The Fishing Pier – A Study in Community

“Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” Jesus of Nazareth

In recent days Patty and I have been walking on the Jacksonville Beach Fishing Pier.  The pier is a quarter of a mile long and offers Patty a safe and stable environment to walk as she builds her strength and endurance since her back surgery.  We walk the pier daily, often twice a day.  We both love walking on the pier.

In my strange role as a missionary/counselor I love observing group dynamics.  On the pier we have discovered a model for community that I believe the Christian community can learn from.  Here are some of my observations.

On the pier – it’s about the fishing!  Visitors are welcome to come and observe, but the Pier community is there to fish.  I personally have gone from a walker/observer (seeker) to a (novice) fisherman.  I have been welcomed in!  In fact I am in Tasmania as I write this and as Patty continues her daily pier walking the “regulars” have been asking where I am!  It feels good to be missed and looked for.

The Pier community is wonderfully multicultural.  With the common interest of fishing we find many races and ethnic groups represented.  Each group seems to maintain its own diverse flavor, while at the same time there is a unity that is formed around the common love of fishing.  The groups mix easily together and share ideas about bait, what fish are running and their own unique tips on how to catch the big ones.  Information and resources are easily shared.  The pier is high off the water and there is a danger is losing a big fish as you pull it up over railing.  There are round nets on ropes that can be lowered to scoop up the big fish and bring them safely in.  Not everyone has such a net.  But when a “big one” has been caught someone always finds the closest net and helps the ecstatic fisherman land his catch.

The Fishing Pier community is also made up of all ages and stages.  There are young folks sporting their latest tattoos as well as older folks with wrinkled brows and twinkling eyes.  It is also a community of men and women, boys and girls.  Like all healthy communities there are also the elders.  I mentioned above how I moved from seeker to novice.  I did so at the encouragement of the elders of the community.  The elders have no titles and have nothing to prove.  They simply love fishing and love to help others (novices and observers) also fall in love with fishing and they freely share their experience and wisdom.  There is not a hint of pride involved but just a humble, wizened confidence that has grown over the years of practicing the art of fishing.

I really enjoy the fact that when anyone catches a big fish, everybody rejoices!  They cheer each other on.  One moment was especially heartwarming for me. An older man caught a very nice fish with the assistance of another community member he had never met.  As I talked with him, congratulating him, he said with glistening eyes that he last fish he’d caught was when he was a little boy with his dad.  The moment was deep and emotional.  Oh how I could relate to that one.

There are legal limits on the various fish that are caught.  The community does a darn good job of making sure the limits are honored and respected.  When a fish is caught outside the legal limits they quickly throw it back.  If the fisherman is new to fishing, the community will explain the limits and even why they are imposed.  I heard of one time when one of the community members kept an illegal fish.  He tried to hide it but everyone knew and there is no doubt that the collective disapproval was felt by the culprit.  I have a feeling that was his last illegal fish.

The community is not perfect but it is healthy.  It is diverse yet lives in unity.  No one person or one group claims ownership of the pier. The elders gently help the others mature into better fisherman.  People freely share information, rejoice in the good catch of another and you can hear a collective groan when the big one gets away.  What make this happen so well?  They all love fishing!  We, the Christian community have much to learn.

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Why I Am a Christian

Most of you know that the focus of our work is primarily to those in who work in ministry.  We work with missionaries and ministries overseas (I leave for Tasmania in a few weeks) and local ministries as well.  Our domestic work is also extending in new directions and I now have the privilege of connecting to, and hopefully ministering to, those who do not yet have a relationship with the Savior.

Because of this work I am hearing the gloomy and painful way in which many people live their lives.  I am seeing relationships that started out with naïve romantic love, but lacking the Lord’s presence in their lives, these once hopeful relationships have turned into competitive pain-inflicting conflicts.  I am entering into the fray of those who live without the Truth to undergird and guide them, without a community of believers to support them and without Grace to free them.  Bitterness taints much because they cannot offer forgiveness to one another because they have not yet experienced forgiveness for themselves. These are people of the world.

I love the work and the moment by moment dependence I must have on the Lord’s guidance as I spend time with these lost ones He so dearly loves.  And I have found Him faithful.

Looking with great scrutiny at lives lived apart from Him, at lives lived in quiet and at times not-so-quiet desperation, has caused me to look with new eyes on the impact of the Lord on my own life.  Such times have caused me, with a new shimmering freshness, to value with deep gratitude the fact that I am a Christian.  Below are my thoughts on why I am a Christian and my deep hope for all that do not yet know our amazing, kindhearted, Life-Giving Lord.

The Lord drew me into grace many years ago.  At that time I was a broken man with broken dreams, a broken heart and a broken marriage.  When I come into contact today with marriages that are sad and painful I know without a shadow of a doubt, I am looking at what my destiny would have been, without the Lord’s intervention and impartation of grace, truth, love and acceptance.  Instead, by His grace, I have experienced the restoration of that which was broken and I have experienced redemption far beyond what I would have ever imagined.  My crazy life is far from perfect for sure; I am clearly still a work in progress, but by the Lord’s healing presence my life has purpose and my marriage is alive, strong, growing and fruitful.  Redemption and restoration are wonders, marvels in fact and mysterious miracles that clearly bear the signature of Jesus, but this is not why I am a Christian.

Before the Lord adopted me as His child and beckoned me as His bride, I lived in darkness.  Darkness is a metaphor for ‘hidden deception’.  Living in darkness is like being stuck in an unseen web of deceit.  Even though the fruit of such a life is bitter, sour, and even toxic; still there is a desire to believe the lie to be true. I was deceived but I did not know it.  “Truth”, Jesus articulated, “will make us free”. Truth is like Light.  Truth-Light reveals, shines, penetrates and dispels darkness (deception).  Truth-Light guides, directs, imparts and liberates. Truth brings Freedom. I see the lost children of the world living in deception and sadly experiencing the enslavement that comes by follow the philosophies of this present darkness.  If Truth brings freedom – and it does, it becomes evident that deception traps and entangles.  I thank the Lord that He has and continues to reveal His Truth to me and here is the cool thing; the very act of experiencing Truth gives us a thirst for even more Truth.  I can still remember my own slave days of deception and when I see others enslaved to that which does not bring life, my heart aches for their freedom. I love the liberty of Truth, but that is not why I am a Christian.

My list of why I am a Christian is virtually endless.  Included near the top of that list is that I have the privilege of being a part of a large, sprawling and somewhat odd family-community of believers.  It is a family-community that transcends cultures, countries and ethic bloodlines.  From them I find acceptance, companionship and a safe place to “work out my salvation”.   In community corporate worship takes on a dimension that I believe pleases the Lord and invigorates the heart of the worshiper.  In community “iron sharpens iron” we learn from one another, hearts are often healed, experiences are explored and revelation increases.  In community I also get to put into practice forgiving and being forgiven.   For all the richness that the community of believers offers, that is not why I am a Christian.

Why then am I a Christian?   It is because of Christ Himself!  It is the miracle of both knowing and being known by the Lord of creation.  It is experiencing a deeply personal and profoundly intimate relationship with the very Jesus who loves the lost and broken into healing and freedom.  It is knowing that there is One who knows me, every single part of me, every thought, every true motive, EVERYTHING and yet not only wants to be in relationship with me, but carved (and I mean a literal carving) out the way on His cross to make that possible.  It is having a growing, glorious, vibrant relationship with Him where over time it becomes a just a little easier to recognize His voice, to know His desires, to discern His ways.  It is knowing that He never changes.  It is knowing by faith, that when circumstances are tough and painful and I cannot find Him for the life of me – He is still there, no matter how I feel.  It is knowing that whatever value my life has, whatever purpose that I might fulfill, it is ultimately rooted and grounded in Him.  It is knowing that I am not here by accident or happenstance, but was desired by Him before the creation of the planet (Ephes. 1:4).  It is knowing that while this life is a mixed bag of wonderful and difficult, it is not the end of the story.  And it is knowing that one day, one glorious day – I will see HIM face to face!  He is why I am a Christian and He is what I long for all those who do not yet know HIM!

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Submarine Training

Train up a child in the way he should go, Even when he is old he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6)

It is not a new idea that when it comes to life education, more is caught than is taught.  It is the way we live our lives, not so much the formal moments of teaching that speak a much louder message and carry a greater weight of influence.  That is why St. Francis said “always preach the Gospel and when necessary use words”.  Wisdom indeed!

Like all parents I can review my history as a dad and see those places that cause me to groan a bit.  Those places that if I had a “do over” I would take it.  But the older I get the more I realize that we all received a mixed bag growing up.  Even the worst of parents imparted some good and the best parents also missed the mark from time to time.  I often hold tightly to the truth that says “love covers a multitude of sins (parental missing of the mark). The good news is that the Lord is well acquainted with our personal histories and as we lean into Him, embrace Him, hold fast to Him, His presence begins to redeem our pasts.

However, the other day, the Lord in His kindness, allowed me to experience something I invested into my daughter Emily.  Emily is now a wife and a mother of the two most amazing children (my grandchildren) on the planet.  I have written of them in previous blogs.  A couple of weeks ago Emily and family were here for a visit and we all gathered at the home of dear friends for a fun evening.  Our friends have a pool and Emily, her husband Mark and Oliver and Lucy were all having a great time swimming and splashing about.  It was a joy to watch.

Then all of a sudden I spied something that simultaneously brought tears to my eyes and drove up the corners of my mouth with a smile.  Emily and Oliver were playing submarine.  When Emily was Oliver’s age that was my pool game with her!  Emily would cling to my back.  I would dive under water and she would direct the submarine (me) by pulling my left ear to go left, my right ear to go right, and tugging on my hair to surface.  Along with tea parties at the bottom of the pool and Marco Polo, Submarine was our favorite pool activity and we played this game for hours and hours.  And suddenly there we were, many years later and Emily was playing the very same game with 3 year old Oliver.  It was wonderful.

There is a myth today that circles around which uses the phrase “quality time”.  The idea, fostered by those who live demanding lifestyles, is that you do not have  to take a lot time (quantity time) with your children, implying that time can be reserved for your career, but rather it is quality time that really matters.  Well, as nice as that sounds and as guilt relieving it may be – it is a false assumption.  Quality time occurs in the midst of quantity time.  The deeper security-building truths that we want our children to “catch”, like they are loved, valued, unique and desired both by us and their Father takes time to impart.  They are truths that are demonstrated more than taught.  This simply takes time.

Whether we are speaking about our children, grandchildren, our spouses or the friend-neighbor-coworker that we would love to see come to know our Lord, it will take an investment of time.  Time is a limited resource, what greater love-statement can we make than to invest it in another?

Emily gets this deep truth.  Her time-investments are wise. I have no doubt that one day Emily will stand on the side of a pool and watch her son train his child on how to pilot a submarine and perhaps how to navigate the journey of life!

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More Lessons From Oliver

Then Jesus said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes Me…(Luke 9:48)

Oliver is my 3 year old grandson and Oliver is my teacher (see my blog: Lessons From Oliver, May 2, 2011)

To be honest I am feeling a bit vulnerable at the moment.  I just returned from my doctor and I have a case of shingles – in my face.  Fun!  Very soon the calendar will force me to mark yet another year of existence.  There are current challenges to be faced, several.   Life on this planet continues to be a mixture of wonderful and difficult.  And then there is Oliver.

Oliver calls me Pepe.  My grandfather name was going to be Popsy, but evidently that did not suit Oliver – so Pepe it is and frankly it is music to my ears when spoken by Oliver and his little sister Lucy.

I know that it is my role to be the teacher; you know the older teaching the younger kind of thing.  And I think I do that with Oliver.  My “teaching” is not so much with words, it is simply time spent with Oliver.  Time spent is silly time, like when Oliver and I do our “two wild and crazy guys” act, dancing around and shaking our booties. Time spent is exploring time, like when we play along the edge of the bay and take all the time in the world to examine rocks and shells and little crabs, chattering away the entire time.  Time spent is time in the water, sticking my head under, pushing my nose and spewing water out of my mouth and watching Oliver’s laughter slowly melt his swimming-fears away.  Time spent is playground time, watching Oliver swing faster, hang upside down longer and climb higher, cheering him on the entire time.

But here is the thing.  When I am with Oliver, the teacher becomes the student.  The speed of my world slows down.  The genuine priorities of life once again become clear for me and in that moment of clarity, my heart once again is in touch with eternity and I am keenly aware of the Father’s heart .  Time spent with Oliver forces me to simplify, to connect and have victory over my ever-present worrisome speculations of the future and at least temporarily – to truly live in the moment with touches, funny noises and smiles.  And best of all time spent with Oliver is the soul restoring experience of simply giving and receiving love with no other expectations.  Oliver is the Lord’s canvas revealing the simplicity of holy love.

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Cling

 Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.  (The Apostle Paul, Romans 12:9)

As you have probably already guessed, I love the language of the scriptures with its unique choices of phrases and words.  I enjoy the rich impact these life-filled words have on our hearts, souls and relationships.  With that being said, the scriptures have become amazing simplistic for me in recent years.  Simplistic, yet incredibly profound.

We must draw as our conclusion from the above verse that anything less than sincere or un-hypocritical love is considered is to be evil.  Just some of the facets of the definition from the Greek word for evil include: hurtful, degenerate, morally derelict, vicious, of the devil, malicious and wicked.  Yes, that is only a partial of a very heavy definition! The original language for “good” in that verse includes facets such as: righteous, agreeable, fruitful and joyful, excellent and distinguished to name a few. The word “cling” basically means: to become one with, to be in agreement with, to stick like glue, to become inseparable. 

Now, let me digress back to my first paragraph for a moment.  You may wonder why I said the scriptures have become “simplistic” for me in recent years.  Here is why:  “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” (Matt 22:40) Of course we know that the two commandments that Jesus is referring to are the love God (with every fiber of who you are) and love your neighbors as you love yourself commandmentsI believe that the weight Jesus gives these commandments by calling them “the greatest” reveals the bottom-line heart intent of the Father. I  further believe that Jesus is saying with verse 40 that all the scriptures, every single one of them, as we embrace them (cling), has the purpose and the power to lead us toward a whole hearted love relationship with God, others and self.  He is actually transforming us to become an army of radical Lovers! So that now, when I read any scripture, I believe it is written with that holy goal in mind.  By the way, which do you find most challenging, loving God, other people or yourself?  Selah!

In verses 10 through 21 Paul begins to flesh out for us what un-hypocritical love looks like.  Paul is giving us clear directives on how we cling to that which is good.  Here are just some of the key words from those verses that I believe include both actions and attitude: devotion, give preference, honor, diligence, perseverance, prayerful, contributing and hospitable.

Then, as Paul often does, speaking from the heart of the Lord, the whole thing gets ramped up and includes: be so close that when one weeps- you weep, when one rejoices – you rejoice.  Walk in humility, hang out with the unpopular and choose peace over revenge. He goes on to say that we should be involved in meeting the needs of the very one who treats us as if he is our enemy. 

Then Paul concludes his admonition with these words: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21) This is another way of saying “Abhor what is evil and cling to what is good.” They very act of “clinging” and “overcoming” has the transforming impact of forming us and shaping us into the image of our Savior.

I have come to the conclusion after 34 years as a believer, over half of that in full time ministry, that when I have a less than sincere love for another (hypocritical) there is some part of me that is out of touch with God’s love for me.  The inability (choice) to not sincerely love another indicates there is some place in my heart that has not yet surrendered in faith and humility to the “too good to be true” (but it is true) reality of God’s amazing, sacrificial and unwavering love for me.  Simplistic thinking?  Maybe, but I don’t think so.

Recent Example:  I have been blessed with a temperament that easily likes other people.  In most cases I just naturally like and enjoy all kinds of folks (I guess that is a necessary characteristic for a missionary).  Please notice that in the above sentence I said “most”, not all.

Sometime a while back, when this blog was more in my mind than on paper, I was contacted by someone whose personality I find a bit challenging, shall we say.  Can you relate? Not a bad person at all, but a little odd, a little grating, socially awkward and not particularly warm. They wanted to talk and get my thoughts about a topic.  Before I said yes, I observed myself going through all kinds of mental gyrations and gymnastics wanting to avoid spending time with this person.  I found myself placing limits and barriers on how much time I would spend and what I would do and not do!  We must all have boundaries you know!  But then the gentle yet relentless love-grip of the Lord caught my attention.  He began to show me that all of His children are some crazy mixture of extraordinary and amazing punctuated with odd and peculiar.  With me at the top of the list!  In fact with the parable of the Feast in Luke 14:16-24, it was the poor, crippled, blind and lame (verse 21) who said “yes” to the invitation.  We are in fact a kingdom of poor, crippled, blind and lame children of God who are being transformed into a beautiful spotless bride!  And we are all in different places and stages on that journey toward holiness and wholeness (Ephes. 1:4 The Message).  With yet another personal revelation of God’s love for me, even with my own spiritual limp, love and acceptance began to rise in my heart for the one who called.  In a small, but I think significant way, I moved another step closer, toward whole-hearted love for God, my oddball neighbors and even my ragamuffin self.  The Lord is good!

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A Life Lesson from Pamela

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived.(David Thoreau)

“So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. (Jesus of Nazareth)

When people speak of the life of a missionary, often the idea of sacrifice is discussed.  While there is a cost to doing anything that has genuine value, there is great benefit as well.  When I think of my nearly 19 years as a missionary, at the top of my benefit list is the joy I experience by being part of an international community.  I have had the priceless privilege of developing deep and continuing relationships with many people from many countries.  It is an indescribable and life-enhancing blessing.

In 1995, while serving with YWAM in New Zealand, Patty and I made the transition from student trainees to become sure enough missionaries on an active mission’s base.  Part of our duties was to run a small group of discipleship training students.  Malcom and Pamela, New Zealanders were part of that group.  Our relationship with them and their children moved quickly to a deep lasting friendship, with visits from them when we lived in Tasmania and Thailand.  Malcom is a good man, a farmer, a man of the earth, a doting husband and affectionate father.  And then there was Pamela.  Pamela, with a mile-wide smile, a mischievous sparkle in her eyes and the ability to savor the moment like few people I have ever seen. Pamela’s presence always filled the room.  Pamela’s thirst for life was constant, her passion clear and apparent and her ability to love deeply was obvious.  Pamela’s demonstrated message: live deeply, live passionately and live in the moment.  More about Pamela in a moment.

Friday night we shared the birthday celebration of 24 year old Jason, the son of a family that we love dearly.  This young man, just weeks away from his college graduation, is one we have had the privilege of knowing and watching him grow from a boy to a man.  As a kid he was some mischievous combination of Dennis the Menace, Tom Sawyer and an Explosives Demolition Expert and one who was always ready to “give it a go” as the Aussies say.  My question to Jason around the table was; “at 24 what life message have you learned?”  His thoughtful answer:  “Savor the moment”.

Early the next morning, with my young friend’s comment still fresh in my mind I checked my e-mail.  Pamela had been battling cancer.  Rallied by her amazing husband and three beautiful daughters she continued to live with a love and zest for life through difficult surgeries, invasive treatments and pessimistic reports.  Pamela’s journey on this planet ended last week and she is now savoring an eternal moment that will never end and is filled with a joy unspeakable.  Her message of life, love and passion lives on.

I do not want to paint an unrealistic picture of Pamela.  She lived in the real world, she had struggles and challenges.  Just like the rest of us.  Pamela had her share of pain, disappointments and wonderful amazing moments.  Just like the rest of us.

But at some point early in Pamela’s life she made a discovery and she made a choice.  The same discovery and choice my young 24 year old friend has made.  The same choice that Jesus offers us as we discover an opportunity for real life in Him.

Life is determined by our choices:  to forgive or to be bitter, to grow or to stay stagnant, to recognize the Lord’s provision with gratitude or to focus on our perceived lack, to love or to play it safe, to hold on to and rehearse our list of disappointments or to let a new chapter of life be written, to say yes even when it’s scary or to say no and live in regret, to repent and be transformed or to harden our hearts and live small, to make changes or to make excuses, to embrace truth and experience growing freedom or to deny truth and live restricted, to blame others or take responsibility (stewardship) for your life, to accept others as they are or to criticize and judge, to know we desperately need a Savior or to be our own small deity, to know ourselves to be dearly loved children of the Father or to deny it,  to live in the moment and savor it, or to miss the moment by living in the regrets of the past and the fears of the future.

Pamela chose wisely.

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Faithful Versus Faith-Filled

However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Lk 18:8)

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21)

Some time ago I heard a speaker making a very quick comparison between being faithful and faith-filled.  His focus was brief, but I think the Lord deposited something in my heart for me to ponder.

At first glance the words seem similar, but I believe they are not.  Let me give you an example from my counseling ministry:

A number of years ago when we lived in Tasmania a married couple came to me for counseling.  They came at the encouragement of their oldest daughter, whose own marriage the Lord had breathed new life into through our counseling ministry.  She had hopes for her mom and dad.

The couple had been married many years.  They were both well respected and very active leaders in their church.  And the sad truth was they hated one another.  Seriously, I mean real loathing.  Ugly, odious stuff.  In the safety on my office and the boundaries of confidentiality, their Christian masks dropped away, their spiritual cosmetics were wiped off and their many years of anger and bitterness toward one another quickly came to the surface.  Their mutual disgust was deep and wide. When the word “divorce” somehow was mentioned, with great pride and I do mean pride in the worst sense of the word, they said “we would never divorce, that would be a sin(!), we will remain faithful to the end”.  I had a thought go through my mind which I shared with them.  I asked, “if there was a dead body lying in my office and the Medical Examiner came in and issued a death certificate, did the death certificate kill the person?”  They said “no”.  I then said “a certificate of divorce would not kill your marriage, it is already dead with hate and bitterness and yet you seem to be taking pride in something that is already dead?”  Before you panic I must tell you that is not my typical way of counseling. And I was certainly not recommending a divorce.  But, I felt the obvious needed to be stated in such a way that Christian jargon and spiritual gymnastics could not obscure.  And yes, they did keep coming.

This couple suffered a pharisaical blindness by hiding behind the letter the law and missing the HEART of the law by a country mile!  In the strictest sense of the word they were faithful, there had been no adultery committed with other people, but they were NOT faith-filled. Any sense of love, longing, hope, spontaneity, trust, joy, intimacy, optimism, pleasure, anticipation, peace, comfort, affirmation, acceptance or any other dynamic of a faith-filled life was not evident.

Our journey through life on this fallen planet will always be some combination of wonderful and difficult. I’ve come to believe it is just such an environment that is necessary for genuine faith to grow which can fill our hearts with the mystery of God’s ever-present love and intimate involvement in our lives.  The choice is, do we let the difficult times create cynicism, focus on the evil around us, harden our hearts but somehow stay faithful, yet stunted and miserable to the end?  Or do we choose to live a faith-filled life by following the beloved disciple’s example and leaning on the Savior and listening to his heart?  Being faith-filled is finding the goodness of God in the ordinary and mundane moments of everyday life.  How do we find His goodness? We look!  While not denying the tough stuff of life we choose by faith to not let the tough stuff be the defining points of our lives and take ownership of our hearts.  By faith we ask the Lord to stir hope in our lives.  We choose by faith gratitude over an illusion of control.    And when the temptation is to shrink back, we choose by faith to press on (Phil. 3:14).  When the temptation is to sit on the sidelines we choose by faith to engage in life and to bring the goodness of God into all circumstance and situations.  Ultimately we choose to trust HIM, that He is good, He is for us and not against us, and He is intimately involved in our lives (Romans 8:28).  Patty, who I get all my good ideas from, recently found this quote:

As long as we are convinced that our problems are due to an abundance of wickedness that we must combat, we are in serious trouble. We need to learn to turn over the problem of the wicked to God and focus on remedying the tragic absence of good. In the absence of good, all efforts to combat evil are doomed to failure. – Bob Ekblad, A New Christian Manifesto

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