Amazing Grace


Lesson: Matthew 20:1-16

Back in the mid-1960’s, the Smothers Brothers became comedy sensations with a routine focused around a complaint that struck a chord with many, many people: “Mom always liked you best.” Brother Tommy complained that his brother Dick got a dog, while he only had a crummy chicken, and then in the middle of the routine, Tommy remembered he never had a bicycle. Dick had a bicycle, but Tommy just had a wagon. It resonated with people because it raised the kind of questions that come up in nearly every family and just about every other kind of relationship as well, including Jesus’ relationship with his disciples: Who is the favorite? Is everyone being treated fairly; is everyone getting what he deserves?

The disciples have followed Jesus up and down Galilee for three years. They walked away from their families and jobs – they took a risk, and they’ve made sacrifices. Now Jesus is about to head to Jerusalem, and it looks as though bigger risks, even bigger sacrifices are in store. And over these three years, they’ve watched Jesus cultivate the company of people who as far as they could tell had not sacrificed anything. He dined with tax collectors who worked for the Romans, and prostitutes, of all people. And so finally, Peter said what they all were thinking: “Surely, Jesus, you don’t think as much of them as you think of us. Surely you don’t love them as much as you love us. Surely they are not worth as much to you as we are after all we’ve done for you. Where’s the fairness in that?”[1]

Jesus says that the disciples – in fact everybody who follows him, who has sacrificed for him, will be rewarded beyond their imagination. But, he adds, the last will be first and the first will be last.[2] And then he tells this story to explain what that means. A landowner goes to his town’s equivalent of Marin County’s Andersen Drive, where day laborers line the streets and wait, hoping to be hired. He hires one group at sunrise. He returns to the labor pool at 9:00, noon and 3:00 p.m., and hires three more groups. And at 5:00, not long before sunset, he hires a fifth group to help finish the job.

Laborers are paid daily at sunset and the owner begins with the last group hired. To their absolute delight, they receive a full day’s pay. All the other laborers are delighted, too, because if these people who worked just an hour or so received a full wage, they, who’ve worked since dawn through the blazing heat and did most of the work, surely they’ve hit the jackpot. But they receive the same amount, the amount they negotiated at the beginning of the day but no more. They complain: “You’ve made them equal to us. We worked all day. They worked one hour. That’s just not fair.” And the owner responds – gently – “Take what you have and go,” and then he delivers the punch line: “Are you envious because I am generous?”[3]

When we looked at this passage in a Bible study a few years ago, someone pointed out that you can see managers out in the vineyards testing for sugar content everyday this time of year, and when it’s time to harvest it is time to harvest now. Those 5:00 hires may have saved the landowner from a big loss. Still, they worked one hour. The other pickers worked all day; their contribution to the landowner’s success had to be much greater. This is no way to run a business. A company that tried to operate on the basis of equal pay for unequal work would soon be hard pressed to find anyone foolish enough to work all day.

Of course, the parable isn’t about business. Jesus begins the parable, “The kingdom of God is like this.” Jesus is saying the kingdom of God – the world as it would be if we followed God’s ways instead of human ways – the kingdom of God uses a different economy when it comes to rewards and when it comes to who is chosen: There’s no advantage in being called first or working longer or harder and God is free to be as generous as God chooses. Yes, the sacrifices of the apostles will be honored by God, but the reward will so far outstrip the sacrifice that it all must be seen as sheer grace.

Now, even when we know this parable is about grace, not about the labor market, it still hits people as unfair. Brené Brown calls it the un-American parable. People sometimes find themselves thinking, “Hey, I’m all in favor of grace but let’s not get carried away. This is too much grace.” Grace is the word we use to describe the way God freely and unconditionally loves us, accepts us, forgives us, embraces us and welcomes us. The thing is, when you start thinking in terms of more grace or less grace, too much or not enough grace, you’re no longer thinking about grace. Grace comes in one size – one shape. It is abundant, and undeserved. Always, by definition, undeserved. You cannot earn it. As soon as you say, “Yes, but…,” “Yes, but I worked longer;” “Yes, but I’ve been a church member my whole life;” “Yes, but I’m a fine upstanding citizen.” “Yes, but I believe all the right things;” “Yes, but don’t you think, Jesus, that I deserve just a little more grace than that other guy?” it stops being grace. There is no, “yes, but …” when it comes to God’s love. God’s love is not about fairness. It’s about God’s generosity.

That isn’t easy to understand. We expect to receive what we believe we deserve. And we expect others to receive what we believe they deserve, especially when we think we deserve more. So the first-hired laborers grumble. Why work so hard all day in the hot sun if you don’t get paid more? Looking at it from a grace perspective, we might grumble, then why try to be good? Why go to church? Why “believe” anything? Doesn’t the whole idea of grace undermine any reason for trying to do the right thing? Does that mean God doesn’t care what we do; that anything goes with God?

That isn’t what Jesus is saying here. The purpose of grace is not to say anything goes. Just like a mother who loves both her dependable child and her wayward child, God’s heart is broken when we mess up, hurt each other, misuse God’s gifts. However, the purpose of grace is not to allow us to accept the past, but to give us a future.[4]

Fiorello LaGuardia was the mayor of New York City during the worst of the Great Depression and all of World War II. New Yorkers called him, “the Little Flower,” because he was only 5 foot four and always wore a carnation in his lapel. He was a colorful character. He’d go along on raids of speakeasies. He took entire orphanages to baseball games.

One bitterly cold night in January 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward in the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took the bench himself. A tattered, elderly woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told LaGuardia that her daughter’s husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. “It’s a bad neighborhood, Your Honor,” the man told the mayor. “She’s got to be punished to teach people around here a lesson.”

LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said, “I’ve got to punish you. That is only fair. The law makes no exceptions. Ten dollars, or ten days in jail.” But even as he pronounced the sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He pulled out a bill and tossed it into his hat, saying, “Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.”

So the following day, the New York newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren, fifty cents of that amount having been contributed by the red-faced grocery store owner, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations and New York City police officers, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.[5]

The story reminds us that every person standing in front of a judge or jury has a tale of woe, and LaGuardia’s generosity and grace gave the woman a future, but let’s linger a bit over that red-faced grocery store owner. He’s akin to the grumbling workers. They got everything they bargained for; no one got more than they did; and they still weren’t happy. They wanted others to get less. “Are you envious because I am generous?”[6] This points to one of the most important aspects of God’s grace. As Frederick Buechner writes, “Like any gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.”[7] Something about taking it, something about trusting that God’s love is a free gift for absolutely everybody, something about that transforms us. We are changed, our hearts are opened wide, by being OK with the idea that if God loves everybody, it doesn’t somehow devalue the truth that God loves me. When we accept that we belong to God not because of anything we’ve done, but because of who God is, then we’re more likely to accept that others belong to God, too, regardless of what they have or haven’t done. As Anne Lamott puts it on your bulletin covers, “I do not understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.” With this parable, Jesus is inviting the disciples to this transformation. He invites us as well.

How would we treat each other if we believed not only that “Jesus loves me, this I know,” but if we believed Jesus loves everybody else, too – no ifs, no ands, no buts? How would we act if we knew that in our bones?

At the Presbytery meeting in Arcata last Friday, when the new moderator was installed, the worship leader spoke some standard words from an installation service: “The grace bestowed on you in baptism is sufficient because it is God’s grace.” Presbyterians don’t believe that baptism accomplishes something magic, that baptism somehow “saves” us. We believe baptism is a symbol, a powerful enactment of the truth that we are not our own, that we belong to God, that God claims us, unconditionally, as God’s own, not because of who we are or what we have done but because of who God is.

These words about baptism and God’s sufficient grace reminded me of a story a pastor friend of mine told me a couple of weeks ago. Jeff Gaines was my supervisor when I was an intern, and he described a recent baptism at his congregation, Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church. He baptized an entire family: a mom and dad, a big brother, age 5, and a little brother, age 2. He met with the family, including the children, to explain what was going to happen. He told them he’d use quite a lot of water; that he would put a handful of water on their heads three times and they’d get pretty wet. He told them that this is the way we welcome people into the church family.

On the Sunday of the baptisms, he baptized the parents first, so the kids could see what would happen and feel OK about going through it themselves. Then he baptized the five-year-old, Luke. Jeff knelt down so that he was eye-level with the boy. He scooped the first handful of water and poured it onto Luke’s head, and said, “Luke, I baptize you in the name of God the Creator, who loves you more than you could ever imagine.” And Luke nodded, and said very quietly, “I know.” Then Jeff scooped a second handful of water and said, “I baptize you in the name of Jesus, the Christ, who will companion you every day of your life.” And again, the boy looked him in the eye and said quietly, “I know.” When Jeff poured the third handful of water on the Luke’s head, he said, “I baptize you in the name of the Holy Spirit, who will give you strength to accomplish whatever it is that God has placed upon your heart. Luke, know that God’s promises are for you!” And Luke nodded again, more seriously, and whispered, “I know.”

That, my friends, is transforming, liberating grace. For Luke, for Jeff, for those who were present and heard it and now for us, for all whom Jesus invites to say, “I know.” To say, “I know” to the truth that God does indeed have favorites and God’s favorite is every single one of us. The first hired, the last hired, the Sunday school teacher and the scoundrel, you and I when we deserve love and when we don’t deserve love; you and I when we are good and honest and faithful and productive, and you and I when we’re not so good and not so honest, faithful and productive. Every creature God has made. Every single one, the apple of God’s eye.

God claims you. Today. That is grace. Reach out and accept the gift. May it be so for you and for me.

© Joanne Whitt 2014 all rights reserved.

[1] Matthew 19:27.

[2] Matthew 19:28-30.

[3] Matthew 20:14-15.

[4] John M. Buchanan, “Too Much Grace,” November 14, 1999,

[5] As told by Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Books, 1993).

[6] Matthew 20:14-15.

[7] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1973), p. 39.

Where Two or More Are Gathered

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Lesson: Matthew 18:15-20

Note: Diana began this sermon by retelling the story Enemy Pie by Derek Munson. If you are unfamiliar with the story, you may listen to a reading by Camryn Manheim on Diana makes references to this story in her sermon text.

What I love about children’s literature is how playfully and creatively stories can share a difficult, truthful, positive message.  If only we had the recipe for an enemy pie… I wonder what this world would be like? If only we could trick our adult selves into believing in enemy pie…if that were the case, then I wonder if worship would be in a kitchen around an oven? Perhaps we’d have associate ministers for baked goods and you could sign me up — and maybe we’d have pie and milk on our communion table? Delicious.

Alas, today’s scripture is a kind of recipe from the Gospel of Matthew for an adult version of Enemy Pie. It’s unusual for many reasons, and partly because it is so descriptive. This is not another parable that needs to be deciphered and leaves us wondering what to do. Rather, the description is quite specific. In modern words:

First, everyone sins. We are all perfectly imperfect…because we are human (literally). Communities, churches, are made up of these perfectly imperfect people. When sin happens, when people are mean and/or accidently mess up and feelings are hurt, and it will happen, do something about it. Namely, go talk to the other person directly like a mature adult rather than behind his/her back.

If that doesn’t work, involve some others of the community. This is not an opportunity to gang up on someone, but rather to engage the community in conversation because an issue between siblings affects the entire family.

If that doesn’t work, says Matthew, then there’s really an issue facing the entire community. At the very best, you’ll talk about it as a group and you’ll resolve the conflict. At worst, perhaps you’ll take a break from one another, but love and respect the lost sheep/tax collector until they repent and rejoin the fold.

Like any recipe, after you’ve make it a few times, you start to figure out how to make it your own. Sometimes step number two – talk with others – is helpful before one confronts someone. Because sometimes we all need a wise friend who can help us figure out what it is that really upsets us. Sometimes a good friend can tell us in love that this is something we simply need to let go – this is about YOU not the other person.  Other times when there is an injustice by a person with great power, or the affected people are not able to stand up for themselves, this recipe may not be the best one to follow. It will need some real tweaking to ensure honesty and accountability.

Countless church and family conflicts resolved before most of us ever hear of them because the two people talked it out before it became a larger issue. This in itself is quite a blessing. And, sadly we can probably all name conflicts that continue to divide relationships years later. After all, we humans are really good at avoiding conflicts and not forgiving. It’s very human of us.

It is not easy to have a conversation with someone when we are angry or hurting. It’s a risk to be vulnerable with someone and let them know we have been hurt. It’s more difficult still to confront a behavior without blaming and shaming the other person in the process. Engaging in honest dialogue is a skill, and it is worth pursuing. And, yes, it’s simple, but not very easy. Most of us need more training than one reading of Enemy Pie to be as wise as the father in sorting out conflict.

I think the gospel of Matthew is trying to raise an important issue in the Christian community: How we handle conflict matters. The story that precedes this one in the gospel is the parable of the lost sheep when the shepherd leaving the 99 sheep in search of the 1 lost sheep. In the next story Jesus tells Peter that IF his brother sins against him (when his brother sins against him), he must forgive not once or even 7 times, but 77 times. Matthew is trying to tell us something about living in community that is grounded in a relationship with a God whose love is extravagant. Jesus points to an understanding of God who searches for us, forgives us, and brings us back into relationship again and again and again…and asks us to do the same.

How we handle conflict and how we cope with brokenness (and sin) matters. Our behavior signals something about who we are as a Christian community. Following in Christ’s footsteps makes a difference because we are choosing the difficult path because we know/we hope that being loved deeply and loving others deeply makes for more fulfilling relationships. In this church, we also know that in order to have the truly difficult conversations in our world – in order to tackle justice matters on race, sexual orientation, global warming, and ending oppression, it takes years of dishing up and eating enemy pie. In order to be able to facilitate the hard conversations, we have to start with the little conflicts to build trust and perfect our baking skills.

And, there is more to gain than a positive image or witness to the rest of the world. People within a community can tell that they matter if they do not show up for awhile and someone gives them a call. Just as when someone apologizes and asks for forgiveness – and means it – even for something small – how does that feel to receive? How does it change our perception of ourselves and the others in this community when we take the time, and swallow our fears, to have a conversation about how we can be better friends/committee members/colleagues? These conversations require us to invest in one another right when we are most tempted to hide in our tree houses and make lists of our worst enemies. Many of us are part of all sorts of communities – predominantly affinity groups such as children’s sports, political parties, and the lunch crew at your favorite restaurant. And, yet, how easily we can walk away, un-friend, unsubscribe, and start anew. But, this passage suggests there’s more to gain when we go the distance together.

Every time we dare to make an enemy pie, we are equipping ourselves and others to live more fully and to love more deeply.  We practice. As we practice giving and receiving constructive feedback, we become a Christian community where we are able to hold one another accountable with grace and the ability to bend, rather than breaking and cutting ties at the first mention of feedback. What a gift to give one another.

I leave you with one final note of good news from today’s scripture. Jesus promises to be with us as two or more of us gather.[1] To “Gather” is not the same thing as to “agree.” When we do the holy work of building community based in God’s inclusive love, God promises to be right there in the midst of our struggles. Our holy Father knows how to bake pies – thanks be to God! Amen.


© 2014 Diana Bell. All rights reserved.

[1] Beautiful stuff from working preacher/Jacobson

Photo Credit: “Reconciliation” by Josefina de Vasconcellos at Coventry Cathedral, photo by Ben Sutherland

My Labor, My Work, My Ministry


On the Sunday before Labor Day, we hear from people in our community of faith about how they respond to God’s calling in their work. Our speakers this year were David Conant, Annette Schellenberg, and Ian Prowell

David Conant, Physician

It wasn’t until after college that it became clear to me that I wanted to be a doctor. When I was growing up as the son of a doctor, many people asked me if I would follow that same path. Perhaps as a response to my father’s long hours at work, perhaps as an instinct to define my own identity, I generally answered that question with an adamant “no,” though without another path clearly in mind. There was another influence at work in my teenage years as my mother found her calling to the Episcopal priesthood–an exciting, challenging, and somewhat bewildering transition for the whole family. I remember dinner conversations about service, about helping others suffering physically or spiritually. So off I went to college to discern my own path, concentrating in British History and Literature, starting off each day singing in the morning chapel choir before running off to classes.

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The Keys of the Kingdom


Lesson: Matthew 16:13-20

During a criminal trial, the district attorney called an eminent psychologist to testify. She sat down in the witness chair, unaware that the rear legs of the chair were set precariously on the back of the raised platform. “Will you state your name?” asked the district attorney. Tilting back in her chair, she opened her mouth to answer, but instead catapulted head-over-heels backward and landed in a stack of exhibits and recording equipment. Everyone watched in stunned silence as she untangled herself, rearranged her disheveled clothing and hair and sat back down on the witness stand. “Well, doctor,” continued the district attorney without changing expression, “we could start with an easier question.”

A question about identity can, at times, be a very hard question. When Jesus comes into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he starts with an easier question. “What do other people say about me?” It isn’t a personal question. It’s just, “What have you heard? What’s the gossip?” So the disciples all answer, sharing the handful of opinions they’ve heard, probably here in Caesarea Philippi and elsewhere. They answer, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”[1]

Then Jesus asks the hard question. “But who do you say that I am?” This time it is personal, and this time only one disciple answers. Simon Peter answers, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Our NRSV pew bibles translate the Greek word christos as “messiah;” both messiah and christos mean “the anointed one.” Read more →

Hear Thyself


Lesson: Matthew 15: 21-28

Today’s sermon was preached by David Altshuler, SFTS seminarian and member of our church.

This text is probably familiar to many of you or maybe you’re hearing it for the first time. How does it sit with you?

During my study, one pastor wrote, “This is a story in many ways is so strange and difficult that I think I should have avoided it altogether.” [1] I concur.

So, let me share my first attempt at these stories.

I’m going to back up and read the part of the story that was omitted from the first lectionary reading that your heard because it’s connected to the story, and I think it points out a bit of the “strangeness” that the pastor might have been talking about.

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The Kingdom Come Person


Today’s sermon was preached by Rev. Linda Powers, Program Director of Shelter Services for Community of Action of Napa Valley.

Lesson: Luke 10:25-37

Our scripture this morning is a parable found only in the Gospel of Luke. It is a story I am sure is very familiar to many of you. It is sometimes labeled the “Good Samaritan” parable – even though Good and Samaritan do not appear together anywhere in the scripture. And in other places you will find it labeled with a heading, “Who is My Neighbor?” It is sometimes called narrative and sometimes an example story. By either title or category, it remains a provocative tale. As we have heard, the parable encompasses several characters: a man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, robbers who rob and beat him and leave him for dead, a priest, a Levite, and of course the Samaritan.

At the time of the first church, the listeners of this parable would have most likely identified with the victim. That road from Jericho to Jerusalem and back was as well traveled as Hwy 101. It was the path that all of the Jews would use when traveling from regions around the Sea of Galilee as they journeyed to Jerusalem for all of the High Holy Days. Caravans would have traveled this same route as they brought exotic spices and goods from the East. It was the path Mary and Joseph would have traveled on their way to Bethlehem.

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Real Hope


Today’s sermon was preached by Sharon LeClaire, M.Div., M.A.T.S., a church member, seminary graduate, and candidate for ordination in the Presbytery of the Redwoods.

Lessons: Psalm 62: 1-2, 5-8; Romans 5:1-5


When Joanne asked if I would like to preach this summer I had just finished reading two books that were mainly about Hope.

The first was “Turn My Mourning into Dancing” by one of my favorite authors Henri Nouwen and the other was “Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope,” by Sr. Joan Chittister a new author to me suggested to me by a pastor friend.

They are vastly different in presentation and style but they were both very successful in prompting me to investigate Hope more deeply and biblically where I came across the Romans passage we are looking at today.

When I decided to use this new found interest as the topic for this sermon,

I went to one of my theology books and was surprised to find that the whole chapter entitled “Christian Hope” was all about the afterlife and not about Hope in the lives we are living now.

Personally, I spend very little time thinking about the afterlife so I went back to Nouwen and the good sister for my inspiration and information this morning.

Hope is a pretty large topic so to get us all on the same page this morning, let’s ask the question, what exactly is Real Hope? Let’s begin by saying what Hope is NOT. Read more →

The Pearl of Great Price


Lessons: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

I collect baseball cards. It’s a fairly new hobby for me; I started collecting a few years ago, along with my son. Unlike my son, I don’t collect every card that comes my way. I collect Nolan Ryan because I became a fan when he pitched for the Astros while I lived in Houston.[1] While I collect just for fun, there are other folks who collect baseball cards as a serious investment. That’s when you get into the question of what something is worth. I have a 1969 Nolan Ryan Mets card. It’s in good condition but the photo is slightly off center and so that means it’s worth about $35. If it were mint condition and centered, it’d be worth $239.[2] A Nolan Ryan rookie card is worth over a thousand dollars. Now, you may be thinking, “You’re kidding – for a bit of cardboard that came from a chewing gum pack?” But that’s nothing. A few years ago, a 1909 Honus Wagner card sold for $2.8 million.[3] But – is it worth it? Would you pay that for it? Even if you had the money? I know I wouldn’t. A baseball card just isn’t worth it to me.

What is worth it? What is worth more than anything to you, to me, to us? Jesus looks at that question in today’s passage in Matthew’s gospel. He’s describing the kingdom of God, or the reign of God. It’s Matthew, so he uses the phrase, “kingdom of heaven.” That takes care of any concern Matthew’s audience, the Jewish Christians, would have with using the name of God. In all of theses kingdom parables, Jesus assumes the kingdom of God is something that can be perceived and experienced as a present reality, not just something to look forward to in the future. Read more →

With Unveiled Faces


Today’s sermon was preached by Kathy Kwon.

Lessons: Exodus 34:27-35,  2 Corinthians 3:7-18

I’ll be reading out of 2 Corinthians in just a moment. But I first wanted to thank you all for allowing me this opportunity to share the Word with you this morning. I debated about whether I should thank you now or after my sermon and decided that once I got started, there was no guarantee you’d let me finish, so I should thank you now.

My experience of preaching is that it feels quite weighty—not pertaining to the preacher but rather to the weightiness of the content and the action. What does it mean—for a few moments at least—to be the mouthpiece of God the Spirit in full view of one’s own fallibility, brokenness, sinfulness, humanity? And then add to that the brokenness of the world around us, and it feels rather paralyzing.

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From Depth of Soil


Lessons:  Matthew 13:1-9, 16-23

I remember learning in Sunday School that the parables of Jesus are these nice little life lessons.  Jesus is rushing around 1st Century Palestine, preaching, and healing folks, and gathering crowds – and every once in a while Jesus stops to teach.  And sometimes Jesus tells the crowd a little parable.  A little story:

  • The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.  See how small the seed is.  See how big it grows.
  • Or, the kingdom of God is like yeast – it gets into a little flour and water, and see how it makes the bread rise.
  • Or, as in today’s text, a sower went out to sow.  She scattered a lot of seeds – some fell on hard ground, or in thorns, or in bad soil, and those seeds didn’t grow.  But some seeds fell on good soil, and produced abundant crops.

So, be the mustard seed, and grow.  Be the yeast in the dough, and rise.  Plant your crops in good soil, and reap your harvest.

The parables of Jesus are these nice little life lessons.

But, they’re really . . .  not.

Read more →