Being A Member Of The Congregation In Two Places

Recently, I have had two experiences of being a member of a congregation that are worth telling you about.

 

The first experience was one that I would call ‘relaxed’, to put the most positive spin on it. The presiding priest seemed not to have prepared properly. He took a long time to find the right place in the prayer book for the seasonal variations and the prayer of thanksgiving, as though his arrival at the altar, was the first time he had looked at them. Things that were in the liturgy were forgotten and it seemed to me that the ‘feel’ or ‘spirit’ that the priest was conveying said ‘We are having a nice chat here. I can put in asides and commentary to what is going on because we all know each other. We are having fun, and a ‘nice time’ ”

 

Some of me ‘gets’ this. An atmosphere of informality can be good. It helps to put people at their ease. But more importantly for me, as a priest, what I do on a Sunday morning is the expression of what I am ordained for. Of all places, this should be the place where I am most prepared, not least prepared. What I am doing is the most important thing that anyone can do: preach the Good News, and ‘show forth Christ’s death until he comes.’

 

However, during that Eucharist, my internal dialogue reminded me of two other things that I believe about the Eucharist. The first is, that the presence of God in the Eucharist is guaranteed not by the quality of the performance, but by God’s own promise. Eucharist is not something that happens for the people in the pews by the people up the front. Eucharist is something that God offers us: Gods own self in the presence of Christ in bread and wine. It is not about ‘us’. I don’t go to Church as a consumer of religious goods and services, to ‘get something out of it’ but to play my part in it, and to receive what God is offering me.

 

The second thing in my internal dialogue is this: that the structure of the liturgy itself will do the work it is designed to do. Whether it is done well or badly, what counts is whether I come with a heart open to God, bringing my desires and secrets. What matters is whether I come, aware of my own sinfulness, and in need of God’s forgiveness. What matters is whether, in the intercession, I offer my thanks and pain for the world, and come ‘standing in the need of prayer’. At the Eucharist, I am one of the celebrants, so how the thing goes depends to some extent, yes, upon the quality of the president, but it also depends of the quality of the other celebrants, that is, most of the congregation.

 

How this goes does depend to some extent upon the leadership. If the intercessions are offered in a way that prevents me from offering my prayers, then it has failed. If the readings are read in a way that prevents me from saying ‘Yes” when the reader says ‘This is the word of the Lord’, then they have failed. But my take away from this Eucharist was that although the quality of the presiding matters, what also matters is what I bring to the Eucharist.

 

The second experience of Eucharist was so different, but equally perplexing. The parish where I went had a very good choir of young people, but a small congregation of older people. The church itself was absolutely beautifully presented. But the setting for the sung parts of the Eucharist (all of the responses and the psalm) were so difficult that I could not sing or learn them. Hardly anyone else sang much, except for the Choir. The preacher had no notes. I felt that the perfection of the whole Eucharist had excluded me. It seemed to be done in such away as though it was a performance of the people ‘up there’ for God, maybe, but which left me as an observer, not a participant. I felt that the preacher’s speaking ‘off the cuff’ did not do sufficient justice to the Good News. Did he not prepare? This sent me a message that the preacher, like many clergy, was protecting what was most precious to him through a studied indifference, rather than bringing his passion to the preaching.

 

There, I did not have the ‘internal dialogue’ about the Eucharist. If they were going to be ‘perfect’ (which they clearly knew how to be) they could have been ‘perfect’ in facilitating the standard of worship which Vatican 11 commends: that of ‘full, conscious and active participation’ of all members of the congregation.

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Memorials: On How or Whether To Remember

For a while now there has been a lot of controversy about memorials. The two events that stand out for me are the attempts to remove the statue of General Robert E. Lee in Charlotte, Virginia and the removal of Bishop George Bell’s Memorial from Chichester Cathedral and the change of name of a school.

 

So I am trying to think through the question: what is it right to do with physical objects whose history is now contested?

 

So the first place that I go to is my own life. There are things that I have done of which I am ashamed. Like the recovering alcoholics in a twelve step programme, most of the time, when I have been made aware of the shame that I bear, I have gone to the person concerned and have tried to make up for it by confessing the wrongdoing.

 

Often this works. I am released from the shame, and I can then say “I am not that person anymore. My sins have been confessed, atoned for and forgiven. I have changed my ways. The person that did this thing is now not me.’

 

This strikes me as being similar to the situation of Germany. Ever since the holocaust, they have set up memorials to what they have done. As a nation they have done all that they can to make amends. They have said ‘That is who we were, true, but that is not who are. We want to set up a memorial to remind us of who we were so that we do not do it again”. German has two words for ‘memorial’. One is ‘Denkmal’ Its origin is in the word ‘denken, to think’. So a ‘Denkmal’ invites a person to think about what is memorialised. But their second word is ‘Mahnmal’ This word has its origins in the verb ‘mahnen’ to warn. The object is set up, like a light house to warn people of things that have been done in the past that should not be repeated.

 

It is because of the ‘Mahnmal’ that reminds Germans of the Holocaust, that prompted Angela Merkel to offer places to Syrian refugees. She was saying “Once as a nation we expelled people and killed them. Now as a nation we are receiving people and giving them life’.

 

In the English speaking world, I cannot think of any ‘Mahnmals’ so that the idea of ‘remembering’ is more ambiguous. I think it might be possible to add information to a statue or memorial, in order to describe what is going on in the light of changed circumstances. Some people have suggested the doing of this about the statue of Robert E. Lee, and about the memorials to Bishop George Bell.

 

But what if I do not think that I have done anything to be ashamed of? The memory of my actions is not ‘grievous’ to me, but others disagree? Then the history of my actins is contested. This is true of both Robert E. Lee and George Bell. For very different reasons, some wish to keep a positive memory of both people. Then the acknowledgement of the contested nature of a person’s legacy could also be acknowledged in the memorial.

 

But the problem gets murkier. I am worried by the polarisation of things. It is as if we want someone to be a ‘saint’ in which case we can happily remember them, or a ‘sinner’ in which case we can happily forget them. Alternatively, as is the case with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we have a selective memory, or use a rationalisation and say ‘Yes, he was a conspirator in a murder plot, but the one whom he wanted to murder was a terrible person, so that makes it ok, and he was really good about everything else.’

 

Sometimes ‘moving on’ depends upon forgetting, or maybe better, being agnostic and leaving the issues about how to evaluate the history unresolved. Bonhoeffer himself said that a person could sometimes throw themselves on the mercy of God. We could say about Bishop George Bell “He did some wonderful things in being a voice against revenge in the Second World War, but now someone is accusing him of also being a paedophile. He is in the hands of God’s judgment and mercy.” In heaven, or at judgement day all that is true of him will be laid bear. That is the true place of judgement. Being Christian allows for this perspective. As St. Paul writes ‘We see through a glass, darkly, but then, face to face.’

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Advent, Judgement And Jesus’ Way of Power

 

During advent, the readings for morning and evening prayer have been from Isaiah. Isaiah and his followers in later chapters have been saying that the cause of the exile of the population of Israel and Judah has been their faithlessness to God: through their injustice, and their lack of covenant faithfulness.

 

In other places Jeremiah says to the people words to the effect that “ You may believe hat you are safe because we have the temple of the Lord’ but the Temple of the Lord is not going to save you.

 

God’s instrument of correction of the people was their military defeat by foreign armies.

 

I am thinking about the connection between these events and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse.

 

The Church has tried to some degree to ‘set its own house in order’, but it has not been enough. Now an external source of coercion has stepped in, like a foreign power, to give us a very big wake up call. On top of a decline in people coming to faith for other reasons, we are now more generally on the nose in the community because we have been attached to our institutional reputation, more than we have been attached to the ‘little ones’ as St. Matthew calls them.

Now I am thinking that we too must get ready for a time of exile, where we say ‘This Royal Commission is perhaps God’s way of telling us that the kind of power that was exercised by those people in institutions who have not listened to the voices of the abused ones is not the kind of power that God exercises. We should give up trying to exercise that kind of power.’

 

Some of the problem was that we also believed too much in the power of confession, and absolution as an instrument for changing people with paedophile, or megalomaniac tendencies. Where better to go than to a school of little people if you want to lord it over others. Where better to congregate than around children in choirs, Sunday schools and orphanages if one has paedophile tendencies. Some of the structural problems faced by the institutions were because of the nature of the work those institutions did, and the opportunities that it gave for abuse.

 

But the saddest thing of all is that this way of being contradicts our core directive, and now our credibility to represent this core message has been damaged by our own unwillingness to see what we were doing.

 

In a way, the very early days of the Church, when it had no institutional power are a kind of ‘time of innocence’ where it might have been possible to be a better Christian than it is now.

 

I don’t want to press this too far, because the Church was not without its problems, as the Letter to the Corinthians shows, with the case of incest there, but I do think that our entanglement with government money and lack of transparency in our operation has made us not as god a Church as we might be. Now we all wear the consequences.

 

Through the Royal commission, we are experiencing the meaning of Advent in our own life, rather than talking about it.

 

The other thing that comes to me in this context is the vehemence with which people have expressed themselves. The presumption of innocence has gone out the window for those accused.

 

No matter what the outcome of the trial of Cardinal Pell, he has become the focus for so much venom, that only his losing his job, or being found guilty will satisfy some people for whom a the sacrifice of some is the only thing that will return the social order to any form of normalcy.

 

Our justice system purposely separates the operation of justice from the desire for vengeance so that such demands for blood can be resisted.

 

Jesus died as a blood sacrifice by the authorities, in order that he might be the last scapegoat.

 

Neither the people who were able satisfy their own sexual and power needs, under the cover of institutional protection, nor the people who want to see a new reign of terror like that of the French Revolution have grasped what Jesus came to make possible.

 

We are living in times where what is most primitive in human beings is coming to the surface. This is happening both in the committing of crimes, and the sacrificial revenge that is exacted for them.

 

Here is the invitation to confession for Advent “The Lord comes, bringing to light things now hidden in darkness and disclosing the purposes of the heart.” How true is this. But the things hidden in darkness and the purposes of the human heart are darker than we wanted to know about, or could imagine.

 

I pray that God will work in me to make me a better human being by learning more what it means to be a follower of Jesus, whose way of exercising his power as God is neither compulsive, abusive, nor vengeful.

 

 

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On The Power Of Being Blessed

The readings from the Common Testament for Morning Prayer have come from Genesis in recent days. I have been reading the story of Jacob. At the instigation of his mother, Jacob receives the blessing of Isaac, his blind and frail Father, instead of his older brother Esau.

 

The story is complicated. The first part of the story happens when Esau, the hunter, comes home with no catch, but is hungry. Jacob, the home-body and cook says to him ‘Sell me your birth-right as the elder twin, and I will feed you.’ What an offer. Anyway, Esau does it. Then Rebeccah and Jacob work out a way of making Jacob feel and smell like Esau, so that when it comes time for the blessing of his father, Isaac actually thinks that he is blessing the elder one, Esau.

 

Esau finds this out and is distraught. He says ‘Bless me too father!!!’ But the blessing has already been given. Jacob has been made lord over his brothers, and the wish of the father for prosperity has been given to Jacob. It cannot be rescinded.

 

Now a scholarly reading of this story goes like this: The great saga, of which this story is a part describes how the blessing of God, promised to Abraham is made effective through the birth of Isaac, then the twelve sons of Jacob (Israel), and on through the Exodus.

 

The crucial thing is that one receive the blessing of God.

 

The problem with Esau is that he did not have his values sorted out. Twice, as he says, his distorted values mean that Jacob, who knows he value of the blessing, does what is necessary to receive a blessing, while Esau, misses out.

 

The whole story focuses on the way in which putting one’s relationship with God, and god’s blessing is the most important thing. Everything else must take its place in relationship to that.

 

I am reminded of the later text, which Esau did not understand ‘You shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of god.’ It is connection with God, which is truly nourishing.

 

I remember a couple of stories from my earlier days that illustrate this for me. Before I understood my vocation as a priest, I would ‘put out’ as it were that I as a troubled, searching soul with its of questions. People would ask me in response ‘Well what do you want to do?”

 

I used to reply “I think the main question is ‘Who do I want to be!! And The Bible says ’seek first the reign of god and god’s righteousness and everything else will be added to you.“

 

In that context I identified with Jacob and his wanting the blessing above all things.

At another time I began attending an Anglican Church. I saw the priest giving a solemn blessing to some people at the Eucharist. I asked him ‘I would like one of those blessings”

 

He said “Yes, but you get a better one in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, to which you are entitled.” “Yes, “ I said, “But I want a blessing”. It was great to receive this.

 

I have felt like Esau: missing out. When I read the story I began to cry because I understand the remorse that comes when I see that something that I could have had, is not mine because of mistakes that I have made. “Bless me too father!” Instead I have had to suffer the consequences of my actions. I have not been blessed, but like Esau I have wandered around the fringes of the things that I hold most dear.

 

It is for the sake of understanding the power to bless that I take this office of a priest very seriously.

 

During the Eucharist people often bring younger people for a blessing. It is a wonderful thing to be able to say ‘The blessing of God, Almighty be upon you and remain with you.”. At this point I do not agree with some priests who wave their hands in a general fashion over a young person and say ‘The Lord Jesus bless you.’ What I am not doing is ‘something nice’. Like the blessing of Isaac on Jacob there is something powerful about words of blessing which when delivered solemnly are effective words. There is nothing that ought to be taken more seriously in the Church than being blessed, or being given the right to pronounce a blessing.

 

This happens too at the end of church. It is one of the most enjoyable moments of being a priest to be able to say ‘…and the blessing of god almighty, Father, son and holy Spirit be among you and remain with you always.”

 

We do this too when people go on holidays, or are preparing for surgery or in fact for any reason that needs it.

 

Christians then live in the world like Jacob: as people who are continually blessed.

 

We do not live like Esau who has not understood the value of being blessed and who must go about the world in a state of perpetual lack. How good.

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Has Political Correctness Gone Mad?

Recently I have noticed a number of people using the phrase ‘Political Correctness gone Mad!!!!!”

 

There are stories around about how university staff are being sacked or disciplined because they use ‘trigger’ words, which may re-ignite someone’s trauma. Examples are easily found, thanks to a ‘Google’ search. People are being warned not to use the word ‘violate’ (as in ‘violate the law’) because it may trigger a sense of unease in students who have been violated in the past.

 

Recently the Midwives association has put out a document recommending that in referring to ta mother giving birth, ‘woman’ be replaced with ‘person’: as if anyone other than a woman might be capable of giving birth. (Shades of ‘Loretta’ in the ‘Life of Brian’).

 

So I wonder if being Christian has anything to contribute here.

 

The first thing that comes to me is that the term ‘politically correct’ derives from the opponents of a certain form of speech.

 

Certain forms of language do exclude, or do presume a norm to which everyone should adhere. We have learned not to use exclusively masculine language when in fact we mean the whole human race, so that almost universally in theological books when previously one might have read ‘The advent of Christ radically changes the place of Man before God’, now, in order to include the whole human race we say ‘The Advent of Jesus Christ radically changes the position of Humanity’ before God.

 

For me this took a bit of doing, but I could see the case that was being made by women that my language excluded them. So on it goes.

 

I say “If some one asks me to do a thing and I can easily do it then in kindness, why not?”

 

The original impetus behind what was derided as ‘political correctness’ was simply a request to be aware of how some one else experiences a given form of speech, and to modify my own according to their request.

 

But things get murkier! Power is inevitably involved. When I am asked to change my language, it is another person who is trying to make me change. That is the exercise of power.

 

Being the subject of another person’s power is an altogether more difficult matter than my being kind, because now I am not sure of their motives.

 

Here is an example from another sphere.

 

When I was working as a Theological Teacher, it was part of my responsibility to produce liturgies for various occasions. I would make up a draft, and then show it to the Principal of the college. He would then send it back with the changes that he wanted.

 

I had done certain things. Based on my skill set as Priest, and for good reason. He wanted changes, because he thought that he was the ‘author’ of the liturgy, and I was his helper, providing a first draft. I had not signed up to be his secretary.

 

The power imbalance between me and my boss meant that his will prevailed, but I was not happy, because I was not treated as a colleague who also had skills, and it was not clear to me at first what the process was meant to be.

 

Could I, on the basis of my feeling ‘uncomfortable’ accused him of bullying? The key to the situation was that I thought that I was not being treated ‘fairly’. I began to feel uncomfortable because power was being exercised over me, but that I had not given my consent to this structure.

 

I think that those who use the catch-cry ‘political correctness gone mad’ feel the same way: that somehow they are being made to do something by people whose motives they do not trust, or made to do something is circumstances in which the power dynamics are not clear.

 

One becomes ‘defensive’ in situations where one feels attacked, and needs to ‘defend’.

 

This is where a Christian catch phrase becomes important. It is ‘Mutual submission in love’ (Ephesians 5). Then the exercise of power one over the other, when I am asked to do something, comes not from someone whom I think is trying to destroy me. It comes from someone whom I know would also submit to med if I asked.

 

I have been impressed in some recent conversations when a person has said to me as locum “Well this is how we have done it, this is what I like, but it is your call”. Here I get a sense that the other person has a view, but is exercising ‘mutual submission in love’.

 

I think that if the ‘politically correct’ thing to do were to exercise ‘mutual submission in love’ we might have fewer problems. But then those who have power do not always see what power they have, and will not willingly give it up. It is the mutuality of submission that makes this way of being work.

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On The Weather and God’s Judgment

Everywhere that I go in the last few days people have been commenting on the weather: how humid it has been and how unseasonally wet this amount of rain is. More importantly, people have been talking to me in quasi spiritual terms about the weather, as if this kind of weather has some meaning.

 

Well they would not be alone there! Ever since the story of Noah came into existence, the human race has been connecting events in the weather with the spiritual condition of the human race. Psalm 107 expands the idea by connecting soil salination with the sinfulness of the population when it says ‘He (God) turns a fruitful land into a salty waste because its inhabitants are evil.

 

Most people have made this connection. Here is a quote from Mid- summer Night’s Dream, where the weather is blamed on the custody battle between the king and queen of the fairies over a young boy. Titania (the queen) blames Oberon (the king) for the bad weather saying

 

“But with thy brawls thou hast disturb’d our sport. Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain, As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea Contagious fogs; which falling in the land Have every pelting river made so proud That they have overborne their continents:”

 

I have also heard on the talk-back radio some people making comments to the effect that the ‘bad’ weather is God’s judgment on the two big social changes that have been made in Australia in recent times: the passing of same-sex marriage legislation, and the passage of assisted dying legislation.

 

I think this connection needs some unpacking.

 

First of all I do not think that there is a direct connection between the weather and social changes, which have no causal pathway which would connect social conditions at any given time to God’s judgment.

 

So I do not think that the weather has anything to do with same sex marriage, and assisted dying.

 

But I have seen a fruitful land turned into a salty waste!

 

When I was studying agriculture, I lived in a place with river flats that gave way to treed hillsides. The clearing of the hillsides for pasture reduced the transpiration of water from the hills, and so caused the water table on the flats to rise. This brought salt with it, and so ruined he lucerne and other crops that were grown there.

 

Here is a clear case where ignorance (living in darkness) and sinfulness (lack of good stewardship of the environment, and lack of understanding about the responsibility we bear, one for the other) means that a once ‘fruitful land’ has been turned into a ‘salty waste’.

 

In this case I am happy to see these natural consequences as God’s judgment on our sinfulness, because he sinfulness directly affects the natural order.

 

The same can be said for the current weather, including the increasing variability of the weather patterns, and the increasing frequency of cyclones and hurricanes.

 

These, the scientists tell us are consequences of the increasing pollution of the atmosphere by carbon dioxide and other green house gasses.

 

We cannot say that we have not been warned. To refuse to do anything about this lack of care for the whole creation, which is a trust, given to us by God, is a willful blindness. This is a definition of sin. If we persist, we cannot complain about the weather.

 

The Gospels for this Sunday call on us to ‘stay awake’. I think that being in denial about the connection between the weather and our selfishness is a decided form of ‘being asleep at the wheel’. Our politics is captured by vested interests. This state of captivity prevents the politicians who are serving these interests from moving in the way that everyone knows that we need to go.

Again, we are asleep at the wheel, preferring to be blind than to see.

 

Those who cry ‘jobs, jobs, jobs” and go ahead with destroying the environment are the same people who, in the name of market forces, refuse to help those people whose jobs are at stake if we do the environmentally sensible thing. Again, willful blindness is a sin.

 

Now here is a complicating factor. Some of those who are ‘climate change’ deniers claim to be ‘awake’. They see a conspiracy behind the attempts to reduce our carbon emissions. I know one person who in an attempt to ‘stay awake’ thinks that the earth is flat, and that the moon landing was a set up job.

 

Everyone I suppose wants to think that they are ‘awake’ and that the rest of us are duped.

 

This reflection is a cry for the righteousness that comes from a responsible stewardship of the environment, and a commitment to one another as brothers and sisters, rather than ‘economic units’ in the religion of the ’Market’

Your companion ‘on the Way ‘

 

Paul Dalzell.

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Mass Emotion, Societal Repression, Collective Action

I saw an interesting documentary about the Beetles’ coming to Australia. We saw the screaming and almost hysterical devotion of the young girls who came to see them. One of the people who did this, who is now an older woman, made an interesting comment. She said “We could, of course, not do this kind of thing singly, but as a group! Something else happened.’

 

I started to think about other occasions of mass behaviour that were like this. The death of Princess Dianna evoked a similar outpouring of emotion. This time it was an outpouring of grief, not of devotion, but what joins these two events is the process of collective outpouring.

 

But then there is also the constant ‘low grade’ kind of collective outpouring. I remember when everyone was suffering from Repetition Strain Injury. No one suffers from it now. I think that the reason this response is different now is that we are used to computers! The RSI epidemic came at the same time as people were required to learn new technology, and raise their level of functioning. Repetition Stain Injury was an allowable form of mass resistance to this change, to which we have now all adapted.

 

From these three stories I am thinking that it might be possible to say something about repression and oppression in a society. Here it is: if you want to know where a society is either repressed or oppressed, look for these mass outpourings.

 

You could say that the Western world was very repressed, sexually, after the long period of austerity since the depression. Along comes the contraceptive pill in 1961, along with the Beetles soon after and bingo: an acceptable way of ‘cutting loose’ presents itself, and everyone takes it up.

 

It is also possible to make the case that in the UK, after the Thatcher years, there was an awful lot of sadness about: sadness about loss of jobs; sadness about the loss of community; sadness about the changes in the economy that removed people’s sense of security.

 

Because it is the employers who offer the jobs, it is very difficult for individuals to complain or to make their unhappiness known. The object of the emotion changes, but the emotion itself does not.

 

Karl Marx, when making his critique of religion says that religion functions in this same way. He says that religion is ” the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

 

This to me is the attractiveness of some forms of Pentecostal Christianity. While being conservative politically, it offers an emotional release, and healing of things that make a big personal difference, but do not make much of a social difference.

 

This is not in itself bad. I love it that in Church I can also offer my devotion by the singing of hymns and so on.

 

But repression cannot be dealt with simply by a mass outpouring of emotion, helpful though that might be. All the flowers laid at the gate of Buckingham Palace, or all the screams of a young girl will not bring back one lost job, or help a young person grow into a sexually mature adult, with new control over their reproduction.

 

What is also needed is the channelling of this emotion into well thought out collective action, in the right direction.

 

But looking at today’s readings it is clear that the Reign of God is about the fact that loving God with all our heart is about how we respond to the claim of our neighbours upon us.

 

The letter of James has this really well when it says “If you see your brother in need, and shut up your heart against them, how does the love of God dwell in you?”

 

I remember the movie ‘Women in Love” In one scene, Gerald Creitch gallops away on his horse and Gudrun asks “Well, he has get up and go, but where does his get up and go go to?”

 

That is the right question. It is proper that we are able to identify our places of repression and oppression. It is right that we look for places to ‘cut loose’ so that we can ‘flow’ as people, emotionally, but it is vital that we also look, in the cold light of day, for the proper way to direct our actions. Emotions can be the signal that something has captured us. Emotions can be the energy that will drive our action. But in the long run it is ‘In as much as you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters’ that we will be judged.

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