Posts Tagged With: love

Revelation 18: A Self-Centered Lament

"The Fall of Babylon, Revelation 18," by Patty Albred (2000)

“The Fall of Babylon, Revelation 18,” by Patty Albred (2000)

Fair weather friends.  Here today, gone tomorrow.  It turns out that’s all Rome’s friends were to her.

A mighty angel comes on to the scene and shouts a death notice for Rome:

Babylon the Great has fallen!  She has fallen! (18:2)

He also makes one last call to God’s people to be a separate people until the end.  We are reminded that holiness is one of the main themes of Revelation:

Come out of here, my people, so that you don’t become embroiled in her sins, and so that you don’t receive any of her plagues. (18:4)

Judgment has come to this wicked woman who thought no harm would come to her, that no one would hold her accountable for her behavior, even the buying and selling of humans (18:13).  But she will be paid back double (18:6).

To be sure, Rome’s fall is lamented.  But not for the reasons we might expect.

The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her, because nobody will buy their cargo anymore. (18:11)

“Alas, alas,” they said, “the great city!  Everyone who had ships on the sea could get rich from her wealth, but in a single hour she has become a desert.” (18:19).

The merchants and mariners who cry over Rome’s demise are really crying for themselves.  They care about photo 1only to the degree it affects them.  They are broken up over their loss of business.  Not exactly compassion now, is it?

Power intimidates.  Power can produce great respect.  Power might even engender admiration.  But power is not the recipe for loyalty, sacrificial kinship, or even love.  When power wanes, so too do the alliances that power brought.  Rome only knew how to operate by power.  The kingdom of the Lamb is the dominion of love.

Tonight is Christmas Eve.  My family has made a bunch to trips to Target and Sam’s Club and the grocery store the past few days.  I am thankful those businesses exist.  As much driving as many of us do around the holidays, I am glad the big oil companies exist.  I look forward to sitting down tonight in peace and order and even a reasonable level of affluence, and I know that I have the sacrifices of soldiers and the tireless hours of civil servants to thank.  But when I sit down tonight it will be with my family whom I love.  Maybe my family of faith too at a nearby Christmas Eve service.  Tomorrow my family will enjoy each other’s presence and we will make time to celebrate the birth of the Lamb.  Love breeds love, not power.

What struck you today?

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1 Thessalonians 2: Sharing Our Very Lives

from “The Emperor’s Club” (2002)

Early in my teaching career I developed the habit of calling my students “my kids.”  I still do it now that I am older and no longer that teacher who is “easy to relate to.”   Every now and then I will be talking about “my kids” and they have to clarify whether I mean my two sons or my 100 students.  All of the effective teachers I know allow themselves to develop a deep care for their students, albeit expressed in a variety of ways.

I hear Paul saying the same sort of thing in this chapter:

We were gentle among you, like a nurse taking care of her own children.  We were so devoted to you that we gladly intended to share with you not only the gospel of God but our own lives, because you became so dear to us. (2:8)

It was a common practice in the ancient world that upperclass families would employ the services of a wet nurse to care for their children.  Like modern nanny situations, this is just a job one does to care for themselves.  But also like many modern nanny situations, love and care would develop between the wet nurse and the children.

Paul says he allowed himself to develop that love and concern for the Thessalonians.  They weren’t just another stop on a long missionary journey.  They weren’t just another notch in his “gospel belt.”  He didn’t just turn them into a few free meals as he passed through town (as it seems his opponents were accusing him of doing).  They became to him like his own children.

If we are ever going to be successful spreading the gospel, we will have to develop the same heart that Paul had.  We will have to do more than just share words and a message.  We will have to share our very lives with others.

What caught your eye today?  

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John 13: Known by Love

I’m giving you a new commandment, and it’s this: love one another!  Just as I have loved you, so you must love one another.  This is how everybody will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for each other. (13:34-35)

Christians are known by their sacrificial, inconvenient love.  Nothing is more of a calling card than love.  Not going to church. Not how one votes.  Not social policy one supports or opposes.  Not one’s moral code.  Not whether one takes or refuses that drink offered at a dinner party.  Not one’s language.  Not bumper stickers or symbols on the back of a car.  Not biblical knowledge.  Not leadership roles in a church.  Not community service.  Not parenting styles or the behavior of one’s children.  Not the percentage of money given away to others.  Christians are known by the degree they allow themselves to serve others at their own expense, their willingness to treat people with kindness and gentleness when they deserve much less, the degree to which we make life not about us but about others.

“They will know we are Christians by our love.”  We have sung this since we were children, but we need these regular reminders, don’t we?

What do you think?  

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BONUS: An Introduction to the Gospel of John

Though the book does not say so, there is widespread acceptance that this gospel was written by the apostle John, who often refers to himself in the book as “the apostle whom Jesus loved” (13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20, 24).  Though one of Jesus’ inner circle of apostles, John is never mentioned in the book, which makes sense if John wrote the book but doesn’t if he didn’t.

Traditionally, because of its developed theology, the Gospel of John was considered the latest of gospels, likely written around 85 or later.  A good case can also be made that John was written before the destruction of the Temple and much of Jerusalem in 70 because the book refers to places in that city in the present tense.  A developed theology does not have to indicate a late date.

Scholars have argued that John had various goals in writing his gospel.  Maybe he was trying to write a gospel to a Greek audience, hence the emphasis on Jesus as the “word” (logos).  It is certainly possible that John was trying to combat false teaching through his account of Jesus’ life.  But John himself tells us the simple evangelistic purpose of his book:

These are written that you may believe (or continue to believe) that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (20:31)

Therefore, one of the fitting characteristics of John are the seven “I am” statements of Jesus, thought by many to be John’s twist on God’s self-revelation as “I AM.”  John would not have us miss the point that Jesus was more than just a man.  This is one of the reasons why John is often the first book non-believers are encouraged to read.

John is unlike the other gospels in many ways, supporting the belief that the other three were trying to borrow from each other and tell similar stories while John was attempting to do something very different, maybe for a very different crowd.  There are no parables in John.  Miracles (or “signs” as they are called in John) are not as common.  John tells stories not included in the other gospels.   Instead of fast action like Mark, this gospel is full of long teaching sections.  For these reasons and others, John is a favorite of many people.

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1 Peter 3: False Expectations Produce Disillusionment

It is interesting that no New Testament writer nor Jesus ever talked about living life in a predominantly Christian culture.  Maybe that was because the Romans were so powerful, so dominating that they could not imagine life beyond the Roman Empire (can those of us who live in America imagine a post-American world?).  Or maybe this was a realization on their part that true Christianity will never be the dominant culture of a whole community.  Christianity has always been and is intended to be a “contrast community” to whatever is the prevailing way of life.  But what about medieval Europe when the Catholic Church was essentially the government?  What about John Calvin’s Geneva during the Renaissance period?  What about 1950s America?  Weren’t these Christian cultures?  I would still argue that you had enough humanity mixed in with the divinity that what existed was not completely what God intended.  The medieval Catholic Church spawned the Crusades.  The Calvinists marginalized non-Calvinists.  The 1950s in America were a low point for race relations, even between Christians.

Were we really expecting that the way of Christ would be the norm?  Christ himself was not accepted by the majority of people he encountered.   Nonetheless, yes, I think part of the problem with suffering that comes from persecution is that we have been expecting Christianity to be the norm.  We had convinced ourselves that our culture (I am especially thinking about western countries) was predominantly Christian in the past and this is the way it still should be.  Of course, we were forgetting that American Christianity was heavily influenced by the hate of the 50s, the revolt against authority and the glorification of individual in the 60s, the lifestyle experimentation and redefinition of the 70s, the greed of the 80s, the rootless angst of the 90s, the exploitation and celebrity idolatry of the 2000s, and now the fear of outsiders in the 2010s.  We pine away for the better days of yesteryear, but the reality of those days do not actually measure up to our memories.

Peter gives different instructions for what to expect from society, instructions that presuppose a different way of seeing reality, instructions that would be good to remember today in a world that is increasingly more hostile to institutional Christianity and the way God has called His people to live in this world.

Sanctify the Messiah as Lord in your hearts, and always be ready to make a reply to anyone who asks you to explain the hope that is in you.  Do it, though, with gentleness and respect.  Hold on to a good conscience, so that when people revile your good behavior in the Messiah they may be ashamed. (3:15-16)

Maybe part of our perceived suffering comes from false expectations.  We are expecting to be the “moral majority.”  We want to be the ruling class.  We want our way of life to be the norm.  That only makes any rejection of our ways feel like the beginning of the slippery slope to moral degradation.  It makes demeaning caricatures of Christians on television feel like disenfranchisement.  It makes us feel marginalized and persecuted.  But maybe God has always imagined that his people will be a set apart people, a “chosen race,” a “holy nation,” “strangers and resident aliens” (2:9, 11) different from the cultural norm and therefore easy targets for derision, or questioning at least.

With that change in perspective our job in life is very easy: be ready to explain our alternative way of thinking and living.  And by all means enter into that dialogue with kindness, gentleness, and respect.  Leave the fiery rhetoric to talk show hosts.  Refuse to stoop to the demeaning attitudes and labeling that our opponents use.  Avoid any tactic that resorts to power and coercion and legislation to enforce our thinking and behavior.  Above all, we should be the people who do all of this with such goodness that people will be ashamed at how ugly their approaches look in comparison.

What do you think?  

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2 John: No New Commandment

Without a doubt, John is the apostle of love.  Love is all over his letters and gospel.  Just look back a few days to the post for 1 John 4.  Today, in a new letter from the “Elder” John to an unnamed church personified as the “Chosen Lady and her children” (v.1), John reminds us that at its core Christianity is all about love, but the commandment to “love one another” is no new commandment at all.  This has been a foundational message from God, since the beginning.

And now, dear Lady, I ask you, not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we had from the very beginning, that we should love one another.  This is love: that we should behave in accordance with his commandments. (vv.5-6a)

God’s love is not the sentimental love of emotion.  It is the love of sacrificial action.

What caught your eye in 2 John?

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1 John 4: What is Love?

Love.  Everyone seeks it in some way or another.  Everyone has an idea of what it is, but we also realize it is more complicated than the platitudes we usually use.  We reduce love down to the emotions of romance or we so elevate and spiritualize the concept of love that only the superheroes of faith like Mother Teresa or Corrie ten Boom are capable of true love.

What is love?  There are several chapters in the New Testament where the focus is intently on love.  First Corinthians 13 is the most famous of these, but 1 John 4 needs to be on the short list.  The words “love,” “loves,” “loved,” or “beloved” are used 30 times in today’s twenty-one verse chapter.  What can we learn about real love from John?

  1. Love comes from God, not ourselves (4:7)
  2. Christians must especially love each other (4:7)
  3. Learning to love is one of the ways we are born anew spiritually as God’s children (4:7)
  4. Learning to love helps us come to know God (4:7)
  5. A lack of love is a fundamental block to spiritual birth and growth (4:8)
  6. God’s nature is tied to love (4:8, 16)
  7. Jesus was the supreme example of God’s love (4:9, 10)
  8. God loves us before we ever reciprocated that love, and our love is also a response to His (4:10, 19)
  9. We show the best love to others when we imitate the sacrificial love of God (4:11)
  10. Loves means laying down your own will for others (4:11)
  11. God is made visible through the love of his people (4:12)
  12. A person has to believe or have faith that God loves him or her (4:16)
  13. One can “live” or “abide” in love as if it is a state of being (4:16)
  14. Fear is antithetical to love, and true love will eliminate fear from a relationship (4:18)
  15. There are measures of love, and love can be “incomplete” (4:17, 18)
  16. A Christian can’t be hateful to others and still claim to love God (4:20, 21)
  17. Loving visible humans should be easier than loving an invisible God (4:20)

Which of these meant the most to you?  What else did you learn about love today?

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1 John 3: Be the Children You Already Are

“Life Father, Like Son” by Timothy Giles

When I was a young teenager I use to groan with embarrassment at my father’s corny, dry jokes.  Now I have the same sense of humor.  I used to role my eyes when my father would try to kid around with little kids at church.  Now I do the same.  I open my mouth now when I talk to my sons and I hear my father speaking.  I get that same poof in my hair when it gets long, and I wait too long to get a haircut, just like he did when I was young.

Genetics win out.  I am my father’s son.

So, too, the recipients of John’s letter.  They too are children of their Father:

Look at the remarkable love the father has given us — that we should be called God’s children!  That indeed is what you are. (3:1)

But just like I wasn’t very similar to my father at thirteen — in fact I wanted to be totally different — these Christians may, in fact, be God’s children but they are still struggling to mature into that identity:

Beloved ones, we are now, already, God’s children; it hasn’t yet been revealed what we are going to be.  We know that when he is revealed we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (3:2)

With God there are some things that are already true, but they are not yet fully true.  Some spiritual realities take time to come into being.  Some take a total recreation that will only come at the great New Creation.  But this we can rest assured in: genetics win out.  Those who are truly fathered by God, those who are truly God’s children, they will become like the father:

Everyone who is fathered by God does not go on sinning, because God’s offspring remain in him; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been fathered by God. (3:9)

Now, is the time for John’s recipients (and for us) to truly be the children of God we already are.  Make it a reality.  Put it into action.  The ultimate spiritual change will happen through spiritual power alone.  However, spirituality is not just an ethereal concept for the spiritual mind; it is intended to be lived out bodily in the flesh.

Children, let us not love in word, or in speech, but in deed and in truth. (3:18)

What did you notice anew in this chapter?

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1 John 2: True Enlightenment

Knowledge is a bit intoxicating.  It is a powerful elixir that quickly convinces us we have it together much more than we really do.  Those drunk of the power of the mind are every bit as dangerous as those drunk on booze.

Knowledge was especially important to the early Gnostics that had been influencing the churches John was addressing.  As was pointed out yesterday, the name “Gnostic” comes from the Greek word for “knowledge.”  This would appear to be your typical head-knowledge, the kind that satisfies if one simply knows the facts.  A good Gnostic “knew” the truth about reality: physical flesh is evil, and true enlightenment comes by developing a spirit that is impervious to the effects of physical sin.  The most “knowledgeable” one can wallow around in sin and come out unscathed.

However, John has a very different view:

This is how we are sure that we have known him, if we keep his commandments.  Anyone who says, “I know him,” but doesn’t keep his commandments, is a liar.  People like that have no truth in them. . . . Anyone who says, “I am in the light,” while hating another family member, is still in darkness up to this very moment. (2:3-4, 9)

The kind of truth that John thinks is important is not simply head-knowledge.  It is not enough to know facts and believe things to be true or not true.  For John, truth is a lived reality.  Knowledge is first and foremost lived out in the nitty-gritty of life.  One shows their enlightenment by how they live, not how they think.  One can claim to have spiritual enlightenment, but if actions do not exist that support that claim, one is still living in immense spiritual darkness.  In particular, the selfless love of Christian community is the greatest testament to true enlightenment.  Honoring God with a life that keeps his righteous decrees for life shows true knowledge.  Knowledge teaches one to stay in the light with Jesus, not roll around in the darkness in sin.

When have you seen Christians today confused on what knowledge truly is?         

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1 John 1: Just the Right Words

1 John is the The New England Primer for all first-year Greek students.  I knew I was hitting the big time when I graduated from my 50 flashcards of basic Greek vocabulary to the actual text of 1 John in my Greek New Testament.  As one can tell from today’s reading, this is possible because John uses a very limited vocabulary in his letters.  There may be a lot of reasons for this.  Maybe Greek was a second language to John who had been raised in the Galilee region of Palestine and likely spoke Aramaic natively.  Maybe John was not well-educated, however he shows great ability to think deeply about theology.  Or maybe John just wants to drive his point home with a beautiful simplicity.  Keep it simple and people will never mistake you.

Many of the words that John hangs his message on are emphasized in this very first chapter:

life, light, darkness, fellowship, truth, lie, sin, joy

 

Add “love” from chapter two and “spirit” and “world” and you have a wide door into John’s thought.  Let’s pay attention to how John uses these words and what meaning they have for the aged disciple as we read John’s letters.  I’ll bet we see them next month in John’s gospel too.

This passage has a nice confluence of most of these words:

This is the message which we have heard from him, and announce to you: God is light, and there is no darkness at all in him.  If we say that we have fellowship with him and walk in the dark, we are telling lies, and not doing what is true.  But if we walk in the light, just as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his son makes us pure and clean from all sin.  If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  If we say that we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar, and his word is not in us. (1:5-10)

What caught your eye in this short chapter?

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BONUS: An Introduction to John’s Letters

Though never identified in the letters, the author of the Johannine letters is almost certainly the apostle John, the son of Zebedee, and author of the Gospel of John.  Based on writing style, there is good reason to think the writer of Revelation is a different John.  The John who wrote 1, 2, and 3 John was one of the inner circle of apostles and “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23).  Though he started his adult life a fisherman, he ends it as one of the pillars of the new, growing Christian church, a highly respected leader in the Ephesus area in particular.

“The Apostle John” by Rembrandt

The Johannine letters are likely some of the latest parts of the New Testament.  Some date John’s letters to the late 80s.  If this is correct, the first generation of those who had actually seen Jesus were dying and John was pure royalty.  Given that no specific recipients are mentioned in 1 John, the first epistle was likely a circular letter distributed among a diverse group of Christians, especially in Asia Minor around Ephesus.  Given the general nature of the teachings of the letter, that makes perfect sense.  Second and Third John are equally as general and universal.

Most scholars situate the Johannine letters in the context of Gnosticism.  This false version of Christianity really blossomed in the second century AD but it was likely an early version John was addressing.  Gnosticism taught that the physical was evil and the spiritual was good.  The fleshly body was wasting away and either an impediment to holiness or a temporary object of no consequence to be used and abused because only the soul really mattered.  Gnosticism derives its name from the Greek word “gnosis” which means “knowledge,” because the truly spiritually enlightened ones have a special knowledge that sets them apart from their more earthbound peers.  With these beliefs, a good Gnostic could not believe Jesus was fully human and flesh.  One version of Gnosticism called “doceticism” taught that Jesus only seemed to be flesh and another version called “Cerinthianism” taught that the man named Jesus gained his spiritual nature at baptism and lost it before he died.  We will hear John attacking this sort of thinking in his letters, 1 John especially.  As the flesh was evil, one was supposed to either deny his fleshly desires through asceticism (seen earlier in Colossians) or indulge the flesh in licentiousness.  This latter version seems to be the one John addresses.

John wrote 1 John to expose false teaching and counter any wrong thinking about Jesus that had cropped up.  As one of the last eyewitnesses of Jesus, John could testify that Jesus was indeed flesh.  John also believed that the libertine worldliness of pre-Gnostic Christianity was eroding the true Christian witness.  In 2 and 3 John, John encourages faithful Christians to extend hospitality to evangelists he would have sent out even if powerful, possibly-Gnostic leaders in his church opposed him.

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1 Timothy 4: Overemphasizing the External

It is really easy to turn the way of Christ into a series of rules about external behavior.  That is not to say that the way of Christ is only internal — one does need to give attention to how one acts in this world — but there is something missing from a person’s Christianity if it entirely revolves around laws that dictate what a person does and does not do with their bodies.

We learn today that this was certainly happening in Ephesus:

They [the false teachers] will forbid marriage, and teach people to abstain from foods which God intended to be received with thanksgiving by people who believe and know the truth. (4:3)

Sometimes we do the same, especially when talking to younger Christians.  We make it seem like the task of following Jesus is all about not getting drunk, not smoking weed, and not sleeping around.  Then as people get older we talk about staying away from pornography, not speeding, and not missing church.  Of course, I am not suggesting that any of these are wholesome or appropriate; I simply beg us to remember there is more to the way of Christ than external rules, and limiting Christianity to external rules is action akin to the false teachers of Ephesus.

Like Paul was calling the Ephesian church to (1:5-7), like he was calling Timothy to (4:12), the way of Christ is all about “faith, love, and holiness” — all of which have external manifestations but all of which start as attitudes and desires of the heart first and foremost.  According to Paul today, to forget this is the beginning of false teaching.

What do you think?

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1 Timothy 2: The Topic Is Dispute, Not Women

I come from a conservative denomination.  By conservative I mean what is typically thought when that term is used.  “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” was a saying I often heard growing up.  Our denomination was founded by men who coined slogans like “We are just Christians” and “We speak where the Bible speaks and are silent where the Bible is silent.”  We didn’t dance, drink, smoke or chew, and certainly didn’t go with girls who do.  At summer camp the boys swam separate from the girls.  The college I attended, that is associated with the same denomination, has recently been called a “bastion of conservatism.”  When the long-time college president died during my time there as a student, George H. W. Bush sent a note of condolence.  Ann Coulter has spoken on campus.  You get the gist.

So you can imagine that we have also been pretty patriarchal when it comes to male and female roles in society and church.  There are certain things women are simply not free to do, and when an inquisitive child asks why, seeing that this is the 21st century and women and men are fast approaching equality in most arenas of life, he is taken to this chapter (and 1 Corinthians 14).

They [women] must study undisturbed,in full submission to God.  I’m not saying that women should teach men, or try to dictate to them; rather, that they should be left undisturbed.  Adam was created first, you see, and then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the women was deceived, and fell into trespass. (2:11-14)

I have no interest in tackling female roles in ministry in this post.  I recently reviewed Scott McKnight’s The Blue Parakeet on my other blog and you can read a synopsis of his defense of the full participation of women in ministry there if you are interesting.  Suffice it to say, his is a view I did not grow up with.

I would like to make note of one point about the broader context of this chapter that comes out strongly when one comes to this chapter and is reading the New Testament through without any agendas, as we are doing this year, and that impacts the topic of women’s roles in ministry.  Look back to 1:4-5 from yesterday.  The false teachers stirred up dispute.  Those influenced by their teachings likely did as well.  Yet, Paul wanted Timothy to be a person of faith, love, and purity.  Earlier in this chapter, Paul instructs Timothy to encourage the people to pray for their political leaders so that they “may lead a tranquil and peaceful life, in all godliness and holiness” (2:2).  Men are instructed in this passage too, not just women.  They are told to lift up “holy hands” in prayer, which has less to do with worship style and much more to do with a spirit between brothers and sisters in which there is “no anger or disputing” (2:8).  Women are given instruction about their dress and appearance (instructions most people see as cultural, and no longer literally binding) and the most important point is that they are to be “modest and sensible,” “decent” women who are known for their good works not their fashions (2:9-10).  In 2:11-12 women (or at least some specific women in the Ephesian church) are told to conduct themselves in times of worship and learning with “silence” (most translations) or they should be left “undisturbed” so they can study in peace (Wright’s translation, one that seems rather flavored by his Anglican position on female roles in ministry).  Last, the chapter ends with the same phrases from chapter one:

. . . if she continues in faith, love, and holiness with prudence. (2:15)

Paying attention to the context does not crack the code on this passage as it pertains to women in ministry; I think you could make this passage support any position.  What we must do is honor the Bible enough to let the main point stay the main point and not lose it in the midst of our pet issues and positions.  Paul was addressing a church in the midst of dispute, a church quick to argue, who thought that argument was in fact a badge of honor.  Paul couldn’t have disagreed more and he encouraged Timothy to adopt the same approach.  Men were arguing.  Depending on which translation you use, women were either arguing as well or were so oppressed they were not able to study without harassment.  Paul’s main point is clear, though: stop arguing.

It is kind of ironic to me that we argue about this passage so much.

What do you think?

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2 Corinthians 13: True Strength

There has been a whole lot of talk about strength in the Corinthian correspondence this past month.  Strong leaders, strong reasoning and speaking skills, a strong tolerance for sin (though too strong for Paul’s liking), a strong sense of grace (again, too strong), strong pocketbooks, strong charisma and gifting, strong leaders, strong egos, and strong boasts.  Corinth was a culture of strength, and so was this church.

We have already seen Paul say there are other strengths to have that are far more important.  They need a strong sense of unity that bridges the many divides they have allowed to form in their church.  They need a strong love towards each other shown through character, not spiritual gifts.  They need a strong spirit of generosity so as to help those who have real need in the world.  Today, Paul ends these two volumes with one more kind of true strength the Corinthians should be sure to have in a culture that seems hyper-focused on strength.  They would do well to be strong in doing the right thing.

Test yourselves to see if you really are in the faith!  Put yourselves through the examination.  Or don’t you realize that Jesus the Messiah is in you? — unless, that is, you’ve failed the test.  I hope you will discover that we didn’t fail the test.  But we pray to God that you will never, ever do anything wrong; not so that we can be shown up as having passed the test, but so that you will do what is right. (13:7)

What big idea really stood out to you during this year’s reading of the Corinthian correspondence?

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2 Corinthians 6: Ministering with a Wide-Open Heart

We have been wide open in our speaking to you, my dear Corinthians!  Our heart has been opened wide!  There are no restrictions at our end; the only restrictions are in our affections!  I am speaking as to children: you should open your hearts wide as well in return.  That’s fair enough, isn’t it? (6:11-13)

No one should accuse Paul of holding back from the people he ministered to.  Paul opened his heart wide to the people he reached out to.  This was risky.  He opened himself to hurt, betrayal, and disappointment — the kind of things he mentioned in verses 4-10.   But in so doing, he also opened himself to great love from the Corinthians and meaningful change in their lives.  Paul knew we can’t expect from others what we aren’t willing to give to others ourselves.  We will only receive as much love, transparency, and vulnerability as we are willing to give to others.

We hear a lot of talk these days of boundaries and leaving the job at the office.  Ministers are warned not to get too close lest they get burned.  We are taught to create professional distance.  There is certainly a lot of wisdom in this advice.  Appropriateness, emotional maturity, and protection from lawsuit are all valuable considerations.  However, I have to wonder if the Paul who is talking in this passage, the Paul who gave all he was to his children in the faith, the Paul who knew that effective ministry required deep emotional investment would have agreed completely with conventional wisdom.  I wonder if he would have said as Parker Palmer did: “to know” those we minister to we must allow ourselves “to be known” just as deeply as we are expecting.  Maybe the better question is how to best be professional and yet truly available.

Fortunately I feel I only have to look at the “wide-open hearts” of those I teach with to see what Paul is talking about.  They are experts in their subjects but they also allow their lives to be a text in the class.  They share their own stories, their own successes and failures with students trying to navigate similar decisions.  They are not afraid to compliment, high-five, and hug.  They know how to laugh with a kid and chide him for poor thinking.  They are tired at the end of week from pouring out their very selves to their students, but they also they celebrate with their whole hearts at games, concerts, art shows, and homecoming activities.  They express their love and pride freely at the end of the year and they feel an honest loss when students graduate and leave.  They cry when discipline is necessary and love enough to bring it.

This is ministry, and it takes a wide-open heart to do it well.

What did you notice in this chapter?

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2 Corinthians 5: Ministers of Reconciliation

In every one of his letters we have read thus far, we have seen Paul state the gospel in some form or fashion, usually in a way that fits the context of the people he is addressing.  2 Corinthians 5 is the “gospel chapter” in this book.

If anyone is in the Messiah, there is a new creation!  Old things have gone, and look — everything has become new! . . . God was reconciling the world to himself in the Messiah, not counting their transgressions against them. . . . The Messiah did not know sin, but God made him to be sin on our behalf, so that in him we might embody God’s faithfulness to the covenant. (5:17,  19, 21)

Personally, I love this version of the gospel message.

Now, it is our job, given by God, to be God’s “ambassadors, speaking on behalf of the Messiah, as though God were making his appeal through us” (5:20).  We have been given this “ministry of reconciliation” (5:18).

What motivates us to do this?  Paul mentions two things in this chapter:

So we know the fear of the Lord: and that’s why we are persuading people. (5:11)

For the Messiah’s love makes us press on. (5:14)

If we choose to believe the words of the Bible, the reality is that there are people who do not know Jesus, yet will come before God in judgment (5:10).  We share the gospel out of fear of what will happen to people if we do not.  We are also “beside ourselves” (5:13) with gratitude and honor because of the reality that the Messiah loved with such a depth that he died in our place so that we would be reunited with God.  That is an astounding message that needs to be shared.

What is your favorite verse in this chapter?

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1 Corinthians 13: The Better Way

When read by itself, 1 Corinthians 13 is a wonderful passage.  Great for weddings.  An ideal chapter to learn generalities about love.  Nice for ethics (I’ll guess many of us were taught to replace the word “love” in verses 4-7 with our name as a way to determine how loving we truly are).  I would not wish to take any of those things away.

This chapter comes so much more alive when we read it in context — always a good principle for Bible reading.  1 Corinthians 13 is sandwiched between chapters 12 and 14.  We looked at chapter 12 yesterday and saw its focus on spiritual gifts.  Scan ahead and you will see that chapter 14 has the same focus.  Paul’s beautiful diatribe on love is best understood within the context of a church that is using spiritual giftedness of boast and divide.

Recall that we ended yesterday with Paul claiming there is a better gift than tongues or prophecy or miracles, that there is a “better way” to live than the way of competition and glory based on performance (12:31).  What is that better gift, that better way?

If I should have prophetic gifts, and know all mysteries, all knowledge, too; have faith, to move the mountains, but have no love — I’m nothing. . . . Love never fails.  But prophecies will be abolished; tongues will stop; and knowledge, too, be done away. (13:2, 8)

Love is that better gift.  The best way to judge spiritual fervor is love.  A Christian has reached the zenith when they love.  A church can be congratulated when they love.  If you want to pursue a gift, go after love.

And not just any kind of love.  A selfless, sacrificial, enduring love that banishes the attitudes the Corinthians’ competition was bringing: jealousy, envy, pride, anger, and vindictiveness.

Spiritual gifts were only intended to build up a church until the complete and perfect (13:10) outpouring of divine love came to the church, and to a large part that was dependent on the submissive obedience of Christians to the better way of love.  None of the fancy acts we see on those religious television shows with ladies with purple hair and men with perfect haircuts, shiny teeth and designer suits will be in heaven.  They were only a vehicle to an end.  Heaven is most of all characterized by love.  Love will go on for ever.

A church can major in the minors and they may just find it only fractures the bonds of fellowship.  Or they can keep the main thing the main thing and find that it builds up the very building blocks of community.

What stood out to you in a new way in this very familiar chapter?

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1 Corinthians 8: We’ll Do It Your Way

1 Corinthians 8 is a nice companion to Romans 14-15, as both deal with the topic of how to handle disagreements of conscience between Christians.  More extensive thoughts can be found back in my Romans post.  In my opinion, the topic of how to handle conflict in our churches in one of the most important these days, especially as Christ’s last prayer for humanity was that we be united.

I find here again the conclusion I found back in Romans: the conscience (not opinions, preferences, traditions or stubbornness) of the brother or sister who cannot do something is the determining factor in a disagreement.  For the Corinthians, we can tell the issue was whether they could participate in the ubiquitous meals that took place in pagan temples knowing that the food served there had recently been offered to a pagan god.  These meals were not particularly religious; they might have been little more than the equivalent to a business luncheon at the local casino, but the location and history of the food tainted it in many Christians minds.  Paul himself did not think so, still he concludes that what his brothers and sisters who object to these meals as a matter of conscience think is more important:

If food causes my brother or sister to stumble, I will never, ever eat meat, so that I won’t make my brother or sister trip up. (8:13)

Let me say this: in my religious tradition I would probably be deemed a more progressively-minded person.  I like innovation.  I feel the church does have to adapt for the culture we are reaching, just as Paul did.  Just as the great Christian leaders of history have done.  I get rather impatient with people holding back what I think will bring progress and effectiveness because of scruples I am not sure are well-founded, well-educated, or “knowledgeable,” to use Paul’s word from 8:1.  However, I have to admit that everything I read here indicates I am the one who must bend, compromise, and reign in my ambitions for change, not the brother or sister who truly objects to something out of conscience (not tradition; I still struggle with patience in those cases).  I don’t like to say that, but I feel I must, if I am to obey the teaching of this chapter.  Of course, there is much more to discuss about the specifics of how to handle particular situations, but time does not allow me to go on.  Pursue this in the comments today if you wish.  One teaser: in a context where there are tens or hundreds or even thousands of churches of various stripes in a town or city, isn’t the easiest way to handle disagreement for people to migrate to churches that best fit their views, versus force something on an already existing church?  But I said that and other things in the comments of the Romans post linked above.

Paul gives a perspective in this chapter that I find very helpful:

And so, you see, the weak person — a brother or sister for whom the Messiah died! — is then destroyed by your “knowledge.” (8:11)

Maybe all of this is easier when we remember that this brother or sister is not just a roadblock or a curmudgeon or a whatever less than charitable word we might come up with.  She or he is a cherished creation of God whom God so valued that He died for him or her.  And if Jesus died for that person, can’t I at least give up getting my way for their sake?  Something to think about.

What struck you in this chapter?   

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1 Corinthians 4: Success Defined

Our American society defines a successful leader a certain way.  He is charismatic and charming.  She is an engaging speaker.  He has a strong backbone and can’t be railroaded by the people he leads.  She has a visionary spirit.  He projects genuineness and is authentically caring towards his people.  She empowers her reports and does not micro-manage.  In a post-Enron world, he must be virtuous and free from scandal.  She is available and open to input so as to elicit loyalty, but at the same time she is confident enough to make hard decisions.  He is a self-made man.  More often than not, successful leaders in our culture also have an attractive physical presence and have a lifestyle of affluence.  Bottom-line, a successful leader has power as our society defines power — the power of personality, persuasion, money, intellect, and respect or even fear if necessary.  (When you look at the complete list one almost has to be superhuman to be that leader.)

Is a successful leader the top dog . . . ?

The problem comes when we take this same paradigm and bring it into the church.  In this model, our preachers, pastors, elders, and teachers would be expected to be like the description above.  Consciously or not, we would then judge our leaders by this standard.  We should complain that this preacher is not dynamic or funny or a good enough storyteller.  That elder has not excelled in his own business career so surely he can’t help shepherd a church.  We certainly cannot abide a weak leader.  Nobody walks on a true leader and they have plenty of people to do the grunt work so they don’t need to get down in the trenches.  Successful church leaders get things done and win people over to their way of thinking and make it obvious that their ministry is achieving.  Church leaders need to make it known what they have done for the kingdom, so people will be impressed with them and slap their backs in approval and congratulations.  Successful leaders make sure churches have all they need, and their churches are not in want.  Ask yourself if any of this resonates with churches you know.  Do members you know have these expectations?

This seems to be something like the problem Paul is addressing in 1 Corinthians.  It seems the Greek culture of Corinth had similar views.  Power is good, and weakness is bad.  Strong leaders are articulate and persuasive.  They get things done.  They evoke esteem and admiration.  They achieve and do not want.  They are celebrated and served by others.  We can tell from today’s chapter that this thinning was also in the Corinthian church:

Some people are getting puffed up. (4:18a; c.f., 4:7-8)

Paul makes it clear that this is not the right way to define success.  Churches need to guard against exporting this sort of thinking into their community.  It is counterproductive to judge leaders by this definition of success.  Actually, a church should be concerned if its leaders have this sort of thinking, as a new group of self-imposed leaders in the Corinthian church seem to have  (we will hear more about this group later).

This is how we [apostles] should be thought of: as servants of the Messiah, and household managers for God’s mysteries.  And this is what follows: the main requirement for a manager is to be trustworthy. . . . This is how I look at it, you see: God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession [a parade of prisoners of war, likely destined to fight to the death in the Colosseum], like people sentenced to death.  We have become a public show for the world. . . . We are fools because of the Messiah. . . . We are weak. . . . You are celebrated; we are nobodies!  Yes, right up to the present moment we go hungry and thirsty; we are badly clothed, roughly treated, with no home to call our own.  What’s more, we work hard, doing manual labor.  When we are insulted . . . persecuted . . . slandered. . . . To this day we have become like the rubbish of the world, fit only to be scraped off the plate and thrown away with everything else. (4:1-2, 9-13)

. . . or a servant-leader?

According to Paul, a successful, godly leader is first and foremost a servant and manager of God’s church, not their own.  They know there is no self-made minister and certainly no self-made church.  They may be very capable because of the gifting given them by God, but their greatest trait is that they are trustworthy of the great privilege they have been given to lead God’s people.  Their life is anything but comfortable, glamorous and affluent.  They roll up their sleeves and they do whatever it takes — nothing is below them — to advance the kingdom.  Their life is marked by sacrifice and they empty themselves of self, even to the point of putting to death their egos.  However, they are powerful, but in a whole new way.  It is the power of love, sacrifice, and the Spirit.

Now, that is a different way of view success.

What stood out to you?

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Luke 7: Faith & Need

A Roman centurion, a Jewish widow, and a woman of ill repute evoke deep emotions in Jesus.  Meanwhile, the Pharisees lurk everywhere around in the shadows and they stir up Jesus’ anger.  This surely is the Gospel of Luke.

A Roman centurion believes that if Jesus just says the word his slave will be healed from afar, especially because the centurion believes he is unworthy to entertain this great rabbi in his house.  Jesus was “astonished” (7:9) by this level of faith yet to be encountered amongst the Jews and heals the slave.

Jesus walks up on a widow — about to hit one of the lowest rungs of their society — whose dead son is being carried out to be buried.  Jesus sees this and is “very sorry for her” (7:13), so he raises the boy back to life.

“Anointing Jesus’ Feet” by Frank Wesley

A woman of “a known bad character” (7:37) barges into a dinner party at a Pharisees house and anoints his feet with costly oil and her tears of repentance.  Jesus falls all over himself praising her for the hospitality she gave that Simon had not.

There are two things Jesus responds to: faith and need.  Unfortunately, the more religious you are the less you need faith.  Religion has a way of making us far too sure of our own righteousness.  Sadly, the higher up the social ladder we are, the less we need or at least sense that we need.  But when we realize how much we need, how unworthy we are of blessing, how unholy we are Jesus opens the doors of his blessings.  At these moments our hearts are open to receive great love and in response show great love.

So the conclusion I draw is this: she must have been forgiven many sins!  Her great love proves it!  But if someone has been forgiven only a little, they will love only a little. (7:47)

What caught your eye in this chapter?

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Ephesians 5: Imitators of God

So you should be imitators of God, like dear children. (5:1)

In the first part of Ephesians 5 before Paul gets to the household code of conduct (5:21ff), Paul gives seven characteristics of God we would do well to imitate if we are going to be God’s children, growing in His image.  See if you can find them in chapter 5 while you read.  For variety, my son put these seven traits into a word cloud.

How is it possible for fallen people to become like our magnificent Father?

Be filled with the spirit! (5:18b)

What from this chapter resonated with you?

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Romans 13: Love Is All We Need

Love is what God is looking for most from His people?  Love is all we need?  Love is the answer?  How can that be?

What about the Law?  Love is a willy-nilly notion.  It is here today and gone tomorrow.  Love can make people do stupid things.  We need something concrete, eternal, unchanging.  We need something you can look up, something factual.  Law is what we need.  At least this is something like what the most die-hard Jews in the Roman church might have been thinking.

And I would have to agree, if what we were talking about is the purely emotional, saccharine-sweet, I-get-butterflies-when-you-are-around kind of love.  Yes, I am not sure that kind of love is sufficient for a lifetime of guidance into right living.

But Paul is talking about something else.

Don’t owe anything to anyone, except the debt of mutual love.  If you love your neighbor, you see, you have fulfilled the law.  Commandments like “don’t commit adultery, don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t covet” — and any other commandment — are summed up in this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Love does no wrong to its neighbor; so love is the fulfillment of the law. (13:8-10)

How can the principle of love be enough to guide us into right living?  Paul answers that question twice: because love fulfills the Law.  All of the Jewish Laws were just ways to show love to our neighbors.  In appealing to love as the proper ethic for life, Paul was essentially returning to the basic principle that undergirds God’s way of life.  Paul goes further: Love is the fulfillment of the law because this kind of sacrificial love of will and choice sets out to always do what is best for a person, and in so doing does no wrong to its neighbor.  If the Roman Christians would treat each other that way they would be doing the Law that matters most to God.  If we today always did what was in the best interest of the people around us, we would truly be doing what God wants.

How does this teaching on love make something make more sense?

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Romans 12: True Worship

Today we move from one my most daunting passages to understand to one of my favorites.  Paul is known for structuring his letters with long theological sections about beliefs followed by much more practical sections about ethics.  Romans 12:1 is that pivot point in this book.

We use the word “worship” in many ways.  I have to wonder if most of the time we don’t reduce that word down to far less than what God intended worship to be.  Worship is that thing that happens at the church building.  It is singing and praying and preaching (and dancing and rocking a guitar or drum kit, if you church does that sort of thing).  Worship is what some person “leads.”  Worship has a set soundtrack.  There is a “worship hour.”  Worship has an “order” of set events.  Sure, you can worship anywhere — on a mountain top, down by the lake, in a hospital room, in a flash mob at the local mall — but still we are talking about the same action: singing songs and praying prayers.

Is worship this? . . .

The Roman church Paul was writing had also reduced the idea of worship down to far less than what God intended.  For them it was about religious activities and rituals and sacred days.  It was about symbolic acts like circumcision.  It was about what food was eaten or not.  Worship was a cultural expression and both the Jewish and Gentile Christians wanted to stamp their own ideals onto that expression.  In short, worship was what took place when “the saints meet.”

The word “worship” comes from an Old English word “worth-ship.”  The connotation of this word is to show honor to the inherent worth of the person being worshipped.  It is tied to the ancient practice of “kissing the feet of” the person being honored.  Worship is saying to another you are the one, not me.  You are the focus of life, not me.  You matter.  I adore you and want to do your will.  Can you sing that in a song?  Of course.  Can you pray those sentiments?  Definitely.  But it is so much more than that.

Paul reminds the Roman Christians of this point:

So, my dear family, this is my appeal to you by the mercies of God: offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.  Worship like this brings your mind into line with God’s. (12:1)

Worship is not a religious activity that takes place in a sacred place at a sacred time.  Worship is to happen everywhere all of the time.  God is not looking for some sacrifice of an animal or a sacrifice of discomfort in circumcision or a sacrifice of diet by avoiding pork or a sacrifice of time by observing the Sabbath.  Or let’s update that today: God is not looking for a sacrifice of time on a Sunday morning or a sacrifice of money put in an offering plate or a sacrifice of career by being an inner-city social worker or a sacrifice of zip code by living frugally and denying our comfort and status.  God wants us — all of us — as the sacrifice.  God wants us to tie our worship to how we live each day, as “living sacrifices.”  God wants acts of worship that are tied deeply to our “mind” and that shape how that mind thinks.  Everything we are and everything we do is intended to be worship.

For the ancient Roman Christians that meant that the most worshipful actions they could take would be to love (12:9-21).  They needed to worry less about what they did to their bodies and more about what they did with their bodies.  They needed to worry less about what food they ate and more about with whom they ate or refused to eat.  They needed to try less to get others to become like them and more so to become like others so they together might become like Christ.  And they most needed to do this with the people they disagreed with most.  Love is the act of worship God wants most.

. . . or is this worship?

How do we get this wrong (or right) too?

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Romans 5: Grace All The More!

Down at the core of the gospel that this book of Romans is so much about (1:16-17) are two truths:

  • We are all a bunch of rascals.
  • But God can save us anyway.

The first point we don’t like to accept, especially in a culture where we grew up on self-esteem slogans and a foundational belief that all people are good.  The second point we absolutely love.  We deem it an inalienable right.  Though, I wonder if we can really appreciate the second point if we don’t fully accept the first.  Maybe that is why some of my favorite verses in the Bible are right here in this chapter:

While we were still weak, at that very moment he died on behalf of the ungodly. (5:6)

This is how God demonstrates his own love for us: the Messiah died for us while we were still sinners. (5:8)

When we were enemies, you see, we were reconciled to God through the death of his son. (5:10)

Where sin increased, grace increased all the more. (5:20)

It’s all about grace, and when we forget that we get out of alignment.  Then we sell our uniqueness and settle for something that is just like everything else.

Thank God for His abundant grace!

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BONUS: An Introduction to Romans

Romans is a personal favorite of many people.  Paul, who almost all agree was the author, touches on almost every major theological belief in this great book, so the next three weeks are sure to be stimulating.

Rome was the center of the New Testament world.  A city of several million, it was the political and cultural center of the Roman Empire, home to the Caesars.  Rome was the ancient equivalent to New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong or Tokyo.  Religion was big in Rome, mainly the worship of the Roman gods and the developing Emperor cult, but there was a large, vibrant, and legal Jewish population in Rome as well.  Remember that when Christianity first stated it was considered a Jewish sect so it too was a protected religious movement and not largely persecuted.  Christians would suffer severely in Rome but not for another 20 years after the writing of Romans.

Romans was most certainly written in Corinth around AD 55 and delivered to Rome and first read to the church there by the deaconess Phoebe (Romans 16:1).

The purpose for Romans has been described in many ways.  Martin Luther read his own issues with the Roman Catholic Church into the book and saw Romans as a treatise against works-oriented religion.  It is certainly that, but that characterization has more to do with 16th Century Europe than 1st Century Rome.  Others imagine Paul sitting down and writing Romans as a theological compendium, a statement of his beliefs.  There is too much that is specific to the Roman church for that to be true, plus that would make Romans truly unique amongst New Testament letters.

Like every other letter in the New Testament, Romans is situational.  There was something going on that made Paul write this letter, to a church he had not started nor even visited.  Paul had a habit of setting up home bases for his various mission endeavors.  First it was Antioch, then Ephesus, now Corinth.  Paul’s greatest desire was to get to Spain where the Gospel had not really yet been preached widely (15:23-33).  By all appearance, Paul was preparing this Roman church to be his next launching point for that campaign.  However, this church was a divided church turned inward on itself in no condition to be involved in outward mission.  We know from the ancient Roman historian Suetonius that around AD 49 the emperor Claudius had expelled all Jews from Rome because they had been rioting amongst each other concerning a person named “Chrestus” (c.f., Acts 18:2).  This likely was an argument between Jews and Christians over Christ.  So for a span of five years until Claudius’ death in AD 54 when the Jews would have returned to Rome, this largely Jewish church with a defined Jewish flavor became thoroughly Gentile.  Leadership changed.  The culture and practices of the church changed.  Now in AD 55 we have a power struggle and identity crisis in the Roman church, largely involving ethnicity and customs.  Issues like circumcision, food, holidays, a background in paganism, an Abrahamic heritage, and the like would have been hotly debated, and these will pop up a good bit in our readings.  Paul is writing a significantly divided and prejudicial Roman church attempting to help them sort out their problems for the sake of the advancing Kingdom of God.

Background aside, Romans is so popular because the Gospel that all of us needs to hear speaks freedom, hope, love, and faith into every situation, whether in ancient Rome, modern Memphis, the Philippines, Malaysia or Canada.

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