Life’s Most Ignored Partner: Death

“It is hard to have patience with people who say, ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’ There is death. And whatever it is matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn’t matter.”
– C.S. Lewis –

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My sprightly father has been researching the price of funerals in the Sunshine Coast. Or should I say, he has been exploring the cheapest possible way to dispose of his body when he dies. His Melbourne plan to donate his body to research at a local university was sabotaged when we moved to the Coast. Never fear, he just discovered that he can save a whopping $2,000 by using a funeral home near Brisbane and he reported his finding to me with a smug sense of satisfaction! As you can tell, I grew up in a home where we talked about death. It was as natural as talking about life. I only discovered that talking about death was a social taboo when I moved to Australia, and strangely enough, especially in church.

It remains somewhat of a mystery to me why people avoid this subject at all cost. Last time I checked, the death rate of Homo sapiens was pretty high – sitting very close to 100%. Death is inevitable. Considering this, why wouldn’t we ensure that we have a will in place (no matter what age) and clear instructions for end-of-life care? “DO NOT RESUSCITATE”, for example, has been emphasised to me by my father. If he could, he would have that clause tattooed on his forehead. I know it’s hard, but we need to talk about our mortality and death with our loved ones.

Our society’s strange avoidance of death is really quite insane. It seems like we fear death so much that we have convinced ourselves that by not talking about it we can dodge it. Anyone grieving the loss of a loved one in such a cultural “Truman Show” is normally met with awkward comments, a change of subject, or, a total lack of contact and care. By refusing to see life and death as part of the human existence we have created hell for those touched by death.

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One of the most famous historians of death, Philippe Ariès, claimed that death became a shameful scandal in modern society, that the dying were hidden away in hospitals and that grieving survivors were silenced to repress this scandal of death: “We ignore the existence of a scandal that we have been unable to prevent; we act as if it did not exist, and thus mercilessly force the bereaved to say nothing. A heavy silence has fallen over the subject of death.” Ariès is amongst a growing chorus of voices calling on society to stop this nutty denial and recognise and humanise death, “Death must simply become the discreet but dignified exit of a peaceful person from a helpful society that is not torn, not even overly upset by the idea of a biological transition without significance, without pain and suffering, and ultimately without fear.” Ignoring our mortality does not make death go away, rather, it creates even greater fear and hysteria about this unavoidable life event.

Looking back it also seems rather strange to me that for the many years I spent in church I only ever heard one whole sermon dedicated to death and preparation for dying. I know not all faith traditions avoid the subject, but in the Pentecostal/Charismatic scene a sound theology of suffering and death still remains fairly undeveloped. In fact, talking about death in these places is taboo. An almost superstitious-like fear hangs in the air, coupled with an often over-emphasis on healing (understood in the limited context of physical symptoms), miracles and positive confessions. The disappointment that an individual who had invested into this ideology encounters when touched by death or suffering cannot be understated. It can take someone years to recover from the toxic idea that God has let them down or they did not have enough ‘faith’ to avoid disaster.

My life and the life of our family was irrevocably changed with the sudden death of my mother in 2007. She played a key role as a very loved matriarch in our family structure. Her absence is felt to this day. C.S. Lewis wrote a most poignant journal where he recorded the death of his beloved wife, Joy, in A Grief Observed. He writes, “Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything” and “The death of a loved one is like an amputation.” So I am not for a moment suggesting that talking about death is easy. The very idea of losing the people we love is too sad for words. Yet life requires us not to ignore its partner, death. If the consequences of someone’s absence are so monumental and devastating, we have to be able to talk about our mortality and the decisions that await us or another person in such a tragic event.

Friend, take courage. We do not have much say into life choosing death as its partner. We do have a choice about ensuring that we have things in place for our departure. We also have a choice to talk about death, to discover the wishes of loved ones, and discover the details surrounding wills, accounts, legacy plans, etc. The stories we hear of the distress of people left in chaos when this unpleasant topic has been neglected should be enough to convince us that it is time to defy this silly social taboo and become vocal about mortality. Life is a journey, so is death, and both need our attention.

 

“End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien “Return of the King” –

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Want to Walk the Road Less Travelled? Get off the Success Treadmill!

Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.
– Robert Frost – 
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The ‘road less travelled’ is an alluring and romantic notion. It’s the idea that we can take steps out of our secure boundaries from time to time and feel like a dare devil. If this venture goes relatively well we may try it again and we may even become ‘heroes’ or ‘courageous’ in the eyes of others … until we fail!

The fear of failure keeps the masses at bay. It is one of the most powerful tools of rhetoric, regularly accessed by political and religious leaders. Everyone wants everything to be ‘great’ – we want to make everything great again. Triumph, success, adulation – the opium of the masses of the developed world.

In the faith tradition that I embraced like a zealot in my first half of life, triumph was the goal. We were encouraged to step out in order to ‘walk on water’ or ‘break the boundaries’ or ‘slay the giants’. ‘Live on the edge and God will bless you’ was the modus operandi. If you bought into the persuasive, manipulative garble of some, you would be convinced that only success matters. You will eventually become wealthy, healthy and wise. You will not fail.

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The fear of failure is a tenacious force in many social structures, especially modern Pentecostalism. Failure, for many, would be a sign of God’s disapproval. It would be a given that if you took a step into the unknown, into a path of ‘faith’, then God is obliged to ‘bless’ you. The thought of not being ‘blessed’ can seriously risk your status, identity and belonging in these religious social groups. That thought is simply awful. That’s why it remains a ‘road less travelled’.

But what, if just for a moment, we would consider that failure, just like grief, sorrow and disappointment, is really not our enemy? What if we were to grasp that the success-treadmill-mentality that lies so deeply embedded because of a thousand different clever messages thrown at us every day, that this treadmill can be abandoned? What if, despite the disapproval of our community, we adopted a sort of quixotic lunacy and fight for what we believe, even if it means failure? How would we live then?

Perhaps it is time to take another look at this perceived, scary fiend called ‘failure’. What if we were to have a cup of coffee with failure and discuss some of our deepest hopes and dreams? We may come to realise that making failure a friend allows us to live life in a manner that evades most – with the freedom to pursue the most difficult of dreams because we value them more than success.

If we only act because there is a great likelihood that we will succeed then we will live relatively safe, confined lives. And perhaps that is satisfactory to many. But I find that the success treadmill is a constraint when we want to live from a place of value and ethics because the success treadmill creates constant value transgressions. The value of my endeavours cannot be determined by the odds of success. I have to face the fact that negative consequences may be a result of my most daring adventures. And that’s ok!

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So can I suggest that you investigate your relationship with failure. As an only child and a One on the enneagram, mine is a rather precarious one. However, I am learning that failure is not my adversary, no matter what the success-addicted crowd thinks. In stark contrast to popular opinion, I am finding that the more I embrace this strange companion, the more I live life from the inner sanctum of authenticity and freedom.

Remember, dear friend, there are many lofty goals worth far more than success – pursue them!

“You can measure your worth by your dedication to your path, not by your successes or failures.” – Elizabeth Gilbert – 
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Job, His Friends, and Disappointment

There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. 
– Martin Luther King, Jr. –
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The book of Job has always fascinated me. One of the oldest books in the Old Testament and most celebrated pieces of biblical literature, it is dominated by two main characters: Yahweh and a wealthy man called Job, who faced utter devastation. The book is loosely divided into five parts: the prologue, the symposium, the speeches of Elihu, the nature poems, and the epilogue. It is a book that raises questions about suffering and directly challenges the idea of karma – that people are rewarded or punished according to their merits.

It is a book of poetic and philosophical depth and beauty. It is a book of suffering and grief. It is also a book that provides an example of how to be a really annoying friend. After Job loses everything, his friends come to ‘comfort’ him. They do well at first because they shut up. However, when Job begins to speak they never really hear him or seek to understand. They simply pontificate their opinions on his suffering and try to fit him into their little boxes of comfortable reasoning. Nothing much has changed … humans just don’t evolve that quickly ?

Eliphaz is convinced that Job has done something sinister to deserve this pain. Bildad suggests that maybe his deceased children were guilty of evil. Zophar really has no idea but is convinced that God has a plan and is on the throne (sound familiar?). Elihu, the zealous youngster, thinks that maybe Job is just a tad arrogant and that his pain is God’s way of humbling him and he will be a better person because of it. In summary, this is a group of Shit Friends or ‘worthless physicians’ as Job refers to them. People who practice triumphant monologue, provide unhelpful answers (accusations) or cliches, and are in on the ride because they cannot cope with the existential angst of not knowing why bad stuff happens to good people. Yes, we have all been in the presence of Job’s friends. We all have been Job’s friends.

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Disappointment is the cousin of grief. Disappointment is tied to our expectations. Our expectation of people, of events, of God, that is if we happen to be someone who holds a faith. When they do not ‘behave’ the way we expect, we become disappointed. Job was disappointed because he had spent his life in faithful devotion to God, expecting God to protect him, and yet disaster and suffering entered his life. He was disappointed in his friends because in the time of his greatest need they were … well they were just shit friends.

There are many lessons we can draw from Job. One would be that the questions we often ask about theodicy seem to have no satisfying answers. Another is that suffering is part of the human existence and disappointment is part of life. We can also learn how not to be a friend!

We will all face disappointment in our life time. If we happen to be one of the people to walk alongside another as they face disappointment, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Let’s stop pretending that we know exactly what they are feeling. We don’t. We  may be able to empathise to a certain degree, but we have not lived their life, walked a single step in their shoes, and we have no idea how exactly they are processing the disappointment that they are facing.
  2. Let’s learn to shut up and listen. If we are genuine about being an ‘alongsider’, then let’s be a sounding board. Don’t let’s use our friend’s pain as a soapbox to practice our philosophical or religious ideals. It’s like rubbing salt on a wound. The greatest gift we can give at that moment is to listen deeply.
  3. We are not the Messiah – and that really is good news. There is an innate urge in each of us to ‘fix’ things and people. The reality of life is that there are some things we can ‘fix’ and many things that we can’t. Mindfulness, kindness, practical expressions of love are most helpful to those facing disappointment. Job’s friends failed at these. Like Christopher Pyne, they were ‘fixers’ – and both Job and Yahweh grew weary of them.
  4. Walking alongside needs us to deal with our ego. People facing disappointment will be angry, grieving, sullen, and maybe rude. If we are in a support role and have not done some serious shadow-work we will find ourselves ‘hurt and offended’. Then the person who is facing crisis now has to deal with our wounded egos … Nicht Gut.
  5. Let’s practice our theology at these times, not preach it. Love in action is the best sermon we will ever preach. The day may come when we will be facing disappointment and will discover how annoying it is when someone, oblivious to our heartache, gets all “God-is-on-the-throne-and-has-a-wonderful-plan-for-your-life” on us. In moments of deep disappointment we won’t really give a crap about anyone’s ideas about God, rather make “me a cup of coffee and feed me chocolate”.

Job faced bitter disappointment. We will also have to handle our fair share in our short life. And when we are comforting those who are disappointed let’s not add to their burden by being shit friends like those of Job.  Bake that cake, cook that meal, mind those children, and let’s learn to listen …

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Saying Goodbye Sucks!

Why can’t we get all the people together in the world that we really like and then just stay together? I guess that wouldn’t work. Someone would leave. Someone always leaves. Then we would have to say good-bye. I hate good-byes. I know what I need. I need more hellos. – Charles M. Schulz

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It was February 1985 when I loaded up my 1967 Valiant Station wagon, affectionally called “Boris” (the nickname of an old flame), and drove myself from Rockhampton to Melbourne. I was all of 19 years old and, of course, had the world all figured out …!! What took me to Melbourne? Well, I could say it was the leading of the Divine, or a career move, or a whole bunch of other crap, but really I came down because a tall, gorgeous redhead young man had stolen my heart on his short visit to Rockhampton and I was stalking him ?

I had no idea that this guy was also the pastor’s son at a conservative, Pentecostal church in Melbourne. I still remember the first time I set foot in that place. I felt like I had stepped into another planet and I’m sure with my tight jeans, several ear piercings and motorbike-friendly hair I would have looked like an alien to the parishioners. That was over thirty years ago! How time flies! Here we are all these years later with three incredible young adult kids, two amazing daughters-in-law and two fur children, facing yet another major move and transition in life.

Melbourne has been home for over three decades. As we move to the Sunny State we say goodbye to a city that has held our great joys, amazing triumphs, disastrous failures, disappointments and seasons of what felt like intolerable grief. We say goodbye to family and friends who, when you boil it all down, really are all that matters in life. We say goodbye to communities we love. We say goodbye to a home that has been our haven and most pleasant place. And before I can talk about a different tomorrow, I have to rest in this hauntingly painful place of goodbye. Goodbye sucks!

Is there an elegant way to let go? Can you really say goodbye without anxiety, grief, fear, and horribly ugly crying? If so, I haven’t figured it out. In the past, I have heard people speak lightly and with great excitement about closing a chapter and beginning a new one. I have also heard people talk about living life without regrets. I have not mastered either of these. I find letting go and closing chapters extremely painful. And if you are short on regrets – please come and see me, I’m happy to share.

So I sit here in this liminal space. I am not sure what tomorrow holds. As a person of faith I trust the guidance of Providence. I reflect on my life and like Jacob would say, “You have been here all along, and I didn’t even realise.” I choose to trust this Divine Presence in this place of great unknown. However, I do not deny the tears or the grief. For these are all part of what it means to say farewell.

So, Melbourne, thank you for opening your arms to me. Thank you to my faithful and loving friends. I could not imagine life without you. Thank you to my family – you are my greatest joy and sense of fulfilment in this short life. Thank you to my adversaries – from you I have learnt that I am stronger and have more courage than I ever realised. I’m forever grateful. Thank you to the Spirit of Life that lives in and through me, forever pushing me beyond the edges of safety and comfort.

For all of you, who for many reasons have had to say goodbye – you know this feeling well. Goodbye really does suck. We need to learn to feel, rest and trust the seasons, even the sucky ones.

Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes. – Henry David Thoreau

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An uninvited Guest: Reflections on Grief

A Repost from last year:

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It was November 2007. My 11 year old German Shepherd staggered into the kitchen and collapsed. His heart had failed. We called a mobile vet and it was on this day we said goodbye to Simba. I grieved that dog. Those who love their animal friends will understand the pain of losing a fur child. A couple of weeks later, after I had come back from a retreat, the phone rang. It was my dad, informing me that my mum had been taken to hospital. She died three weeks later. It was just before Christmas. Mum had been undergoing treatment for a thyroid condition, which turned out to be a misdiagnosis. My world stopped. Just a week after we said goodbye to mum, early on New Years’ morning, we received another phone call. That type of phone call that any parent who has ever received one, never really recovers from. All our three children and two of their friends had been involved in a horrific car crash. All were injured and the next few days became a nightmare of emergency and intensive care wards. It was all a blur and it felt like somewhere in November I had opened my front door and Grief walked in, uninvited.

How do you begin to describe this uninvited guest? Maybe by the way it affects us. Sadness, so overwhelming that you can’t even cry. Illogical anger and rage. Guilt, resentfulness, regret, panic, depression and fear. It was C.S. Lewis who wrote about this in ‘A Grief Observed’: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” Lewis’ wife, Joy, had passed away from cancer and he had kept a journal observing his grief. This journal was later published. I have found it to be one of the most helpful books on this topic. Grief feels so much like fear because when we have lost a loved one we stare into a future where someone has turned off the light switch and it is utter darkness. Nothing brings back who we have lost. We live in a constant dread that life will never be the same.

“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again, but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same, nor would you want to.”
~ Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and John Kessler

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In a haze of shock and numbness, I recall friends and family doing their best to help make this journey through the valley of tears a bit easier. Please don’t ever underestimate the importance of your actions and words towards someone who is grieving. Your kindness through this time brings a tiny bit of warmth into someone’s world. A world that has not only gone dark, but has frozen over in pain. “The death of a beloved is an amputation,” observes Lewis. I would add it feels like an amputation of the heart.

Grief calls on all of us throughout our lives. This unwelcome visitor does not knock. It just walks right in and for the next few weeks, months or years, you are left to entertain it, as you struggle through the various stages. Grief, that suddenly rushes at you, even years down the track. Grief, that makes you feel so alone in your chronic pain. “In my distress I groan out loud and am reduced to skin and bones,” laments the Psalmist (Psalm 102). Grief, that plays out its visit on every life in a different manner. Grief, that does not stick to any rules. “Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape,” writes Lewis. Our grief, just like our life, is a unique journey.

Grief bombards us with every emotion. We cry to the point that we are convinced we will never shed another tear. We may feel guilty as we look at a hurting world around us. “There are so many people worse off than me,” we tell ourselves to try and downplay our reality. Comparing grief is not helpful. It is what it is. Our loss, whatever it may be, is real and hurts like hell. We need to accept it. As we journey, let us try and surround ourselves with loving people. Friends who come, who sit, who talk about our loss, who listen, who are not absent. Don’t do this alone. “The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of confusion or despair, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing … not healing … not curing … that is a friend indeed.” – Henri Nouwen

During grief, you are dealing with a muddled mind. If you can, avoid making any major decisions at this time. Be kind to yourself: remember to eat and sleep. It’s bizarre how we forget basic human needs and rhythm in times of trauma. Cry when you feel to and find a place of solitude where you can yell if you want to – or howl at the moon, as a friend of mine recommended. Be patient with yourself. “Grief is not a disorder, a disease or sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.” (Rabbi Earl Grollman)

Grief changes us. It changes how we look at things and how we relate to people. Grief, armed with a fiery torch, burns compassion into our souls. In the darkest night our ego dies, and we look at things we once held as so important and wonder what we were thinking. Like Harry Potter, we all of a sudden notice that our carriage is pulled by Thestrals. We are quite sure that we are going nuts because others don’t seem to notice. Thank God for the Luna Lovegoods of this world, who remind us: “You are not mad, Harry. They can only be seen by people who’ve seen death.” Grief, this uninvited guest, it turns out is also an eye surgeon … and one day, however long it takes, the tears will slowly subside and you, my friend, will look at the world with a whole new set of eyes. Life will never be the same again – but peace, and even joy, do return like the prodigal.

The thought of my suffering and homelessness is bitter beyond words. I will never forget this awful time, as I grieve over my loss. 

Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this:

The faithful love of the Lord never ends. His mercies never cease.

Lamentations 3:19-22

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The Disappointing Messiah

There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Several years ago, we had the opportunity to visit beautiful France. Our time in Paris included a trip to the famous Louvre Museum. It was everything I imagined. Every step left me stunned and mesmerised. I do
confess hurrying through the first part just to clap my eyes on the world’s most famous painting: Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa. Holding my breath as I walked into the great hall that housed her, surrounded by a huge crowd of admirers, I stood therpicture-1053852_1920e … disappointed. I had built up an idea about how this moment would unfold, how I would feel, and none of my imagined ideals where realised. The admiring tourists were annoying (yes, I was one of them, thanks for pointing that out), and Mona just seemed shrivelled and small in her place of honour. Others have different experiences, but I left feeling rather underwhelmed.

As Easter approaches, the most significant event on the Christian
calendar, commemorating the death and resurrection of Christ, it may be lost on us how disappointing the person of Christ would have been to the original Jewish audience. The prophets that strode through the pages of the Old Testament spoke of a Messiah, or an Anointed One, that would deliver the people of Israel from their oppression and their enemies. This Messianic hope would have reached fever pitch with the wild man, John the Baptist, coming out of the desert, announcing the imminent
arrival of the Messiah. Every eye would have been on Jesus as he began to minister in Roman-occupied Judea. But they would be severely disappointed.

Jesus was not the blazing, Thor-like character that people had
anticipated. He was humble, from questionable origin, and annoyingly subversive. He did not play the expected power games and then, just to top it all off, he gets himself crucified. He was betrayed by one of his own … perhaps because the betrayer was so disappointed in him. To die
between accursed criminals, was not the ideal that people of Jesus’ day held about the Messiah. His very disciples and family questioned his identity and claims – questions that culminated with great grief and
confusion the day he was crucified. This was not what they expected. A crucified, silent Messiah was most certainly disappointing.

Very quickly modern readers and people of Christian faith jump to the resurrection. Very quickly we seek to settle our own nagging doubts and disappointments. Very quickly we ignore the disappointing Messiah of Friday and Saturday, because, after all, we know that “Sunday is
coming!” However, we deny our own humanity, our own important doubts, questions, and lament, when we ignore the disappointment of Easter Friday and Saturday – the days the Messiah was killed and tombed. The days of violence, horror, and silence. The days that we, at some stage in our lives, will all face. The days of gut-wrenching defeat.

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At the heart of disappointment lie failed expectations. We thought one thing but got something else. For people of faith, disappointment with God is an uneasy subject. The faith tradition that shaped so much of the first half of my life was constructed on positive certitudes. To discuss doubt and disappointment was not that welcome. However, a faith that is built on the predictability of God and carefully honed triumphant mantras, allowing no room for suffering, failure, or disappointment, is in danger of being shipwrecked on the  harsh cliffs of life experience. When we have not been given permission to hold our doubts and
disappointments, times of paradox and seeming unanswered prayers will erupt our spiritual Neverland into giant volcanic activity – because disappointment will not be pacified through platitudes.

So as Easter approaches, do not rush for Sunday. Sit with the horror of Friday, lean into the silence of a tombed king on Saturday. Reflect on your disappointments – particularly in your relationship with God.
Consider a disappointed Christ who begged for the cup to be taken from him in Gethsemane. In the words of C.S. Lewis: “In Gethsemane, the
holiest of all petitioners prayed three times that a cup may pass from him. It did not. After that the idea that prayer is recommended to us as a sort of infallible gimmick may be dismissed.
” In a world that looks for an instant fix we forget that some things are not that fixable. Sometimes God, just like my ideas about Mona Lisa, does not meet any of our expectations.  Sometimes life is disappointing. Sometimes the Messiah is silent. Sometimes that disappointment becomes the great Iconoclast … and that too, is grace.

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand. – C.S. Lewis

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