prayer and the absence of god

13 09 2016

How do we pray when we don’t feel like praying anymore? Why should we pray when we feel like we are hurling our words down an empty well, and all we hear are the echoes of our own sadness?

Stop praying? Give up? Pray something different?

God sometimes answers prayer in a straightforward way. We ask for something, he says yes, and we get what we asked for. Happy days.

God sometimes does not answer prayer in a straightforward way. Like we say to God please can I have £20 and he says yellow, and we walk off looking confused.

prayer-and-the-absence-of-god

Part of the problem is the way we talk about prayer.

Answered?

We talk about prayer being answered. Put this in a different context and see how strange it sounds. When did you last have a chat with your friend? Did they answer? Have you spent time with your family recently? Brilliant, did they answer?

Prayer is much more profound than answers. That type of prayer treats God like a divine Siri and church like a subscription to Amazon Prime – put your order in, wait for it to arrive. Grumble at any delay or delivery charges.

But then life happens, and no matter how much we can deny it, we know God does not operate like this.

But it was never like that.

A truth: God is.

Whether he gives us what we want or not, he is. He is above our mood swings, our doubts – we do not destroy God by not believing in him, or being angry with him.

Another truth: God wants us to talk to him.

Prayer is the word we give to the thing we do with our family and friends – conversation, hanging out, spending time, getting to know. The way that you can get to know how your friends and family will think, that is what we can do with God. he knows us, and we can know him, begin to think as he does.

Which is not something we do so that we can get what we want fro him when things go wrong, like sucking up to your boss so you get a promotion or the best desk or the shift you want.

But what about the times when we are angry and disappointed and he does not save the people around us from illness or despair or death? Yes, they are tough. Those are the times we wish we could build up credits with God, and cash them in for good health.

There is no cashing in. But it is ok to be angry.

I know despair, I know anger. I know the feeling of deep sadness that only the death of a loved one can bring, like constantly falling from a great height and never landing.

Where is God then? In the valley of the shadow of death he is with us. I firmly believe that.

Most of the time.

Giving us strength, hope, raising us from despair. But not always saving us from it.

Does that help you? Does it help you if your son is diagnosed with cancer, or a friend commits suicide? Or if life is just rubbish?

Maybe it helps to know you are not alone in feeling that God is absent. Maybe it helps to be given permission to be angry.

The Bible is full of lament, that pouring out of grief and anger and questions that happen when life goes wrong. In fact, if you want a metaphor, a picture, for how you might feel sometimes, see Lamentations. The clue is in the name.

He has made my skin and my flesh grow old
and has broken my bones…
He has barred my way with blocks of stone;
he has made my paths crooked…
he dragged me from the path and mangled me
and left me without help…
He has broken my teeth with gravel;
he has trampled me in the dust… (from Lam 3)

God is. And we pray.

Not just for what we want, but to know the heart of God.
Not because we want God to micromanage our lives.
Not because we believe we have a divine right to health, wealth and happiness.
But because God is.

Jesus calls us to persistent prayer. Yet knowing that the purposes of God – and of life – are greater than the well-being of my life or yours. Which can be hard to hear in these times of selfie-sticks, instant gratification, same-day delivery and the importance of my personal happiness.

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness. (from Lam 3)

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celebrating a spirituality of the body

5 06 2016

Our bodies are so precious. No matter what we think of them.
Bodies are at the centre of our faith. No matter how our history has erased them.

Somehow the most embodied faith about a God who was (and is) literally embodied has become disembodied. A faith with an enfleshed Jesus (Gk: incarnate) somehow became about escaping bodies into a ‘spiritual’ heaven. Yet when we neglect our bodies for more ‘spiritual things’ – usually words, prayers, thoughts – we do a disservice to God and to ourselves.

2016.06 Celebrating Body title.001

The early church grappled with this unspeakable notion that the Holy God could be fully human, yet they pursued it and Paul, even Paul the Pharisee, could say our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. No longer the Holy of Holies once a year in the Temple – but you, and me, where God dwells, in our broken and wrinkly crinkly lumpy blotchy flesh and blood and bone bodies.

So, our bodies matter. What we do with them matters. How we treat them matters.

I know this is tricky ground for some. Many people I know, male and female, suffer from serious body image problems, from eating disorders, from other related problems, and from bodies that simply do not work properly. I’m in no way trying to solve those problems here. I am trying to help us see the importance of our bodies, that we don’t neglect them, mistreat them, or simply forget that God cherishes them.

Jesus was very body-conscious. Not in the sense he went to a gym and wore lycra. In the sense that he saw people with broken bodies, worn-out bodies – the disabled, the blind, the bleeding, even the dead. And he hung out with them, honoured them, used physical touch to restore them, when no-one else would go near them. He made them whole, physically, socially, mentally. He hung out with people who sold their bodies to people like us for sex, honouring them in a way slipping them a tenner for a fumble under the table never would.

He also had strong words about how we can misuse our bodies. If your eye causes you to sin, he said, gauge it out, for it is better to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than not at all. He was exaggerating for effect of course, but this was before you could watch hard-core porn on your iPhone during the sermon. What we do with our bodies matters. We can do great good or great harm, to ourselves and to others.

body_temple

Developing a spirituality of the body is not about a feel-good self-help programme indistinguishable from a couch-to-5k phone app; it’s not about becoming a vegetarian; it’s not about yoga or running or being happy with how we look, though it could include those.

It’s about being real with God and ourselves that this sack of flesh we live in matters. That Jesus would have us care for ourselves well. That the sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life is all about BODIES; a resurrection gained through the BODY of Jesus, God made BODY, who lives in our BODY by his Holy Spirit.

And if you truly struggle with your body, as many of us do, imagine Jesus sitting down next to you on the bus. Where does he look, how does he judge, and what does he treasure? Evidence from the gospel suggests:

He treasures the whole of us.
Us, as a whole.
Us as we come, broken or whole.
Wholly holy.


 

We are starting a new series with this title at church, and this is a version of the opening talk. Over the series we’ll be looking at eyes, hands, tongues, scars, heads, shoulders and feet as we explore what it means to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, to be temples of the Holy Spirit, and to honour God with our bodies. 





the crowd

23 03 2016

This is a spoken word piece that I used on Palm Sunday, when we had over 100 guests for a baptism. It begins with the first 45 seconds or so of Chariots of Fire…


There’s something about this music that makes you want
to do everything in slow motion
you picture yourself running along the beach in a white t-shirt
the wind is blowing, there’s the wet sand and the ocean
and if you remember the London Olympics opening ceremony
Mr Bean is about to trip you up

It’s music that speaks to us of triumph and success
beyond the white shorts and white vests
I can’t even remember what the film was about
but the music still makes me want to cheer out loud
even just to be in the crowd…

To be in the crowd.

Today’s Bible reading was a lot about crowds
crowd’s being loud
but the thing about crowds is if you don’t want to be loud
well, that’s allowed, after all, you’re in a crowd
keep your head down
keep yourself moving around
Just a face in the crowd.
Like the boy over there selling lemons,
just watching

Where are you in the crowd?

Jesus went into Jerusalem with a crowd like this
Some of whom were his friends and followers
Other’s were more cautious, just hangers-on
Some just had nothing better to do
So as the crowd grew they stayed because
who knew, there might end up being a riot
or just something more interesting
than watching the lemon seller
juggle lemons

Where are you in the crowd?

Some of those in the crowd with Jesus were pretty sure
that Jesus was special
more than just a street magician
or clever politician
not just your average preacher
or rabbi-style teacher
but the Messiah, a King
that sort of thing

so they served him and helped him
and gave up their lives for him
even when their families said they were crazy
and told them not to join the crowd

Where are you in the crowd?

Some of those in the crowd were sceptical
Frightened of being heretical
and so were being tactical
in keeping their distance
don’t get involved
or the roman soldiers
might get too close

Some in the crowd were intrigued enough
to be near the front where the jostling was rough
and near enough to get the occasional shove
but they were not convinced that God was love
and so were frightened
their eyes widened with the thought
of actually pinning their hopes on this man Jesus

they said to themselves I’m not religious
whilst staring at the man called God With Us
but could not bring themselves to hear the invitation
of the disciples to join with us
because they thought they were not good enough
or convinced enough
or just hadn’t really reckoned it could possibly be
true

Where are you in the crowd?

Jesus didn’t charge around
with Chariots of Fire playing in the background
but he took his time
he let the people think and make up their minds
as well as turning water into wine
and healing the eyes of the blind
and being actually, really God.

Where are we in the crowd?

Maybe we have got questions…
which is fine because there’s no suggestion
that the disciples didn’t have questions
Maybe we’ve never thought about Jesus
actually being real
Maybe we’ve never even been a face in the crowd
until today
right now

and maybe today at this baptism is the time
when you see the light of Jesus in your eyes
and an ancient faith is awakened
a dormant sense of God is shaken
and you realise you’ve been looking for the meaning of life
and the meaning of life has been standing there all along

Jesus, who sees all of us in the crowd
as his friends
whether we come with knees bowed
or are so far away he needs a long lens to see us
Jesus waits patiently.
What he offers us is new life
being washed whiter than white
when we pledge to follow him
to trust him

And this is a big deal
the whole Jesus being real thing
it changes everything
So I invite you
join the crowd, have a look
don’t just be like the boy selling lemons.
So when Jesus says come,
you are ready
because he gives us a future and a hope
to me that seems worth a go.





obedience and love

17 02 2016

Obedience and love. Now there’s a pair of uncomfortable bedfellows. So to speak. We struggle with notions of obedience and authority these days. Especially from the church.

Obedience and love. What comes to mind? Misogyny, abuse, and the many other forms of enforced obedience that litter our past?

Obedience and love. As a man and a priest, I know I am on dangerous ground. But let’s take a step back. As I have said before, we are all obedient to something. Better we know what it is. If we are obedient simply to our emotions, our love will have no deep roots and will be blown around with the wind. We will love, and then not love, which is not really love. Or we are obedient to common sense, or economic sense, or society’s prejudice, or a dominant personality, or to whatever we read on Twitter today.

Obedience and love means first and foremost obedience to Jesus. Before we love anyone or anything else, we love him. All our love is framed by him and seen through the lens of his love. Therefore, we cannot be obedient to our inner desires for control or domination; we cannot  arrange those we love around our need to be the centre of their world. Instead we practice selfless devotion to others, we sacrifice our own needs for the needs of others.

Obedience and love then becomes a wholeheartedly positive way of thinking. Obedience to the way of Jesus, and a love that is patient, kind, not self-seeking; that is not a slave to jealousy or anger or boastfulness or pride. This can only come from deep places, from deep roots. It can be uncomfortable, and there will be strong winds trying to blow us back to selfishness. But it is possible.

ruthnaomi031106_01

One of my favourite stories in the Bible is that of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz. This is a story of different types of love – familial, cross-cultural, community and romantic – which places deep love at the centre of the story, and mixed-race marriage into Jesus’ genealogy. Both Ruth and Boaz are described with the same Hebrew phrase ‘eshet hayil’, which means ‘of noble character, good standing’.

Noble character is not something we publicly prize at the moment, yet deep down we know its value. Just look at the tributes to the late Terry Wogan, and the emphasis placed on his character. When we are of noble character – truly, madly, deeply, not just our facade – then obedience and love is not something to be feared, but something to be desired.

We are called to obedience in love, but not to subservience. To be noble in character, people of deep love. And a particular note to men: we are called to love as Christ loved the church, which is by self-giving, self-sacrifice, and deep deep devotion. Will we accept that countercultural challenge?


 

This is part of a series at our church through Lent called Enduring Obedience.

 

 





scratched into my skin

5 05 2015

scratched into my skin
with flint
are the ancient sins
scar tissue from generations
of hurt
of self-loathing
of 
inadequacy

scratched into my skin
with flint
some still weep and bleed
sores that open again with
every harsh word
every angry voice
every failure

scratched into my skin
with flint
some scars long-dried
yet my skin bears the lines
permanent scars like tattoos
bearing testimony to
my failed past
which will be
my failed future.

This is what I have sensed as we pray for our neighbourhood: that so many wear the sins of generations like scars. So often in evangelism we begin with telling people they are sinful, but here I sense people already know. Given a moment to think about it, without using those words, we all know. 

flint sin Jeremiah 17_Snapseed

We are anaesthetised to it, so we deny we can feel the pain of the scars, but like Judah in Jeremiah 17 our sins – and those that have gone before us – are engraved on us as with flint. I see around me families that bear the generational scars of their fathers – sometimes literally – and wear them like tattoos, sometimes literally. 

With every harsh word, short-temper, every “f@&king shut-up” to a 2 yr old, every hopeless over-tired family of spikey porcupines, every emotionally-deprived man and strutting teenager, we show the world that we are desperately in need to love, and to be loved. 

The lies that have been spoken over so many, lies of inadequacy and failure and uselessness, these are the sins scratched into skin, permanent reminders of the damage we humans do to each other in generational sin. We need these lies to be erased, the flint scratches healed, the scar tissue replaced. 

This is our prayer for where we live. For skin grafts to replace those hurting and painful scars; this is what sin and its judgement are: seeing where we have gone wrong, judging it for what it is, and knowing God has broken the flint that scratches, replaced our sinful nature with love. This is why we are not afraid to be judged. Judgement brings healing. 

this was painted for our day of prayer

this was painted for our day of prayer

The inspiration for this poem, Jeremiah 17, has one of God’s awesome ‘buts’ (pardon the expression). Changing from the image of sin scratched with flint, God continues with these words, which were the theme for our recent Parish day of Prayer:

‘But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
whose confidence is in him.
They will be like a tree planted by the water
that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
and never fails to bear fruit.’

There are many such trees in this place, and many households full of love and hope. May there be many, many more. 





transcendence and tent pegs

15 02 2015

There seem to be two obvious extremes in religion. You either go rules-based and practical, clearly labelled and top-down authoritarian; or you go mystical-transcendent, about self-discovery and waftiness. With Christianity, both are clearly present, though Jesus embraces neither. But neither does he reject them.

Unlike vast swathes of the church in his name, Jesus very rarely, if ever, got caught up into either a dominant-authoritarian or a mystical-candlelight narrative. He didn’t carry a clipboard and checklist; yet neither did he waft around carrying tea-lights and pebbles. 

One of the events that holds this tension clearly for me is the transfiguration. Usually in encounters with Jesus, everything is quite earthy. There’s people, walking, eating, touching, speaking, all quite easy to visualise and translate into our present reality.  But in this event the very ordinary –  a walk up a hill with Jesus (what is it with him and hills?) – becomes extraordinary, a strange, mystical event, with brights light, clouds, voices from heaven… It isn’t something that can be easily explained, especially for rational evangelical minds.

The event could be in danger of disappearing up it’s own transcendent artiness… I can imagine the disciples talking about it and wanting to add bits, to make it even more dramatic. The arrival of Elijah and Moses could be bolder, unconventional, maybe swirling in on chariots of fire; instead of covering Jesus, the cloud could make an arrow, and as the voice speaks fireworks could burst from the centre… I mean, if you’re going to have a spiritual experience like this, why not embellish it a bit?

But they don’t. In the middle of this mystical encounter with the long-dead, Peter asks (out loud) whether he should build a shelter for them. I can imagine them re-telling this story, and wondering whether to put this bit in. It’s a bit silly. But maybe for Peter this is an authenticating moment, one that proves that as a hardened, working fisherman, he wasn’t dreaming, hallucinating; he had his wits about him, he was really there. And his brain was engaged.

Therein lies the attraction of this account for me. It balances the mystical and the practical, because both are real, both are true, but neither should dominate the other in our narrative. Our faith isn’t just about doing things, following rules, and life isn’t just about eating and feeling and seeing. But neither is faith an escape from those earthy practical moments into a incense-fuelled mystical trance of other-worldliness. Jesus takes the ordinary and infuses it with the mystical, where we can get caught up in the Spirit but not leave our brains at the door. 

Or the bottom of the hill. 





church ≠ damage limitation

16 11 2014

The Holy Invigilator stares at the class, pacing, watching, eager to make the eternal boredom of heaven worth it by catching someone cheating, or not letting them go to the loo, quietly chuckling at their terrified expressions as the clock slowly… ticks… tocks… ticks… then the bell goes, out comes the red pen, and the fun of marking their pitiful lives truly begins.

This is basically how many see God. Life is an exam and being a Christian is the art of avoiding getting in trouble with God, appeasing him with good behaviour, keeping our heads down. Which is weird, as Jesus was the exact opposite. He even said I didn’t come for the goody-goodies, but for the dubious

But. The parable of the talents. At first glance it seems to corroborate the exam paradigm. But it doesn’t. Jesus is talking about people who have been entrusted with something of great value. A ‘talent’ was a huge amount of money, maybe 15 years salary for a labourer, so roughly £187,000 on the minimum wage. Two servants take a risk, one doesn’t. He was scared of falling foul of the master, so instead of doing something productive with the money, he went for damage limitation. He buried it.

Jesus is saying that the Pharisees have been entrusted with the treasure of God, but have been so scared of losing it they’ve buried it in the ground. It is not lost, it is preserved, but nobody benefits from it. At least you don’t get into trouble for losing it, right? Wrong. 

When we meet Jesus and follow him, we are entrusted with a great treasure. What are we going to do with it. Bury it, for fear of losing it or getting it wrong, or take a risk with it? It’s like any sort of training – running, cooking, discipleship. Practice, and you get better. But if you just sit around, you will not. We may have been given faith, but if we don’t practice it by actively living it out, it will not grow. To those who have, more will be given. Bury it, and you’ll lose it.

The point of this parable is not that we must work hard to avoid being told off by the Great Invigilator in the sky. The point is there is far more to our faith and this life than we can ask or imagine, but if we bury the treasure in the ground we will not discover it. Church is not meant to be the place we celebrate damage limitation by showing off the dusty treasure we buried that hasn’t changed in years. God help us, but that’s what it can seem like sometimes. 

Church is where we gather to say ‘look at the risk I took and the mistake I made and the blessings I discovered’. Church is an encouragement not to be lazy, but to grow in our confidence, and to see the treasure grow and grow and grow.

Don’t bury yourself in the ground. Take a risk. Dare you. 





things jesus didn’t say #9 | touch wood

7 10 2014

“I pray that it works out for you, touch wood.” At which point you find the nearest wood or wood effect furniture (does that still work?), or for comedy value, touch your head. Yes Jesus was a carpenter, but that was his trade, not his prayer ministry technique. The only time he would say touch wood it is if he needed you to hold a speck whilst he took the plank out. 

thingsjesusdidntsay9touchwood

Is it a harmless phrase? Yes and no. Yes, because there is no spiritual power in wood, so invoking its power is harmless. No, because there is no spiritual power in wood, so invoking its power is harmful. Harmful as it contributes to the eroding of trust in God as the one to whom we pray. And harmful when we touch our own heads, as we do ourselves down and reveal a disturbingly negative sense of our own worth.

We believe in an actual real God who actually really answers prayer. Not in magic or superstition – or worse, a God who doesn’t listen unless we touch a particular type of natural material (or wood-effect laminate – again, does that work?).

I know most people don’t really believe in the power of touching wood. It’s just words. But words are never just words, are they. They carry a meaning.  Do we trust in the mysterious and magical power of wood (or wood effect…) to look after us, or do we trust in the God who made it.

Let’s mean what we say, or not say it at all. 

More in the cartoon series of things jesus didn’t say:
#1: stronger // whatever doesn’t kill you can only make you stronger
#2: dreams // follow your dreams and believe in yourself
#3: reason // everything happens for a reason
#4: harder // prayer harder
#5: third // on the third day, nothing important happened
#6: handle // I won’t give you more than you can handle
#7: other // other your neighbour as you other yourself
#8: tolerance // …faith, hope and tolerance. And the greatest of these is tolerance.





jesus and the invisibility cloak

21 09 2014

You know the story about Jesus and the invisibility cloak? Well, technically it wasn’t his. Maybe that’s what confused you. It’s not a well-known artefact in New Testament studies, but then, it’s easy to hide with an invisibility cloak. 

The story begins with a woman, name unknown. This woman is invisible. Or at least, she wears an invisibility cloak. When she walks the streets, nobody sees her. She is still there; they can still bump into her. It’s hard not to bump into someone you can’t see.  She doesn’t like being invisible, but when you wear the cloak, there’s not much you can do about it. 

Except at night. The cloak doesn’t work at night. At night she is seen, especially by men. Men who can pay. They see her… or, they see something in their heads, they definitely touch her, but they still don’t ‘see’ her. And they certainly don’t see her when walking with their wife in the market the following day. But at least she feels she exists at night.

Or that was how she felt. Until she met this man. Not the usual meeting with a man. He was… different. He didn’t take advantage of her, exploit her; he didn’t look straight through her. He looked straight at her. He saw her. Properly saw her. And he saw her yearning to be different, her shame over her lifestyle and her hopelessness about changing it. And he changed it for her. He forgave her. The cloak of invisibility lifted from her. She felt no shame. She felt… alive! 

 She needed to say thank you. She knew this man would be having dinner with a man called Simon that evening. Simon was the opposite to her. He was very visible. When he walked through the market, people didn’t bump into him; they saw him and moved out of the way. She was a sinner; he was righteous. Or so they all thought. So for one last time she put on the cloak, and joined the other invisible people at the edge of the party, hoping for scraps from the table.

It didn’t go to plan. Amazed at Simon’s rudeness to Jesus, the invisible woman took control. She tore off the invisibility cloak, and knelt at Jesus’ feet. She wept on his feet, dried them with her hair and poured perfume on them. The crowd were stunned at such a brazen act. Did this woman not know she was meant to be invisible? Simon waited for Jesus to rebuke her. Instead, he rebuked Simon. The proud man, the righteous man, the visible man. Jesus showed him for what he was. Visible, but hollow. Unlike her, who was invisible but full of love.

Looking at the woman and talking to Simon, Jesus asked: You see this woman? No, thought Simon. The point of women like this is you do not see them. They are invisible. But Jesus went on. He commended the woman for her love, shown in such dramatic fashion. And he rebuked Simon for his rudeness. At this point Simon wished he was invisible. Your sin are forgiven, Jesus said to her. Go in peace.

The woman left with her head held high. And she left the invisibility cloak crumpled on the floor, never to be worn again. 

This is a true story. I may have made up the cloak bit.

If you feel like you are invisible, this story is for you.
If you feel like a sinner unworthy of Jesus’ attention, this story is for you.
If other people have put the cloak on you, this story is for you.
If you have put the cloak on yourself, this story is for you.
If you put the cloak on others, this story is for you.

May we leave our invisibility cloaks behind as we follow him. 

 

 





sewing up the curtain

14 09 2014

So often it seems we celebrate the curtain being torn in two, then spend Sunday mornings trying to stitch it back up again. Maybe if your church is anything like ours, you know what I mean. We talk about being able to approach the throne of grace with confidence, then we design our churches like throne rooms with the ‘special bit’ where God is, over there, whether it’s an altar (it’s a table. A TABLE!), or the pulpit, or the worship band stage – it’s where the important stuff happens anyway. And it’s over there. Up there. Elevated.

the bishop wasn’t convinced about the reordering of the chancel

I know my denomination is probably worse than yours. We use words like altar, we have priests, special clothes… all of this serves to create this image that we say one thing, then do the other. We talk about a level playing field, whilst we build our side higher. But I guess most denominations are as bad. All church leaders know people – in church and outside of it – who think we have a ‘hotline’ to God, that we can ‘put a good word in’ because somehow our word is ‘worth more’. Like we’re some kind of religious order of butlers, taking messages and carrying the dinner and knowing the secrets of the King.

I understand why. It makes more sense to think that we all need someone else to approach God for us. Because that’s like real life. We don’t get to talk to the big wigs, we have to go through go-betweens. And God is the biggest of bigwigs. And it’s scary too, to think of approaching God. Especially if our picture of God is coloured by memories of strict headmasters or vicars who tell you off for genuflecting half a second late. So we let other people do it – the ordained, the prophetic, the musical…

But we are all welcome to approach God with confidence. His throne is a throne of grace, not malice; of mercy, not judgement. We have to intentionally choose to believe that. Choose to trust, not to fear. Otherwise it is like stitching the temple curtain back up again. 

This matters, it really matters. Because there are some people in this world who walk round with a sense of entitlement, but I don’t meet many. Most people I meet carry a sense of belittlement, of insignificance, so will hide outside the door to God’s throne room forever in fear of what he will do if he catches them sneaking around. We need to change that.

Church, let’s remember the curtain came down. Let’s leave it down. 

 

 








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