Why I Love Holy Week

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Holy Week is the most important week of the year for those of us who follow the way of Jesus the Christ. It is a week of incredible highs and lows as we end the lenten journey to the cross. As the sun sets and we experience the darkness of Jesus’ death, we are called to gather with other Christ followers to keep vigil and await the breaking of a new day.

But many will not fully experience Holy Week by going from picking up palms to Easter eggs. I feel sorry that for those who skip the three days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Vigil of Easter, often missing the point of the week we call Holy. The experience of Holy week is likened to attending a parent or grandparent’s big birthday bash and celebrating, but not seeing that same loved one at the end in their suffering and death. Some may even skip the wake (others the funeral itself) and instead go right to the lunch or reception because they want to remember their loved one “the way s/he was” and avoid the messiness of the realities of life.

I encourage you to be reminded of the realities of life, and death, and resurrection through Holy Week and the three-day experience of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Great Vigil of Easter. Skipping these for me it is like listening to Christmas music in November, eating Marshmallow peeps in Lent, or eating a Fenway Frank purchased in the grocery store and cooked at home. The true joy and life-giving meaning  consumed out of context for me is as hollow as those chocolate bunnies whose ears I’m tempted to bite off today.

Holy Week culminates in the Great Vigil of Easter as we gather to hear God’s ancient story, to pray, to sing, and to remind one another of God’s promises of being with us and loving us, no matter what. We struggle with believing those promises some days, and that is why the vigil service is so rich—rich in liturgical ways to travel the way from darkness to light, from uncertainty to joy, from death to life. The vigil connects God’s story to ours through emotional and intense stories from Hebrew Scripture.

The vigil is shaped by stories, but words are not the only focus as there are rich multi-sensory experiences and images accompany the journey from death to life. Vivid elements of fire, water, earth, and air are featured…

  • the creation story is recalled as God’s breath called and breathed life at the beginning and at the night of vigil as new life is raised up,
  • the people of Israel escaping Egypt and we too at the vigil night follow a pillar of fire as we move from the fire outside, to worship inside,
  • the people of Israel encountered the flood and the exodus through the red sea, and we too “come to the waters” as we are reminded of and splash in the promises of baptism.

Through the vigil experience, we hear anew that God’s story and those of the people of the promise is our story too. God’s life-giving Word will wash over us with God’s promises and salvation. I encourage you to attend Holy Week Services near you and if you happen to be in New Hampshire, join us at All Saints’ Wolfeboro Saturday, April 4th at 7:00 pm.

Jesus Can’t Breathe

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In Colonial America some pews were set aside as general seating for special groups. Details varied according to town, location, date and circumstances but they included reserving seats for adolescents, Native Americans, the poor, widows, the hard-of-hearing, prisoners, and black people, whether enslaved or free. In most churches, even here in New England, the last pews were commonly called Negro Pews and often labelled “free” or “Negro.”

New Hampshire was no exception to this custom. Negro Pews were features of the old North Meetinghouse, which stood on Market Square Portsmouth from 1711 to 1854. The Negro pews there were high above the front door in the upper balcony, as far as possible from the pulpit. And slave owners had to purchase pew space for their slaves just as they had to for themselves. Negro pews were found in other churches and continued in 1807 when St. John’s Church was built. The pews in a church that is the oldest today in our Episcopal Church of New Hampshire were properly identified with brass labels engraved “Negro Pews.”

You see our ancestral Episcopalians in New Hampshire followed a hierarchical system which expressed “dignity” in terms of proximity to the pulpit. The placement of Negro Pews against the back wall of the balcony declared black people’s status as the lowest order of a hierarchical white society. I bet it was hard to breathe up there after climbing all those stairs.

There were a few New England churches that placed Negro Pews in the side balconies, a highly-visible location usually reserved for adolescents and unmarried young adults. Placing blacks here gave physical expression to the white perception of black people as childlike, untrustworthy, or given to inappropriate behavior. This attitude became an enduring fixture of white culture. It was expressed as recently as the mid-20th-century when the term “boy” was used to exclude grown black, gay or Jewish men from mainstream culture or to imply their place at the bottom of society among children.

Black people left Portsmouth Churches in the 1890’s when the first black church was established. But this was just a different, out of sight, out of mind form of segregation, you’ve heard the term “separate but equal.” Some churches gradually left behind segregation practices but the brass “Negro” labels remained in St. John’s until long after the practice of separate seating had long lapsed. Their disappearance reflected our societies growing white embarrassment about past sins. [http://www.seacoastnh.com/blackhistory/slaves3.html#1]

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But Pastor Bill, what does this have to do with All Saints’ or our texts? Well repentance about past segregation we didn’t participate in, doesn’t mean that racism wrongs have been righted, or that you and I are not called to reflect and repent for those thoughts and actions known and unknown, things we have done and things we have failed to do around power, privilege and prejudice, the sin that perpetuates oppression based on race. Repentance is what John calls us to this day. John called people to repent, to clean-up the practices of our lives and to completely reorder our thoughts so that nothing will get in the way of the Lord’s coming. The reading from Isaiah gives the context for this radical call:

  • the assurance of forgiveness that encourages us to repent; and
  • the promise that the coming one will be gentle with all His people, especially those who suffer and are oppressed.

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What Does The LORD Require?

Micah 6.8Micah 6:8 is one of my favorite verses in all of scripture. I’m not alone as many writers list it as one of the top 10 due to its focus on doing instead of just thinking about faith. In North America and even in the Vatican these days there is a shift from religion as being something one studies and thinks about, to being faith experienced and lived. Even our own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America uses the tag-line God’s Work. Our Hands. to articulate and encourage this shift in religious life.

Many want religion to be a simple, a bunch of rules to follow, a prayer to say, a formula to happiness, wholeness, and heaven. Just tell me what you want from me, what I need to do… Preachers on television use this model: believe this, don’t do that, act this way and God will bless you, God will give you what you want, what you’ve earned, and your life as a “Christian” will be full of perfection and prosperity. But you and I know that God isn’t a puzzle to be solved or a program to be worked.

God who created us and loves us, pursues us as we wander and wonder about what we need to do. God sent prophets to shape us up and assure us of God’s blessings. And when we ignored them and insisted on our way, God send Jesus to save us from our sins and ourselves. Today we hear from Micah and Matthew Messages to realign us and remind us of what God does for us first, what God dreams and hopes our response is, and both of those are love.

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In my experience as a student, my writing teachers always stressed the importance of using strong verbs to make your point. In Micah that verb is “require”. It’s a word we know well. It focuses us on what one needs to do and serves to focus and direct the verse:

what does the Lord require of you…?

Seems pretty easy to understand, but here is where the nuances of language, particularly the original Hebrew get in the way. Sure it would be easy to tell you to:

do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.

THAT is what the Lord requires, wants, and demands.

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Who’s Your Daddy?

Reformation Sunday + October 27, 2013

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When I told the Wednesday Faith Night Bible Study group this week that my working title for this Reformation sermon was “Who’s Your Daddy?” their reaction was similar to yours. Admittedly it’s an unusual, maybe edgy title, but it reflects a central question in John’s Gospel today.

The people of the promise who believed in Jesus had just heard him say that by living out the word he’d taught them, they would truly be his disciples. Disciples who would experience the truth and the truth would set them free. Well they didn’t get it, claiming that as sons and daughters of Abraham they’d never been slaves to anyone. I wonder if Jesus laughed-out-loud because he, like most Sunday school children, know that the people had been enslaved, and more than once…

  • Remember Egypt, how the Passover and Exodus stories were all about God freeing them from slavery?
  • Remember when they were slaves to wandering around a dessert for 40 years before entering the Promised Land?
  • Or when years later they were defeated, taken away, enslaved from all they knew and had been promised during the Babylonian exile?

Descendants of Abraham never enslaved—I imagine Jesus smiling and maybe shaking his head as he asked them: “Who’s Your Daddy?”

Who’s Your Daddy according to that all-knowing web resource Wikipedia, is a slang expression that most often takes the form of a rhetorical question. It is commonly used as a slam, an insult, and a boastful claim of dominance over the intended listener. Perhaps the phrase itself comes from the 1968 song “Time of the Season,” by The Zombies (yes pastor used a zombie reference during Halloween week) that features the lyrics:

What’s your name? Who’s your daddy? Is he rich like me?

And as we struggle to keep our eyes open after watching the World Series game last night (especially if you’re a Red Sox fan), you may recall the phrase from the 2004 American League Championship Series when it was used as a taunt chanted by New York Yankees fans at Boston Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martínez. Now Most of you know that I’m not a Yankees fan, but Pedro brought this on himself after losing a game against the Yankees when he told reporters:

They beat me. They’re that good right now. They’re that hot.  I just tip my hat and call the Yankees my daddy.

I don’t care if you are the world’s biggest Yankees fan, or George Steinbrenner Jr., the Yankees are not your daddy. Nor is Abraham your daddy. Distant ancestor, biblical hero and father figure yes, but not  even daddy to the Jewish people Jesus was engaging in our Gospel story this morning. So “Who’s Your Daddy?” We are children of God, that’s who our daddy is!

Word. Jesus, God with us in the flesh came to remind us of that. Jesus tells us that as children of God, we are no longer subject to the world’s boastful claim of sin and dominance over us.

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The Holy Spirit as a Wild Goose

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Ancient Celtic Christians used the Wild Goose as an image for the Spirit of God. As a Christ follower of Scotch Irish descent, I can imagine my ancestors arguing that the traditional image of the Holy Spirit, the dove was well, too tame. Doves are pretty and often depicted as clean and white. But wild geese are, well, wild.  They get down in the water and mud in their untamed, unpredictable and unleashed noisy way. One cannot miss the presence of a wild goose. The Spirit of God is not caged as the institutional church has most often perceived her to be, but is unleashed, honking and chasing us all to notice God in the wind, water and mud of life.

As a mainline church pastor, the Wild Goose of God has been circling around my comfort zone and nudging my thinking about the future of faith in the post-Christian context we live in. My Lutheran theology of the cross and experiencing God where we least expect, moved my exploring continuing education and retreat options from those offered by the religious establishment, to something a little more, well, wild. As I searched and prayed, I found the Spirit of God sending me to the Wild Goose Festival. For that, I am thankful.

It was in the wild and beautiful mountains of North Carolina last week that this Christ follower was affirmed, challenged, and energized for my work as a parish pastor through four days of music, justice, spirituality and art. The festival flew on the wind and wings of the metaphor for the unpredictable Spirit of God as we engaged in the theme of ReMembering the Body. The incarnational images of God were abundant…

  • ReMembered in the creation and mud (remember you are dust and to dust you shall return),
  • ReMembered in the rain and roaring French Broad River (the water of baptism and life), and
  • ReMembered in the bodies of more than 2,000 gathered in community (the body of Christ).

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Can the A&E Television Show Hoarders Fix the Church?

The reality show that documents the struggles of people who cannot part with their belongings and highlights the intervention and roads they take to recovery could be a model for the Church. The show does not sugarcoat that hoarding is a serious pathological condition. Instead, the show connects hoarders with professionals who then recommend treatment and resources to recovery based on the specific needs of the people who struggle with hoarding.

The Church has experienced declining membership and participation, and many long for recovery. For some that longing is for recovery to the vibrant peak of denominational Christianity of the late sixties and seventies. Few would admit that the Church is suffering a pathological condition, but we are. We hoard and hold on to dusty buildings and traditions that are falling down and overflowing with outdated stuff. We are not unlike the Church of five hundred years ago that got rid of the stuff that got in the way of the Good News, taking the road of recovery called the Reformation.

Today those of us on that Reformation road have become as pathological as the Roman Catholic Church of the 1500’s. We have a history of hoarding regardless of which Protestant side street we may have taken. We have complicated our current condition with pathological denial that recovery must include casting off, letting go, and finding new roads. While the A&E show highlights the struggle, freedom and new life that comes along the hoarders’ recovery road, we know that the road runs through the Cross and Resurrection.

As traveling the Reformation Road has been slowed down by our pathological conditions, some of our fellow travelers like authors Diana Butler Bass and Phyllis Tickle have served as traffic reporters in much the same way as loved ones do on the A&E show. Both point to the Good News of the Cross and Resurrection as the GPS on the recovery road. Tickle sees new expressions of church emerging on the map and encourages existing ones to explore the roads of reconfiguration and revitalization.

Our denomination leaders are called to positions to serve as therapists and coaches that help us see and get rid of the stuff we have been hoarding and holding onto. On the television show, not all hoarders survive the recovery road, but as resurrection people, the questions and lessons from Hoarders can be a road map for the Church…

  • Who are the people in your faith community keeping the church bus on the same road it’s always been on?
  • What is the stuff your faith community hoards, holds onto and gets in the way?
  • When is your faith community going to run out of gas, crash and burn, or just rust away?
  • Where are the roads of reconfiguration and revitalization your faith community travel?

 

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All Are Welcome… Right?

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There is a new worshipping community being developed in a closed Lutheran church building in the South Wedge neighborhood of Rochester, NY that I think Paul would love. Their website and Facebook page describe themselves in this way:

NOW OFFERING IN WORD AND SACRAMENT:

+SAFE HAVEN FOR THE RELIGIOUSLY HOMELESS+

+WORK FOR THE SPIRITUALLY UNDEREMPLOYED+

+GRACE FOR ALL – NO EXCEPTIONS+

Faith Lutheran Church is currently considering a welcome statement that reflects Paul’s letter to the worshipping community in Galatia. In what many consider to be Paul’s most decisive statement declaring that faith in Jesus has removed all barriers to a relationship with God. All are welcome to be a part of the way of Jesus. God graces followers with faith no matter who they are, no matter what their religious resume or spiritual stature.

Paul reminds us that God gave the law to Moses to keep us in line, to provide rules like we would find in a classroom. So Moses was like a school teacher who God gave to discipline us. But we, like school children across the country this month sing that classic Alice Cooper hard rock classic: Schools Out For Summer

NO MORE PENCILS, NO MORE BOOKS, NO MORE TEACHER’S DIRTY LOOKS.

We want our summers free. We want to do what we want, when we want, with whom we want. And like our fellow ancestors of Abraham and Sarah who were given school teacher Moses, we wander and sing “schools out for the summer” in the way we live our lives.

That Alice Cooper classic continues with words that come from living life apart from God…

WELL WE GOT NO CLASS.  AND WE GOT NO PRINCIPLES.

AND WE GOT NO INNOCENCE.  WE CAN’T EVEN THINK OF A WORD THAT RHYMES.

SCHOOLS OUT FOR SUMMER.  SCHOOLS OUT FOREVER.

God saw that we like naughty school children, broke the rules and ran wild during the summer, no matter how harsh the discipline. But God loved us and doesn’t leave us alone to run wild. We are so loved that instead of permanent detention, God with us, Jesus, joins us in summer school to make us all God’s children.   You and I, children of our heavenly Father, are as Paul reminds, heirs of all God’s promises to Israel.

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We are all children of God, as are the religiously homeless and spiritually underemployed. If only those 75% of our religiously homeless neighbors would join us here…

  • Some of you wish and even pray for this…
  • Some of you even go so far as to talk about how God blesses you, and how you’ve found a home in this faith community and your spirituality has been employed in doing God’s work with your hands…
  • Some of you have gone so far as to invite your friends, neighbors, and lapsed family members to come here with you to God’s House on Silver Lane to experience grace and be fed…

After all, all are welcome here…right?

For most who participated in Wednesday Faith Night discussions in Lent, engaging in really looking at who is here, who is not here, and why, the welcome statement we are considering makes sense. For others who have not wrestled with the issues of welcome and hospitality at Faith, if we just say “all are welcome,” that covers it. But the reality is there are people across the fence and across the dinner table from us that do not feel welcome in the church, any church, even this one. We are most comfortable welcoming and sharing hospitality with people like us much of the time. We long for things the way they used to be, when this community was more homogeneous, but God has gathered us here in East Hartford, a diverse and rapidly changing mission field.

The Christian church has often condemned and excluded people because of race, culture, age, gender, economic status, disability or sexual orientation. While the Church has made progress by being open and affirming to many groups, there continues to be condemnation, exclusion and segregation in many communities of faith. Where there is not, there is often tolerance of condemnation, exclusion and segregation through silence. We good people of Faith have been silent. Continue reading

Christ and the Comfort Zone

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Most of us love routine in our lives.

  • We would rather interact with people we know, deal with things we know about, know our schedule ahead of time, and go to places we know.
  • We are comforted by the same old same old, the familiar and known. 
  • We find safety and security in the routines of our lives, the content or complacent. 
  • We live in our favorite place in the world, our comfort zones.

God is with us everywhere, even in that known zone that is oh so comfortable. We know from Hebrew Scripture and the Good News of the New Testament, that God shows up and surprises us when the unexpected happens, when things are not going according to our plans, and even though we know this,it disrupts our expectations of God, it shakes and shocks us out of our comfort zones.

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In our reading from Isaiah, the Prophet reminds the people of the promise living in exile surrounded by Babylonian culture and religion, of their own history, when God was present, acting for them during the Exodus from Egypt.  But the God of the Exodus, is a God of promise in the present and future, and is not just present in Scripture as a historical God of the past. It is this God, our God that the prophet speaks of today. Proclaiming God’s presence and promises of great action to come. Isaiah speaks not of miracles in water, but of miracles in the desert places, today, tomorrow, and all the tomorrows to come.

God, speaking through Isaiah, says to expect the unexpected. God through Isaiah says watch for something new to spring up. Watch for what we might think impossible, improbable, or even outrageous. God promised to do a new thing those many, many years ago, and God is not done doing new things. God is not done surprising, even we the people gathered as the church in this time and place.

Watching, praying and discerning what God is up to, is what our congregation leaders have been up to since our annual meeting in February. It will take time to listen and faithfully figure out how to walk together and do what matters in this time and place. We met on Monday, and Janina, our president, led us in studying God’s Word as we do as part of every council meeting. The prayer she chose to share following our Bible Study, is a prayer of courage that comes from our Evangelical Lutheran Worship book:

Lord God, you have called your servants
to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,
by paths as yet untrodden,
through perils unknown.
Give us faith to go out with good courage,
not knowing where we go,
but only that your hand is leading us
and your love supporting us;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This is my favorite prayer. It hangs above my desk at home and downstairs in the pastor’s study next to the door, so I can see it and pray it when I leave the safety of that space when I am needed to leave my comfort zone, to encounter God in the new and unknown.

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God Grieves Holy Innocence + Innocents

Psalm 130

This was a week when Friday morning I had three pages of notes, an outline, and I could have preached without a lot of further prep. I had the day scheduled as a day off but planned to make a couple of hospital visits and finish my sermon at Starbucks. I turned on the television as I got ready and learned of the unfolding events at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I was transfixed, sat down and before I knew it hours had passed. Kay called in the afternoon and I was eventually able to eat, get out of the house, stop at the office for a bit and get to the hospital.

But those sermon notes were useless in the face of the events that unfolded and all I could think about was the slaughter of the Holy Innocents in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, and those of that morning. That is why I read the Gospel from Matthew 2 this morning, because I couldn’t shake the images of violence against the innocent and the unlikely gift of myrrh given to Jesus by the very one who would tell his would be killer about him.

Gold Frankincense and Myrrh were what the Three Kings brought as gifts to Jesus. Shortly after these gifts were unwrapped, an angel of God appears to Joseph and the stage is set for the Holy Family to escape to Egypt, but also for a madman to kill innocent children. This text and the news are sad reminders that violent crime has been a part of the human experience throughout human history. From Cain killing Abel in Genesis, the blood of countless victims has cried out to God. Our hearts, those of our Connecticut neighbors and the nation too, cry out to our God who gives us life. We grieve this day for the victims and innocence lost for families, friends and communities like our own who feel hurt beyond words and sit in darkness.

Violence terrorizes and eats away at a civil society. Our bonds of trust, the foundation of safety and security that allow us to live routine, peaceable lives tear and fray, leaving our lives tattered—and instead of loving, we question our foundations and fear our neighbor. Sitting in tatters, saddened by violence, and angered by the injustice, we want justice. We want those who violate the sanctity of life, the perceptions of peace, and the safety of society to be held accountable. But in our sadness and anger, you and I are vulnerable to soul ripping feelings of revenge. In the midst of our utter frustration with the complexity that contributes to violence may make us long for simple solutions.

Of course there are no simple solutions to our grief, our cries for justice, or our longing for peace in our broken and fallen world. So we gather to pray, to hear God’s Word, to be fed and sustained by bread and wine. Today, this gathering at this time, in this place is an Emmanuel moment. God is with us. God is with us in what we do when we gather as Children of God to be reminded of God’s unfailing presence with us. This is the sure and certain promise of God’s unfailing love and willingness to accompany us in the midst of all goodness and evil.

God is with us. God is with the dying. God is with the grieving.

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Love and Marriage

Love and Marriage

The texts today speak about love and marriage, reminding me of the theme song from the first Fox TV hit “Married with Children.” Many of you would know it better as a Frank Sinatra song originally used by Frank Sinatra in 1955 for the television production of Our Town, a play by Thornton Wilder.

Love and marriage, love and marriage, Go together like a horse and carriage. This I tell ya, brother, you can’t have one without the other.

Love and marriage, love and marriage, It’s an institute you can’t disparage. Ask the local gentry and they will say it’s elementary.

Try, try, try to separate them, it’s an illusion. Try, try, try and you only come to this conclusion:

Love and marriage, love and marriage, Go together like a horse and carriage.

Dad was told by mother you can’t have one You can’t have none. You can’t have one without the other.

Quaint 1950’s sentiment, hardly reflected in a world when according the U.S. Census only 48% of American households are married. The institution of marriage is an illusion for many, As quaint and antiquated as a horse and carriage. Today 20% of households are “traditional” families, that is married couples with children. We live in a world where broken relationships, abused partners, divorce, and abused children are as much the reality today as they were in Jesus’ day.

The texts today are less about the institution of marriage and divorce laws, as they are about justice and love. Jesus calls us out on our selfishness, and our oppression of those who are powerless. In the beginnings of Genesis and the time of Jesus, women and children were considered property of the man. And marriage was between a man and a woman because marriage was a baby-making institution, it had nothing to do with love, it included multiple wives, and slaves because the survival of the small and fragile tribes and kingdoms of the time depended on it.

A divorce could be decreed by a man for any reason, he was bored, one of his wives burned dinner, bore daughters instead of sons, or wasn’t able to bear children at all, the absurd list goes on and on. And children were to work and support the household, they were property, they were not the center of parents lives. Children were to be seen and not heard and in the Mark story today, the disciples try to keep the children away from Jesus, because that was the custom of the day.

But Jesus calls out… men, the institution marriage, the practice of divorce, the disciples and all who push aside fellow human beings to the margins, from women, to little children. Jesus values all people, and while Jesus lifts up love and marriage, he lifts up love and the value of relationships most of all. Jesus calls us out to live in love, to live with a personal and communal responsibility that does not throw away relationships, regardless of who they are between, and above all, does not throw away people.

We are to welcome all. We are to value all relationships. We are called to lives of love and to lives of justice that work to defend all the defenseless. The relationships of our lives are all build on love. We do not control, as much as we think, or would like…

  • Who we are drawn to in relationship;
  • Who we are friends with; and
  • Who we fall in love with.

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