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Faith

The upside-down logic of God

by Michele Lee | 22 May 2018, 10:45 AM

“God, I can’t do this. Are you sure you want me to? Really, really sure?”

That was my anxious plea the first time someone asked me to play the piano for Church service.

But I had barely passed my piano examinations, was struggling with all the flats and sharps in the Kids Church songbook, and played Rejoice in the Lord Always like a funeral march. I hadn’t learnt how to improvise on the piano either, and playing for service required that skill.

Oh, and did I mention it was for Chinese service? And my command of Mandarin … I could barely even order my cai fan (mixed rice)! Each time at the stall I would be reduced to gestures and simple words.

So how was I to understand what the pastor was preaching? How would I know when to repeat the chorus? Plus, sound systems are notoriously poor for the people on stage. How was I, a half-deaf girl, to catch the cues and know what was going on?

A half-deaf, struggling pianist lacking in language skills. What a CV for a Church pianist, eh? I wouldn’t have “hired” myself – but that’s how God rolls.

God doesn’t call us to kingdom work because we have the best qualifications or skills. In the upside-down logic of our awesome God, He has “chosen the foolish things to confound the wise” (1 Corinthians 1:27).

Fast forward a couple of years, and I was playing for the main English service.

The scariest bit about playing in service is the offertory, because it’s a solo performance and everyone can hear every single mistake made. I played Jesus Loves Me This I Know, and a little child sang out loud until she was shushed by a mortified parent.

What I learnt was that through the simple music I played, God was encouraging even the little children to think about the words.

God doesn’t call us to kingdom work because we have the best qualifications or skills.

A few years later, I was asked to lead the Children’s Choir. Let’s just say there was a bit of a discipline issue – Kids Church leaders always had a ready supply of lozenges. And after that journey, I was tasked with leading the Adults’ Choir – these folks were old enough to be my parents and teachers! 

Each week, I’d go into the choir sessions thinking, “I can’t do this”. I was young, had little experience – I had no idea how to manage or teach people. And yet God chose me to be His instrument. Through my weaknesses, He showed His patience and love for all.

He could have called anyone else, but He chose a half-deaf girl’s music to draw others closer to Him.

Years later, I was in a different church, playing the piano and teaching the choir – in Mandarin.

As if leading a group of teens, adults and grandparents wasn’t enough … Now I had to do all of the above in Mandarin!

God, siao liao. Why put this kentang to torture the Chinese choir?

But of course, God had other plans and I served there for 5 years. With much help in translation from the younger ones in the choir, God ministered to all of us.

Today, I am a much more experienced church pianist. But I have not forgotten the “miracles” that God brought about in my life’s ministry.

Without God, it would have done no good to grit my teeth and get down to things. Without God, it would have been impossible to touch others’ hearts with a simple children’s song. Without God, I could not have gone on playing the piano and teaching songs week after week. Without God, my work and ministry would have been powerless.

My life speaks of the upside-down logic of a powerful God. What does yours sound like?

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Bishop Rennis Ponniah: Are we hungry for revival?

by | 10 August 2018, 5:43 PM

“There is a time to lower our banners, and to raise one banner – the banner of the Lord Jesus Christ,” declared Bishop Rennis Ponniah at the Celebration of Hope (COH) Pastors and Leaders Gathering on July 24.

At the meeting to update church and ministry leaders about the 2019 evangelistic event, the Bishop of the Anglican Church in Singapore opened with an appeal to prayer: “I greet you as messengers who need the power of God. We can’t do this without the power of God. Only God can open the heart for people to see the glory of God, and what He has done through Jesus Christ.

“We need to cry out to God for His grace, mercy and power.”

Are we hungry enough for revival?

Speaking to a few hundred pastors and church leaders, he then read from the Parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1-8). Exhorting the congregation of the need to persevere in prayer, Bishop Rennis underlined the truth that God can be relied on to speedily answer the prayer, and God will rule in favour of this people.

“Because of the widow’s persistence, she gained the judgment in her favour. How much more will God?” he asked. This was the crux of his message: Are we hungry enough for revival?

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE HUNGRY?

1. We should be hungry to see God’s glory in our land

“This goes beyond the church,” Bishop Rennis said. “We are hungry that His glory should be in our land. We see abortion, the breaking of the marriage covenant, child abuse.

“We, like every nation, are liable to God’s judgment,” he said solemnly.

“But how does God see our nation? We know that righteousness exalts a nation in the eyes of the Lord. I know the first step is repentance – identificational repentance. Because we are part of a nation – and our nation is on a slippery road.”

2. We should be hungry for the salvation of souls

The Bishop noted that from 2010 to now, there has been a 1.5% increase in those who identify as having no religion.

“The situation is dire,” said the previous President of the National Council of Churches of Singapore.

In comparison, over the same timeframe, the number of Christians in Singapore has grown from 18.3% of the population to 18.8%.

“In our society you’re just as likely to meet someone who’s agnostic or atheistic as you are to meet a Christian,” he said.

In our society you’re just as likely to meet someone who’s agnostic or atheistic as you are to meet a Christian.

He encouraged the Church to look beyond the statistics to realise that lives are at stake. Bishop Rennis recalled the friends in his life that matter to him, from fellow leaders all the way to his laundry man.

“Can I be in eternity without them?” he asked. “There are people in your world you meaningfully relate to – will they be in eternity with you?

“Urgent love. When you catch it, you’ll pass it on to the people you meet.”

3. We should be hungry for revival

In closing, Bishop Rennis then brought to mind the 12 football boys who were trapped in Tham Luang. He spoke about how the people rallied to save them – that our faith has a real need for this same spirit of unity and sacrifice.

The church must show the same hunger to save, he said.

“Are we hungry for God’s kingdom advance?”


The Gospel will be shared at the National Stadium, 17 to 19 May 2019, at the Celebration of Hope, a united initiative by the National Council of Churches of Singapore, Evangelical Fellowship of Singapore and LoveSingapore. Visit celebrationofhope.sg for updates.

/ gabriel@thir.st

Gabriel isn't a hipster, but he loves his beard and coffee. In his spare time, he'd rather be on a mountain.

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Even if I don’t speak English, I’m just the same as you

by Goh Cheng Tee | 8 August 2018, 4:56 PM

Last year, I watched a local play with a friend titled Grandmother Tongue.

It was about the loss of heritage – dialect specifically – among Chinese Singaporeans since independence, and the resulting intergenerational disconnect within families because of language barriers.

The most impactful scene in Grandmother Tongue was when the grandmother refused to accept her son’s invitation to a church for healing from a terminal illness. She said that Christ was a foreign deity she couldn’t come to, as a devout ancestral worshipper.

As one of the few Chinese-educated members of my family, my personal struggle with faith is similar.

I have always felt a sense of isolation within my own church and even within my Christian community at NTU as an undergraduate. For instance, I get many awkward looks and offhand remarks from people who don’t understand me whenever I use Mandarin or Teochew.

The social awkwardness was exacerbated by my affiliation with a Catholic school (my family is Protestant), as I had adopted some customs from their teachings in my teens.

Frankly, despite being Christian, I grew up somewhat agnostic owing to the social stigma placed on me and others like myself. It’s difficult to connect with a God who cannot be seen, when fellow believers around you who are visible and audible, treat you in a manner that is contrary to Scripture.

It is disappointing that most Christians I know lack cultural capital and a sensitivity to their roots.

It’s sad when faith doesn’t transcend the barriers of colour and tongue. Growing up in church communities, it is no wonder that young Christians have pigeonholed their beliefs such that they become ethnocentric and disconnected from the larger world.

So it is unsurprising that new Christians often face intolerance and disdain from their parents when they disclose their conversions, because of the perception that traditional duties go out the window with a change in belief.

It’s sad when faith doesn’t transcend the barriers of colour and tongue.

One passage of the Old Testament which always intrigues me is the curse which befell Miriam after she and Aaron had derided Moses for marrying a woman who was a native from Ethiopia. Moses’ wife would have been deemed an outsider by the Jews.

This resulted in a political showdown between themselves, though Moses remained peaceable throughout this episode. It resulted in God directly intervening in the situation to vindicate Moses of the slander. Miriam’s skin turned white from a bout of leprosy lasting for a week – an ironic twist for slighting Moses’ wife on account of being dark-skinned.

What I’ve realised from this passage is that a Christian community is meant to be a safe and nurturing place for all believers.

When Christ issued the Great Commission, the phrase “teach all nations” was not accidental. It was a declaration that no longer was the Covenant specific to the people of Israel, but the death and resurrection of Jesus meant salvation was available to all – Jew and Gentile.

Nevertheless, I continue to contribute to the church ministry I am involved in as a para-counsellor for at-risk students, and attempt to live peaceably with my neighbours at the service I worship at (which comprises largely of senior citizens).

But I am burdened (and admittedly embittered) by the extent of homogeneity from my experience in the Youth and Young Adults ministries both socially and culturally.

Perhaps one ought to understand that though Christ was born a Jew, He transcended socio-cultural barriers and graciously welcomed all who would otherwise have been considered outcasts. Similarly, in the Pauline Letters, the hospitality and charity between the churches of Macedonia and Thessalonica were commended (2 Corinthians 8, 9).

… a Christian community is meant to be a safe and nurturing place for all believers.

In light of the issues I’ve raised, what I would recommend to my peers would be to study the Word in a foreign language (or even Mother Tongue) as one means to witness to unbelievers who don’t speak English. Doing so, I’ve gleaned fresh insight from the historical contexts and linguistic nuances found in other languages, interpretations and translations.

In addition, it’s important to meet non-believers where they are in life. Firmly but lovingly, we are to help them overcome all the barriers to faith through Christ working in us.

I’d like to leave us with a hymn. What we as Christians are meant to preach and practice to the world is summed up beautifully in this one by John Oxenham.

In Christ there is no East or West,
In Him no South or North;
But one great fellowship of love
Throughout the whole wide earth.

In Him shall true hearts everywhere
Their high communion find;
His service is the golden cord,
Close binding humankind.

Join hands, then, members of the faith,
Whatever your race may be!
Who serves my Father as His child
Is surely kin to me.

In Christ now meet both East and West,
In Him meet North and South;
All Christly souls are one in Him
Throughout the whole wide earth.

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Hunger, upsized: My first taste of fasting food

by | 8 August 2018, 12:14 AM

“Why don’t you try fasting from food this year?” My team asked during one of our editorial meetings. “Then you can write about it when you live to tell the tale.”

It was inevitable, working in a Christian environment, that my lack of fasting experience would catch up with me sooner or later.

I’d done my first full 40-day non-food fast last year, which possibly changed the way I used social media forever as a coping device for my discomfort with solitude … But now the question was: What’s next?

The fasting challenge didn’t even come during the 40-day Fast & Pray season (July 1 – August 9), but before. I’d been having some increasingly serious health issues that worried everyone who heard about them – and a few of them were adamant that it was time to fast and pray.

Knowing the words of Jesus in Mark 9:29, spoken when the disciples were unable to heal a demon-possessed boy: “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting” – I know fasting isn’t just a “nice to have” in the Bible. Even Jesus fasted for 40 days before the start of His ministry (Matthew 4:2). 

Not all translations of the Mark 9:29 text include “fasting” (just “praying”), which starts all sorts of biblical debates – but the essence we can take away is this: Fasting adds something to prayer that elevates our spiritual connection to the presence of God.

So what exactly was that “something”? I’d have to fast to find out.

I might as well do a TL;DR now: I didn’t make it through the whole 40 days of the Fast & Pray season, which ends on National Day.

This is briefly how it went over the past 6 weeks.

Week 1: “I am so hungry, but we can do this.”
Week 2: “Maybe I should take a ‘fasting Sabbath’ on the weekends.”
Week 3: “I have intense filming days, perhaps I should fast at night.”
Week 4: “I’m sick, I should go easy on the fasting.”
Week 5: “I don’t think I’ll be fasting anymore.”
Week 6: “Maybe next year we’ll try again.”

But no experience is wasted, not even a failed first attempt. And as much as I’m definitely no expert in fasting or the theology of fasting, here’s 3 things that surfaced for me through the hungry hours.

1. Man does not live by bread alone

Truth be told, I could live on bread alone – literally. I was never keen on fasting food because I really do love my food and the social activity that surrounds eating for me as an extrovert.

But when Jesus quoted Moses in Deuteronomy 8:3: “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord”, He reminds us that we are not just physical beings, but very much spiritual ones too.

For every spiritual meal I skip, my spirit actually experiences this same hunger, whether I consciously feel it or not.

I started realising how little I actually needed food to live – once I chose to set aside any solid food until 6PM every day, my body didn’t protest as violently as I’d imagined. In fact, there was a certain ease I could sense inside, that something greater was keeping me going through the day despite the lack of food.

Even after many years of being a Christian, it was still an awakening to see so clearly through fasting how spiritual hunger looked like – parallel to physical hunger – and to realise that for every spiritual meal I skipped, my spirit actually experienced this same emptiness, whether I consciously felt it or not.

Just imagine what spiritual hangriness manifests itself as, in us. (Probably not too different from actual hangriness I’m guessing.)

2. Hunger whets your spiritual appetite

Fasting became a bit like Pavlov’s dog experiment for me. Every time I felt hunger pangs, I’d pray instead of look for food. And it taught me that every kind of physical or emotional appetite could be tied back to my spiritual one, if I intentionally conditioned myself through constant practice.

You see, fasting isn’t going without food to please God or win brownie points with Him. It’s an intentional focus on the spiritual being that I am.

Extended hunger got me hungry for God’s intervention in the various struggles of life, praying with desperation, almost, for Him to fill the emptiness.

Just as God let the Israelites hunger so that He could be the one to feed them (Deuteronomy 8:3), I allow myself to hunger so that my inner man is constantly crying out to be fed by the only One who satisfies.

Extended hunger, then, gradually becomes a stirring of the spiritual appetite. It got me hungry for God’s intervention in the various struggles of life, praying with desperation, almost, for Him to fill the emptiness reverberating in my physical, emotional and spiritual being.

I know it’s called a fast, but what it really allows us to do is slow down to digest what the Spirit is saying to us. Fasting creates space – not just tummy space or head space – but heart space for us to invite God in to move and feed the starving parts of our soul.

3. Physical weakness, spiritual strength

Although I should have been way more disciplined with the fasting, I noticed a strange phenomenon immediately after I’d skipped a day or two and chosen to have all my meals: I felt weak on the inside. It was as if my appetites had been reversed, and my spiritual one had become the more salient one.

Yes, I was no longer hungry on the outside, but just as Daniel proved when he grew healthier than his contemporaries while living off vegetables and water instead of rich food and wine (Daniel 1:8-16), fasting is very much spiritual feasting.

Our spiritual hunger can thus be felt that much more after the season of extended feasting ends. (That’s if you’re not just skipping a meal, but replacing your eating time with more “God time”.)

I observed a spiritual spike in my attunement to God’s voice, like I’d tapped into a much clearer channel on the divine network.

So what fasting had done, even over a short span of time, was redirect all that energy and attention to my spiritual muscles, such that even as I felt slightly weaker from a reduced calorie intake, I’d never felt more well-fed or stronger internally. And this peace within definitely radiates outwards.

I honestly could observe a spiritual spike in my attunement to God’s voice, like I’d tapped into a much clearer channel on the divine network. It was like I’d stepped closer into the heart of God, a place of consciousness where I could hear His thoughts that much louder, that much faster.

But all this meant nothing once I started losing focus of the true reasons for fasting and let it slip into an obligatory “here-we-go-again”, “I-need-to-just-last-till-6PM”, don’t-tempt-me-I’m-fasting” mode.

As we can observe in Isaiah 58:5-6, fasting according to God isn’t about suffering but submitting ourselves to Him. We’re setting aside a whole season to intentionally untangle ourselves from the pull of our humanly appetites so that we don’t live at the mercy of their intensity, but under God’s authority alone.

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” (Isaiah 68:6)

If we focus on the methods and technicalities – and so easily, then, the hunger in our bellies – we’re not contending for freedom from the bonds of sin, loosening the grasp of brokenness on our lives, or breaking the yoke of slavery to our carnal nature.

We’re not fasting at this point, guys – we’re on a diet.

We are so weak compared to our earthly inclinations to sin, and we need so much of God to sustain us.

With diets, we’re exercising sheer willpower to refrain from feeding our natural desires; but in a fast, we’re relying on more than willpower: We’re remembering we are dust; we are so weak compared to our earthly inclinations to sin, and we need so much of God to sustain us — more than we could ever ask for or imagine (Ephesians 3:20).

And that might have been why I gave up so quickly: My capacity for God is still so small. My being didn’t completely feel its desperate need for Him like my body craved food and water.

But here’s the happy ending to this story: My food fasting journey has finally begun.

/ joanne@thir.st

Joanne is a bundle of creative energy commonly heard before she is seen. She believes in the triune power of good conversation, brilliant writing and bold ideas. She also likes milo.

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The psalm of my broken heart

by Lizzy Lee | 3 August 2018, 4:53 PM

Anxiety and depression.

This article will contain pictures of pages from my journal, entries from earlier this year. I have journaled since I was a child. I journal not to capture a forever snapshot of how I feel, but ironically, to make the thoughts disappear.

It’s safer to put all of this on paper, writing to God, rather than unleashing them on some poor unsuspecting human who won’t know what’s about to hit them. I almost never revisit what I write again.

Anxiety and depression aren’t always visible.

It’s often invisible. People can look 100% okay, be 100% coherent and socially functional. I have a friend who recently confided that there are days she has to consciously decide she’s not going to jump. And this is a person who is going to get married, has a successful career and much to look forward to in life.

While I do not consider myself depressed nor suicidal, there are times the Devil does have his shrewd ways of making me believe there’s no point in living – that I should just off myself. These voices don’t really surprise me now. After all, I started cutting myself and made a suicide pact when I was 14.

But I have come to recognise the cycles of despair that like to make their rounds in my life at uninvited intervals for what they are.

Cycles, seasons – that end. These cycles and seasons of despair end. But your life doesn’t have to.

The emotions and accusations may come.

But they don’t have to mean that you’ve fallen off the fragile boardwalk of normalcy, back into the murky clinging depths that want to drown you.

When they come for me, I remember how the boardwalk of my life has blossomed into something solid, beautiful and indestructible. And these splashes that come from the depths are desperately trying to drag me down again, but they no longer have the power to do so. They’re just trying to make me believe that they’re still as powerful as they once were. But they are not.

These cycles and seasons of despair end. But your life doesn’t have to.

This journey looks different for everyone. And I know it’s hard. The voices in your head seem impossible to shut out. You may feel like you are numbly cruising through reality without ever being fully present.

But you are not alone. We all have coping mechanisms. I’m just sharing mine. Compartmentalising and understanding that the negative emotions and whispers to end my life aren’t a sign that I am losing my mind.

The difference now is that I can let them pass through, rather than set up the guest bedroom for them to stay and get comfy again.

And that’s why I always journal to Jesus.

Once the verbal diarrhoea is out of the way, it’s a very Psalms-like experience. I feel like David whinging about his misery, before ending off by submitting it all to the Lord.

This is a world where hope is scarce. And my only hope is Him. I cannot will myself out of misery. But I choose the rescue boat of believing that if there is any hope in this dismal world, it is Him. And that is why my mantra has always been  – and will possibly always be  –  that Jesus is enough for me.

This was for the person convinced that he or she is alone, and that they’re the only ones going crazy – that no one is going to understand because your life looks “totally fine” on the outside.

The dark doesn’t have to win. It will get better. Find a counsellor. Find someone to talk to. It’s okay to get help. It’s okay to not be able to hold the facade together. You are not alone.


This article was first published on Lizzy’s blog, and is republished with permission.

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I’m a female leader and my cell group is full of NS boys

by | 1 August 2018, 6:31 PM

I have the privilege of leading a young adult cell group in my church, and it has been a very fulfilling journey with them so far.

The cell is mostly made up of boys serving their National Service (NS) in diverse vocations. Each one’s NS journey is unique and as a female leader, it’s refreshing to hear different perspectives of NS from each of them.

Although they’re not new to the faith, they are very new to each other. My co-leader and I had to be intentional about building a community and thankfully, the NS experience is a topic that has bonded the boys easily.

It has been very encouraging to see those who have been in NS longer, guiding the recruits within the cell and giving them advice. My hope for them now is that this support goes beyond the needs of NS — that they will disciple each other as well.

Just before they enlist, I always pray over them to enter the army as a boy — but leave as a man and warrior.

Having a cell that is primarily comprised of NS boys does come with its difficulties.

As it’s a challenge for them to attend cell and service, I’m always comforted when I see them try because I know they are making sacrifices to be there. It’s natural that they are physically and mentally exhausted from the week in camp and want their precious weekends. Furthermore, life’s other priorities like family and friends also come into play.

But I’m not merely concerned with their attendance in cell and service attendance. My greater concern is whether they are walking with God as they serve the nation. And as mentioned, the exhaustion and fatigue they experience are unrivalled, so they may be more vulnerable to the temptations they face in the NS context.

So that’s been my journey of late. If you’re a female cell leader of NS boys like me, or would simply like to better support your friends in NS — I can offer two practical tips.

TWO STEPS TO WALK WELL WITH SOLDIERS

1. Learn about NS sincerely

BMT, JCC, Cat 1, OCS, SCS, PES and PTE … The list of acronyms was almost unending. These are just some of the acronyms we would hear regularly, and it was really confusing for us girls in the cell.

And yes, it can get tedious after a few weekends of hearing them share the same things or rant about their platoon and superior officers. But honestly, the same goes for many of our own stories and testimonies! As much as their experiences may seem distant, they bear a lot of similarities to the journeys in our own lives — just in a different context.

I’m sure our cell’s sharing could just as easily have been dominated by the “struggling with studies” narrative. A working adult may repeatedly share about a difficult boss at work. The point is, cellmates still listen, encourage and pray for each other earnestly — that’s how community is fostered.

Don’t let an unfamiliar situation deter you from getting to know your cell members better!

… listen, encourage and pray for each other earnestly — that’s how community is fostered.

Beyond listening to them share, there are other methods of understanding their experiences. I found Youtube videos on the NS experience by the Ministry of Defence particularly helpful. They helped me to have a better understanding of what Basic Military Training (BMT), Officer Cadet School (OCS) and the Naval Diving Unit (NDU) looked like.

Granted, they don’t show everything that will happen in the army. Seeing how they get tekan-ed by their superiors in an environment where there is no room for mercy and grace helps me understand some of the frustrations they carry into the weekend. And it pushes all of us at cell to extend mercy and grace towards them as well.

2. Cover them!

Prayer is the key.

Just before they enlist, I always pray over them to enter the army as a boy — but leave as a man and warrior. It’s a prayer of expectancy for them and for myself, the hope is that they would let the Lord challenge and grow them exponentially in the army.

It also pushes me not to take on a passive role of listener but also to point them back to Christ as they are challenged physically and mentally. So instead of simply listening and asking generic questions about their week, I find questions like, “Where do you see God in this situation?” or “How is God challenging you then?” a lot more productive.

Responding sensitively and clearly does mean you must take the time and effort to intercede and pray for them during the week. Making time to meet them outside of church whenever they can, to minister to them, also helps keep them accountable as well.

I also encourage them to find mentors in church. I know there are limits to the insight a female leader can provide for them. NS challenges them physically and mentally but it also brings aspects of freedom they might not have had as teenagers. Until they acknowledge that true freedom is found in Christ and live with the peace and wisdom the Lord pours into their lives, they may be easily swayed by the thrills that come with army life.

To enter the army as a soldier and leave as a warrior for Christ. Let’s back our boys up — those at the front-line need our support from the base!

/ samanthaloh@thir.st

Samantha is a creative who is inspired by the people and stories around her. She also loves striped tees and would love to pass her collection down to her future children. Currently level 1127 on Candy Crush.

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Article list

The upside-down logic of God

Bishop Rennis Ponniah: Are we hungry for revival?

Even if I don’t speak English, I’m just the same as you

Hunger, upsized: My first taste of fasting food

The psalm of my broken heart

I’m a female leader and my cell group is full of NS boys