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Monthly Archives: June 2011

Milking a Milk Metaphor

Today’s post continues the discussion from the previous couple entries.  If you haven’t read them yet check em’ out:

  1. Two Tales of Two Trees
  2. Pentecost and Two Tales of Two Trees

We’re a bit past the traditional time for Pentecost but I’ll persist once more.  Many of us “laity” in Christianity are familiar with the Acts 2 account of Pentecost, but fewer are aware that it corresponds with the Jewish celebration of Shavuot.  For the Jews, Shavuot is a celebration of the giving of the Torah & the ten commandments.  One interesting part of their tradition is that the holiday meal is composed of primarily dairy dishes.  For the Jewish people the symbolism is quite meaningful.  When the law was first given on Mount Sinai, the people were initially unprepared for the new koshering rules for meat and thus made their first meal after the blessing from the dairy products on hand.

Once I found this it got me thinking about the symbolism of milk in Jewish scriptures.  As I began researching the topic, I found that milk has historically been used as a symbol for the Torah.  Jewish Rabbis usually maintain that Solomon was referring to the Torah when he said “milk and honey are under your tongue” in Song of Solomon.  The Torah is filled with references to Israel as “the land of milk and honey”.  Rabbis have often maintained that the “land of milk and honey” was not only describing a fertile homeland for the Jewish people, but also a land of Torah.  They desired a place where the they would know what God required of them and where they would have the freedom to practice their faith.  The Torah, for them, was that which would nurture and sustain their people as they started a new nation in Israel.

So at this point in my journey through exploring the symbolism of milk as Torah my mind jumped to Hebrews 10 where the writer says: “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship.”

Sidetrack –> The shadows mentioned in that verse always remind me of the shadows in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave…if you haven’t ever read it, do so.

Back on track –> If we back up to chapter 5 of Hebrews we return again to our metaphor “We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness.” 

So here we have milk being used as a metaphor again, this time in a letter written to Jews who had come to a faith in Christ.  I believe the original readers would have already been quite familiar with the traditional metaphor of milk as Torah.  The language used, with that in mind, takes on a more surprising and challenging meaning.   He extends the metaphor to invoke a picture of infancy or immaturity.

So if we merge the two metaphors of milk as Torah and milk as food for the immature we get this point:  The law, with all of it’s black and white rules and regulations, had a purpose for spiritual training.  There is a turning point though when we reach spiritual maturity.  At that point we are no longer bound to any such religious laws. We gain the freedom to live in a world filled not just with black and white, but one with every color under the sun.  Neither the training period nor the mature existence is innately right or wrong.  But the author does have a bone to pick with some of his readers.  There were (and are) some who went through the tutorials of rules and regulations, but rather than moving on to the freedom provided from a spiritually mature life, they continue to maintain a monochromatic faith.  For an extended biblical dialogue on this concept check out the book of Galatians.  Chapter 2, verse 19 sums up the point nicely: “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God.”

Although I mentioned the verses from Acts 2 last week I think it would be appropriate to repeat them again, this time with a new context fresh in our minds:

And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.

The symbolic transition from law to Spirit, represented by this story, not only has historical significance but also personal significance for each of us.  Many of us, as individuals, have been taught religion in the form of rules and regulations.  For a period of time, they help to build a sense of morality and character.  However, many of us reach a time when lists of do’s and don’ts become inadequate to express our worldview and our relationship with God.  Times like that require a transition; they require an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  Only then can we operate in a mature and colorful faith.

If you’ve experienced this kind of transition let us know what it looked in your life.  Comment below.

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Posted by on June 19, 2011 in Christianity, Emerging Church, Theology

 

Pentecost and Two Tales of Two Trees

Happy Pentecost All!

If you haven’t read my post Two Tales of Two Trees yet, please do so to understand the context of this post.

For those who are unfamiliar with the christian holiday of Pentecost, here’s the celebrated account from Acts 2:

And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.

To understand the symbolism in this story we might need to go back in history a bit further.  Pentecost is historically and symbolically related to the Jewish harvest festival of Shavuot, which commemorates God giving the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai fifty days after the Exodus.  Christians celebrate pentecost 50 days after Easter.

Now, recall that I had interpreted the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as the religious law.  If that interpretation stands then it has significance to the pre-christian pentecost.  Also recall that I had interpreted the tree of life as the unconditional love taught by Jesus.  So this story from Acts seems to symbolize transition.  This transition comes like fire, consuming that which was before.  It came with a new message, one of life and not death.  More so, that message does not simply come in a hebrew tongue.  It came in every language for all men, everywhere.  The Acts 2 account symbolizes the passing of the old narrative of exclusive religious practice. It symbolized the arrival of a new message of universal love. 

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2011 in Christianity, Theology

 

Two Tales Of Two Trees

The Tree Of Good And The Tree Of Evil

Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of good and the tree of the evil. The LORD God took Adam and Eve, who were created in God’s image, and put them in the Garden of Eden. And the LORD God commanded them, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then they became evil, and they realized they were filled with sinfulness. And the LORD God said, “They, and by implication, all of their descendants have now become inherently evil. They should have eaten from the tree of good, but since they did not I am powerless to do anything other than to condemn all humanity, by default, to eternal conscious torment.” So the LORD God banished them from the Garden of Eden and sent them to hell as punishment for their evil identity.  As an after thought, God came up with a plan B that he would implement in a few thousand years through which people who believed that Jesus died for their sins could be pardoned.

Commentary #1

Something seems amiss with our first story, doesn’t it?  For those who haven’t already figured it out, this is an abridged and adapted version of “The Fall of Man”, found in Genesis 2 & 3.  I took some creative license to inject some popular christian doctrines into the story.  I may be biased, so let’s take an explanations of these beliefs from a more doctrine-friendly source:

Original sin is the doctrine which holds that human nature has been morally and ethically corrupted due to the disobedience of mankind’s first parents to the revealed will of God. In the Bible, the first human transgression of God’s command is described as the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden resulting in what theology calls the Fall of mankind. The doctrine of original sin holds that every person born into the world is tainted by the Fall such that all of humanity is ethically debilitated, and people are powerless to rehabilitate themselves, unless rescued by God.” http://www.theopedia.com/Original_sin

This is, of course, followed with the doctrine of eternal conscious torment in Hell:

“Hell exists because of the justice and holiness of God.  If the slightest sin is infinite in its significance, then it also demands infinite punishment as a divine judgment. Though it is common for all Christians to wish that there were some way out of the doctrine of eternal punishment because of its inexorable and unyielding revelation of divine judgment, one must rely in Christian faith on the doctrine that God is a God of infinite righteousness as well as infinite love. While on the one hand he bestows infinite grace on those who trust him, he must, on the other hand, inflict eternal punishment on those who spurn his grace.” http://www.theopedia.com/Hell

Which is followed by:

Penal substitutionary atonement refers to the doctrine that Christ died on the cross as a substitute for sinners. God imputed the guilt of our sins to Christ, and he, in our place, bore the punishment that we deserve. This was a full payment for sins, which satisfied both the wrath and the righteousness of God, so that He could forgive sinners without compromising His own holy standard.” http://www.theopedia.com/Penal_substitutionary_atonement

Finally we end with the doctrine of exclusivism (or exclusive salvation)

Exclusivism (in Christianity) refers to the fact that orthodox Christian doctrine maintains only faith in the Jesus Christ of the Bible leads to salvation or heaven…If a person in a remote area has never heard of Christ, he will not be punished for that. What he will be punished for is the rejection of the Father of whom he has heard and for the disobedience to the law that is written in his heart.” http://www.theopedia.com/Exclusivism 

You might have notice by now that all of these doctrines are primarily concerned with how evil we (humanity) are and why we deserve to go to hell for never-ending torture in infinite flame.  There is an out for us in this narrative, but the theme is clear. God demands perfection, and you are not perfect.  God is unable to accept you through any means short of perfect human torture and sacrifice.

However, recall that I modified the Genesis story to discuss these doctrines.  The real Genesis story actually discusses two totally different trees.

The Tree Of Life And The Tree Of The Knowledge Of Good And Evil

Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The LORD God took Adam and Eve, who were created in God’s image, and put them in the Garden of Eden.  And the LORD God commanded them, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this you have done? The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

And the LORD God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.

Commentary #2

In this case I have only abridged the text of Genesis.  Now I’m sure that you, my brilliant reader, have picked up on the divergence between these two stories.  So lets explore the trees that were actually used in the Genesis allegory.

Let’s consider the tree of the knowledge of the good and evil.  My first impression: this sounds a lot like our narrative about “The Tree of Good and The Tree of Evil”. Hmmmm, quite the plot twist within the first couple pages of the Bible.  Now, the allegory indicates, the wrong choice would be the knowledge of good and evil.  That just seems crazy, right?  If we knew both what is good and what is evil, that knowledge should enable us to make good moral decisions.  We would even be able to come up with a rule book containing mandates and prohibitions, a religious law, so that everybody would do what is good and not do what is bad.  This seems like a positive system…or maybe we should say it is “pleasing to the eye and also desirable for gaining wisdom”.

Sidetrack –>  Whenever we read an allegory we should always let it simultaneously read us.  As a christian, for years I read this story and didn’t understand how the characters would have been so easily convinced to eat of a cursed fruit.  The realization I just expressed made their folly applicable in my life.  

Back on track –> From now on let’s use the phrase “religious law” to refer to what we, as humanity, construct out of the knowledge of good and evil.  Let’s not just take the genesis story at its word that the religious law is the wrong system to live under. We mentioned some of the good possibilities that it can bring to our worldview. So what could be the problem?  Well, with any religious law we will need to develop a list of actions and people that we can label as good or evil.  Then we need to start judging ourselves according to these criteria to determine if we are good or evil. Notice that this is the first thing that happens when Adam and Eve taste the forbidden fruit.  They assign a label of evil to their nakedness. Immediately they are consumed by shame and guilt.  Their shame causes them to hide and alienate themselves from the one who loves them unconditionally.  After we are done condemning ourselves, then it’s time to judge others in the same manner.  When Adam feels the shame of his new label of evil, he seeks to share his new-found guilt with his wife.  “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”  Eve passes along the favor to the serpent. Misery loves company.  Once we have chosen to live under religious law, judgement then becomes a part of our relationships and our identity.  We paint the world with a broad black and white brushes.  We make lists of the naughty and nice, just like God and Santa Claus do.  In my opinion, doctrines like original sin, eternal conscious torment, penal substitutionary atonement, and exclusivism would evolve from living under a religious law such as this.

Jesus even addresses some of the harmful side effects from living under this system:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

A 2007 survey was conducted by the Barna Group regarding public perceptions of christianity. According to the results most non-christian 18-29 year-olds felt that christians were judgmental (87%) and hypocritical (85%).  This may be an indication that we, like Adam and Eve, have chosen the wrong tree.  (For more on this study, get the book unChristian)

Fortunately there is another tree, the tree of life.  I would propose that Jesus contrasts the two trees in the Sermon on the Mount. In so doing he reveals what the metaphor means.

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of Gehenna.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart…“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery…

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Are we catching the pattern yet?  First he quotes from the religious law, then he implies it is insufficient to deal with the heart of the issue.  In other words, it’s the wrong tree.  Religious law may be enough to temporarily control and manipulate behavior.  You can threaten or bribe somebody into doing what you want for a while, but it does nothing to address the motivations and relationship issues that cause the harmful action.  There simply aren’t enough carrots and sticks in the world to fix the problems humanity faces.

Notice how in each law that Jesus addresses, he redirects a cold legal regulation into a personal and intimate question. The religious law asks “Are you guilty of committing this crime?”  Jesus asks “Do you love your neighbor?”  “Do you love your wife/husband/partner?”  “Do you love enemy?”

And then he announces how we are able to find life, freeing us from the perpetual conflict between good and evil.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous…Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

The tree of life, revealed in Jesus, is unconditional love.  It can fulfill what rules and regulations could never accomplish.  This is one of the most subversive concepts to ever enter theology.  Jump back for just a second to the doctrine of eternal punishment in hell which dictates God’s holiness won’t allow him to forgive his enemies: “While on the one hand he bestows infinite grace on those who trust him, he must, on the other hand, inflict eternal punishment on those who spurn his grace.This concept is also recycled in penal substitutionary atonement when it asserts that God can only forgive or love his enemies if a perfect human sacrifice occurs.  In conflict with these doctrines, Jesus teaches that God is perfect not because he refuses to accept the imperfect, but rather because he does accept the imperfect.

As always I welcome your questions, comments, and respectful dissenting opinions.

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2011 in Christianity, Emerging Church, Theology

 

Genesis

He peered into nothing but saw everything.  Leathered hands turn over each other, stained by the hues of his craft.  Beads of sweat chase along the hard-earned wrinkles on his forehead.  Viewing that which is not yet visible is a process he developed over a long lifetime of passionate dedication.  Other artists can only marvel at this majestic virtuoso.  The depth of his work encompasses all others in shadow.

His eyes sparkle as the vision finds completion in his mind.  A tear runs down a weathered cheek.  This work will be a culmination of all that preceded it.  It is to be his David, his Mona Lisa, his Sistine Chapel but greater than them all.  The master had spent his life refining and pushing the bounds of all genres of artistry.  An excitement fills his soul as creation commences.

Clay spins within a soft touch.  Chisels and rasps grind gracefully through granite, marble and limestone.  Brushes glide in rhythmic motion like a conductor’s baton.  The skill and scale of the sculpting and painting was masterful. Days, months, and even years passed while he ceaselessly devoted himself to a project much larger and more detailed than any he had previously undertook.  Each individual work related to all the other pieces.  Light danced around the angles and hues with astounding beauty.  While form was beginning to show, the process was just commencing.  This work was to be more than static image and form…no matter how much life could be shadowed through them.  It had to display true life, true dynamic.  The individual masterpieces that he had laboriously created would be demoted to canvas.  And so the creator continued.

The collision of history, present and future was a desired and necessary dimension.  He sacrificed some of his previous pieces to make them new again in this one.  Out of death sprang forth new life.  Inspired by the stroke of old life in new, he ran to his courtyard and started moving as many plants as he could into the staging area.  He pruned, shaped, and arranged until natural greens, blues, reds, yellows, whites, and browns began to fill the piece with cultivated vitality.

Performance art would bring consciousness to everything he hoped to create.  He announced a huge casting call and many actors showed up.  To their amazement, all who auditioned were accepted to be a part of the piece.  They all looked confused when they were simply instructed to come back on the day of the opening.  Reluctantly, they left with no direction nor with so much as a script.

Finally, the day of unveiling arrived.  The actors returned with flooding questions.  The only words the artist offered were “bring life to my creation”.  Uneasily, they took their place and began to interact with and within the exhibit.  Each did so within their own interpretation of the artist’s words.  Some were quite awkward, others angry, and still others completely comfortable within the freedom of personal expression.

With anxious anticipation the artist opened the doors, and the audience was warmly welcomed.  To their surprise, they were invited into the exhibit and given that same instruction to “bring life to my creation”.  Their mixed response resembled that of the actors; with some choosing observation over participation.  Some of the actors were offended by the audience participation, even complaining to the artist.  A few hours passed and dynamics of the living piece start to emerge: arguments arose, there was laughter, a sculpture was accidentally injured by a participant.  A man and a woman out on their first date kissed while an elderly married couple quietly held hands.  Some were just happy to be there, and others demanded attention with flamboyant artistic expressions, most of less than a professional nature.

Some art critics had also come to the opening; they chose to observe.  Anticipation for the exhibit was high; the artist’s reputation had preceded him.  They whispered assessments, and it became apparent that they were not impressed.   It wasn’t the quality of the work that offended them.  A close study of any of the sculptures and paintings revealed skill beyond that of which any of them had ever encountered.  The critics found it quite vulgar to allow squabbling actors and unsightly visitors to take prevalent places on stage.

Their attention was soon drawn to a painting at the center of the stage.  From a vertical descending scan the viewer would first find the peaks of majestic mountains that would then fall into a tree line, but then it just ended…blank canvas in the bottom half.  They wondered why the obviously talented and reputed artist would make such a glaring mistake.  There was a few jars of paint and a bright orange brush below the easel.  The critics watched in horror as a child, who had recently escaped his parents’ sight, took up the brush and started painting stick figures in the valleys of those majestic mountains.  It was fairly clear the stick figures were of the boy, his parents, and a crude image of the family dog.  Clearly, they judged, this was a tragic flaw in choice of venue and presentation.  They walked further along the edge of the exhibit picking out imperfections that were judged to demean the piece.  Some of the plant life that was included had browned leaves and wilting flowers. Some were even shockingly dead.  As they explored, they found more unfinished paintings and sculptures.  In their opinion, the whole presentation just did not live up to the expectation of perfection that had come to be expected from this artist.

The parents of the vandal child had finally noticed what their son had done and rushed with great repentance to the artist.  He smiled at them and knelt down beside the child.  He embraced the boy and spoke with great warmth in his voice, “You have truly brought life to my creation.  No person can be upset with you for continuing to be a part of what I have started.  Your painting is beautiful.”

The creator then rose to his feet as his voice filled the room, “I want you all to look at this child.  Many of you have judged him for what he painted on that canvas.  You assumed it was wrong because it lacked the perfection you expect from my creation.  You should know that my masterpiece was never about perfection.  It is about this boy, and it is about all of you.  It is about the lives you live: your talents, your struggles, your failures, and your victories.  It is about my love for all of your stories, even when they are messy, and the love that you should have for each other.  This boy has understood the purpose of my art more than the experts and critics among us.  So now I say again to you all, I wish for you to bring life to my creation.”

When he had finished speaking, the crowd began to participate in the exhibit with a greater freedom than is typical for an art show.  Some had meaningful discussions about the stick family that lived in the shadow of a great mountain.  Many of the unfinished sculptures and paintings now had new, all-be-it amateurish, artists adding their visions to the canvas and stone.  Many of the critics remained at the fringes, but others broke their judgmental gaze long enough to find freedom among the images and personalities of the exhibit.

The boy and the creator sat on a bench near the middle of the piece.  As life weaved in unpredictable lines around them the man leaned over with a smile and said, with joy in his voice, “It is good.”

COMMENTARY

There has been quite a bit of discussion within communities of faith lately regarding the physical reality of hell, eternal conscious torment as punishment for unbelief, the rapture, and the destruction/end of the world.  This post was originally going to discuss a metaphor related to one of those issues.  After giving some thought to my presentation I came to the conclusion that you can’t discuss the end until after you have discussed the beginning.  This is a picture of what I envision when I ponder this world and what we are doing here.

Let me know what you think of the allegory. Can you identify with this story?  Would you change some elements of the story?  Would you tell a totally different story?  If we see the beginning like this does it change how we might view the end?

 
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Posted by on June 7, 2011 in Theology

 
 
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