Of Lighthouses, Watchtowers, and “Friendly” Reminders…

I live just about an hour away from one of the Great Lakes. Within a comfortable driving distance, there are at least three beautiful lighthouses along the lake. Driving to or from the lighthouses, we pass through an area known as the “Fruit Belt.” Orchards, vineyards, and croplands are bursting this time of year–the very air is redolent with the smell of ripening apples, grapes, corn, beans, berries, wheat, and more. Some of the orchards and vineyards still have old watchtowers, though many have been removed or replaced with digital cameras.

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Lighthouses and watchtowers serve a purpose– one that is still important today. Lighthouses help ships and other lake traffic avoid dangerous reefs and rocks along the shore, as well as sandbars. They guide travelers in the dark, and through storms. Watchmen in towers protect crops from dangers such as fire and predators. They watch for storms, and signs of draught and frost. Both lighthouses and watchtowers are fixed, steady, visible, and convey safety and security.

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I’ve been reading through the prophets lately– Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel…the prophets were sending out a warning to the rebellious people of Israel and Judah. Even though the imagery is often graphic and stark, the message was one of steady love and warning from God. God loves us enough to guide us through the rocks and perils of life. He sends warnings– not to harm us but to keep us from harm. He sends faithful friends and other messengers to stand firm with us through the storm and drought and danger around us.

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Just like the light from the lighthouse, or the sound of a foghorn, the message may be glaring and unpleasant, sometimes. We may be sailing along with no notion of the rocks ahead. Or we may be strolling through the vineyard, unaware of a prowling animal or a fire just over the next rise. We may even resent the warnings we read in the Bible or hear from friends. We may be afraid to BE the one giving out the warning– afraid of being misunderstood or resented or even rejected.

God asks us to be watchmen– to be lighthouses– ready to shout out a warning to those who may be in danger. He also asks us to be vigilant and ready to heed the warnings He sends through others.

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How do we know when “friendly” reminders and warnings are true? How can we be sure that they are not just petty criticism or overreactions?

Check them against Scripture. And check them in the context of Scripture. A single verse, taken out of context, that seems to contradict other passages should always be suspect. But a general principle, found throughout the Old and New Testaments should be heeded.

Look for consistency. Lighthouses and watchtowers don’t bend and sway with the winds of change. “Warnings” that change with circumstances, or seem relative to certain situations should be suspect.

Listen for (and speak with) Love. Friends may speak words of warning, but they will also speak of mercy and hope.

Listen for (and speak) truth–warnings should contain specifics, rather than vague fears or blanket accusations.

Listen (and speak) with humility. That doesn’t mean that we cannot speak in our defense, but we should not be defensive or resentful– even if the warnings are spurious. Remember, Jesus was accused of being “from Satan” during His own ministry, yet He answered firmly and gently, not with anger or hatred.

Give Thanks! Give thanks that God sends us warnings, and gives us opportunities to recognize danger and error, and opportunities to repent and change course, and encourage others to do the same!

Shadows…

Today is a day of shadows.

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In the U.S. and Canada, it is “Groundhog” Day: on this day, tradition says that if a groundhog (a rodent also known as a woodchuck) comes out of its burrow and sees its shadow, we will have six more weeks of winter. (If it doesn’t see its shadow, we’re supposed to have an earlier spring, but I have never known this to be the case.) Supposedly, the groundhog is frightened of its shadow and returns to hibernate for six weeks. It seems sort of counter-intuitive: a sunny day should indicate that spring is just around the corner. Seeing its shadow should be a “good” sign for the groundhog.

Today is also a special day in the global Church calendar. Known as “Candlemas” or Presentation Day, it represents the day that Jesus was presented in the Temple and Mary went through the purification rites required for Jewish women after the birth of a son. (see Leviticus 12:1-8; Luke 2:22-40) The gospel writer includes two other encounters that took place in the Temple courts. A man named Simeon, and a woman named Anna both offer praises for this child– the fulfillment of hundreds of years of prophecy, dating back to the Mosaic Laws. And Simeon also offers a warning to Mary– a “shadow” of things to come and prophecies yet to be fulfilled (v. 35).

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Winter can be dreary, and filled with shadows– both real and figurative, natural and spiritual. But shadows only appear when there is also light. May we be reminded on this day– whether it is a day of shadows, sunshine, or cloud cover– that Jesus came to be the “Light” of the world. And we should never be “afraid of our own shadow.” Indeed, as we cast our own shadows through our words and actions, may they point others toward the true light. And as we face the shadows that fall in our way, may we remember that they are only that– shadows– Light has overcome the darkness!

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Praying in the Dark

The past few days have been a dark place for me. I don’t mean that something horrible has happened, or that my life has been upended. But things seem dim and indistinct. Some things I took for granted turn out to be less than sure. Events have been chaotic and tinged with evil and sadness.

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I was reading a novel the other day, set in the early days of World War II in London. Because of the threat of air raids from Germany, the people were required to “black out” their windows at night, and drive with no headlights. People who had driven or walked around the streets of London with confidence just weeks before were being injured or even killed because they could no longer trust in streetlights, headlights, or lights in windows to guide them safely home. At the same time, during the day, thousands of people, fearing that the Germans would use deadly gas, were carrying around gas masks (just in case!), and leaving them on buses or at pubs or train stations, because they were unused to the extra responsibility. Suddenly, the gas mask they were depending on was lost, and all the extra preparation turned out to be useless, anyway. It reminds me how often I would see people last year, getting ready to enter a store, only to return to their car for their required mask. The recent upsurge in COVID cases means that some public businesses and services are requiring masks again, while others do not. No one knows if they are prepared; no one seems confident that they are “safe”– even with masks, vaccines, furious hand-washing, and social distancing.

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Hard times and difficult situations can cause us to shift our focus and have to learn new routines–even new vocabulary! At certain times, life almost seems “normal.” At others, we seem to be tossed by every new wave that comes along. It can be easy to lose one’s way in the fog and darkness of chaos and changing times.

The Psalmist and King, David, had words of wisdom for times like these: “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” (Psalm 119: 105 KJV)

Even when things seem dark and it feels like I’ve lost my way, God is right beside me. If I have no other “light” to see by, God’s word will be enough to guide me on. When I pray– even in the dark–God sees me clearly, and knows the way ahead.

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And I needed to be reminded of that this week.

This Little Light of Mine…

Last Friday night, my husband and I watched fireworks in honor of Independence Day. They were spectacular– bright flashes of light, followed by loud, thunderous booms–red, green, blue, purple, orange, gold, and white. Some sizzled and screamed as they threw their light across the darkened backdrop of the night. Others were almost silent; just a “whizz” and a “poof.” Some were so bright, they lit up the whole sky, showing clouds and smoke trails.

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Fireworks are exciting and flashy. But I wouldn’t want to live in a world of continual fireworks. While their light is bright and exciting, it is not steady, and it is quickly swallowed up again by night’s darkness. We don’t even light fireworks during the day, because their light is not brighter or better than the sun.

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Sometimes, I try to be a “Christian” fireworks display–I try to be flashy and impressive, or sizzle, scream, and boom. That’s not entirely a bad thing– after all, we are to let out light shine, so that people can see our good works and glorify our Father in Heaven (see Matthew 5:14-16). But we should be careful. Jesus never called us to be like fireworks; He spoke of our “light” being more like a lamp or a candle.

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Some thoughts to remember:

  • We are to let our light shine for a purpose greater than display. Our lives should be a reflection of the true Light of the World. Jesus was not flashy and bombastic. He was humble, gentle, and kind. People were not amazed and impressed by Jesus’ appearance. And He didn’t draw attention to many of His miracles– He often healed people “on the road” as He traveled between towns; some of His most spectacular miracles, like walking on water, were done in front of only His closest disciples. Jesus didn’t lead others by clever arguments and flashy displays– He led by example and service.
  • Lamps and candles are steady sources of light. Our lives should not be momentary flashes of brightness, followed by clouds of smoke and a return to darkness for those around us. A quiet life of integrity may not be flashy, but it can, over a lifetime, inspire others and leave a lasting legacy that shines far longer and brighter than any fireworks display.
  • Occasionally, God will put us in a place where our light can shine a little brighter or sizzle for a bit– for His Glory. We should not be afraid to sparkle. But we must not let ourselves “burn out.” And when we see others shine in this way, we should not be envious or try to quench the Spirit; however, we must continue to reflect God’s glory, rather than trying to bask in another person’s glow.
  • Far greater than any fireworks display is the promise of God’s glory, revealed in the fullness of time– an eternal display of pure light, with no darkness to follow!
  • Our “little light” is not insignificant– it is God’s purpose. It pleases Him to see us glow, not explode!
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Lord, help me to shine in ways that point others to You. Help me to reflect Your gentle, faithful, and righteous light, Your Love, and Your Grace as I travel through a dark world. Amen.

The Intimate, Unknowable, God

Prayer is an exercise in juxtaposition–we seek to have intimate conversation with a mysterious and unknowable God. He INVITES us into this mystery. He pursues us, seeks us out, surrounds us with His Presence, yet He hides His face from us and shrouds Himself in light and cloud.

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God is Spirit– He is Eternal, Omnipresent, and Invisible. Yet He chooses to reveal Himself– in the beauty of Nature, in the smile of a stranger, in His revealed Word, and through His Son. Everything we need, we can find in and through Him, yet we cannot say that we comprehend Him, because He is so far above and beyond anything we can imagine.

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Prayer is a humbling experience– to approach the Throne of the One who holds the Universe in the palm of His hand; but it is also an intimate and very personal experience– to run into the arms of the One who knit us together and knows the very hairs on our head (or lack thereof!).

After a lifetime of praying and pursuing prayer, I still marvel at the complexity, majesty, mystery, and fragility of prayer. That God should desire to listen to me–whimpering, questioning, confessing, and even offering my best and inadequate praise– it astounds me. And yet it also sustains me, strengthens me, and stimulates me. This same God who holds the stars and planets inhabits the tiniest of atoms in the air I breathe. The same God who ordered the first sunrise, and has watched empires rise and fall, cares when I shed a tear and rejoices when I laugh. God who is perfect, has mercy on me when I confess my pettiness and offers forgiveness when I throw tantrums. The same God who bore the pain and agony of betrayal and crucifixion promises eternal life to those who have rejected Him– if only they will listen, turn, and follow Him.

Today, let the awe of Who God IS– both sovereign, unknowable, and mysterious, AND intimate, loving, and gracious–wash over you as you enter into prayer.

A Flash in the Pan

During the era of flintlock muskets, gunpowder was ignited by a spark from a flint striking a plate. The gunpowder was held steady in a small “pan”, and the resulting explosion was supposed to propel the lead shot “ball” or bullet to its intended target. But often, the gunpowder would not explode; it would simply burn out in a brief flash of light, failing to result in a shot, and wasting the powder. This was known as a “flash in the pan.” It came to symbolize an impressive display that accomplished little or nothing of use.

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Years later, prospectors in the California Gold Rush would see a “flash in the pan” as they looked for gold. They would take a shallow pan, dip it in a river, bring up water and silt, dirt, and rocks, and swirl it around. Sometimes, they would see the “flash” of a gold nugget or gold dust. More often, they would see a glint of something else– pyrite, or “fool’s gold” was more likely than a flash of real gold. And, as the water swirled, the tiny flash of gold could disappear amid the eddy of dirt and other dull rocks– remaining just a “flash in the pan.”

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Early photographers, struggling to bring enough light into their studios, experimented with explosive powders, hoping to get a “flash” of light bright enough to create a better negative exposure, so that their subjects would not have to sit so long in the same position in order to get a clear image. They would mix powders, spread some of them on a shallow “pan,” and ignite them to create a brief, but brilliant, flash of light.

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Our lives may sometimes seem like “a flash in the pan.” Our days are numbered, and our abilities limited. Even our brightest ideas and most explosive actions seem to be swallowed up in the larger scheme of things; our good deeds and noble intentions disappear in the swirling waters of time and the tides of injustice, disease, and evil around us.

But our lives, while brief, can be more than a “flash in the pan.” We are called to be the follow Jesus, the “Light of the World.” Jesus’s life on earth was brief, even by human life expectancy. But unlike a spark that burned itself out and ended in death and darkness, Jesus brought light and life that continues today. And He calls us to use our lives in ways that light the way for others.

Sometimes, our prayers can also seem like brief flashes, producing little of significance. But God hears each one, and it is in His power that our prayers become part of the larger “picture” of His plan.

The Sound of Silence

The events of Good Friday are well recorded in all four of the gospels, (see Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, and John 19 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=JOhn%2019&version=NIV ) but it is still difficult to imagine exactly what it must have been like that day. The first crow of the rooster came as Jesus was still on trial before the Sanhedrin, hours of questioning and betrayal that would continue as the sun rose and Jesus as passed on up the chain of power to Pontius Pilate for more questioning. The sun was still climbing as Jesus was beaten and paraded before the crowds. The swell of voices shouting for His execution would have echoed through the public square–“Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” “We have no king but Caesar!” The same taunting would continue as Jesus walked the long Via Dolorosa and came to Golgotha.

By nine that morning, Jesus, bloodied, whipped, exhausted, humiliated, betrayed, and struggling for every breath, was nailed to the cross. He was fully exposed to the bright morning sun, the heat, and all the stares of the angry mob who came to revel in His anguish. He was unable to wipe the blood or salty sweat that trickled from His brow and ran into His eyes; unable to swat away flies who buzzed around His face, elbows, or cheeks. He was unable to block out the noise–curses, curious questions, His Mother’s agonized cries, and, in the lull, the ordinary noises of a crowded city preparing for a celebration.

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As noon approached, there would be the aromas of roasted lamb, market fish, baking bread. The crowds were quieter now, some may have left to seek out lunch or relief from the heat. But the heat and the sun disappeared as darkness rolled in. The angry energy gave way to fear and dread. The earlier shouting was now a an ominous rumbling among the remaining spectators. It was quiet enough to hear Jesus address His Mother and His disciple, John, and answer the thief on the neighboring cross, promising to see him in Paradise. It was possible to hear Jesus cry out later, His voice raspy and broken, but clearly in anguish, “Eloi, Elioi, lama sabachthani!?”

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Perhaps it even got so quiet, as it sometimes does in darkness, that you could hear the three men on the crosses struggling to take each breath–their tortured muscled straining to lift their weight enough to get air past their parched lips and tongues–in and out, as distended muscles demanded more oxygen than their bodies could provide. Did the members of the crowd listen to their own heartbeats in those moments?

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The unnatural darkness would have magnified the moment when Jesus, the Light of the World, breathed His last breath. And I imagine in the moment after that a silence so deafening, so complete, as the Word of God, the Creator of Life and Giver of Breath departed the Earth– as though all light and sound imploded at the loss. A split second only, but one so intensely silent that it must have taken the breath of every onlooker.

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And then, the sound returned full-force– the Earth quaking, the skies crashing, Creation gasping, the Temple Veil ripping, and terrified people rediscovering their ability to cry out. Noise–piercing, and violent and sudden, bringing with it a return of the angry energy of before. But the energy is different now. Subdued. Nervous. Desperate. Empty…

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Whiter Than Snow

Winter has arrived full force in my part of the world– snow, falling temperatures, ice, and freezing winds make travel difficult and even dangerous. But snow brings about some good things–and one of those things is its color. The white of the snow helps reflect every small bit of light during the short, gray days of winter. When there is no snow cover, some of us can suffer from a condition called “seasonal affective disorder” (SAD). We don’t get enough exposure to sunlight, which can lead to depression, diminished immunity, and other health-related issues. And, while snow doesn’t contain vitamin D or create sunlight, it does reflect it and sometimes that is enough.

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I am enjoying the whiteness of the new-fallen snow as I write this. Even though it is late afternoon, and normally, it would seem dark by now, the snow makes it lighter; I can actually see better because of the snow! (Of course I couldn’t say this if I were driving and the snow was blowing about or covering my windshield…)
Many people in my community are rejoicing in the snow and cold– it means they can go skiing, snowmobiling, sledding, and build snowmen and snow forts. Some of the children (and their teachers) are hoping to have a “snow day” today. And some people are hoping to make some money from shoveling or plowing driveways and parking lots!

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There will be many people praying for snow; and others praying for the snow to end! And in a few days, the pure white snow may end up dingy and gray from being exposed to unclean air particulates, vehicle exhausts, smoke from chimneys, animal tracks, tire tracks, boot tracks, and trash. But for now, it has a purity and beauty that brightens the spirit.

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God uses the imagery of snow to speak of His Salvation. In Isaiah 1:18, He says, “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” The psalmist David says to the Lord, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” (Psalm 51:7) And the Apostle John writes, “And everyone who thus hopes in Him purifies himself as He is pure.” (1 John 3:3)

I don’t feel particularly pure most of the time– I know my past; I know my own failings, and the times I have NOT sparkled, or reflected God’s perfection. And God’s salvation doesn’t ignore any of that. God doesn’t declare that I have never sinned–instead, He takes the dirt, shame, and guilt that I deserve, and swallows it up in His grace. In its place, He gives me a renewed mind, a clean heart, and the power to make choices that reflect His heart and mind.

In a “SAD” world that is cold and gray, depressed and weak, God offers redemption that can make us purer, lighter, and fresher than new-fallen snow. We can reflect His light to a darkened world. And, even though the world is filled with contamination and filth, God has the power (and the desire!) to purify us, protect us, preserve us, and give us a sparkling purpose.

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This Little Light..

Just a couple of quick thoughts about how prayer is like a candle:

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Even a small candle can provide enough light to make a real difference in the darkness. Sometimes, we feel our prayers are small and ineffective, like a single candle in a dark room. But a single candle can pierce the darkness and offer hope and focus and even warmth where there was none before. We are in the season of Advent, and we light candles to mark the weeks of waiting for the One who is the Light of the World to come into the darkness. His light was enough to save the world from the darkness of Sin and Death. And it is This Light who hears our prayers, and intercedes for us. It is This Light who empowers us to share hope and love where it is most needed right now, right where we are.

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We are never a single candle! Not only do we have Christ living in us, and His Holy Spirit empowering us; God’s people around the world, through all places and times, are praying. Imagine seeing a single candle at the end of darkened room. Now, imagine how much brighter to see a long table lined with a row of candles, or a room lit by chandeliers and wall sconces with dozens of candles. Even if they are spread out– especially if they are spread out– they will fill every corner of the room with light and warmth. This is one of the reasons it is so important to pray for believers around the world, and to pray with other believers, through prayer nets, prayer meetings, prayer lists and blogs, and prayer journals.

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Our prayers are powerful. Not because of our “candle”, but because of the light God provides when we pray

Dust in the Wind

Several years ago, there was a popular song lamenting that, “all we are is dust in the wind.” The song evokes a feeling of helplessness– we are weak, small, and helpless as dust in the wind. It speaks of impermanence, brevity, sadness, and hopelessness in the face of forces greater than ourselves, and offers a warning not to “hang on” to earthly vanities.

The Bible speaks to this –God told Adam in the Garden of Eden that he would die and return to the dust from which he was formed (Genesis 2:7 and 3:19). Abraham was told that his seed would be “like the dust of the earth;” spread out across the earth and unable to be counted. The book of Job is filled with images of dust and ashes, as Job, homeless and afflicted, sits covered in them, talking of his life and death, and the emptiness of loss.

But there are surprisingly few references to dust in the New Testament. Jesus tells his disciples to visit cities, and where the people will not listen, the disciples are to leave and “shake the dust from (their) feet” as a testimony against them (Matthew 10:14; Mark 6:11; Luke 9:5)

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There are two aspects of dust I want to look at today. First, as the song suggests, dust is carried along by the wind. It has no permanence, no weight, no importance, no resistance, and is swept away by a chance wind, or by design with a broom or dust cloth. Dust is not cherished, but discarded. But dust is not destroyed by the wind– it is carried, lifted, moved, and dispersed, but not destroyed. The dust of today will be somewhere else many generations from now, and the dust that settles on our floors, tables, and under the bed may have been blown there from thousands of miles and centuries away! In just such a way, our lives– fragile and brief, leave traces of words spoken, kindnesses shared, and sacrifices made, that live long after our bodies return to ashes and dust. There is an amazing glory in a mote of dust carried by the stillness into a beam of sunlight. It sparkles and dances and drifts in a graceful spiral, suspended in light and air. And there is glory in a life lived in the light, seeking stillness and grace, being carried by the slightest whisper of God’s eternal love.

Secondly, dust that is not in motion, not in the light, IS discarded, unwanted, corrosive, and dead. There is no glory in layers of accumulated dust covering the beauty of an antique dresser or building up in the corner of a room. Dust that is NOT carried on the wind sits, worthless and destructive. It gets absorbed into an unsightly pile of sad, dead matter, and it sits– going nowhere, doing nothing. We shake it off, brush it off, wash it off, sweep it away, and get rid of it.

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Dust comes from death– dead skin cells, dead plant and animal matter–and I think there is a very real reason it is mentioned so often in connection with sin, sickness, unbelief, judgment, and death (though not in all cases). God does not want to leave us unmoved and dead– He wants to bring us to glory and give us new life in Him. We are dust in the wind– but that is not all we are. Instead, it is what we are for a brief moment in time– being carried to a new destination, or sinking and settling into despair.

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I pray that we will be lifted up in prayer and faith today, to dance in the light of God’s glorious grace, and carry our mote of glory and grace to wherever God my send us.

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