What’s In a Name?

A few weeks ago, when my husband and I traveled down to Boston to pick up our daughter at Logan airport, I noticed a very large sign on a Roman Catholic Church along the way, in Revere.

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I’ve been noticing other similar signs, all about the business of inviting, welcoming, even cajoling, people to visit, to attend, to “come back” to church. I can’t help but wonder about the effectiveness of the signage. Are there people who drive by and experience a sudden pang of guilt, realizing that they can’t remember the last time they went to church, then thinking that maybe it’s time they should?

At Old South, we’ve been talking—a bit—about our sign in the front of our church. Under our very long name, Old South Congregational Church United Church of Christ, the sign includes a message of welcome, along with a rainbow symbol, to indicate our open and affirming status. The last time we updated the sign, a few years ago, there was some discussion about that rainbow symbol. Wasn’t it enough simply to use the words “open and affirming”? I had argued at the time that it wasn’t nearly enough to use just the words, since lots of people have no idea what “open and affirming” means. The symbol, however, would convey a much clearer message. In the end, they agreed to include the symbol.

There’s another part of our sign, though, that’s getting an increasing amount of my attention: congregational. No one knows what that word means anymore. And I’m not just talking about people outside the church. There are clearly people on the inside who really have no idea what the word means either. And it’s a long word that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

It’s a problem. When we offer our welcome, what exactly are we welcoming people to?

The church in Revere with its stark, ginormous sign probably experiences not nearly as much confusion about what it is as we do in our little congregational church in Maine. Roman Catholics have a well-known brand. We Congregationalists, not so much. Although there are quite a few Congregational churches in Maine (and in the Northeast in general), we don’t necessarily have much of anything in common with each other. We are not even all part of the same denomination. It’s confusing, even for those of us who are active, faithful members of our own local church.

These days, when “outside” people encounter our full name, they almost always think it says “congressional” rather than “congregational.” This is not only troubling to me (what sort of people would have a “congressional” church??), but it offers an important clue suggesting a serious problem with the name so proudly and clearly displayed on the sign erected on our front lawn.

What to do about this situation is not at all clear. Names, after all, are important, and the confusion that is experienced may not be dispelled simply through a name change. It’s certainly part of our job to make clear who we are and what we do. That Trader Joe’s, for example, sells groceries is not at all clear by its name. Yet, most people know exactly what Trader Joe’s does because Trader Joe’s has been very good at marketing itself.

To change our name, or to begin a more aggressive marketing campaign—or both—is not simply about encouraging those “out there” to come join us. It would also be a good way of figuring out for ourselves who we are and what we are about. And, that would be a very good thing.

 

 

 

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A Different Sort of Eclipse

I took a short break from my vacation last Sunday to lead worship at Old South. When I told the church secretary a few weeks ago that she could call off the supply search (for the first time in a dozen years, we could not find anyone to cover worship for me that day), I thought it not such a big deal to lead worship. I wasn’t planning on being away last weekend anyway. And, I could “recycle” an old sermon from the vast treasure trove. Easy.

Then, lots of things happened, including Charlottesville. Recycled sermon: out. I read the Pastoral Letter sent out by the Council of Conference Ministers and Officers of the United Church of Christ, strongly condemning “the acts of violent hatred expressed by these white supremacists, Neo-Nazis, and Ku Klux Klan members.” The letter also contained an exhortation: “Our local UCC churches must be true solidarity partners with those who march in the streets.  Our UCC churches are encouraged to move from the sanctuary and walk alongside other clergy and community leaders who seek to resist, agitate, inform, and comfort. We must resist hatred and violence.”

While I wasn’t planning to start marching during worship, I thought a sermon would be a good place to remind us of the significance of resisting hatred and violence. Easy.

Easy to condemn racism, white nationalism, white supremacists, the KKK and Neo-Nazis. Easy to condemn the response from the President, regarding the “many sides.” And, easier still, to condemn Maine’s Governor, who supported the President’s statement, asserting that both sides were “equally violent,” somehow missing the point that the side that started it holds some deeply disturbing ideas about what the United States should strive to be.

Easy.

But, as Sunday approached, and I continued to explore the subject and read up the issues at hand, I started not so much to get cold feet, but to be filled with a sort of sad sense of irrelevancy.

While I would love to think that what I have to say, what we have to say, as Old South Congregational Church United Church of Christ of Hallowell Maine, to speak up against bigotry and hatred, racism and a whole host of other isms, and to know that it means something, and that our words and witness would go beyond our own community, it also seems painfully clear that what’s going on in the country right now is another distressing indicator of the sidelining of religion, and Christianity.

Today’s proponents of white supremacy, the “alt right,” don’t turn to the Bible for guidance. In fact, religion is not a major factor, not a place for inspiration for them.

The language of the church, the language of love and justice, the language of Judeo-Christian values of right and wrong, is no longer a language that offers an effective counterpoint to their hatred and bigotry. In the past, groups that sought racial purity turned, at least in part, to scriptures to find support for their warped and twisted views of how humans should organize themselves. Churches and church leaders could confront vile hatred with the very same scriptures. That’s no longer how it works.

The Church has been eclipsed.

Let me be clear in stating that this doesn’t mean that the Church, its leaders and its people, should be silent or should fade into some sort of corner, in the face of those who wish to “Unite the Right.” But, it does mean that we need to approach these issues differently. It’s not enough, I would suggest, simply to state things like “God is love,” etc. Instead, we need to dig deep into our stories, and into our scriptures, and to be clearer on why we think and why we believe that “God is love.”

In Maine, we are especially aware of the sidelining of Christianity, and religion in general. To offer an effective voice, we can no longer assume that people know anything about religion, about the practices and perspectives of those of us who go to church, beyond the stereotypes that have become so prevalent.

In an article (“Breaking Faith”) in the April 2017 edition of The Atlantic, Peter Beinart observed, “When pundits describe the Americans who sleep in on Sundays, they often conjure left-leaning hipsters. But religious attendance is down among Republicans, too. According to data assembled for me by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), the percentage of white Republicans with no religious affiliation has nearly tripled since 1990. This shift helped Trump win the GOP nomination. During the campaign, commentators had a hard time reconciling Trump’s apparent ignorance of Christianity and his history of pro-choice and pro-gay-rights statements with his support from evangelicals. But as Notre Dame’s Geoffrey Layman noted, ‘Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.’”

Beinart also pointed to Milo Yiannopoulos and Allum Bokhari’s Breitbart.com essay, “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right.”  The essay in question contained five references to “tribe,” seven to “race,” 13 to “the west” and “western” and only one to “Christianity.”  The alt-right, Beinart concluded, “is ultra-conservatism for a more secular age.”

For people of faith, the challenges of today are not the same challenges faced by the church in years past. During previous clashes involving race and culture, churches and church leaders held a certain level of moral weight, and were recognized as significant participants.

While churches are not often of the same voice, nor have churches, their leaders and people, consistently found themselves on the side of justice and the Golden Rule, churches and church leaders have been a vital voice in recognizing and lifting up our common humanity. Churches have provided significant, theologically-based, approaches to those places of struggle, with such powerful practices as forgiveness, reconciliation, and nonviolence.

What happens now, when churches and Christianity, have been eclipsed? And, what are people of faith being called to do? How do we resist when those who spew hatred not only no longer share a common language, but more than that, have rejected the language and concepts of Christianity, as well as other religions?

We are in a different place. We cannot simply reach into the past and pull out what we’ve done and used in the past, and think they will be effective weapons against the hatred of today. In this new more secular age, we must forge a new awareness and a new sense of who we are and what and why we believe. This isn’t just about simply walking alongside, resisting hatred and violence. We must also renew our understanding of why we believe we are called to do so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Vacationing in Vacationland

There’s a lot going on in the world right now, and I will get to that in a few days, but right now I’m on vacation.  For the first time in many years,  my vacation has been spent almost entirely in Maine.  Since I live here, I often forget that Maine is “vacationland” for all sorts of people, with hordes of people pouring into the state throughout the summer months.  While my family and I usually spend a bit of our vacation time in Maine, that time is usually dwarfed by a much more significant trip with family to a distant place.

Our almost annual trip to spend a few days with friends on an island off the coast of Maine has been the focus of our vacation time this summer.  The island is off of Swans Island, off Mt. Desert.  It’s a bit complicated to get to the island– a drive to Bass Harbor, then the ferry to Swans, and then a small boat from Swans to the small island.  The island has an old farmhouse, and an old cottage, and a newer cabin that sits near the water’s edge.  There’s no electricity, but all of the buildings have ranges and refrigerators powered with propane.  Water must be hauled from the well and there’s no indoor plumbing.

It’s a lovely respite from the normal crazy busyness of our lives, and an opportunity to remind ourselves of the beauty of God’s creation right here in our home state.

The view from the cottage, where my husband, daughter and I stayed:

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We watched lobster-people hard at work each day, and enjoyed a small bit of that work for one of our dinners:

There’s really nothing like feasting on lobsters that were caught just that day.

We hiked trails covered with moss,  as well as trails that that took us over large rocks and  fields of small rocks.

We gathered blueberries, for pancakes and cobbler, and listened to the sound of the gong buoy, as it echoed the rhythm of the harbor.

We had the time to pause to enjoy the sight of wildflowers, and an occasional butterfly sitting atop a thistle.

And, to notice what happens when the water of the sea meets land.

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“Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it.  Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy.”  (Psalm 96:11-12, NRSV)

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Where’s Christ in the United Church of Christ?

I recently attended a funeral (actually, a “memorial service”) at a United Church of Christ church not far from my own church. The service was for a woman I had known fairly well, a woman who was a very active and faithful member of that particular church.

In the course of the entire memorial service there was hardly a mention of Jesus or Christ, except for maybe in the hymns that we sang. Instead of a sermon or homily, the service had a “reflection,” which was a well-crafted catalogue of the deceased woman’s life. If there were vague suggestions of “God,” they were tepid, at best. Even the prayers didn’t seem explicitly Christian.

We could have been anywhere, any sort of gathering place, remembering a special person who had died. It was as if the church had simply been a place where the woman had spent her volunteer time, instead of a place that had nurtured her spirit, had provided shape to her life of faith, had helped foster her relationship with her Creator, and conveyed the promises held in the death and resurrection, and in the lessons and parables, of Christ.

As I sat in that sanctuary, slowly seething with frustration, I remembered that this was not the first time for this sort of experience, attending a memorial service with little religious content and even less explicitly Christian content. I had been to a similar memorial service at another local United Church of Christ church a couple of years ago.

A day or two after this most recent memorial service experience, I attended a meeting that included a Maine Conference staff person—a clergy person—and shared my frustration of the seemingly “non-Christian” funeral. This particular person, despite being a leader in the Conference, did not share my consternation.

And then, at yet another Conference related meeting, I was told that the senior pastor at one of Maine’s largest UCC churches had shared the reflection that if they were to go back to do this all over again, they would more likely be a pastor in the Unitarian Universalist tradition.

When I was a student at Harvard Divinity School many years ago, we often heard the joke that UCC stood for “Unitarians Considering Christ.” In recent weeks, I’ve started to wonder if we are actually considering. Or, if we have made up our minds: we’ve considered and we’ve opted against Christ. We like Jesus well enough, to some extent anyway, but the Christ part maybe goes too far.

In Central Maine, an area where church attendance and affiliation is low, it is tempting to tone down the overtly Christian stuff. It can be risky, after all. I remember a memorial service that I led about a decade ago, for a family member of one of my most active church members. The family member who had died had not regularly attended church, nor did most of the family. But, his daughter did, and she was the one I had in mind in crafting the service. In the middle of my homily, where I did talk about Christ and the cross, at least one family member actually made an audible sound of derision.

At Old South, we have quite a few members—myself included—who often struggle with what it means to believe in, to follow, to have an attachment to Christ. We don’t pretend that isn’t going on. But, just because we struggle doesn’t mean that we end up letting go altogether. Instead, we are a community of people who invite doubts and questions—and wonder too. We do so openly and honestly, without judgment, but rather with a sense of deepening wisdom, grace and faith, as we grapple with the compelling, yet mysterious, story of God incarnate.

It has begun to feel that what we do at Old South is not widely shared. Instead, we seem to be a part of the Maine Conference United Church of Something, we don’t know what, maybe nothing.

No wonder we in the United Church of Christ are losing members at an alarming rate. Who wants to be a part of an organization—and a church no less—that doesn’t know what it is or why it exists?

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Being a Weed in a World Full of Roundup

After a weekend off, I’m back in the pulpit this Sunday. I’ll be preaching from the lectionary Gospel passage, the series of small statements from Matthew regarding what the kingdom of heaven is like—a mustard seed, yeast, etc.

I’m quite fond of the notion that the kingdom of heaven is like a weed or an invasive plant, as is the mustard plant. Although I’m not much of a gardener, every spring I find myself battling a certain weed that likes to lurk in one of my beds of perennials. It’s one of those weeds with runners. I’m forced to gently tug on the plant, and then try to keep hold of the runner, following it to the next place where it’s decided to spring roots and to tangle my lovely garden. Although I can usually keep the weed at bay for much of the spring, by the start of summer, I’m forced to admit defeat.

While I don’t relish the experience of admitting defeat every year, this annual struggle offers a nice metaphor for one of the ways through which the people of God ought to consider their work, and their life of faith. Let us be weeds! Let us be invasive plants! The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed; “it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

I appreciated the column by Matt Skinner this week on WorkingPreacher.org. In that piece, Mr. Skinner contends that “the work of Christian ministry usually has a furtive aspect about it—simply because it’s the nature of God’s reign to sneak in unannounced or to undermine what appeared to be unquestionable foundations.” He goes on, “What is the reign of heaven like? It’s like a surreptitious act, like implanting an undetectable virus that will transform a whole body.”

This is a helpful way of thinking about who we are and what we do. It’s even more useful as we at Old South consider what it means for us to be church in central Maine. In our context, it can feel like we get squeezed on multiple fronts. In the very secular environment of Hallowell and its surrounding communities, Old South is sometimes perceived (by those who don’t know us well) in a negative way, as a sort of stereotype, as if all Christian churches are essentially the same, sharing beliefs and expectations for behavior and relationship. But, at the same time, we don’t fit in with the growing Christian churches in our area, like the Southern Baptist church in Augusta and another Baptist church in Hallowell, who hold very different views and interpretations of the Bible than we do.

It’s important that we re-orient how we do our work as the people of God, as followers of Christ. Our smallness is not always a liability. Sometimes it’s an asset. The kingdom of heaven is like something small—a pearl, a pinch of yeast, a treasure hidden in a field.

In our smallness, we may feel vulnerable to those things around us that seem to want to kill us. The job of planting the seeds of the kingdom of heaven is a risky one, and there are those around us who do not wish for anything like the kingdom of heaven to take root. We may often sense that we are not welcome, and that weed killers imperil us. This is where it’s good to try to be weed-like, furtive, a little sneaky.

As people of faith, we are called to embrace small things, resisting the temptation to worry that we are not big enough, or that our small acts of faithfulness will not take root anywhere. It is simply not our job to worry about how the kingdom grows, but to continue to do the work, to trust our relationship with the God who calls us together.

The kingdom of heaven is like something small, something like us. Amen to that.

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Post Synod Reflection #3: At the Edges of Our Big Tent

The United Church of Christ proudly declares, “No Matter Who You Are, No Matter Where You Are On Life’s Journey, You Are Welcome Here.” In reality, this is more a goal than a statement of fact. There are plenty of ways in which the sense of welcome is tepid, at best. And, there are places where the denomination—particularly at the national level— is not especially welcoming to and for those whose values and perspectives are different from what appears to be the majority.

The efforts of welcome are a good and noble goal, but it is important that those of us in the United Church of Christ continue to work diligently toward this objective, paying close attention to those opportunities where we are confronted by the reality of our not so welcoming attitude concerning those whose opinions, life stories and circumstances, are very different from our own. The United Church of Christ is, in many ways, a big tent sort of place. But, without vigilance—as well as a thoughtful, reflective, and humble attitude—we can easily become just another small tent denomination, with a motto that is dangerously inaccurate.

At General Synod 31 this year, I discovered several places where we danced on the edges of our “big tent,” where the welcome of differing perspectives and opinions was especially fraught. There were two places, in particular, that offered a lens through which we may reflect on the denomination, and its ability to engage with what it means to be a welcoming church, motivated by the reckless love that Jesus himself shared.

In one instance, significant common ground was discovered. In another, not so much.

I’ve written about the first one already: the committee and resolution regarding corporal punishment in homes and institutions. When the members of the Maine delegation received our committee assignments, the person in the delegation who was assigned to this committee was very pleased. How hard could this be? “We’ll be done in 5 minutes!” he declared. After the first round of committee meetings, I bumped into him. He wasn’t so happy anymore. What seemed like an easy issue turned out to be not so easy. In the work of the committee, he was confronted by some realities that he had never thought about before.

After a great deal of discussion and deliberation, where considerable truth telling took place and, with that, a lot of listening and absorbing, a new awareness came to many of those who served on that committee. When the resolution came to the full floor, it was clearly evident that this “easy issue” was indeed thorny and complicated. I know I was not the only person to learn something new and to gain a new sensitivity about the lives of people whose circumstances are very different from my own.

In the other instance, where there was a clear clash of perspectives, involved more of clash of generations—the older generation versus millennials. In one of the resolutions (assigned to Committee 12, “Toward Disability Justice: A Call to the Church and Churches”), the word “intersectionality” was used (urging the national and other settings “to develop an active response to the intersectionality of race and disability in relation to police brutality . . .”). The member of the Maine delegation assigned to this committee was one of our older members. In committee, she had asked for the word “impact” to be added to the sentence where “intersectionality” was found, as in “impact and intersectionality.” The suggestion went nowhere. So, she brought it up again when the resolution hit the full floor. As soon as that happened, it seemed that every millennial in the large convention hall lined up in opposition.

Among those who spoke up were young people who talked about any addition to the sentence “diminishing” what the sentence was trying to convey. Another young person talked about how important the word “intersectionality” is to her generation. Sensing that there were people in the hall who didn’t understand the word (because if they did, they obviously wouldn’t want to mess with it) this particular speaker made no attempt to define the word for those of us who were clueless, but instead suggested that if there were people in the audience who didn’t understand what the word means, “they should look it up on Google.”

In the end, “intersectionality” was left to stand by itself, yet with a fair number of people still not knowing what in the world it meant, but now especially reluctant to ask, lest another millennial tell them how stupid they are.

Generational clashes are certainly not new, or unexpected. But, in our church setting, it’s disconcerting to experience so much derision from one generation to another. If our goal is to be truly “welcoming,” it seems clear to me that we need to find ways of allowing our toes to be stepped on, from time to time, and to enter into different ways of speaking to, and with, each other.

If nothing else, such an approach would be a significant and remarkable witness in these days where people seem more comfortable shouting at each other, rather than in engaging in dialogue.

The clash of generations displayed at Synod was a problematic moment for me. While I didn’t expect an absence of such moments, this one seemed to end with no sense or undertone of communal regret for what had transpired. In our church setting writ large, we must be particularly conscious of the ways in which we listen and the ways through which we speak. If we—as individuals and as community—truly mean to be welcoming, we must seek a deeper awareness of the limits of our own context, as we attempt to engage in meaningful dialogue with others, whose contexts and experiences are very different from our own. A part of this dialogue is the creation of “safe space” where people are allowed to say things that others may find insensitive and even offensive. This is the only way to build meaningful bridges of awareness and knowledge.

Welcome cannot just be a nice sounding motto, something that we somehow expect from others while simply assuming for ourselves. For our “big tent” that encourages welcome of all, no matter where one is on life’s journey, no matter who one is, we must do a better job of living out that welcome, and making it real. This is a mission, and ministry, for each and every one, and for all of us together.

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Post Synod Reflection #2: Pointing Fingers

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Do you remember that saying about pointing a finger? That while you are pointing your finger, you actually have three fingers pointing back at yourself?

There’s a truth in that, and an aspect of that truth that is part of the United Church of Christ. And, it ought to cause a fair amount of concern.

Near the end of General Synod this year, while we were debating the last set of resolutions on the floor—after the resolutions had been discussed, debated and altered during committee work—we found ourselves at an important moment of truth, our own truth. The issue was a resolution that had come from two separate resolutions that were combined in committee. The issues were: advocating for a minimum wage of $15.00 per hour, and a call to promote a living wage.

In the committee presentation and on the floor, we heard about the significance of holding employers and our communities to higher standards for how employees are paid. While concerns were raised regarding the differences around the country of what constitutes a “living wage” as well as the impact of a higher minimum wage on small businesses, the resolution seemed destined for passage. Many people had spoken passionately about the “justice” of a living wage in the United States.

And, then, someone approached the microphone to highlight a part of the resolution that hadn’t received much attention up to that point: the call to our local churches to look at our own patterns of compensation. How many of our churches are paying a living wage? How many of our churches are paying $15 an hour to secretaries, sextons, and other employees? And what about clergy?

We’re very good at telling other people what to do, but what about us? How are we living into the spirit of this resolution? How are we ourselves, in our local churches, witnessing to the God’s “justice” of a living wage? As we point our finger, do we recognize our own fingers pointed back at ourselves?

The murmur of assent could be heard through the hall. While not everyone was pleased with the “moment of truth,” it was an important moment. The United Church of Christ is indeed good at pointing fingers, while it isn’t so good at recognizing the fingers often pointed back at itself.

To be fair, there were resolutions at this year’s Synod that spoke directly to churches, associations, and to clergy. Examples of such resolutions: advocating cultural diversity training for authorized ministers, and “disability justice,” which involves calling for churches to “include persons with disabilities in their ministries and social justice witness.”

Still, some of the most impassioned items of business involved how the General Synod of the UCC should speak to other entities, or should speak up for certain groups of people—most of which involved the pointing of a communal finger of scorn. While I listened to the varieties of finger pointing, I was reminded of the words from Isaiah 58 (9b-10): “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.”

As someone who has spent most of my ministry career paying only casual attention to what happens at Synod every other year, I can’t help but wonder about what was actually accomplished at Synod, as we delegates debated, discussed, wrestled and voted. In our “nonhierarchical” way of doing things, General Synod cannot speak for local churches, associations and conferences. General Synod speaks to the various ways in which we gather. So, there we are, pointing fingers while not fully acknowledging the fingers pointed back at ourselves.

I wonder about how we spoke to each other at Synod and how our witness at Synod speaks for itself. While there were some significant moments of speaking and listening (I’ll admit here that, though it was far from perfect, the back and forth of speaking and listening was notable), we still have a long way to go in living out our claim that “God is still speaking”—without incessantly turning to finger pointing.

God IS still speaking. The questions are: how well do we listen, especially in large groups? How well do we make room for the Spirit, especially when the hour is late or when we’ve been sitting in the same chairs for hours or when we largely agree on an issue, but there’s a lone brave voice that speaks up in disagreement? How do we witness ourselves to the claims for justice that appear to concern us so greatly? Are we able to acknowledge the fingers that point back to our own selves?

It may be that in our finger pointing we lose an important part of what it means for us to gather as church, as God’s people. Perhaps if we were to point less often, if we were to endeavor, in different ways, to satisfy the needs of the afflicted—to witness by example rather than by decree or statement— perhaps then we would find that our witness would be much more powerful, that in the midst of the gloom, we would be, even more wonderfully, part of the rising of God’s light instead.

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