The New Christians

The New Christians

From Black Pentecostal to Word of Faith to Emergent Protestant to Orthodox to Catholic — The Journey of the Ragamuffin Diva

A couple weeks ago, I hypothesized that Rod’s disdain for SSM has something to do with his conversion to Orthodoxy — actually, to the kind of personality that would convert to Orthodoxy. In response to that post, I was contacted by an old friend, Claudia Mair Burney, aka Ragamuffin Diva.

I just got another book in the mail yesterday that caricatured emergent as a bunch of white guys with goatees. Mair is not white, and the last time I saw her, she did not have a goatee :-)  But she is a novelist, and her books are highly regarded.

Neither is Mair a Protestant (any more). She moved to the Orthodox Church, and then to Catholicism. I am so, so glad that she accepted my invitation to write about her faith journey. Take the time to read this post, and you will be, too.

Wow. I found the comments about the beginning of our conversation interesting. I thought I should clarify why I wrote you in the first place. This is what you said, Tony:

“I have known a number of people who’ve converted to Orthodoxy, and it does seem to attract a certain type of person who, at some deep level, is looking for an enclosed system of belief — the most-bounded of bounded sets.”

I was not one of those people, for the most part. Oh sure, an enclosed system had some claudia mair burney.jpgappeal. I cut my spiritual teeth in the Black Pentecostal Church, and flew promptly into the Word of Faith movement after that. I was a teenager, if that helps, broke, and more than a little stormy on the inside. The idea that God would give me whatever I named and claimed was most attractive at the time. For a little while. Then, just as I did with the Pentecostal Church, I hit a ceiling. There was only so much my shouting, naming, and claiming was doing for my soul. Not to mention things got really weird. The fact is, I’ve gone through a lot of church crazy, and when all was said and done, I survived it, and just wanted more of Jesus.

I stayed in that thin, thirsty place for years until the Holy Spirit, through some pretty extraordinary events led me into Orthodoxy, big ‘O’. The same Spirit later led me to embrace the Roman Catholic Church which I’d grown to love. I wish I didn’t have to choose between the two, but I did for a lot of sad reasons, and that too is an interesting tale. At the very least, you’ll get something out of it, Tony. Sometimes, people just don’t listen to the poor, crazy, black woman, who sounds kinda flaky. Think of me as a holy fool, still working on the holy part. I don’t have to be counted amongst the Orthodox faithful or “learned” to tell a pilgrim tale. I’m not passing myself off as anything but what I am: a ragamuffin, but that doesn’t mean my story can’t be informative. I’m grateful to you all for listening. But I don’t want anyone to mistake what this is. I’m not going to critique Orthodoxy, nor am I going to trash it. I’m going to tell you how I got there, and why I’m in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church today. It’s simple story, but Jesus loved those, so please, bear with me.

Now, about that closed system…

I could write a memoir about my church experiences that would make James Frey say, “You’re so lying, Mair.” Only every word would be true. I longed for stability, so I don’t have a problem with people who come to Orthodoxy for those reasons. To come out of the crazy and into an ark like big ‘T’ Tradition sounds heavenly to the battered and bruised spiritually, but the real reason I begged for my place at the banquet table of Eastern Orthodoxy was the Eucharist. A God I could eat up was not something I was going to miss out on, and it was the Holy Spirit St_Photina.jpgWho drew me to this amazing experience of Christ. There was no big, intellectual pursuit of Truth. Life has been too hard for me. I can’t seem to find that level of certainty anywhere, and those who said they had it (almost everybody, everywhere I went) had outrageous blind spots. No, what I had was a Samaritan woman thing going on. Sure, I was a Christian, but I was still pretty thirsty. Jesus was standing before me really present in the Eucharist saying, “Come.” And I did. Nothing would have stopped me.

I’ve mentioned I read your book, The Sacred Way. It was magnificent to me because it laid out the classic disciplines of the Church as if they were a gift for all of us. Let me backtrack a bit. Years ago, when I was a teen, it was J.D. Salinger who introduced me to the Jesus Prayer! He compelled me to read The Way of a Pilgrim, and since the Orthodox faithful weren’t beating my door down to evangelize or teach me, and it was highly unlikely I’d beat down theirs, God used Salinger to give me something that was mine. I think Frederica has a point when she says some things can only be known from within Orthodoxy. They really do clarify such matters, but come on. The Holy Spirit is, dare I say it, out of control. God does whatever He wants to, moving in and outside of Tradition. If He wants to give me the Jesus Prayer via Salinger, and other disciplines through your books the year I turned forty, who am I to argue? You’ve reached so many people, pointing them to the Ancient Church. The Holy Spirit does the rest. I thank God for you, Tony.

And then came Phyllis Tickle, who told me about the Eucharist. She isn’t Eastern Orthodox either, but God used her to radically change my life. I told my lapsed, cradle Catholic husband shortly after I met Phyllis that I was going to become a Catholic. He laughed in my face the thought was so ludicrous, but the truth is, I couldn’t become Catholic because of all those Jack T. Chick tracts I read as a kid. But I could become Orthodox (once I found out via the Holy Spirit/Google it existed) without having to worry about Popes and Immaculate Conceptions and such. I was all in!

I read the books. I went to conferences. I walked beside lovely, loving Orthodox people, including Frederica, who nurtured me in the faith. But I couldn’t shake my love for the Roman Catholic Church, which actually blazed in my soul more brightly and beautifully because of Orthodoxy. Soon it became clear that there were Eastern Saints and Western Saints, and for many, they were not one big happy family in heaven. That was so weird to me. Someone even told me to ditch St. Francis because, “We have St. Seraphim.” But I dug St. Francis! And St. John of the Cross, and St. Theresa of Avila. I think it’s telling that when I had my children baptized in an Orthodox Church Sts. Francis and Clare of Assisi were their patron saints. I should have known then my Eastern Orthodox days were numbered then, but I didn’t.

The fact is, in my heart we were all God’s people, East and West. We could say the Creed with confidence. I didn’t worry about the Filioque. I’ve looked at a lot of East/West discussions on the matter, and the differences seem kinda semantic to me, I’m sorry to say. That just wouldn’t stop us from being One to me. My best friend novelist, Lisa Samson and I use to say the two of us healed the Great Schism. I loved my icons, incense, Divine Liturgy, and Jesus Prayer, and so did she. And I loved her Daily Mass, Lectio Divina, Ignatian Prayer of the Imagination, and Pope John Paul the Great. All of it was spread out like a feast before us. And we consumed all of it, passionately.

And then came that review of Mariette in Ecstasy, and this idea that if stigmata didn’t happen in the history of the Orthodox Church it wasn’t from God. And then came the trashing of St. Francis, and Thomas Merton, and Henri Nouwen, men who nourished me. I knew they had their faults, but so did churches stuck in ethnic ghettos, and systems that were pretty inaccessible to people like me, people who Jesus loves, and I couldn’t seem to extract the Orthodoxy from the Greek, Romanian, and Russian experience. The only time I felt like I could really truly be Orthodox was when I was with my friends at the Ancient Christianity and African American conference. This isn’t the experience of everyone, but it was mine. I was Western through and through. My library said it, my ability to practice my spirituality said it, and my heart said it. I came into full communion with the Catholic Church amid much persecution. I feel I am still orthodox, small ‘o’. Many would disagree. Might I add my idea of Catholic, big or small ‘c’ is wildly expanded now.

What did all this teach me? What did my life teach me? God came near to this ragamuffin when I was fifteen, at a revival meeting in the Church of God in Christ. There I learned that God is present! He is moving today. Right now. I know this! It’s how my journey began. Later, in similar churches, I’d learn how this reality could be badly abused. High emotion could be mistaken for the Holy Spirit, and pride, of the spiritual kind, would precede a lot of destruction I’d witness. I found a safe haven in the little Emergent Church I found in Ann Arbor, after I’d been thoroughly beat up by the Charismatic Protestant faithful.

There I rested in God’s love, until I found the Ragamuffin Gospel, learned that Catholics aren’t the Whore of Babylon, and they really are Christians, and made my way to the Vineyard, which was kinda like Ancient Church lite, but I loved it. Got my first prayer book, the Divine Hours, from Ken Wilson. And then I wanted to dive full into the deep waters. I swam and swam, not so thirsty now, with the Eucharist in my DNA now. When an Orthodox priest preaching on the Lord’s Prayer broke down give us this day our daily bread, I knew I need the Eucharist daily, and since I’m not living in a monastery, I’m Roman Catholic. I swam to the Tiber! Now, my dear friend Phyllis insists I’m Anglican and don’t know it yet, but since I don’t know it, I’m one happy Roman Catholic. Jesus was everywhere with me, every step of this journey, as omnipresent as ever.

Jesus prayed for our oneness, a very mysterious prayer. How will it happen? Look at the mess! It’s impossible, but I believe it will happen anyway, if only because Jesus prayed it, and He wanted it so badly. I believe the marks of the Church Jesus started is that whole, One, Holy, Apostolic thing. But what of those who have no experience with that? And what about the Churches horrible failures and the poor souls she herself ruined? Jesus loves us all. I am radically trusting Him to bring His own Body together. I don’t have to figure it out.

This is what I have to do, stand on the side of love, doggedly honest and authentic. Hold on to that Creed! I love it, but I’m willing to stay in conversation and prayer until all our voices are heard, even the babies and fools. I’m willing to hash it out, until it all works out. We have so much more in common than our differences! Mostly, I’m wiling to let God be God and do what He wants to with His people. And only He decides who His people are. He said Himself He had folks of another flock. Again, my job is to love, first and foremost. Part of that is listening, giving, and being willing to acknowledge that we all see through a glass darkly. We need each other.

I so appreciate you giving me a voice here. May God bless and keep you, look you full in the face, smile at you, and grant you peace.

Comments read comments(20)
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Kathy Rainwater

posted April 23, 2009 at 9:58 am

Ahh Claudia! You have great words that express many of my deep thoughts and feelings…ones I don’t maybe realize I have.
I love the mystery and beauty of the liturgical churches, I wish we had more of that in Protestantism. But mostly I long for That Day when His Body will be one with each other and with our Lord.
Much love,

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posted April 23, 2009 at 11:19 am

this really resonates for me. if it was possible to find big ‘O’ orthodox churches conducted in English with any frequency in this country, i would have converted to EO rather than RCC.
but my primary motivation wasn’t a closed system of belief. my primary motivation is that G-d has laid a heavy burden on my heart, and that burden is that schism is EVIL. so, i wanted to return to the beginning. to re-graft myself into The Body and Bride of Christ at the place it existed before all the splits. but i don’t speak greek or russian and i’m unlikely to learn. so the best i could do, for now, was the RCC.
the funny thing is, when you look at the membership of the RCC and the EO, its far more diverse than any Protestant sect is. because for us, it is more important to -stay- than to be -right-. and so while i have a copy of the catechism which tells me what the official, closed system of belief is, i am not expected to hold to every word on every page. in fact, i am permitted, encouraged, to come to my own understandings. when you come to your own understandings in protestant sects, you’re encouraged to find another church which might be a “better fit”.
if anything, i think protestants are the ones who crave a closed system. they want to set their sect up as the “most correct” and then protect that fence.

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posted April 23, 2009 at 12:42 pm

Like the previous commenter jhimm (and I suspect for many others), Mair’s ‘journey’ resonates soundly with me. I would bet that it describes a somewhat common journey for many today who move from American Protestantism (at least the more rigid conservative evangelical forms) to the more sensual and sacramental EOC & RCC, perhaps often with a brief stop in Anglican/Episcopalian-ism on the way.
Mair writes, “the real reason I begged for my place at the banquet table of Eastern Orthodoxy was the Eucharist. A God I could eat up was not something I was going to miss out on.”
I could say a lot more on this (about a dissertation’s worth), but I won’t here…other than that I do not find Mair’s journey all that unique (to me at least), nor should it be. And that is a good thing.
Tony, thanks for this post! … and Mair, thanks for sharing your story!

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Steve K.

posted April 23, 2009 at 12:44 pm

Thanks so much for sharing your journey, Mair!
And thank you, Tony, for bringing it to us here.

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Joe S.

posted April 23, 2009 at 1:45 pm


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Ted Seeber

posted April 23, 2009 at 1:51 pm

Finally, somebody else who calls him John Paul the Great (I have a sauce I make for the annual pasta dinner in my parish I should bring back this year after wandering for a while- Kielbasa in Alfredo- that I named after that Pope).
Here’s a joke for Mair: Anglican is Catholic Lite- 1/3rd less guilt than that other religion!
I’m still Catholic, still Christian at all, because of that creed. In my college years I found nothing in Christianity to suit me, and a lot in Zen Buddhism and Hinduism. But I returned to the Roman Catholic Church *because of that creed*. One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.
And I find I can’t leave because of it. I’ve made my commitment, and duty means more than anything else. You don’t leave your family because they sin against you- you reconcile with them. Why create new what has already been?

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Max Marie

posted April 23, 2009 at 2:00 pm

It’s important to note that the church is simply Catholic and Roman is just one rite out of over 20. For those who love the Eastern Church there are rites, such as Byzantine which are under the umbrella of the Holy See.

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Ted Seeber

posted April 23, 2009 at 2:04 pm

Responding to jhimm- I think there’s a slight bit more pressure, at least for the few “infallible” doctrines and dogmas, for cradle catholics than for converts. But yes, the whole idea of Vatican II was “Personal Informed Conscience is the last word” on belief in *any* dogma or doctrine- with emphasis on the Informed. With study, on almost everything I’ve come to the same teaching of the church (one big difference right now- for me at least- is the right of human migration for work when the destination economy has only added one job for every five new workers in the past two decades- it just doesn’t fit mathematically, though I feel great pain both for the underemployed Americans and the fleeing migrants). But that’s WITH STUDY- and nobody’s going to refuse you the Eucharist except yourself in a Roman Catholic Church.

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Your Name

posted April 23, 2009 at 2:18 pm

Reading Mair’s account is like hearing a pilgrim tell their story when they’ve returned home. Exciting, thoughtful, confusing, and beautiful. To have been able to learn about this journey has really blessed me.
My best friend is a devoted Roman Catholic. I’m not. I’m not sure what you’d call me but I do work at a Presbyterian Church. My best friend and I frequently talk about the differences we have. He digs Mary a lot more than I do (Immaculate Conception, Assumption, etc). He prays with a Rosary (Hail Mary), while I pray with a Prayer Rope (Jesus Prayer). Then there are the dozens of detail-oriented differences surrounding interpretation of Scripture, tradition, and theology.
Even with these differences, I see him as a brother. in fact, the only portion of his view I hold any lasting grudge over is what he calls “the fullness of the faith.” This is the idea that the fullness of the Christian faith can only be found within Roman Catholicism. Other traditions and facets of the Christian jewel may be good, but they aren’t full. Even in light of this hurtful idea, I love him and call him brother.
I believe, as Mair wrote, that what we have in common far exceeds what we differ on. However, the way this looks to me has changed. It’s clear to me that by best friend and I differ on a lot (quantity) of points when it comes to the fruition of theology. But we share much more (quality) in the cross of Christ and His love.
In the shadow of His cross it’s tough to read the name tags of “Methodist” or “Roman Catholic” or “Pentacostal.” Rather, our attention is cast on that which is creating the shadow of unity – the cross.
Mair, thank you so much for sharing your journey with all of us. And Tony, thanks as well for all you’re doing in trying to find unity in this crazy conglomeration of puzzle pieces.

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Frank Emanuel

posted April 23, 2009 at 2:22 pm

Loved this journey! The Eucharist captured my heart completely too. I encountered it in my studies at a Roman Catholic (historically) university and wrestled with years to develop an Eucharist aspect to our community. It has revolutionized our whole understanding of Church and church.
I love the whole Church, even the parts I don’t agree with – and there are a few even within my own denomination. But I love your closing sentence: indeed we do need each other! Amen to that.

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Scott M

posted April 23, 2009 at 3:02 pm

jhimm, which country? Just curious, actually. Here in my city in the US all the Orthodox churches (I think there are 4 in the area – maybe more) conduct services mostly or entirely in english. And the RCC churches certainly have a mix of english and spanish masses. I think the ethnic thing varies a lot these days.
I did notice that sentence about Rod in your earlier post, Tony, and had something of a similar reaction to it, though I didn’t comment. I don’t think I could be contained or inhabit any bounded set even if I did desire it (though I also can’t imagine desiring it). And to say it about Orthodoxy today in some sense implies that it has been true of Orthodoxy for at least some span into the past. It’s not true of me and it doesn’t seem to me to be true of a lot of the Orthodox voices from the past couple of centuries that I’ve more recently read. I’m not Orthodox and I’m not Roman Catholic. My background is a bit more pluralistic than Mair’s (both in Christian and non-Christian senses), but since I’ve been anything I would really call Christian in any sense I’ve only been a member of one, specific SBC church. But I have no problem with the idea of converting to Orthodoxy. There is that in it which feels natural to me.
I hadn’t really reduced the feeling to words, but I think Mair nails it. I want a God I can eat. I hunger for the physicality of our faith and our God, a physicality which seems to have been almost completely strained out of so much of Protestantism. Maybe that explains why parts of Sara Miles’ book, Take this Bread, brought tears to my eyes. It’s a deep longing.
I also find it an odd parallel that she mentioned the Jesus Prayer. Since her conversion to Roman Catholicism, my mother has been closely associated with the Carmelites. Some years ago she shared The Practice of the Presence of God with me. I love Brother Lawrence and soon began to work on the practice of ‘breath prayers’. It was some years after that (actually when I read Scot McKnight’s book Praying with the Church) that I realized the breath prayer I had come up with that I used the most was actually one of the variation of the Jesus Prayer!
It was at that point that I really began to dig into modern Orthodoxy. Up until then I had only been vaguely aware that it existed (though I had read a fair amount even then about the events and by the people of the first millenium of the Church). It’s been intriguing. While I’m sure the process has shaped some of my thought and perception, since any such effort to explore and inhabit inevitably shapes you in turn, much of the process has been one of discovering a Church that says many of the same things about God and about human beings that I had believed or come to believe both before and after becoming a Christian. No bumps for me in an Orthodox perspective of reality.
Because of my background, I don’t have the aversion to Catholicism that many seem to have in the Protestant tradition. A fair amount of my family is Roman Catholic. I have no inclination to give up St. Francis, St. Clare, Brother Lawrence, St. John of the Cross, and others. I’ve loved Benedict XVI’s encyclicals on love and hope and his book (as Cardinal Ratzinger) on the Spirit of the Liturgy. I think they share the same problem as Protestants on what they say about deceased infants and children – a problem the Orthodox do not share. And that matters to me. I’m also just not comfortable with a number of the aspects of the Western vision of God. But the biggest reason I doubt I’ll ever be Roman Catholic lies in the way they would want to approach my two divorces and current marriage. Sigh. And my wife had some pretty negative experiences growing up Roman Catholic. So that would be a significant obstacle.
I also don’t see myself converting to Orthodoxy for a variety of reasons any time in the near future. Who knows where I’ll end up? I think my time where I’ve been so far is winding down. But I don’t know where I’m going. I did think I would comment, though, to reinforce what Mair said. That may be something that attracts a certain group of people (though what they’ll do when they discover that Orthodoxy really isn’t a strictly bounded or closed system I’m not sure), but it’s certainly not any part of a reason I would convert. Nor do I think it seems to really fit all that many people. Physicality and unlimited depth certainly are.

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Claudia Mair Burney

posted April 23, 2009 at 9:15 pm

Thanks so much, everyone, for your kind and thoughtful responses. I do want to clarify that in my seeking, once in the middle of the night I wrote to Frederica and practically begged for help. She steered me to a local church. Turns out she’d visited Michigan recently and referred me to a parish so inspiring to *uniquely* me it astounded me. There were African and African American subdeacons, an Ethiopian family, and the Liturgy was in all English. It is highly unlikely I’d have visited a second time if the Liturgy was in Romanian or Greek, or if I didn’t see any faces that looked like mine. I had a lovely time there. The challenges I faced were largely my inner struggles, and from people outside of my own parish.
Vatican II made it possible for me to be Catholic. Again, most unlikely I’d have stuck around without the changes that Council made available. I believe for many of us an all English Liturgy and Vatican II are VITAL to our experiencing the ancient Christian faith. I thank God for those things. They brought high church down low enough to kiss my face.

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Your Name

posted April 24, 2009 at 2:47 am

Orthodoxy and Catholicism are still at a disagreement. a 1000 years of separation made the churches diverge int heology although it all leads to the same god. the orthodox are more mystical the catholics are more legalistic and logical, both complement each other but alotof hate got built up. te orthodox don’t trust the catholics because they say our faith is incomplete. honestly it’s all politics, the popes positon in the church is seen differently by both sides. it’s the same faith, same veneration of the virgin mary, the saints, etc. may christs prayer for them to be one be fulfilled and may it give rise to a unified christianity of apostilic origins…

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John M

posted April 24, 2009 at 7:02 pm

Ms.Burney, I wonder what you will do when the self-anointed traditionalists in the RC church (or as I refer to them, the ultramontane reactionaries) reverse as much of Vatican II and John XXIII’s work as they can. Much of what you find comforting, including the vernacular Novus Ordo mass is anathema to them, and their agenda is to me a mash of misogyny, clericalism and homophobia.
My faith journey took me away from Rome 22 years ago (I’m 62) and while I love much of the sacred music and culture, the Book of Common Prayer and evensong captured my mind and heart.

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posted April 24, 2009 at 8:56 pm

For Henri Nouwen, liturgical riches, St. Francis, St. Claire, St. Patrick, and so many to name, I give thanks.
For the orthodox- whom I do not know as well- I give thanks, especially for the “prayer ropes”.
For pentecostals and their passionate energy- I give thanks
For Lutherans and their centering on grace- I give thanks
For Mennonites and their focus on peace- I give thanks
For Methodists- focus on Jesus, love, do good, and do no harm- I give thanks
For Emergents and their deconstructive of what’s become sick in order to bring deeper wholeness- I give thanks
For Traditionalists- guarding treasures of faith- I give thanks

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Claudia Mair Burney

posted April 28, 2009 at 2:26 am

Thanks, everyone, for your wonderful, insightful comments.
John M., I don’t know what I’ll do in the next ten minutes, so I can’t really address what I’d do if the very changes that drew me to the Roman Catholic Church were reversed. But I do trust the Person of Jesus. He said His sheep know His voice, and I’m counting on Him to bid me “Come” and lead me where He wants me to be. This sheep loves her Shepherd. It’s very personal and real. Downright mystical.
A great shaking seems to be going on in all of Christ’s Church. Or it seems so to me. The Bride is being purged. Only God knows the details about how my story, and indeed, our collective story will end.
Grace to you all!

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Rita Lovett

posted March 27, 2011 at 9:22 pm

Briefly,no matter how You express your faith in God, we need to pray
as passionately for each other than ever before when we were of the
world and did not take time to pray because the bible was the farthest
thing on our mind.NOW We have the mind of Christ and we grow on the
word of GOD.Many who should be on the meat of the word are still
on milk like babes in Christ.Maturity is the way we grow-up and time
is running out.LET’S ALL See and Listen to Jesus.He is the way,the
truth and the Life.If you have acceptd HIM IN YOUR heart,then you
will have eternal life. The church will be in you.Being behind 4 walls
will not save you.Many are doing good works but that will not save
you.Only repent,change your mind and confess your sin(MISSING THE MARK
Then you will have a new nature and circumcised heart after GOD.

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Jorge Carrillo

posted August 8, 2013 at 3:08 pm

Thank you for sharing this beautiful testimony. May God bless Ragamuffin Diva

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credit repair

posted July 1, 2014 at 12:01 pm

Respect to author , some excellent information . “Consider that this day ne’er dawns again.” by Alighieri Dante.

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credit repair debt

posted August 19, 2014 at 10:58 pm

Aw, this was an exceptionally good post. Taking a few minutes and actual effort to make a great article

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