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Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

From War to Peace: A Story of Reconciliation in Burundi, Take 2

Those of you who caught last week’s post and have been waiting for a working link at which to view the ten-minute video I mentioned, don’t need to wait any longer.  The video, compliments of the World Prayer Assembly, tells the (true) story of how one man’s conversion sent a ripple effect of reconciliation through his nation; and it may inspire or provoke you- or do both.

Tomorrow, President of Columbia Theological Seminary (formerly President of InterVarsity) Steve Hayner weighs in with some thoughts on how “to read the Bible for all it’s worth.”

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Is Rick Warren’s Daniel Plan An Exercise in “Selfish” Bible Reading?

Rick Warren of Saddleback Church is on a mission to help people lose weight. With the release last week by the Centers for Disease Control of the latest statistics on obesity- 55% of people in my state of Georgia are now “overweight” or “obese”- I am sympathetic with Warren’s latest enterprise. But is Warren modeling a faithful reading of Scripture by using an ancient biblical story as a diet plan? I don’t think so.

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Lately, as I make my way through Rachel Held-Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood- (stay tuned for my upcoming review in the online ecumenical publication, Sermons That Work)– I’ve been obliged to reflect on the nature of “biblical authority.”  This is a term that we evangelicals lovewe have been known to throw it around to support all sorts of agendas.

But, if it is true that all of Scripture is, in the words of 2 Timothy 3:16-17,  “God-breathed,” and “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work?,” what does it mean to take the Bible seriously?  What does it mean to read the Bible faithfully and ethically?  What does it mean to interpret the Bible in such a way that it impacts how we live in the 21st century- so that it truly is God’s “living,” “breathing” Word for us?

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This morning fellow saint and sinner Paul Dover sent on this helpful critique by Rob Goodman for the likes of celebrity pastors like Rick Warren- and (I might add) Mark Driscoll- who mine the Bible as if it were a nutrition guide or sex manual.  Such approaches are in no way new to the evangelical world.  Before Warren and Driscoll (my addition, not Goodman’s), there were Bruce Wilkinson’s Prayer of Jabez and Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now, Goodman notes.  He goes on to invite a more “ethical” approach when reading Scripture, one that asks us to view stories in Scripture for what they are- narratives that demand empathy for the characters and sensitivity to their contexts.  Ultimately, reading the Bible faithfully and with respect for biblical authority means being willing to “love the stranger” in these stories, Goodman writes; it means being willing to relinquish the selfish tendency to impose our own agendas on Scripture, be they a trimmer figure or a hotter sex life, so that we might encounter the Bible on its own terms.

Is the story of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego really about what to eat in order to lose a few pounds and squeeze into that size 4 dress hanging in the closet?  Is the Song of Songs really about how to spice up one’s sex life with some new moves in the bedroom (a la Driscoll)? I don’t think so.

 

 

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Recovering the Lost Language of God’s Mission

New Zealand’s indigenous Maori peoples have been around since about the ninth century.

Andrew Sullivan’s “The Dish” featured a piece yesterday on how radio programming initiatives are keeping alive the dying minority languages of New Zealand’s Maori peoples:  “In the Maori community of New Zealand, for example, the combination of 21 radio stations and rigorous early childhood immersion programs have brought Maori-languages speakers from an all-time low of 24,000 in the 1980s to 131,000 in 2006, according to Mark Camp, deputy executive director at Cultural Survival.”

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It strikes me that the church in the West must relearn a lost language, too.  Somewhere along the way, the language of self-sacrifice, of the costliness of following Jesus, of the kingdom of God and our part in it, of the church as a true community of believers called and sent out to be secretive co-conspirators on behalf of that kingdom, has been lost.

The biblical association here is of a person scattering seeds or sprinkling yeast into dough.  These images to which Jesus appeals in Scripture embody the older language of a people content to be, in a sense, “invisible”: they are ordinary, humble servants conscripted in God’s mission, rather than mega-church stars and celebrity figures with glitzy sermon series, loud, self-righteous proclamations about “right” and “wrong,” and all the money and political clout to show for it.

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But these days I hear a whole lot of newer, trendier languages.  About church growth and strategic initiatives.  About how to fill the pews and attract new members.  About how to be relevant or hip (when, if there were anyone more marginalized or irrelevant by our own cultural standards, it would be Jesus Himself).  About how to, with more money, political lobbying and savvy media relations, reclaim the church’s “pride of place” in our society.  (David Barton’s recent book, The Jefferson Lies, is one example of this kind of shameless pandering.)

So many of us have come to believe that speaking this new language is what it means to belong to the church; and, so many of us have simply checked out, because we’re tired of a language that has jarred us, scarred us, hurt us and assumed we’re too stupid to know better.

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But we’re better than that.  The “holy, catholic and apostolic church” we claim to believe in whenever we recite the Apostle’s Creed is better than that.  We need the old, ancient mother tongue- the one our earliest ancestors spoke, the one that sounds foreign in our culture, but which God, in the person of God’s Holy Spirit, can help us relearn. And we need leaders in the church (pastors, teachers, evangelists, prophets, and apostles) who will act as directors of “cultural survival,” who will teach us the rhythms and cadences of that lost and dying language, so that we can become fluent in it once again.

 

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5 Ways to Put Coveting To Rest

Why I so rarely visit the mall these days….

I appreciate the sentiment of Emily Dickinson:  “Consider the lilies- is the only commandment I ever obeyed,” she once quipped (as quoted in the intro to Rachel Held-Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood).

Because while I used to think that keeping the Ten Commandments would be simple, a few more years of life have taught me that the only commandment I’m not really in danger of ever actually breaking is the whole “do-not-murder” thing.  (But check back with me on this one, will you?)

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If the benefits of a week’s vacation in San Francisco and Napa Valley were palpable, so was the temptation to break the tenth commandment on a regular basis.  For those of you who don’t know the Ten Commandments by heart- and apparently the statistics show there are a whole lot of us- the tenth commandment reads like this: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor (Exodus 20:17).”

Coveting.  Wickipedia defines it as desiring the unjust acquisition of your neighbor’s possessions.  By this definition, few of us actually qualify as tenth-commandment breakers, barring maybe O.J. Simpson and his breaking and entering habits.

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But, we’re not off the hook yet, because coveting, more broadly understood, is also a kind of lusting after what others have.  And, I must confess that while in northern California, I found myself doing this a bit too regularly.

My uncle, who took up the extended family’s profession of law and now lives comfortably in a big, beautiful house just outside San Francisco, and my uncle’s wife, who, thanks to a full-time, live-in nanny, doesn’t have to cook or do the grocery shopping or clean her house ever again, were, in addition to showing kind hospitality, perfect moving targets for my coveting propensities.  I imagined how my life might look different if, instead of having to cook, clean, fold laundry, grocery shop and drive my children everywhere, I might spend my time in scenic northern California, traveling more and writing a few more books while enjoying my children in leisure without all of the other pressures.  I wished for a different job, wondered why I hadn’t applied to law schools, lamented to my husband at how hard our constant juggling act had become, and longed for a second vacation home with an oceanfront view.

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Coveting.  Can you identify?  If so, you, like me, may be looking for an antidote.  Here are five ways that we might begin to nip our coveting in the bud:

1. Make a list of all the things you have that you are grateful for.  You’ll be surprised at how long your list is.  (The great twentieth century theologian, Karl Barth, believed “gratitude” is what defines Christians.  I think Barth is right.)  Whenever you can, express your gratitude to God for the things you have been given.  If you forget, return to your list to remind yourself.  Whenever you think of something else to be thankful for, you can add it to your list.

2. Consider how all the things you have and your life circumstances, including the times you went astray from God’s purposes, have made you into the person you are today.

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3. When you meet others who seem to “have it all,” remind yourself that appearances are never the whole picture.  You may have some things that your “neighbor” does not have.

4.   If you find yourself in a hard place, ask yourself, “what is the silver lining here?,” and “how is God using these circumstances for good” (Genesis 50:20).  Consider how God might be using these things to further form you for God’s mission.

5.  If you can’t find ways to express gratitude for life circumstances or the things you’ve been given, “rejoice in the Lord,” as the apostle Paul recommends (Philippians 4:4).  There is plenty of good news to be had in the realization that, regardless of how dark or disappointing our lives have become, God in Jesus loves us, is intimately involved in our lives, and ultimately promises new, abundant life.

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The other day I spoke with a woman whose multiple myeloma had returned with a vengeance.  This time the cancer was in stage IV.  At age 52, this woman was facing an untimely death with honesty about her hopes and fears and griefs, but she was also bubbling over with gratitude to God.  For her family.  For God’s provision of her every need.  For how God was helping her use even her cancer to encourage others in their dark places.

This woman was grateful, when she could be coveting a longer life or better health.  She had put her coveting to rest.

Maybe we can, too.

 

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A Toddler Meets the White Witch

“Any Turkish Delight, anyone?”

A shorter, storybook version of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe for younger children comprised last night’s bedtime reading ritual.  A five-year-old boy and three-year-old girl snuggled up next to their mother to hear with bated breath how the majestic lion, Aslan, took on the sinister White Witch in the magical land of Narnia.

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Whenever I turned the page to behold the foreboding figure of the witch, and mimicked what the witch might sound like (a mix between Gargamel of “The Smurfs” and my first-grade teacher, Ms. Melton, at the international school I attended in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), my daughter would repeatedly exclaim, “I’m scared!” and begin to whimper.  At which point I would try to reassure her that in the end Aslan-Jesus wins.  By the end of the book, the white witch had begun to sound more like the friendly grandmothers I met at yesterday’s visit to the assisted living center.

But this did little to quell my daughter’s new-found fear of the wicked White Witch.  Her crying and carrying on about being scared of the White Witch obliged me to spend the first few hours of the night next to my daughter in her cramped, twin-sized bed, as she finally wandered off to sleep- and this despite my reassurances over and over again that Jesus was stronger than the White Witch, that while the White Witch wasn’t real, Aslan-Jesus was.

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So I’m struck this morning by how evil (the absence of the good) and those things that make us afraid and keep us awake at night can tend to captivate us despite what we may know to be real and true- often so much more than “whatever is…noble…right…pure…and lovely.” (Philippians 4:8).

We are so easily enticed and led astray by illusions.

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The Parasite Conundrum and Other News

Is this a good or bad parasite? I can’t tell!

It’s that time again: we’re getting up to speed on the “mish mash,” and then highlighting some of the future treats in store for us.

First, my apologies to those of you who caught two critical mistakes in yesterday’s post, one of which remains to be corrected: the Rwandan genocide was actually in 1994 and resulted in the deaths of more than 800,000 persons; and, the link that I tried to share to the video isn’t working, so we’re waiting on another version via Youtube or elsewhere to share with you- it really is an interesting story, so I hope you’ll come back to view it, and I’ll let you know when it’s really up and running.

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Next, in response to the post, “The Problem of Athlete’s Foot,” fellow saint and sinner Saskia de Vries had this to say:

“I think it’s actually a fungus, not a bacteria. But either way, I think this is one of the more interesting science/theology conundrums. What do we make of parasites? Did God create parasites? Some parasites are super cool. Some are super deadly and terrifying. And some make you wonder if you’re actually an autonomous being at all. I highly recommend reading Carl Zimmer’s Parasite Rex.”

(I’ve invited Saskia only half-jokingly to be our resident science and theology columnist/expert.)

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Finally, someone who did not share his or her name, wrote the following, in response to “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved;” I’ve decided to publish these remarks even though I had no intention of sparking this response with my original reflections, and find the remarks themselves problematic; still, we are, after all, people who come to this “well” from many places ideologically:

First quoting me, the responder writes: “‘Most of us have come to view conservative and liberal as just code words for a host of implicit political beliefs that have functioned as add-ons to the Gospel– jaded remnants of religiously framed culture wars. If we’re leaving church in droves or finding church irrelevant, it is because these labels have failed us.'”

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The responder goes on: “What’s irrelevant and what’s failed us is the false gospel of ‘if you believe in this dead man you will be saved and no you don’t have to change anything about your sick disgusting behavior’…Now if instead of that false gospel, a living Christ who demands repentance were preached…and people were taught they have the ability to repent rather than ‘born that way’ original sin homosexual-moffia propaganda, then Christianity would be worth saving. As it stands, let it fall, let the world be paganized once again, and let God come down and die on a cross a second time and see if he can keep his religion together this time and prevent a Paul, Augustine, and Luther from destroying it.”

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I would add here since it now seems relevant in light of this person’s remark, that a couple of you readers have asked me to weigh in on the homosexuality debate.  I’ve not done so here, or yet, because 1) a number of my very good friends are gay in committed relationships and some of the best people I know; 2) I’m not sure that Scripture is actually consistently clear with respect to this issue one way or another, and has little to say about, for example, gay marriage in our time; 3) find the whole debate wearisomely old and at times even a distraction from God’s mission.  There you have it.  My views in a nutshell.  I would also add that, like most views of mine, I don’t see them as having to be set in stone.  I’m a work in process.  So are my opinions.  Hopefully this reality belongs to being a saint and sinner.

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As for what to look forward to in the future here at FSS: I hope you’ll check back for my review of an advance copy of Rachel Held-Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood, as well as Michael Frost’s Road to Missional.  We continue with our very irregular series of “Jesus Epithets” (usually inspired my occasional sermons as an itinerant preacher).  And, starting in two weeks, I’ll be assisting Emory University’s Tom Long in teaching div school students how to preach (in Homiletics 101 of sorts), so you’ll probably hear occasional insights from this process as well.  (This may also mean, in addition to some vamped-up work on my book and a few more clients in my job as a corporate chaplain, that my posts will be a little less regular- but I’ll try my best to keep meeting you here at the intersection between life and God as often as possible.)

So, until we meet again…which may be tomorrow, God speed!

 

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From War to Peace: A Powerful, True Story of Reconciliation

The east African nation of Burundi has witnessed a long, bloody, and tragic history of civil war.  The same ugly tribalism and brutality between Hutus and Tutsis that have swept neighboring Rwanda- (resulting in 1994 in a genocide of more than 800,000 people, mainly Tutsis)- have been part and parcel of Burundi’s story. The country is also among the five poorest countries in the world.

Yet there is also another story to be found here, one that begins with how God not long ago began to work for reconciliation- first in the life of one man and his wife, and then, with ripples, for a whole nation.  Now this same man is the president of Burundi, and the nation’s motto is “prayer and work.”  It is a remarkable story, actually, one that both inspires and provokes me this morning.  I guess you could say I’m “intrigued” in addition to being moved.  You can hear the whole story in this ten-minute video.  I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

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A Spiritual Inventory for iPhone Users

Thanks to this little rectangular contraption, my life will never be the same again.

This week with the start of another school year and a few more things added to our family’s schedule, I’ve found myself even more glued to my iPhone- so glued, in fact, that just the other day I found myself exclaiming to my husband, “my whole life is in here!”  (He had to correct me.)  I guess you could say that lately I’ve been worshiping at the altar of my iPhone.

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Which has me doing a spiritual inventory of sorts around my iPhone usage.  If you, like me, find yourself regularly engaging in three or more of the following behaviors, you may have a problem, and your relationship with God and your neighbors may be suffering:

1. You begin to worry, sweat marbles and cuss under your breath when you’ve misplaced your iPhone.

2.  When you’re glancing at your iPhone, your jaw drops, your breath stabilizes and you become transfixed, tuning out the world around you like a yogi in meditation.

3. You would rather spend more time perusing on Facebook what your new, virtual friend in Bangalore had for dinner than being alone with God in prayer.

4. You’re convinced that the majority of your virtual friends really are your friends.  Not!

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5. You obsessively glance at your phone in meetings, Bible studies and especially in Sunday morning worship when the preacher is being a bore.

6. You find it difficult to avoid picking up your phone when you’re driving (even if it is illegal).  Other drivers have cast dirty looks your way or yelled things like, “You know that’s illegal,” or, “Get off your phone!,” when you’re looking at your phone rather than at the stoplight in front of you.

7.  Your phone alerts wake up you or your spouse in the middle of the night.

8. You’ve convinced yourself that responding to an e-mail or text message by the end of the day, rather than within an hour, is a slow turnaround time.

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9. You take your iPhone with you literally everywhere you go.

10. Your iPhone makes you feel important on a more consistent basis than the fact that God loves you.

11.   You can’t stop thinking about what to tweet or post or blog about- even when you’re having sex.

12. You’re convinced that Steve Jobs, not Jesus, is the greatest man who ever lived.

Have I missed anything here?  Got any more behaviors to add to this list?  Send them along!

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The Quality Difference: “Habit” Versus “Act”

“Quality is not an act but a habit.” So reads the banner which hangs in the warehouse of a trucking company where I serve as a corporate chaplain.  The mantra, I’m discovering, holds equally true whether we’re talking about marriage or parenting or writing.

Woody Allen put it another a way when he said “95% of success is just showing up.”

Which is why I loved stumbling upon this post by another aspiring writer, who made her own discovery about what distinguishes great writers like Ray Bradbury from the rest of us.  “Showing up to write,” she seems to conclude, is more important than the talent with which one is born.

I can’t help but think the same might be said of following Jesus.  It’s not a one-time act.  It’s a habit, 95% of which is as simple as just “showing up,” even when you’re not feeling like it.

 

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The Problem of Athlete’s Foot

One look at this case of Athlete’s foot is enough to convince anyone with half a brain to wear their Tivas in the locker room. Gross!

Yesterday’s pool excursion with my son, Cameron, may have been a big divine hint that I need to do more preparation for Sunday’s small group discussion on the nature of evil.  My son, afterall, unlike me or my esteemed cohorts, is not a self-described cynic, skeptic or religious misfit.  He is just a mostly typical five-year-old boy, who simply prefers running barefoot over the dubious looking, cement floors of the women’s locker room at our local public pool; this as opposed to the alternative of laboriously strapping on his Tivas: whereas by now Cameron knows how to put on most shoes, his Tivas remain a bit of an enigma, his right Tiva still often appearing on his left foot, and vice versa.  This process seems to demand too big of a withdrawal from my son’s reserves of humility, patience, care and openness to correction- reserves, which, for a little boy who likes to go, go, go constantly and has an ego that, I’m hoping, a few years of growing up will massage into manageability, are frankly not great in size.  (To give you an idea of what I mean by “ego,” a few days ago, Cam strolled into the bathroom and said, “Am I the most handsome boy in the world?,” at which point I exclaimed, “No, you are most definitely not the most handsome boy in the world!  But I think you’re very handsome.”)

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All of this to say that an effort to persuade my son to wear his Tivas in the locker room resulted in the following conversation:

Mom: Cam, it’s important to wear your sandals here, because if you go barefoot, you might get something called “Athlete’s foot.”  Do you know what that is?

Cam: Yes, I remember Bopa (Albuquerque granddad) said something about it.

Mom: I’ve had it before, and it’s really itchy and sometimes painful and (a mother’s attempt to issue compliance by appealing to the gross factor now) once it got so bad that the skin on the bottom of my foot began to peel off and I had to go to a doctor who had to cut off the rest of the skin. (Sorry.  Honest-to-God truth from a life-long swimmer.) It really hurt.

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Cam (looking solemnly pensive now): But how do you get Athlete’s foot?

Mom: You get Athlete’s foot by walking on floors at places like this where a lot of people have been walking and the floors can become unclean and get germs on them.

Cam (frustrated): I know, but how do you get Athlete’s foot?

Mom: Do you mean, how do you get Athlete’s foot scientifically speaking?

Cam: Uh huh.

Mom (thinking she wished she had paid more attention in high school biology): Well, there are certain live bacteria, tiny, tiny creatures you can’t see, that like to hang out in places like this and eat the skin off the bottom of your foot.

Long pause before the bomb of a question drops.

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Cam: Did God make Athlete’s foot?

Mom (realizing that if my son’s question had been on my ordination exams six years ago, I may not have passed): Hmm.  Well, I guess God made the live bacteria, so yes, I guess God made Athlete’s foot.

Cam (thoroughly aghast): What?!!

Long pause.  I’m realizing that if what I just said hasn’t held theological muster with my five-year-old, I better get my ducks in a row for Sunday.

Mom: Well, actually, Cam, it’d be more correct to say that when God made the bacteria, God made them eat other things, so they didn’t have to eat peoples’ feet and cause Athlete’s foot.  (I’m trying to imagine a family of live bacteria happily snacking away on their form of “ethical” food.  Just what such food would be, I have absolutely no idea, but I’m pretty convinced that it would not include the sweaty underside of my feet.)  But then when human beings began to do bad things and sin, that changed, and all creation began to seem different after that.  That’s when the bacteria began to eat people’s feet and cause Athlete’s foot.  (In the passage from John 11 that I preached from a couple weeks ago, Jesus grows “angry” when his friend Lazarus dies; so if God gets mad about death, why can’t God be at least a little annoyed by Athlete’s foot?  Further, Augustine described evil as the “absence of the good.”  By that definition, Athlete’s foot most certainly qualifies as “evil.”)  Does that make more sense, Cam?

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Cam (looking satisfied now): Yes.

Phew.  Tough one.

Got some wise, theological reflections to share on the nature and problem of evil as it manifests itself in sickness and natural disaster?  Send your helpful distillations along before Sunday and I’ll be delighted to hear from you.  Send them along after Sunday, and I’ll be mildly grateful for your response.

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