Faith, Personal

The real value of Christmas

Even though I’m a Christian, I don’t celebrate the birth of Christ at this time of year.

The home in which I was raised followed no particular faith. My parents acknowledged the God the Bible described, but their devotion went no further. For us, Christmas was a big family holiday where we got to see all of the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, and I have loads of warm memories from those gatherings. Many of my friends talked of the baby Jesus (after, of course, talking excitedly of the presents they anticipated). A few of my classmates were Jewish and several were Serbian; they had their own celebrations at different times. And so I have always has this sense that the holidays are what you make of them.

Lit Up at Night

My mother said more than once that Christ couldn’t possibly have been born in December – his birth was more likely sometime in autumn. She also said that the whole reason the Christian church celebrated Christ’s birth on December 25th was because in the church’s early days, non-believers already celebrated a winter festival at about that time, and it was easier to convert them if the church had a celebration then, too. Christianity should be a faith of truth, she reasoned, and she couldn’t reconcile how Christmas was predicated on a falsehood. It sounded good to me, and when I grew up I looked into it and found that there was plenty of evidence to support Mom’s claims. That didn’t stop her from playing her records of traditional Christmas hymns every December, though! (Because of her, I still love to hear Johnny Mathis at Christmas.)

None of this was enough to deter me from seeking God as an adult. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when I got serious about God I did it in the Church of Christ, a branch of Christianity that celebrates Christmas only as a secular holiday. Most Church of Christ congregations hold a restrictive view of Biblical authority that leads them to observe only what they believe God commands in the Bible. The Bible tells us to celebrate Christ’s death, but never once to celebrate his birth. So they take communion (the Lord’s Supper, they call it) every week, but during December their mostly a cappella congregations sing no Christmas songs and their preachers avoid talking about Christ’s birth.

Eventually I left the Church of Christ’s narrow interpretations in search of greater love from God. Of course, I landed in a church that celebrates Christ’s birth all December; it was nearly impossible to avoid it. Until we fell on hard times, we always held a big Christmas production with a chorus singing traditional Christmas songs and a telling of the nativity story.

What's the Reason for the Season?

I’ve said this to nobody at my church, but this was very hard for me to accept for a long time.

I’m unlikely ever to fully personally embrace Christmas as a celebration of Christ’s birth. Not only were the wrong seeds planted in me as a boy, they were well cultivated when I became an adult. Don’t feel sorry for me; I love the Lord deeply and don’t feel like I’m missing out on one iota of his love for me. But let me tell you why I have come to think that celebrating Christ’s birth at Christmas is not just all right, but just wonderful:

Because his birth is so openly and joyfully celebrated each December 25, who in the western world has not heard of Jesus Christ?

I know, I know, the holiday has been tainted with commercialism, and because of political correctness we now say “Happy Holidays” to each other rather than “Merry Christmas.” Still, I don’t think the holiday’s connections to Christ and his promise for us have been lost. And when I consider all that celebrating Christmas has done to introduce people to Jesus, my mind boggles. Who cares about the celebration’s origins? God has certainly used it for good.

May God use this Christmas season for good in your life.

And may this Christmas create many warm memories for you. One of my favorite Christmas memories involves a Polaroid camera. Read the story.

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Faith, Music, Stories Told

The old songs

I went to an evening church service last Friday, Good Friday. I’d never done that before.

My Christian “heritage,” if you can call it that, has its roots mostly in Restoration Movement churches (Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and Christian Churches). These churches tend to lack the usual trappings of Christendom as part of the movement’s call to return to the kind of Christianity practiced in the first century. Those churches that observe the liturgical calendar do so loosely at best. The old-line Churches of Christ, the most conservative churches in our brotherhood, ignore it altogether and don’t even observe notable holidays such as Christmas and Easter. (They reason that the Bible doesn’t explicitly authorize those holidays.) So while we’re all aware of Good Friday, it’s often not held up any higher than any other day.

My Christian Church congregation hasn’t had a Good Friday service in at least the six years I’ve been there. Other congregations in our fellowship do, however, and one of them invited us to join them this year. West Park Christian Church has served its Westside Indianapolis community for at least 100 years. 1910s and 1920s neighborhood photos hanging inside the church show new, tidy middle-class homes; today the houses are dilapidated, the residents are poor, and the streets are unsafe after dark.

When I survey the wondrous cross

We began by walking the neighborhood. A couple men hoisted a large wooden cross onto their shoulders and we headed out, about a hundred of us, calling out greetings to the people sitting on their front porches and out in their front yards enjoying an unusually warm early-Spring evening. We stopped at the homes of several ailing church members and of community leaders to ask them out so we could pray with and for them. We stopped at the community center and at the neighborhood park and prayed over them, too. There’s no way this neighborhood doesn’t know about West Park Christian Church and what it stands for. This church is clearly in a ripe mission field. I envied them their opportunity to serve.

When we returned to the church we shared a pitch-in meal, and then we entered the sanctuary for the evening service. We sang, took communion, and heard a short message. I smiled when I heard the preacher say that he had grown up in a congregation that didn’t observe Good Friday or Easter; I knew exactly where he was coming from.

So many modern churches today have rock bands and sing nothing but upbeat praise songs. I understand why; it reaches so many younger people. I’m all for what’s effective. But while I was in the Church of Christ, we sang the old hymns and spirituals a cappella in four-part harmony and I really loved it. I came to have a deep affection for many of those old songs – It Is Well with My Soul, When My Love to Christ Grows Weak, Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed?, I Surrender All, When All of God’s Singers Get Home, and many others. I have missed them. We sang the old songs this Good Friday night. A pianist accompanied us through five or six songs, but after the first verse of Onward, Christian Soldiers, he stopped playing. Everybody was really singing, raising their voices to God, almost clamoring to be heard. I heard a few voices in the back singing the bass and tenor parts, emboldening me to do the same. Then the pianist played the opening notes of When I Survey The Wondrous Cross and, as we began to sing, again let his hands rest and our voices carry. After the first verse I was so moved by our blended voices lifting so powerfully to God on this day we specially gathered to observe Christ’s death that I began to cry, and could not sing.

The joyless work of selling our church building and planning to build a new one as we try to keep a financially challenged congregation afloat has taken me away from the real point of service. I was reminded of it on Good Friday night. We are to go bring the lost to God and turn our faces to Him in worship, giving him ourselves to use for His purposes. And it was the death of Christ on the cross that makes it all possible.

Though I miss the old songs, I haven’t forgotten that our form of worship is less important than carrying out Jesus’s mission for us. That’s what really counts.

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Faith, Personal

Faith map

Last year I wrote an entry here called “Holding up my hand,” in which I compared my faith journey to my mother walking me to school on my first day of kindergarten. It’s my favorite entry here, but because I wrote it shortly after I started this blog, few people have seen it. Since I get more than ten times the traffic now (a whopping 300 visits a week which, I’m sure, has WordPress.com scrambling to expand its server farm), I thought I’d shamelessly try to drive more traffic to that post.

The map below shows how I walked to elementary school as a boy in the 1970s. My family lived in a little neighborhood of small, cheap prefab homes on the southeast side of South Bend, Indiana. As my mom walked me to school on my first day of kindergarten, she pointed out all of the interesting things along the way. My story is about what faith is made of, and how it’s not made of the interesting things along the way. So now when you read “Holding up my hand,” you can refer to the map for easy reference!

Route to school

In the 34 years since that first trip to school, the properties my old neighborhood have become rentals, most houses with peeling paint and yards full of weeds and brown grass. Young families still live there, though. Children still take the Secret Sidewalk and pass the synagogue on their way to school, but the hippies are certainly gone (as is the woods on that corner) and the Church of Christ is now the Living Stones Church. I hope mothers are still holding their children’s hands on their first day.

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Faith

The temple’s grandeur

Thanks to Solomon’s sins, Israel found itself exiled, scattered across Babylon. Jersualem, and Solomon’s glorious temple with it, was destroyed. But much later, as God said would happen, King Cyrus allowed any Jews who wanted to return to Jerusalem and rebuild. 50,000 of them went back, and right away started work on an altar and the temple. The new temple couldn’t be as grand as the old; there weren’t the resources. But soon the foundation was laid. Ezra 3:11-13 tells what happened next.

And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the LORD because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. Yet many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ households, the old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, while many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the shout of joy from the sound of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard far away. (NASB)

Many of these Jews were born and raised in exile and had never known the original temple. Perhaps their parents and grandparents had told them stories about the old days. It’s probably safe to assume that they went to Jerusalem because they wanted to do God’s work of rebuilding the temple and restoring worship. So finishing the temple’s foundation brought them great joy.

But some old-timers had seen the original temple and knew its grandeur. It was clear by the new temple’s foundation that the former grandeur would not be restored. They mourned what they had lost, and they cried bitterly.

I taught this in Sunday school a couple Sundays ago. A woman in her 80s said, “I know how the old-timers felt. I remember how worship used to be here. It was grand. I felt like we were really giving our best to God. But things have changed so much.”

The second temple after Herod renovated and expanded it

Everybody in the room understood. I wasn’t there then, but I’ve been told: In days gone by, there was an organ and a choir and all the old songs. The order of worship was set, inviolable. Reverence and awe filled the room during that hour every Sunday morning. But things have changed. As older members passed on or moved on and their children moved away, membership dropped sharply. In response, a new preacher took the church in a different direction. Gone are the organ and choir and most of the old songs; in is a small praise band and several new contemporary songs. Gone is the sacrosanct worship order; now we mix things up to keep it fresh. Gone is the reverence and awe; now many of us raise our hands and dance and sway as we focus on the joy of experiencing God’s love.

Even though I was never part of the worship she remembers, I think I know where she’s coming from, and I said so. I came from a non-instrumental Church of Christ, and that congregation could sing. When we lifted our voices as one, it was with such power I was sure we’d pop the roof right off. I felt that our singing really gave our best to the Lord. When I left there and came to this church, the singing seemed anemic to me. I still don’t get into the hand-raising, dancing, and swaying that people do instead. I just keep singing out, and I’m probably the loudest person in the room. I badly miss the strong congregational singing we enjoyed in the Church of Christ.

But God made good use of the Jews’ new temple despite its lack of grandeur. Not only was Jesus presented to the Lord in it (Luke 2:22-40), but when Jesus was 12 he sat among the teachers here, questioning them and hearing their answers (Luke 2:41-51). This plainer temple did not hinder Jesus’ growth.

Then in John 2, Jesus gives us the proper perspective. Standing in the temple, having just run off the moneychangers, somebody asked him his authority for having done it. Jesus said in verse 19, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (NASB)

Jesus wasn’t talking about the temple building, he was talking about himself. Jesus is the temple that matters. How we organize and execute the hour of worship every week is less important than how we carry out every hour the mission Jesus gave us. When we are in Jesus, we are in His temple, and we need to be doing His business under whatever circumstances He provides!

That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t hurt when changes come to things we held dear that we did for God. But we must stretch ourselves to trust Jesus as he sets the circumstances in which we work.

At my church, we appear to be growing again, and we’re not robbing from other churches to do it. We’ve had several baptisms, all adults in young families, in recent months. Our hour of worship appears to connect with them. I’m not sure our old style of worship would have.

If these new Christians grow to maturity, they, too, will someday mourn practices they hold dear as Jesus makes changes that draw more souls to Him.

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Faith, Music

A cappella

Ten years ago my wife and I visited a little Church of Christ in a plain building that stood on an empty highway in a rural corner of the city. The warm and friendly members eagerly accepted us as guests. The service began simply with a welcome and a prayer. Then a man walked to the lectern and asked us to open our hymnals. We saw no instruments; I wondered if music was played on tape. No. He sang “sol,” raised a hand, swung it down – and then everyone exploded into song, belting out Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah, without accompaniment, in four-part harmony, at the tops of their lungs.

Unprepared, I raised my hands as if to cover my ears. We stood there stunned, eyes wide, mouths open. We had been Methodists, timid singers the lot. In this building, even the tone-deaf sang out, the strong, resonant voices around them carrying everyone’s voices through the rafters and straight up to the Lord.

I loved singing, and had I missed singing in harmony after I quit the school choir when my voice changed. Elated to sing in harmony again, I turned to my hymnal and its shaped notes and tried to keep up with the congregation in this song I didn’t know.

In time I learned it, and many others, in joy that came from feeling a special bond with God and connection with my fellow Christians. I offered the Lord my best voice, singing directly to Him. But the congregation’s cooperative singing offered God something of much greater beauty than I could create alone. Our singing helped me not only acknowledge and praise God, but also transcend myself to remember everyone else in the room who also sought the Lord. I even considered Christians in other a cappella congregations singing unabashedly just like us. I felt in touch with the whole body of Christ.

I found comfort in my travels by identifying with Christians through a cappella singing. When away on business on a Sunday or a Wednesday evening, I usually found a congregation and went to worship with them. I noticed many times that singing the bass part of songs with them was a way others recognized me as a member of the church.

A cappella singing was no less than a doctrine. The Church of Christ was born from the Restoration Movement in the 1800s, which sought to restore Christian practices to patterns found in the New Testament. The movement’s churches sought Biblical authority for all of its practices. Because the Bible does not mention using instruments of music in worship, the logic goes, instruments are therefore not authorized. I’ve heard some preachers say that congregations that use instruments in worship are sinning and face hell unless they repent, and that a cappella Christians should not associate with instrumental Christians because to do so implies acceptance of their practices.

Sadly, arguments over instrumental music have caused churches to split for more than a hundred years. When I attended this little Church of Christ, a vast Christian Church sat about a mile down the road. The two churches were one until they split in 1894, and I’m told that instrumental music was one of the reasons. I know a former Church of Christ in South Bend that lost many members in the past decade as it underwent a spiritual transformation, a portion of which included adding instruments to worship.

When I left that little congregation, I turned to God for guidance. I expected to be led to another Church of Christ, but He directed me to a particular Christian Church. This and many other independent Christian Churches have Restoration Movement roots, and so its beliefs and practices are familiar to me. As I’ve written before, however, we have a piano, a drum kit, and a guitar on the stage, and all of them get vigorous use during Sunday-morning worship.

It took me months to feel comfortable with the instruments. At first, I worried a lot about my participation in singing because of the instruments playing. I have since realized that because I am where God led me, that He knows what he has asked me to do, and that He is in control. So today, I sing there without worry. Unfortunately, the congregation sings like timid Methodists, and so I miss the powerful congregational singing that helped me feel so connected to God and His people. I hope that one day God’s path for me leads to a loving a cappella congregation.

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Faith, Personal

Holding up my hand

On my first day of Kindergarten, my mother walked with me the half mile to school so I’d know the way. I was a little anxious about meeting so many new children, but only a little anxious because I felt tremendously reassured that Mom was taking me there. When the time came I reached my hand up for her to grasp and we left our house. In the warm September sun we walked uphill past the houses that curved along our narrow street. She led me along the Secret Sidewalk, a shortcut between some houses that emptied onto another street that led down the other side of the hill. As we passed the synagogue, Mom explained how Jews in our area walked to services there every Saturday. As we passed a patch of little sumac trees, Mom warned me not to touch them because they were poisonous. As we passed a wooded lot, Mom warned me not to go in because the hippies liked to go in there and she wasn’t sure they were safe. As we rounded the corner and passed the Church of Christ, Mom said that even if the other kids wanted to cut through their property as a shortcut, I was to stay on the sidewalk. I took in everything Mom said, fascinated and excited by how much there was to know about this walk to school. Finally, we reached the corner by the school. Mom explained how to watch and listen for the crossing guard. The guard gave the okay, and we crossed and walked up to the school. Mom left me at the door with a kiss, a hug, and a promise that she’d be waiting at that door when school let out. I felt secure as I walked inside.

Crocus

On my own twenty years later, I felt alone and lost. I wanted guidance, a path to follow, that would work better than what I had come up with. I felt sure God would have that path, so I wound up in a Methodist church. In time, the pastor sprinkled me on the head and I was in. I did things I thought I should do as a Christian: I attended Sunday school and services every week, I tried to quit swearing and always be honorable, and I helped with the youth group. I enjoyed the people and socialized heavily with my Sunday school class. But I struggled with God, whom I expected to judge me, eyebrow arched and lips pursed, each time I slipped up. And I didn’t understand the church’s rituals. For example, every couple months we took communion. We read puzzling texts from the hymnal and then lined up to eat a little wafer and drink a sip of grape juice. But I didn’t know what it was for! I used to pray, “Lord, I don’t know why I’m doing this, but I pray that you will bless it anyway.” God and His church weren’t making sense. It was easier to just have fun with my friends from Sunday school. In time, I became disillusioned with church politics and fell away. I used to blame the Methodists, but something the pastor said to me many times comes back to me now: “Each man must find his own path to God.” I sure wasn’t searching so I might find; I guess I expected the church to show me.

One day, the Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on the door and promised that my Bible could be an open book to me, giving me accurate knowledge of God and His standards for me and for His people, the true Christians. I was nervous because of the Witnesses’ notoriety, but the fun young couple who came to study with us soon melted those reservations. Steve, a slight man who bobbed and twitched with nervous energy, enthusiastically shared his knowledge. He dove relentlessly into his Bible looking for verses that answered our questions. Every week for a year, he and his wife, Jessica, drove to our house in a succession of $500 beater cars to study with us. In counterpoint to Steve’s nervous energy, Jessica sat like a reference librarian, placid and poised with a heaping gob of thick blonde hair usually pulled up into a bun and glasses perched on the end of her nose. She could clarify in ten words anything Steve said in a hundred, but she always quietly let her husband speak. My wife and I enjoyed their company and our study. We became very excited and encouraged to find that the Bible could be our sole guide to living a life worthy of the name Christian. At last, here’s the path I didn’t find in the Methodist church! It would be all spelled out for me! I could put on Christ like a new suit of clothes and leave my troubled life behind! But it troubled me that the Watchtower Society seemed to have the right to interpret Scripture for us. Some of their theology and doctrine didn’t add up. Finally, Steve couldn’t explain a particular doctrinal point to our satisfaction, and we began to lose our confidence. A succession of church elders came to try to explain. Finally one elder brought it all into focus for me when he said, “Look, just come to services for a few months, and then you’ll understand and it will seem natural.” In other words, he wanted us to become a part of their culture, and then whatever the Watchtower Society would ask of us, we would do naturally. That seemed flat wrong. We ended our studies with Steve and Jessica, and since we were now apostates they couldn’t see us anymore. We missed them.

White crocus

Not daunted in finding God’s sure path for us, we found the Church of Christ. They were dedicated to following the New Testament pattern for living a Christian life, and they looked only to Scripture for their authority, not to any man-made organization. Since part of that pattern required baptism by immersion, my earlier baptism didn’t count and I was baptized again. So the preacher dunked me, my sins were washed away (he was sure to point out), and I was in. We did things we thought Christians should do: My wife taught Bible class for children, I created a Web site for the church, and we faithfully attended twice on Sunday and every Wednesday evening.

On the one hand, I felt secure in the standards for Christians that the Bible seemed to spell out. Forgive. Love your wife as Christ loved the church; that is, sacrificially. Do not divorce, except for adultery. Give as you purpose in your heart, as you have prospered. Above all, do not forsake the assembly of Christians. I just had to do these things, and others the Bible specified, to be right with God. This was the way I was looking for.

On the other hand, I felt secret shame that I could meet few of these standards well and consistently. I didn’t feel good enough. Truly, because of how much I missed the mark, I often doubted my salvation. I compared myself to all the longtime members, most of whom grew up in that congregation, who seemed to be able to do all of these things. Seemed. Much later I saw how many of them had the same secret shame I did. Shame’s brother is fear, which led to members interpreting the Bible ultra-conservatively to be on the safe side. Hairsplitting doctrinal discussions were common. I remember a discussion with a fellow about church leadership. The Bible says that an elder should have children. My friend asserted that a man with only one child should not seek the eldership, just to be safe, because God might really have meant two or more children. “Oh, come now!” I said, “if you had one child and I asked how many children you had, would you say, ‘I don’t have children, but I have a child?’ How absurd!” Yet he held fast to his fear-based conclusion lest he find himself hellbound.

I loved those people, though. They showed my family love during a particularly painful and difficult period of my life. Several men stepped up to encourage me, pray with me, and study with me. Several women reached out to support my wife through the crisis. But a year or so later, fear seemed to seal shut the doors of that love when the elders learned that my family’s past history ran afoul of the church’s teachings on marriage and divorce. The elders considered our story, reviewed Scripture, and then met with us to say that we had no right to each other. They were grave yet deflated as they delivered the message; one elder in his 70s looked physically ill. I felt guilty that this had burdened them so. But our situation had become serious because the church’s teachings spoke of separating and never remarrying. I was distraught. I had hoped for help keeping my family intact, but all these elders could do was tell me their interpretation of Scripture and withdraw awaiting my decision of what I was going to do. When you live by the law, you die by it too.

I didn’t understand the Bible the same way the elders did over this matter, and so we left the Church of Christ. We eventually settled in an independent Christian Church. Shortly after we settled there, one of the elders from the Church of Christ called to ask where we were attending. When I told him, he gasped, said, “Oh! Jim, you were taught better than that!” and quickly hung up the phone. Soon we received a letter signed by the elders disfellowshipping us for joining a denominational church, “denominational” meaning “any church other than the Church of Christ.” Members there were not to associate with us except to help restore us to the faith. As far as they were concerned, we were apostate, no longer Christians.

God disagrees.

Narcissus

Shortly after I came to this little Christian Church, I had this strong sense that we belonged there. I heard a voice gently whispering, “Join here.” Today, if I may be so bold as to say so, I recognize that as the Holy Spirit guiding me. I followed that guidance, but I didn’t understand it. This church didn’t fit the approved pattern I learned about in the Church of Christ. They took up special offerings. Women led singing and sometimes read Scripture to the congregation. A piano and a guitar accompanied the singing, and some members clapped and raised their hands with the music. These practices were forbidden in the Church of Christ and made me uncomfortable. But I was determined to stick with it because I felt God led my family there. I allowed that my service to him might not be about certain worship doctrines, and perhaps I’m still to learn that he’ll make use of a church even if it has recently added an electric guitar and drums. I took the uncomfortable step of letting him lead me without knowing the way first.

In hindsight, I can see that God wanted me at this church for what was to come. My marriage didn’t survive, and I was dragged through an extremely difficult divorce. Not only have church members been a great encouragement to me, but both ministers have been personally involved praying for me and encouraging me. I have had lunch with the family minister every week for two years; what started out as a way to help me stay on course has developed into friendship. The senior minister, who grew up in a conservative church from the same family as the Church of Christ, has taught and modeled a great deal about moving away from doctrinal legalism to grace, love, and a personal relationship with God. They helped meet my physical needs by letting me move into the church’s vacant parsonage while I worked through the divorce. I have even been on three mission trips because of this group, which has taught me deep lessons in service and in being served. These Christians have helped me stand firmly through everything that has happened, while also encouraging me to grow spiritually.

Trying to find and follow the ready guide, the list of things I must do to live successfully and in God’s good graces, failed me. I tried my best, but I always fell short.

You see, I missed the lesson when Mom walked me to school on my first day. The lesson wasn’t that I needed to strictly heed all of the things she told me about along the way. Knowing about the sumac and the woods and the crossing guard were useful and important, but not crucial. The crucial lesson was in the simplest and most automatic thing I did on that walk: I reached my hand up for Mom to take. I trusted Mom to guide me to school. I didn’t know where it was, how to get there, or what dangers I might encounter on the way. I didn’t have to worry about it because Mom knew the way and she led me there.

I trusted Mom because she had proved herself trustworthy in my early years. Babies naturally seek to trust, but grown men are wary. Grown men even forget that trust is an option. I sought rules and regulations because they seemed sure. It took crisis to reduce me to surrender where I could finally hear God’s voice and take that first tenuous step toward trust. As my trust grows, I am learning that as long as I stick my hand up, God will take it. He will lead the way, and He will tell me useful and important things about living. I will find life fascinating and exciting, and I will reach my destination safely.

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