giving words! The law of the Spirit of life has set us from the law of sin that Paul mentioned in Romans 7. The law of sin, which captivated us, has been overpowered by the law of the Spirit. Through the Holy Spirit God has done what the law could not do: given us both the desire and the power to obey. We don’t serve the law of sin anymore, we serve with new life in the Spirit.

So why does Paul write Romans 7 in the present tense? Stay tuned…same Bat time, same Bat channel.

Threats And Promises Aren’t Enough

Threats and promises aren’t enough to make us change.

We may know that exercise is really good for us and sitting on the couch every night downing bags of chips is really bad for us, but the benefits of exercise and the consequences of poor diets aren’t usually enough to motivate us to change.

You could tell me all the benefits of eating anchovies and threaten me with dire consequences for not eating them and I wouldn’t change my diet – I just have no heart for anchovies.

In the book of Jeremiah, God threatens his people again and again with complete disaster and destruction if they don’t turn from their idols.  He promises them blessing after blessing if they will follow him.  Yet threats and promises aren’t enough to make them change.  Their problem?  They had no heart for God.

The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it? (Je 17.9)

The problem was their hearts – they were deceitful and sick.  Threats and promises couldn’t change them.  What they needed was new hearts.  Which is exactly what God promised he would do in his new covenant:

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.  (Ezek 36.26-27)

When Christ invades our lives and saves us, he gives us new hearts!  He fills us with his Spirit and moves us from within.  He gives us hearts to obey him and the Holy Spirit himself writes God’s laws on our hearts.  Now when I read Biblical threats they move me, for I have a heart to obey God.  And when I read God’s promises to bless my obedience, they stir me in a way they never would have when I was dead in my sins.

New hearts!  What an amazing incredible blessing.  God’s Spirit dwelling within, whispering “this is the way, walk in it,” illuminating God’s word, giving us the Spirit’s own desires to glorify Jesus.

What a blessing to live on this side of Calvary!

photo by ChodHound

An Inside Job

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How about kicking off your week by praising God for doing an inside job on you?

“A true saint is altered in the inward frame of his soul. There is planted a spring of better thoughts, desires, and aims than in other men. He labours more for the inward frame of heart than for his outward carriage. What he is ashamed to do, he is also ashamed to think. Whatever he desires, he desires to do it with love in his heart. He labours that all good maybe truly found in the inward man. A hypocrite never cares for this. His care is for the outward parts only. If his outward behavior is acceptable to others, he has his desire.” — Richard Sibbes

Believers desire to serve God from the heart. We aren’t content to worship him outwardly while our hearts are far from him. We do our work wholeheartedly as to the Lord rather than to men. We don’t pray to be seen by others; we pray to him who sees in secret. We’re happy when we get the opportunity to serve or give for God’s eyes only.

We want to love others fervently, sincerely, from the heart.

We’re not happy to go through the motions of godliness. We desire that our only motive be God’s glory. We want to be cheerful givers. We desire to serve the Lord with gladness.  We don’t want human recognition but are content to wait to hear Jesus say, “Well done good and faithful servant.”

What joy it brings us when our hearts are squeezed by circumstances and out of our hearts and lips flow praise and thanks to God.

And when we do things to be noticed by men, which happens often, we come running back to the King of our hearts and ask him to cleanse us anew with his blood.

The Pastor from Gehenna

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In my early years as a pastor, I had a “me against them” mentality.

My job was to whip the saints into obedience against their will. Since they really didn’t want to serve God, I had to guilt or pressure them into it. I’d say things like, “Come on, let’s worship God like we really mean it.” How self-righteous I was.

I actually required our members to hand in “Accountability Forms” to incite them to do their devotions. A few years ago, a woman from our church was cleaning her attic and found one of her forms. One entry said, “Didn’t have devotions today. Too exhausted after having my baby.” Arghhhh – I was the pastor from Gahenna. Incredibly, she’s still in our church.

Mercifully, God used Ezekiel 36:26-27 to change my perspective forever.

“And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”

This was revolutionary, and changed my whole view of God’s people. Now, by God’s grace, I have the following presuppositions about believers:

They love Jesus.
They want to obey him and walk in his ways.
They want to worship.
They want to become like Christ.
They don’t love sin or want to sin.
They want to change.

Why do I have this confidence? Because if someone has been born again, God has given them a new heart. He’s placed his Spirit in them who moves them to love and obey him.

Like me, they battle indwelling sin and temptation. Like me, they fail. But at their core, they have new hearts that love Jesus.

This makes a huge difference in the way I serve God’s people.

I no longer try to whip them into obedience, but seek to lift up their eyes to see Jesus, who redeemed them, is for them, and loves them unceasingly. I want to remind them that Jesus will complete the good work he began in them. I exhort them to obey God because his Spirit’s working in them. And by God’s grace I’m patient with slow progress (both theirs and mine), knowing God has given us hearts that love him.

Photo by AKMA