Posted by: smstrouse | February 20, 2016

The Pope vs. The Donald

Best quote frimages-1om Pope Francis after the smack-down with Donald Trump last week: “Thank God he said I was a politician because Aristotle defined the human person as ‘animal politics.’ So at least I am a human person.”

Take that, all you critics who say that religion and politics should never mix!

I do have to say that I’m not a fan of making a judgement about whether or not someone is Christian. My own faith has been called into question too many times. But I can understand the Pope’s reaction. Contrary to Trump’s charge that he doesn’t understand the situation on the US/Mexican border, Francis knows very well the suffering of those fleeing poverty, violence and oppression. So his response to a question about what he thought of the plan to build a wall across the border was a statement of theology not of pdt.common.streams.StreamServer.clsolitics. Because he hadn’t heard before of  Trump’s border plans, Francis said he’d “give the benefit of the doubt.” Then he added: “I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that.”

I hear that as a wake-up call to anyone who identifies themselves with the teachings of Jesus: are you really following those teachings? It’s not enough to “sip the wine and eat the little cracker;” you have to walk the walk.

It’s not just about one egregious sinner (although he makes a good target of himself). It’s about all of us and how we hold ourselves and one another accountable to the way of Jesus. I may hesitate to make a judgment on someone’s faith, but I don’t think it’s wrong to question behaviors that go against the principles which we say we believe.

Jim Wallis of Sojourners said in a post responding to this kerfuffle: “I know this much: our relationship with God is personal, but it’s never private. The public practices and policies we choose to support demonstrate what we mean by the gospel and about the world we believe God calls us to help create.”

Yes.

This cartoon is not my political endorsement, but it certainly illustrates the bad name some self-identified Christians give the whole religion. So, yeah, I’m going with the Jewish guy, too. That would be – Jesus.

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Posted by: smstrouse | February 12, 2016

Great Jesus on a Dinosaur!

fish-kissWoo hoo! We finally made it onto the reactionary anti-ELCA blog for our participation in Evolution Weekend again this year. The blog shall remain nameless because it is so far off the deep end that it’s ridiculous and I don’t want to give it any publicity. Suffice it to say that it accuses the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) of “trying to discredit the historical account of Genesis . . . because they have decided that God did not, as He said, create the universe in six 24 hour days.”

Well, yeah.

I find it hard to believe that anyone in a mainline denomination still reads the creation story as literalJesus_dino_cowboy fact. Still, even among us liberals and progressives – there’s work to be done. In “Christology-Cosmology,” Zachary Hayes wrote:

For those educated in the Western world in the 20th centu­ry, the physical vision of the cosmos has changed drastically. But our religious language, shaped at least in part by what is now seen to be an archaic physics, has remained largely unchanged in theology and liturgy.

“As contemporary believers, we live in two worlds. In our everyday experience, we live in a culture deeply conditioned by the insights and theories of modern science. But in the context of the church, its theology, and its liturgy, we live in a premodem world.

That’s why this year at First United we’re having “An Evolutionary Lent.” We’re going to look through the lens of science to see if we can make sense of the statement by the evolutionary Christian mystic, Bruce Sanguin (author of If Darwin Prayed,  “The Cross is not a shadow of death, but a sign of progress.”

I am continually dismayed by the disconnect between all the good scholarship that’s being done in theology, christology, and biblical studies and what comes down to us on the parish level. I’m grateful this year to Pastor Ruth E. Shaver, who created A Service with Communion for Faith, Science and Technology Sunday. It appeared in the Evolution Weekend newsletter and I hope that more and more resources like this will be forthcoming.

We are listed as participants on the website (which is where the aforementioned blog found us) Although the official Evolution Weekend is this coming weekend, our main event will be next week when we’ll have an evolutionary biologist as our speaker. More about that later.

For now . . .

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Posted by: smstrouse | February 6, 2016

Including Atheists

56b394af1a00009c01ab2045I know it’s been around for a while. But this was the first time I saw it included in a group of religious symbols.

The international symbol for Atheism is the atomic whirl. According to the American Atheists website, this scientific image was chosen in 1963 to AmericanAtheistsLogoacknowledge “that only through the use of scientific analysis and free, open inquiry can humankind reach out for a better life.”

One new thing I learned is that one of the orbitals in the symbol should be open-ended to demonstrate that “while Atheists rely on the scientific method for learning about the cosmos and increasing our knowledge about nature, we know that not all of the answers are in. We recognize that with new knowledge come new questions and areas for human inquiry and exploration.”

I, for one, am glad to see atheism included in the ever-expanding collection of traditions represented on our interfaith banners and bumper stickers. Yes, I know, that’s a problematic term. Even without including  atheists, there is much ongoing discussion about what to call the “interfaith” movement.

The Rev. Dr. Andrew Kille, executive director of the Silicon Valley Interreligious Council (SiVIC) writes that “interfaith carries some muddy implications that can be confusing – ‘interfaith’ organizations in the past meant ‘ecumenical’- all Christian, or, at best, Christian/Jewish. It has also come to describe traditions that blend two or more religious observances into some whole. We chose ‘interreligious’ partly because the term is less familiar, partly because it suggests relationships between distinct traditions, rather than a blending of them. Multi-faith has much the same kind of sense about it. ‘Interreligious’ is also a term that hopes to include traditions for whom ‘faith’ is not really a meaningful concept- Buddhists, Wiccans, etc.”

It’s complicated, to be sure. Still, I’m glad we’re stumbling around together, as we seek common language for new and respectful relationships.

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Posted by: smstrouse | January 30, 2016

Religion and the Political Left

First of all, a disclaimer: I am not endorsing any political candidate (at least not here on this blog). I am intrigued, though, with the interest of the press in the religious beliefs of Democratic presidential candidates.

BernieSanders-MarijuanaDecrim-620x412

Just this past week, a Salon headline proclaimed:

The popularity of Bernie Sanders speaks volumes about Americans’ rejection of organized religion 

Bernie Sanders’ lack of religious faith is more normal in America than many pundits and politicians seem to think

Now that may be true. However, Sanders, who is Jewish, did express his religious belief: “I think everyone believes in God in their own ways. To me, it means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.”

Wow! I have a lot more in common with Bernie than many of my fellow Christians.

1443995935491Then there’s Hillary. Delivering the sermon at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. in September, she talked about how her religious upbringing informs her life today. She described the Methodist church and her fellow Methodists as “a source of support, of honest reflection, of candid critique.”

From her mother, she took to heart the quote by John Wesley: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can. I can’t argue with that either.

As I said, I’m intrigued. After all the noise from candidates appealing to the religious right about “our Christian nation,” etc. it’s refreshing to hear religious beliefs coming from the left. The faith of conservative Christian candidates may be quite sincere (although I have my doubts about the “I drink my little wine and have my little cracker” remark), but they don’t represent my brand of Christianity. I’m much more comfortable with Hillary and Bernie.

So, while Bernie may be appealing to the non-religious and Hillary doesn’t wear her faith on her sleeve, all that this member of the spiritual and religious left can say is “Amen!”

Posted by: smstrouse | January 23, 2016

Out of the Rubble of the Church

star-of-bethlehem1-1Epiphany! ‘Tis the season of signs and wonders, stars and dreams. Journeys into uncharted territory, guided by a star. Going home a different way, guided by a dream.

I had a dream last week. Not so unusual. I’ve become very attuned to my dreams, especially since I joined a dream work group. We use the methods taught by Jeremy Taylor, who says that “‘working with dreams’ means remembering and exploring the dreams from sleep with an maxresdefaulteye to their deeper meanings. Each one of us is uniquely blind to the deeper meanings of our own dreams, and dream work helps us see what amazing gifts are there, just below the surface of “manifest content” and obvious appearance.” http://www.jeremytaylor.com

I was in a room that was detached from a 3-story house. As I looked up, I could see water dripping into the downstairs from the room upstairs and also from the room above that. Then I saw that the roof was sagging and about to collapse. I buried my head in my pillow as the building came crashing down. I was covered in dirt but was unharmed. I dug myself out and saw that the house was in ruins. I went to check for people in the rubble who might need help. But no one seemed to be hurt. I came upon three kids, African-American boys. One appeared to be developmentally disabled and he resisted my help at first, but the other two calmed him down and told me that he was all right. Later, when I saw a group of kids eating at a picnic table, this little kid came up and gave me half of his chocolate chip cookie.

The collective wisdom of the dream work group was that a structure of my life was collapsing or had collapsed. But I wasn’t afraid. I was connected, yet detached. I was invested in helping those caught in the rubble, but also saw that everything was alright. They also noticed the 3-ness of the dream: the 3-storied house, the three kids.

Could the house be the Church? Seems right to me. But before you dismiss me as a prophetA-sign-of-hope-spotted-in-the-rubble-of-the-demolished-ChristChurch-Cathedral-belltower_photoDisplay of doom and gloom predicting the end of Christianity, let me assure you that’s not what I am. And it’s not what the dream told me. It told me what we all know: the institution of the Church is undergoing structural strain. Like it or not, under the weight of cultural changes, the roof of the Church as we know it is sagging. It may even collapse under its own weight.

But in my dream I was not afraid. Everyone was alright. I was covered in dirt, but was able to dig out, get up and out and go on my way. I saw that people were being fed. I, too, was fed in a decidedly Eucharist-feeling gesture with half a chocolate chip cookie. The consensus of the group was that it was really a positive dream. It had a good feeling, not fear or death or doom, but life – with cookies!

Several people in my dream group asked me what I thought the three boys might mean. At first I was puzzled; I just didn’t know. But then I said, “You know, I am really into the season of Epiphany. I still have candles and stars in my windows. I still have my Nativity set up (and will until Lent). The Magi are still there.” And everyone got it – even those who aren’t Christian. The three boys were the Magi. And they had given me a gift.

Curiously, this dream occurred on the morning of January 15th, Martin Luther King’s birthday. Later that day I read these words from his Letter from Birmingham Jail:

So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Fifty-three years later, the Church is still being called upon to address the needs of our contemporary world. And we do so in so many ways. But we need to do some major retrofitting if we’re going to keep the structure standing. But even if we do not, the Spirit that created the early Christian Church will abide. We will be fed and we will feed.

I had a dream.

 

Posted by: smstrouse | January 7, 2016

The Church Under Fire

160104215720-man-walks-into-church-with-gun-pastor-intv-ac-cooper-00021204-full-169Never mind “What Would Jesus Do?” The question I’m asking this week is “What Should the Pastor Do?”

Two recent incidents have me wondering.

On New Years Eve, in the middle of the sermon about the violence and senseless deaths in the community, a man with a rifle walked into Heal the Land Outreach Ministries in Fayetteville, NC. Imagine what went through everyone’s mind: an armed man in an African-American church. The shadow of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church had to be looming large.

But Pastor Larry Wright didn’t flinch. He walked right up to the man and said, “Can I help you?” Now, I don’t know how big the gunman was, but Wright is 6′ 2″ and 230 pounds. His plan was to tackle the guy if he became antagonistic. Thankfully, he did not become antagonistic. In fact, he asked the pastor to pray for him. The situation was diffused.

Then there’s the story about St. Andrew’s Episcopal/ Peace Lutheran/Living Waters Mission in Burns, OR. Burns is near the wildlife reserve where militia members have taken over a building. A message was circulated on Facebook last week from the pastor stating, “We are watching strangers who are coming to church, which normally we do not do. One militiaman came to Church of the Living Waters and got up and left when I said that guns are for hunting with and should never be used on human beings. Please pray for us and light a candle for peace.”

As a pastor, I know that people sometimes do walk out of church during the sermon. Sometimes it’s because they disagree with what’s being said; other times because they just remembered they forgot to turn off the iron. However, in the situation in Burns and in the wake of other church shootings, I can understand why this incident was cause for alarm. Were I the pastor of Living Waters, I am sure I would have been nervous.

target-on-backNeither of these incidents ended in violence or tragedy. But they could have. And no church is immune. Remember the fatal shootings at a Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, TN? That gunman said he was motivated by hatred of Democrats, liberals, African-Americans and homosexuals. In this wild west gun culture, it sometimes feels like we all have targets on our backs.

So, as pastors, what are we prepared to do? What are we expected to do?

A few weeks ago, as I was beginning the Communion liturgy, two strangers walked into the church. At First United, we gather up front in the chancel area, not down in the pews. Our moveable altar table is positioned so that my back is to the pews, so I couldn’t see who had entered. I could hear movement, so I knew someone had come in. And then a member of the congregation went down to greet them. Long story short, they were visitors and we ended up having a lovely conversation after the service.

My point in telling the story is that by being an open, inviting, welcoming community, we do  not choose who enters our doors. Had our visitors been a threat, how would I have handled it?

What would Jesus say? Take it all the way to death? No doubt.

Am I ready to do that? Some doubt, to be sure. But willing to raise the question for discussion and illumination.

 

 

 

Posted by: smstrouse | December 31, 2015

Revisiting Lessons & Carols

michelangelo-buonarroti-the-fall-and-expulsion-from-garden-of-eden

It was pretty funny, really. Last year, at the Service of Lessons and Carols, we realized we had to make some changes. Even though it’s a tradition that goes back to 1880, it was time for an update.

When the first lesson (Genesis 3:  8–15; 17–19) was read, you could hear a murmuring from the pews. When God asked Adam if he’d eaten from the forbidden tree and Adam pointed to Eve and said, “The woman made me do it,” I swear there was even some hissing – and it wasn’t the serpent.

I have even further problems with that text. The idea of a “fall,” an event in which sinful humankind fell out of favor with God and therefore needed a champion to get us back into God’s graces, has become untenable for me. So basing the whole progression of texts leading up to the birth of Jesus on this foundation was no longer acceptable.

The next lesson wasn’t much better. The story of Abraham’s willingness to sactifice Isaac as an example of faithfulness portrays God in a way that is highly problematic. Who is this God who sets up a losing scenario in Paradise and then punishes people for falling into the trap? Who is this God who toys with a father’s love for his child? Oh, I know, we’re supposed to look forward in time to Jesus, who would be “sacrificed” by his father. Sorry, I’m not buying it anymore. Time for a change.

Hooray for the folks at http://processandfaith.org! After searching unsuccessfully for an order of service that took these problems seriously, I finally found one. Here’s the introductory paragraph by Jeanyne Slettom, a UCC minister and adjunct professor of theology at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities:
This service of lessons and carols is based on the traditional set of readings with some changes. It retains lessons 3-9, but shifts the message of lessons 1 and 2 away from original sin toward original blessing. The first reading is God’s creation and blessing of humankind; the second is God’s covenant with Noah.

Yes! Just what I was looking for! To be sure, the Noah story has its problems, too. But I think that most people know that there really was a flood in that region of the world and understand that this story was the ancient Hebrews’ ways of making sense of it. The Abraham story, not so much.

This is just one more example of how we need to pay attention to the theology we’re promoting in the liturgies we use. I’m blessed to be in a congregation that will actually murmur and hiss at non-progressive interpretations. But we should all be on the lookout for these steps backward into ways of thinking that need to be left behind.

We’re celebrating the birth of Jesus into the world through these Twelve Days of Christmas. In the Epiphany season, we’ll be thinking about the implications of that birth. Was it a “divine rescue operation” to save us from our sin brought about in the “fall?”

Or was it something else? I say it was. So let’s revisit our hymnody, prayers and liturgies and make the necessary changes to reflect our theology.

Posted by: smstrouse | December 19, 2015

I’ll Have a Blue, Blue, Blue, Blue Christmas

blue-lights-christmas-treeChristmas: the most wonderful time the year – unless it’s not. Every year, I feel a personal obligation to be an advocate for those of us who can’t get into the holly, jolly of the season.

I have  no gripe against those who love this season. Although I wouldn’t go so far as to condone the commercialism and consumerism that goes along with it. Or the playing of Christmas music in public places. I was in a coffee shop the other day and two very bad versions of the same song blared into my consciousness. I’m a Christian and I’m offended by the ubiquitous carols. I can’t imagine being of another faith or no faith and having to endure the barrage.

OK, end of rant.

I actually love observing the season. I have my Nativity scene set up at home, with my blue IMG_0703
Advent wreath still beside it. No baby Jesus in the manger yet and the Magi are still far off in the distant (well, up on the window sill). Candles are in the windows and today I’ll get some greens to give the place that Christmas-y smell. And I’ll write some Christmas cards, still keeping this dying tradition because I still love getting cards (and those holidays letters too) and putting them up on the piano.

But – there is still a tinge of melancholy about it all. No matter how hard I try to resist the manufactured  expectations of happy family gatherings amid mounds of perfectly chosen presents, I always succumb to it at some point. I’ve learned to find ways to both accept the sadness and find ways to mitigate it (this year, a trip to the beach at Santa Cruz!).

No matter the reasons for my holiday blues. We each have our reasons. Some have lost loved ones at this time of year, which casts a shadow over every year thereafter. Some are far away from families, either physically or emotionally. Some have never had a loving family. There are many reasons.

I am blessed. I have learned to enjoy the season in a spiritual way. In fact, I’ll be keeping the blue candles on my Advent altar all through the whole Advent/ Christmas/ Epiphany cycle. So, yes, I will be having a blue Christmas in the best sense of the word. And to those who still struggle with the season and long for it to be over, I say that you can create the kind of holy-day that you want it to be. You don’t have to be jolly. You don’t have to spend a ton of money on presents. You don’t have to have a tree in your home if you don’t want to. You, too, can have a blue, blue, blue, blue Christmas – and it will be just fine.

picture-navy-blue-candles-ideas

 

Posted by: smstrouse | December 12, 2015

Maybe We Should Be Afraid

There arFear-Not-600x400e over 100 places in the Bible that encourage us to “fear not.” These are words to bring to mind again and again as we are bombarded with news of terrorist attacks, mass shootings, climate change and political chaos. I truly believe that this should be our mantra, not only for our own way of being in the world, but as a model for the many people who succumb to fear and even vote against their own best interests. Some politicians ad religious leaders use fear as a tactic to further their own agenda. And we must resist their ploys and present an example of faithful living in a dangerous world.

There’s no doubt about it; there are dangers out there. And I’m beginning to wonder, despite what I just said above, that there are times when we really should be afraid. There are people of whom we should be afraid. Need I say more than: “Donald Trump?”

Yes, for a while, he was a source of amusement, e.g. David Letterman’s running commentary about “that thing on his head.” Back in July The Huffington Post made the decision to relegate news about his campaign to the Entertainment section, stating “Trump’s campaign is a sideshow. We won’t take the bait. If you are interested in what The Donald has to say, you’ll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette.”

But things have changed. In the aftermath of Trump’s call for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” the headline read: “We Are No Longer Entertained.” Referring to the ‘sideshow’ comment, Arianna Huffington wrote, ” . . . Trump’s campaign has certainly lived up to that billing. But as today’s vicious pronouncement makes abundantly clear, it’s also morphed into something else: an ugly and dangerous force in American politics.”

Responses from abroad have also called out Trump for his behavior. A petition was submitted to the United Kingdom Home Secretary to bar him from entering the country because he’s  violated their hate-speech laws. The GlobalScot network, which promotes Scotland’s businesses abroad, has stripped Trump of the ambassadorial role he has held since 2006. And Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen has revoked an honorary degree because of “statements that are wholly incompatible” with the values of the university.

Never_Again_Holocaust

Here at home, journalists, bloggers and politicians have been sounding the alarm about the disturbing nature of Trump’s rhetoric. Making comparisons to pre-World War II fascism which brought about the Holocaust, they remind us of our promise of “Never again.”

Many have been circulating the poem by Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller, who was imprisoned in concentration camps from 1937 to 1945 for his opposition to the Nazis’ state control of the churches:220px-Martin_Niemöller_(1952)

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

We are right to be afraid of the dangers of hate language being spewed by political candidates. We have seen the evil consequences of nationalistic, xenophobic pandering to the fears of people who feel threatened by “the other.” And lest we think we are immune, let’s not forget our own country’s internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Healthy fear lets us to know when we’re in danger. People who suffer from a rare kind of brain damage that prevents them from experiencing any kind of fear can fail to respond appropriately to life-threatening situations. At this time in our history, we can’t afford to succumb to that kind of brain damage. We need to be afraid of hateful language of any kind.

But – and here’s the big difference – we act fearlessly against it. Whether it’s commentary from a politician or a comment by a friend or relative. We cannot stand by and allow ourselves this country to be co-opted by hatred and unhealthy fear.

“Fear not” can still be our mantra. As long as we also face the very real dangers ahead. Because, remember: Never again!

Posted by: smstrouse | December 5, 2015

Prayer-Shaming: A Time-Honored Tradition

2015-12-03-1449146466-479747-image-thumbThe latest battle between religion and secularism is the issue of prayer. In the wake of San Bernardino, the front page of the New York Daily News screamed, “God Isn’t Fixing This” in response to statements by several GOP presidential candidates, who offered thoughts and prayers for the victims. The point was that prayer isn’t enough; it’s time for these politicians to take action.

Think Progress also jumped in and published the names of numerous congresspeople who had tweeted their “thoughts and prayers,” along with the amount of money they’d received from the NRA and their voting records against gun reforms. http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2015/12/02/3727709/lawmakers-offer-prayers-for-mass-shooting-victims-receive-large-checks-from-the-nra/

Naturally, there’s been a backlash to what has become known as “prayer-shaming.” Some Christian leaders have called for the firing Daily News editor responsible for the story. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention said, “If the news media want to be atheists, that’s their business. But how dare they now ridicule people of faith. This kind of anti-religious bigotry is precisely what fuels Islamic terrorists’ hatred toward Americans.” Others want to teach us that prayer is action, but atheists just don’t understand that.

Once again, the battle lines get drawn between believers and atheists. But this is a false dichotomy. Not all Christians would join the outcry against this so-called attack on the faithful.

dr-martin-luther-king-jr-we-speak-we-pray-we-scream-but-without-action-there-will-be-no-revolutionFirst: prayer-shaming isn’t new. The prophets of old were famous for their condemnation of empty words and rituals. Isaiah himself might weigh in on this issue today:
These people come near me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. – Isaiah 29:13 

There’s nothing wrong with offering “thoughts and prayers.” Sometimes we  don’t know what else to say and our words convey our compassion. But I do not see anything wrong with calling people who claim to offer “thoughts and prayers” to account for their actions which belie their purported beliefs.

a0a6e6c3571d02dfc12c15f26c15273cSecond: I don’t believe the purpose of prayer is to get God to come down here and fix this – whatever ‘this’ is. Prayer is an active way to engage with the dynamic power of the Divine within and around us. Prayer can strengthen, encourage, comfort, teach, inspire, amaze and humble us. It is powerful. But I don’t think that its purpose is to call on God for what John Shelby Spong calls a ‘divine rescue operation.’

I have this argument with prayers in many worship resources. They ask God to come and bring peace, heal the world, save us from danger – come and fix this. The truth is that it is up to us to “fix this.” Prayer empowers us for the work. So if you’re praying for the victims of gun violence, good for you. But also tell me your actions on behalf of them and all future victims. As Jesus said, “By their fruits you shall know them.”

I hope that other Christian voices are heard in this latest fray. It’s not a war on Christianity. It’s not an atheistic attack on prayer. It is a challenge against hypocrisy. And it is a call – to all of us – to action.

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