What’s So Good about Good Friday?

I don’t like Good Friday. If any day should be called Black Friday*, it’s this day…

when Jesus, the Christ, had willingly walked into the clutches of His desperate and vindictive enemies,

when the Prince of Peace climbed onto a torture rack and endured hours of excruciating pain before finally releasing His Spirit,

when Messiah himself hung up there deserted by those He claimed as followers—nay, friends and confidants (John 15:15), Continue reading

Enough is Not Enough

In our culture, we take everything to extremes. Is no one else bothered by how the term binge has become socially acceptable? It means “a period of excessive indulgence.” Sure, I’ve done it, but no way that’s healthy! Binge eating, binge drinking (alcohol, soda, coffee), binge watching a TV series…none of these help you become a better person—especially a better Christ-follower.

In our self-gratification-centered culture, having enough no longer satisfies. Take Starbucks for example. They used to offer a “short” size. While “tall and skinny” are my preferred adjectives for far more than my lattes, what induced them to offer medium, large, and extra-large as standard sizes?

Our sin nature nurtures
an insatiable appetite.

It’s because we always want more. Part of it, I believe, is entitlement—the idea that we deserve more than we’re getting. Part of it, however, stems from that insatiable appetite our sin nature nurtures in us. Like Eve in the garden of Eden, it’s not enough to enjoy what God provides. We also want what He prohibits; we want it all…whether all is good for us or not.

The counter-balance is sufficiency. Our God, the All-Sufficient One, provides what we need for today.

And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus. –Philippians 4:19

Not “everything you ever wanted,” not “so much that you are satiated,” but all you need. The challenge for us is to be satisfied with His sufficiency.

There’s an interesting balance here because God does have everything. He is eternally excessive, and He invites us to enjoy His provision, even His over-abundance. So how does this work?

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. –Psalm 23:5

God prepares the table. He provides the heaping trays of food and the limitless jugs of wine. (Remember Jesus’ first miracle? God doesn’t lack in supply.)

But He also provides the cups.

Both the wine in my cup and
the overflow belong to Him.

The cup which He has given me has a certain size, proportionate to my hand and my needs. He pours it full. In fact, He has enough to overflow it, and sometimes He does. That wine runs over my hand, down the sides of the cup, and onto the table. It puddles there. Should He have been more careful? Should He have given me a bigger cup? No. Both the wine in my cup and the overflow belong to Him, and He has done exactly as He wants, for His glory.

We, on the other hand, want it all: the wine in the cup, the wine puddling on the table, even the wine still in the jug. It’s true: the supply is inexhaustible. It won’t “put God out” to give me more. As a result, I’m offended by His seeming wastefulness. What do I do?

I must trust. Ah, here’s the key… I must trust that how much He’s given me is how much I need. Just like you would never give a child $1000 to buy a pack of gum, He doesn’t give us this excess because He knows we won’t use it properly. Oh God, help me relax into this dichotomy: your excess and my enough.

When the Hebrew people gathered manna, they collected just enough for that day: an omer each. If they tried to gather more, it spoiled. Every day, God sent more than they needed, so they left some to melt in the sun (Exodus 16:14-21). Something tells me they didn’t plan on seconds, and yet they were satisfied. If it were me, I would be out there gathering every morsel, stuffing it into my omer-sized container, then gorging on it until I felt sick.

There’s much more to explore but you’ve probably had enough. Let’s finish with a couple of verses on God’s sufficiency for grace and courage. Think on these.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. –2 Corinthians 12:9

I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. –Philippians 1:20

I find myself grasping, desiring, even trying to grab more, more, more! I am dissatisfied with His sufficiency. I forget that it’s all His anyway. I forget that God will give me what I need…and some of the things I want, when those things are good for me. What He holds back in His supply, what He pours out in front of me…all that is His to do with as He pleases, and He pleases to increase His glory.

For those times of dissatisfaction with God’s sufficiency. (click to tweet)

Our penchant for excess or extreme pops up in every aspect of life. How do you combat this selfishness? How do you reconcile His abundance with His supply? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

Observations from Psalms

A couple of separate observations from my daily time in Psalms…

The Last Meal of a Condemned Man

People who don’t care about God seem to have an easy life. They don’t get up early on Sunday mornings (unless it’s to play golf). They take shortcuts to prosperity and seem unfazed by it. They focus on themselves and what they can see. Pride is so much easier than humility.

I get it. I think that way sometimes, too. So did David.

For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills. -Psalm 73:3-5

Perhaps it’s God’s kindness that allows the “wicked” (I hesitate to use that term. It’s so not p.c.) to have such easy lives here on earth. Perhaps God gives them a few years of ease because he knows their eternity will be beyond miserable, like the last meal of a condemned man.

I’ll take today’s burdens
over tomorrow’s brimstone.

We who follow Jesus, on the other hand, struggle and suffer now (not all the time). Sometimes life feels like an endless series of burdens, but we face an eternity of ease. So let’s cut the others some slack. Let’s stop being jealous. Even though it seems unfair in the moment, I’ll take today’s burdens over tomorrow’s brimstone.

Roadkill

Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. -Hebrews 12:1b-2a

 It’s one thing to see roadkill alongside the road when you’re driving. It’s quite another to see it when you’re on foot. There’s a nice four-lane near my home with sidewalk on both sides. It’s a great place to run. Except for the multiple incidents of roadkill. I once saw seven dead animals in a 1.5 mile span!

It’s distracting. I’ve finally trained myself not to look but I can’t escape the smell, and holding your breath while running isn’t a strong option.

In Psalm 59 (and many other psalms in this section), David is distracted by his enemies, accusers, and attackers. His situation distracts him so much that he can’t pray. He can’t run with perseverance the race marked out for him. You know what that’s like, don’t you? When difficulties arise in our lives—especially the social/relationship kind—it distracts us just like that roadkill distracts me when I’m running.

Our eyes drift to the side, to the ditches, where humanity reveals her pale, bloated underbelly. But we can discipline ourselves not to dwell there. God draws our gaze back to Himself. Then our breath evens out and our shoulders soften.

The key is to intentionally pull our focus back, to close that line of thoughts for awhile and focus entirely on our Savior. It takes practice, but it can be done.

Last meals, roadkill…you know, normal things you think of when reading Psalms. (click to tweet)

It’s Spring break at our house this week. I’ve been hanging out with my kids, and I didn’t pull away to compose a full blog post. I pray these random devotional thoughts from my last few weeks in Psalms encourage you. Let me know what you think in the comments.

PS – Aren’t you glad I didn’t include a picture of roadkill?

The Worst Networking Opportunity Ever

The Calling of Levi (part II)

We were watching Jesus call Levi, the tax collector, to be His disciple. Flip back to last week’s post for a refresher, if you need it. Otherwise, let’s keep going.

Matthew 9:9-13, Mark 2:13-17, Luke 5:27-32.

Jesus said to Levi, “Follow me,” and Levi followed Him (Matthew 9:9). The pattern was the same for Simon (a.k.a. Peter), Andrew, James, and John (Matthew 4:18-22).

Jesus Embraces the Messes

When Levi stepped out from behind his collection booth, I imagine Jesus put His arm around him and they had a little chat as Jesus steered him down the road away from the toll booth. When Jesus finally stopped, they were standing at Levi’s own gate. Jesus looked at Levi, looked at the house, expectantly looked at Levi again…until Levi invited Him in. Yes, and everyone else. “C’mon in, y’all!”

Jesus walked straight
in to Levi’s mess.

Don’t miss this. Jesus walked straight in to Levi’s mess. Levi had no chance to wipe up his bathroom or get the expired milk out of the fridge. He didn’t get to forewarn his friends about what kind of person Jesus was and how they should behave in response. He didn’t make Jesus wait outside while he got his affairs in order. No, Jesus walked right into the house, embracing it and everyone in it!

We want to give Jesus
the impressive, pre-packaged
parts, but He want our
whole lives.

In the same way, we don’t get to choose what parts of our lives welcome Jesus. He walks in to all of it—the straight and the messy, the tear-stained and the laugh-creased, the half-worked jigsaw puzzle still out from Christmas and the brand new shoes you bought on sale after Christmas. We want to give him the good parts, the impressive pre-packaged parts, but He wants it all. Let him be the good friend who doesn’t care that your trash is overflowing and who thinks your one weird friend is delightfully quirky.

Jesus Embraces the Masses

Back in Capernaum that night, Levi threw a big banquet. He invited everyone in town who would still talk to him. That wasn’t exactly the cream of the crop. There were other tax collectors. There were probably some known criminals, some prostitutes, and some people who just didn’t fit the established protocol.

The Pharisees didn’t approve of what they saw. They stood outside with their noses in the air and grumbled among themselves. Finally, someone grabbed one of Jesus’ other followers as he walked by. (Maybe the follower was coming back from the bathroom. Only outhouses in those days, you know.)  If he’d been speaking today, he might have said, “What is that leader of yours thinking? Why are you all eating with these filthy people? You know, they don’t have any worthwhile connections. If Jesus is really planning to start a global movement, he’s off on the wrong foot. This is a terrible place to network.” (For what he actually said, click here.)

Why did Jesus eat with
tax collectors and sinners?

The Pharisees thought they could do it on their own. They didn’t think they needed a backwoods itinerant preacher to show them the way to Heaven. The people in Levi’s house, however, were all too aware of their frightful failings. Jesus ate with them because they were Levi’s people, because they knew they needed saving, and perhaps because they were frustrated with a religious system that categorically excluded them.

Jesus phrased it like this,

It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.  -Mark 2:17

Where are you spending your time? (This really convicts me.) Are you playing it safe, keeping clean and rubbing shoulders only with other clean freaks? Do you think only Jesus can manage a life among “tax collectors and sinners”? Or do you think He was setting an example for us when he sat down to eat there? I think He gave us an example here and elsewhere. Are you embracing the messiness of real life outside our Christian bubbles? Are you friends with people who don’t follow all the religious laws and don’t know the standard order of worship in our American churches? This is an area of the Christ-Life in which I know I really need to grow.

Bad Networking or Good News-Bearing? Two perspectives on a New Testament party. (click to tweet)

There are so many spiritual applications here. I’ve hardly scratched the surface. What moment in this story sticks in your mind, convicting or encouraging you right now? How is God applying His Word to your life through my imagery? I’d love to hear about it in the comments

Jesus Peeled Off Labels

The Calling of Levi (part I)

Bonnie and Clyde, peas and carrots, Smith and Wesson. Some things just go together. The phrases come out more like one word than three: peas-and-carrots. I do it to my kids, running their names together into one long, slurred, barely distinguishable word. But when they hear it, they know I’m talking to them!

Tax collectors and sinners. It’s probably not a common pairing for you, but for the Jews of Jesus’ day, the two were synonymous. They belonged together, and the phrase was best said with a slight sneer (something of the Snape variety, for any Harry Potter fans). If you chose to become a tax collector, you were kicked out of the synagogue, ostracized in your community, and equated with pagans. You were a traitor, and that was the worst kind of sinner.

Of Levi (a.k.a. Matthew), the tax collector-cum-apostle, we have no back story. What made him choose Rome over Jerusalem? I want the story to be a like a Dickens novel where there was some family crisis and he had no choice. But maybe he wasn’t all that religious anyway, or he was from another part of the country, so no big deal to lose his ties to the community. Maybe he was just greedy. Tax collectors could make a lot of money, especially the unscrupulous ones.

Jesus was already
looking into Levi’s heart.

While we’re asking questions to which we don’t have answers… Did Levi remember the first time Jesus walked by, tossing his coins into the basket? I imagine Jesus was alone that first time. Then the next time, a few people were with him, then more and more followers until the group got so big it clogged up the traffic flow and people in the rear started complaining. I imagine Jesus looked Levi in the eye every single time he passed. I imagine he began to smile at Levi—something no proper Jew would ever do.

Matthew 9:9-13, Mark 2:13-17, Luke 5:27-32.

One day, Levi was working in his tax booth outside Capernaum, as usual. He didn’t witness the healing of a crippled man after some friends lowered him through the roof. He didn’t know about the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees who witnessed that healing (Matthew 9:1-8). He was just minding his own business, trying to make a little money.

The crowd around Jesus was unmistakable as it approached his booth. He straightened up a little, checked his change drawer, and started plotting a way to carry all those coins home safely. As it happens, he wouldn’t carry even one coin home that day!

Jesus walked up to Levi, looked him in the eye, and said two simple words: “Follow me” (Mark 2:14). Oh, to hear the monologue in Levi’s mind at that moment! Surely, he hesitated for a second, surprised, just taking in the situation…or maybe weighing the cost of obedience.

Have you been there? Have you understood Jesus’ call and made that split-second decision that changed your life? Have you traded being an outcast for being part of His inner circle?

And then, to hear the thoughts in the mind of Peter or John, guys who never missed a Saturday at the synagogue, who grudgingly paid the tolls, and who tried to avoid anything even vaguely resembling “tax collectors and sinners.” They were among the first Jesus called, and they would have never guessed He would invite someone like Levi! That’s just not the way things were done. Were they shocked? Maybe a little embarrassed?

Jesus didn’t see the label.
Jesus saw the person.

But Jesus didn’t see the label, glued on by cultural pressure and religious obligation. Jesus saw the person. Jesus cut through all the red tape, all the layers of Pharisaical self-righteousness, all the ties to Rome. He saw a man who longed to follow Him, to be accepted, to be included. He saw a man who didn’t need someone to remind him of his failings or to supply him with a list of wrongs. He saw a man who was ready to believe.

Levi didn’t protest. He simply stood up, and he followed Jesus down the road.

What happened to the toll booth? Was there a back-up collector there to take over? Did people just plow through without paying? Neither Levi nor Jesus seemed to care, so I guess we shouldn’t either.

Labels. I couldn’t see the potatoes inside because of the big label on the bag. When I opened the bag at home, half of them were rotten!

Labels. Is it ironic to write about a guy named Levi, when Levi-Strauss is one of the most prominent clothing labels in the country?

Labels obscure so much
of who we really are.

Labels. We all wear the social kind. It seems impossible to function in our society without them. And yet, like the label on the bag of potatoes, they obscure so much of who we really are. Hopefully, that hidden part isn’t rotten, but you get my point. Jesus didn’t let labels influence his estimation of a person. It takes some major intentionality, but we’re called to do the same.

We’ll keep going on this story next week.

Jesus is still peeling back the labels on people, revealing their hearts. (click to tweet)

What label do you enjoy? What label do you hate? What label on other people blinds you to their true nature? I hope this post has given you something to think about. If you would like to leave a comment, I would appreciate it!

Twenty Years and Five Ideas

hands-weddingMy 20th wedding anniversary was this week. We didn’t do anything major. We tend to do big things on odd years, like 11. We just went out to dinner at our favorite local restaurant and tried to remember if we went there for our first anniversary. Conclusion: probably.

But the milestone has made me reflective. What have I learned in twenty years of marriage? Here are the five biggest things.

Jesus first.

Prioritize your relationship with Jesus above your marriage relationship. Not church. Not Bible studies. Not believing friends. Not children. Just Jesus. If your number-one goal is to know Him, imitate Him, please Him, your marriage will be better. If your spouse has the same goal, your marriage will be great! I don’t mean ‘great’ in the everything-is-roses sense but in the rock-solid, nothing-can-separate-us sense.

Nothing will impact your marriage
more than taking your eyes off
your spouse and putting them
primarily on Jesus.

That kind of priority starts with a daily quiet time. You may call it something else and you may not do it first thing in the morning, but time in the Word of God every day has to be non-negotiable. It wasn’t that way for us twenty years ago. He almost never had a quiet time, and I only did it during an organized Bible study, or I’d read the Bible out of obligation. But these days, vacations mean we get to spend extra time in Scripture, and even the busiest days of the year still find us with a warm cup and an open Bible every morning.

Forgiveness reigns. Apologies rule.

Forgiveness is a choice. You’re never going to feel like forgiving someone when they’ve hurt you. Do it anyway. Take a break for an hour or so, if you need it, but if your spouse asks for forgiveness, give it. For small things, ask God to help you forget it. That’s the simplest way to move forward. For the bigger things, ask Him to help you learn from it and release it. Releasing isn’t the same as forgiving. Releasing means it doesn’t affect you anymore.

The magic words of
marriage: “Forgive me?”

When you’re on the other side of the situation, ask for forgiveness. Do it straightforwardly, as in, “Will you please forgive me for…?”.  Yes, it’s humbling, but it’s the closest thing to magic words I’ve ever seen.

With that being said, it’s okay to go to bed angry. Sometimes you’re both tired, and the best thing you can do is get some sleep. In the morning, your perspective will be so much better. You’ll probably realize how silly you were the night before, then apologies and forgiveness will come easily.

Keep embarrassments private but broadcast accomplishments.

Be that place of unconditional comfort for your spouse, where he knows he won’t be “outed” the next time you go to a party. Really listen when she talks about her struggles. Validate those feelings, even if you don’t really understand. Receive his failures as an intimate gift that he won’t share with friends. (Kinda stereotyping here, so your spouse may be different.) Think about “flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23) as including “mind of my mind.” My secrets are as safe with my spouse as if I’d never spoken them, but without the negative self-talk.

Be your spouse’s biggest
cheerleader – in public and
in private.

Praise your spouse publicly and frequently, in subtle and blatant ways. For example, I rarely bring up my seminary degree in public, but my husband will mention it any time we talk about seminary. He champions my accomplishments and unwaveringly believes in my future success.

Another example? So glad you asked. A few months ago, I was ready to quit writing altogether and find a job with a consistent paycheck. When I suggested this course of action to my husband, he gently refused it. He reminded me of my Call to write from the Bible. His encouragement helped me re-believe in myself. It was a private moment, but he stated his faith in me out loud—exactly what I needed.

Express love in front of others—especially your children.

We saw this couple French kissing at the gas station the other day. Eww! That’s not what I mean.

Touch, hold hands, smile at each other, ,say “I love you.” Make it obvious that you enjoy being together. Your children are blessed by that assurance. (It’s been said a million times that the best thing you can do for your kids is love their other parent.) Other people are encouraged as well. Don’t get mushy or sappy, and don’t fake it. People can see right through that. But the no-touching policy your private Christian school enforced no longer applies once you’re married.

img_7876-2
(c) Carole Sparks

At the same time, don’t hide it when you’re not feeling so loving. I’m not suggesting you have a big fight in front of your Bible study group, but if you fought on the way to Bible study, it’s okay to talk about it honorably. Let others see that you have “issues” as a couple, but make sure they see you resolve those issues. There are no perfect couples, and your transparency may be exactly what another couple needs to work through their own problems or seek help elsewhere.

What does it mean to “talk about it honorably”? Guard against belittling your spouse or trying to convince people you are right while your spouse is wrong. For example, you might say, “Since our finances have gotten so tight, we argue more. We’re really trying to trust God here, but sometimes it’s hard.” That brings me to the last point…

Tell your stories so they’re more about God than about the two of you.

If you come to our house and have dinner at our table, be sure we’ll ask you these two questions:

  1. How did you come to know Jesus as your Savior?
  2. How did you meet/fall in love with your spouse?

God’s timing is the theme
of my marriage story.

I love it when those two stories intertwine! The story of my marriage is nothing if not a story of God’s timing. Every major event in the last twenty-one years is clearly linked to God’s hand in our lives! I wish I could tell you…

What about your story? You know God gave you your spouse, even if you weren’t following Him when you met and married. How can you shift your perspective on that story to make God the hero in it? When He gets glory from your recounting of your marital relationship, you’ll find He gets more glory from the day-to-day circumstances of your marriage.

Five ideas from a 20-year marriage…because my #marriage is #NotAboutMe. (click to tweet)

If you’re married, with what do you agree? What have YOU learned? Married or not, what caused you to raise your eyebrows here? What do you want to remember? Let’s start a conversation in the comments!

Check out this post on Intentional Parenting for my 5 Best Marriage Book suggestions.

When Guilt Grounds Me

I can’t even count how many times this has happened. At some point in the day, I stand in the middle of the hallway trying to decide what to do next. I wrestle with competing priorities. Do I write or exercise? Because there’s not time for both. Do I wash clothes or cook dinner? Because both need to be done. Do I call a church friend who’s having troubles or knock on my unbelieving neighbor’s door? Because Jesus calls us to encouragement and evangelism. So I stand there in the hallway with a dumb look on my face. Whatever I choose, guilt will accompany me.

From where you’re sitting there, outside my life and brain, it probably seems straightforward (I’ve told myself the same thing a thousand times): Organize your life better so you can do both. If that solution works for you, I am incredibly happy for you. In my case, more organization or scheduling just makes my life feel even more crowded. Most days, I have a list, which helps me get started, but all the entries on it are important! And it feels weird to put, “Call best friend” on my list. What I need is a guilt-free decision-maker. If you invent one of those, I’ll be first in line to buy it.

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hot-air balloon inflating (c) Carole Sparks

There’s only one thing which helps me at all, and it takes incredible volumes of self-control. I ask the Holy Spirit to show me what God wants me to do in the next hour…or fifteen minutes (yes, even if it’s exercise or wash clothes) and then I try to let go of the rest. See, I think Satan latches onto us with all those things we didn’t do and loads those otherwise empty “loose ends” with brick-filled bags of guilt until we’re immobile, or at least ineffective. (We’ll come back to this.) That guilt weighs us down like sandbags on a hot-air balloon. The thing keeping me stuck there in the hallway is simple: I don’t want to feel guilty, and so the guilt is already strapping me to the ground.

I use the piles of dirty clothes
as an excuse not to obey.

I don’t think God is particularly concerned with how or when I do the laundry, except when I do laundry instead of obeying Him, when I use the piles of dirty clothes as an excuse not to call a friend or write or something seemingly more holy than laundry. (I say seemingly because I think our entire lives can be wrapped up in His glory, which is holy ground! Check Colossians 3:17 and 23.)

My responsibility is to trust
Him in the ordering of my days.

At the same time, He knows it must be done. So I also have to think He will create a time in my day or week when He releases me to wash all those dirty clothes. The pile may get bigger than I like, but time will open to do it. Even harder than household duties, God will block out spaces where obedience means I rest or spend time relaxing with a beloved friend. All without guilt. My responsibility is to trust Him in the ordering of my days, trust Him that the laundry will get done and the floors swept and the blog posts written.

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hot-air balloon takes off (c) Carole Sparks

You know that feeling of “this is where I need to be right now”? It’s when God affirms that you’ve been obedient, and somehow, in your heart, you know it. Why can’t we have that feeling most—or all—of the time? I think we can experience it a lot more often than we currently do.

When Satan immobilizes us or preoccupies us with guilt, we can’t be effective even when we are being obedient. In those times, we treat His Will like tasks to be accomplished. “Just lower your head and push through,” we think. I pondered this image the other day…

Life with my head down
     ploughing the ground,
No thought to look up
     No “Lord, fill my cup.”
Strain and pull
     cart never full...

Yeah, that’s all I have. I’m not much of a poet, but do you see how God isn’t getting any glory in that image? How it’s all about finishing but never being able to finish?

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hot-air balloon in flight (c) Carole Sparks

He picks one thing for
right now and I let the
rest fall to the ground…

I’ve got to hold my time and my days and my to-do list in open palms where He picks the one thing for right now and I let the rest fall to the ground until later—like cutting the mooring lines on a hot-air balloon. Then I can soar on the updrafts of His Will! Then I can be free to obey without distraction.

Now I’m walking away. I’m going to meet my friend for coffee because that’s what I understand to be God’s will for my afternoon. I am not going to worry or stress over this blog post or the laundry piles or the carpet cleaner sitting in the middle of my living room floor. At least I’m going to try.

Let go of the guilt from your unfinished to-do list and fly on the updrafts of God’s will! (click to tweet)

For further reading: Tyranny of the Urgent. It’s a tiny booklet by Charles E. Hummel that examines how we live under the pressure of “right now.”

Does your to-do list taunt you? Do you feel weighted down by the guilt of everything you didn’t do today? How do you deal with it? How do you cut the guilt lines? Please let me know in the comments. I’m still looking for answers!