Lent Thoughts – Mortality

Today’s Lent reading brought me to this from the Barefoot Theology Blog…

You, my dear human being, are not God. You, busy person, are not immortal. You, who can do so much and command so many, will go back to the dust. Thank God.

While human mortality can be stunningly difficult to accept, especially the mortality of those we love, it is a blessing.

We, frail creatures, are not all powerful; we’re not even very powerful. Without one another, we would very quickly wither away. Without God, we would simply cease to be.

Ash Wednesday, and Lent, is perhaps God’s best way of telling us to set down the world.

Set it down, and let someone infinitely more qualified carry it instead.

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Lent thoughts – stories

Stories are the style and substance of life. They fashion and fill existence. From primeval to eschatological vistas, from youthful dreams to seasoned experiences, from resounding disclosures to whispered intimacies, the narrative mode of speech prevails. Myth, parable, folk tale, epic, romance, novella, history, confession, biography – these and other genres proclaim the presence and power of the story. Phyllis Trible

So begins Trible’s Texts of Terror – a book to browse for my Lenten reading on International Women’s Day. She goes on to tell sad stories, tales of terror with women as victims.

Today I shall think of the stories I know of women who have been abused, and there are many. Too many. Women who had their power taken away from them by others. Women who held on to those stories in secret, not daring to share them in case they were not believed or thought to be weak. Women who didn’t believe in their own strength and ability to say NO. No, this is not how it should be.

We must listen to one another’s stories. To listen and believe. Our stories matter. Not just today but every day.

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Lent thoughts: You matter because you are you

My plan this Lent is to read more. To read something every day, carefully and intently, and hopefully to find something to aid me on my Lenten journey. Of course, already my plan has already failed. Yesterday was Ash Wednesday and we had a Eucharist in the chapel in the morning followed by coffee and a blether in the rectory which took me up to lunch. Then I took my ashes (and lemon in a bag) and the Sacrament out to some of my housebound members. My plan was to whizz in and out, daub some ashes, share some bread and wine, chat a little and move on to the next one. Silly me. My plan should have been to go and listen to lonely people who feel that everyone has forgotten them, to listen to someone who is struggling with not being able to do what they’d like to because their body is letting them down, to listen to concerns and grumps and to pray with them. Well that’s what I ended up doing and of course I didn’t get to all I’d hoped to visit and I didn’t get home till it was dark. But that didn’t matter really. I can go next week.

Today is World Book Day and a few weeks ago a friend said ‘Why don’t we all just clear our diaries and read on that day?’ I have a Vestry meeting tonight and some prep for that, but my plan is to give a good chunk of today to just reading. I don’t have the latest recommended Lent book, but I do have a shelf of old ones. And a host of other shelves full of books, some unread, which I am sure will contain plenty material for pondering this Lent. My plan is to share some of that reading here and perhaps over on Beauty from Chaos.

Today’s reading is from a book called Pray, Love, Remember by Michael Mayne.

Many who have spent time listening with real attention to another person in need will know that frequently we find in others the familiar echo of what we know in ourselves: a deep, unsatisfied desire. It is, I believe, a kind of homesickness, a longing for the bringing to fruition of that potential for love and those natural springs of compassion that help define our humanity. The beginning and end of compassion is a question of how we see: how you see me, how I see you. This need that we share, to be seen, to be noticed and given value, is not some childish craving for attention: it is the only way we have to become our true selves. Egos are lonely, and egotism a lonely way of being, and our spirits are fed by what we freely give each other. It is not only babies who languish and grow sick if they are starved of love. I am affirmed when you notice me, when you give me your attention. However old we grow, however wise, the child we once were is always part of us and, in one way or another, every human being (far less confident that we appear, most of us) cries out or acts out – or often, disastrously stifles – their need to be recognised, perhaps forgiven, but most often simply encouraged: to know that ‘you matter because you are you’.

This Lent, I am going to try affirming people more. Someone on Twitter said they were going to send 40 postcards this Lent to friends who they haven’t kept in touch with as much as they should. Hmm. Could I do that? Perhaps…

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Art of Advent – It’s all about the men

Our second Art of Advent course looked at paintings of men. Lots of men: Prophets, John the Baptist, wise men, Joseph, and some shepherds. But wait! Perhaps there were shepherdesses too! Here are the paintings we looked at…

John the Baptist in the Wilderness boschjtb

St John the Baptist in the wilderness, Hieronymus Bosch, c1489, Museum of Lazaro Galdiano, Madrid, Spain

John the B da Vinci 1513

St John the Baptist, Leonardo da Vinci, 1513-16, Musee du Louvre, Paris

Dream of St Joseph Philippe de Champaigne 1642

The Dream of St Joseph, Philippe de Champaigne, 1642, National Gallery London

Dream of St Joseph Georges_de_La_Tour

The Dream of St Joseph, Georges de la Tour, 1630-35, Musee des Beaux-arts, Nantes

Christ in the House of His Parents ('The Carpenter's Shop') 1849-50 by Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896

Christ in the House of His Parents (‘The Carpenter’s Shop’) 1849-50 Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896 Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund and various subscribers 1921 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N03584

Journey of the Three Magi to Bethlehem, 1638-1640

Journey of the three Magi to Bethlehem, 1638-40, Leonaert Bramer, New York Historical Society

The Sleep of the Kings, Gislebertus 12th c, Autun, Cath of Saint-Lazare

Gislebertus, 1125-35, Autun Cathedral

Annunciation to shepherds Wtewael

The Annunciation to the Shepherds, Joachim Wtewael, 1606, Museum of Fine Arts Houston

In which Ruth ponders pastoral care surprises

The phone rang.

“Rector, I’m just letting you know that my sister E has been taken to hospital. It’s not looking good. They’ve withdrawn all food and antibiotics.”

I’ve been visiting E since I came here five years ago. In all that time we’ve never really had a conversation although she receives communion in her Care Home every month. She had a brain tumour over 20 years ago and is not able to communicate well, but she often has a smile and we know she appreciates receiving the sacrament. I tell her brother I’ll go up to the hospital first thing.

To tell you the truth, I’m not feeling great myself. Ropey asthma and maybe a virus beginning. Slept for 10 hours the night before and feel achy all over. Figure whatever I’ve got won’t do E any more harm. Jump in car with oil and wee bookie and head off.

lost-directionForget that there is a road closure so get caught in traffic jam on temporary lights and follow diversion signs which take me up a road I’ve never been before. Lose diversion signs and keep driving until I end up at the Falkirk Wheel. In a carpark I never knew existed. Go back and try to find where I should have turned off. Miss it and end up at some high flats. Drive around until I find the canal and follow it until I find a road I do recognise and finally reach the hospital. Not a carpark space to be found and I join those circling round and round looking for likely suspects about to leave. Spot a space and some idiot drives up the one-way road the wrong way to beat me to it. I spit feathers.

By this time, a journey which should have taken me 15 minutes has taken an hour and I am not well pleased. Find a space at the furthest point from the hospital and head off uphill, inhaler at the ready. Reach hospital, puffing and wheezing, and discover E is in the farthest ward possible. Of course she is. Think to myself that at least this will give me plenty steps on my Fitbit (measures the exercise I take each day) only to find the battery on it is dead. Of course it is.

Get to E’s ward and there she is asleep. I take her hand and gently tell her I’m there. She opens one eye and looks distinctly miffed at being woken up. ‘It’s Ruth,’ I say, ‘from Christ Church. Would you like communion?’ E throws my hand away and closes her eye. I take her other hand. ‘E, it’s Ruth, shall I say some prayers with you?’ She pulls her hand away and puts it under the covers. The other three ladies in the ward look at me over their magazines and sip-cups and wait to see what I will do.

Undeterred, I go into my bag for the oil of healing. It isn’t there. Of course it isn’t. It is on my car seat. So I sit down and pray. I pray for E. I say the Lord’s Prayer and she opens an eye again. But she doesn’t wave me away. I sit and breathe and pray some more. This is grand, I think. I’m feeling much better now. I make the sign of the cross on E’s forehead and I think we both feel a wee bit calmer now. Well I know I do.

In which Ruth ponders Passiontide

Tomorrow we enter Passiontide. The statues will be draped with purple cloths and my heart will soar. Yes, I know it is meant to take away any distractions but I love the shape and colour of those purple bags. That one hides the processional cross – a fleurette cross, I learned recently. That one covers the crucifix which looks over me as I preach. I feel its presence still. I can almost hear the solemn pounding of a drum as the build up to Holy Week begins.

A scream rings out. It was me! I’m sure if my GP was to look back through my notes he’d find that I visit round about the same time every year telling her/him that I can’t sleep, I’m really stressed, I’ve come out in a rash, I can’t breathe. One day they will suss that there is a pattern to this and they will wisely nod and say, “It’s okay Ruth. It is just Holy Week coming. You’ve done it before and you’ll do it again. Practice mindfulness, make a list (many lists), pray for your photocopier and all shall be well.”

It is also at this time that I want to make my little flock promise that they won’t miss a single service. The drama of the most wonderful story is about to unfold before your very eyes and you really don’t want to miss any of it. If you miss a bit it would be like someone had cut a chapter out of that fabulous book you’re reading, or had removed all the blue bits from that intriguing jigsaw. Please promise me you won’t miss a bit of it.

There will be much to feed you. Processions with palms, a pilgrimage of Stations, silence and music, study and chatter, feetwashing and a shared meal, drama worthy of the greatest theatre, and a gruelling three hours of Passion. And hot cross buns too!  All of this we must undergo before we can truly ‘get’ the joy of Easter and the Resurrection.

I’m excited that this year we also have the Bishop visiting on Holy Saturday to baptise and confirm. Some of my little flock have said they’d like to affirm the vows they made at their own confirmation because of the Pilgrim Course we’ve been doing. I well remember my own Confirmation classes with Fr Emsley… there was much Church history, as I recall. But at Candlemas I felt like a nun making solemn vows to promise something beyond my comprehension. And it is still beyond my comprehension…

Cross purple cloth

In which Ruth goes on a silent retreat but is not completely silent

Yes, it is that time again. This week was the Diocesan Retreat at Whitchester led by Barbara Glasson, Methodist minister why_botherand author. I first came across Barbara when I read her books I am Somewhere Else and Mixed-up Blessing and loved them. Barbara set up the ‘Bread Church’ in Liverpool which was a perfect example of what seems to be called Fresh Expressions – an alternative way of doing church. The title of the Retreat was ‘Why Bother?

Now, dear reader, you will know that I find these retreats a mix of agony and ecstasy. Agony because of the enforced silence and the struggle which extroverts find without an audience and unable to get to know the other retreatants better. And ecstasy because I get peace and quiet to read and knit and watch people.

Many years ago I was convinced of the notion that diocesan clergy should retreat together. You get to know a lot about people in silence. And when the bishop comes too it shows that our leaders take it seriously too. I’m told in years gone by all the clergy came – all. Those days are long gone. Each year the numbers fall as more and more clergy find their own place to retreat – some abroad, some in convents/monasteries, and some who just don’t. The venue was blamed so it was changed and that made no difference to numbers. This year there were 2 stipendiary clergy and 2 retired NSMs signed up (and one had to cancel because of ill health) and the lay retreat at the weekend was not much better, so both clergy and lay were combined with a total of eight of us.

Next year I take over as Retreat organiser so any suggestions for encouraging folk back would be most welcome.

But back to ‘Why Bother’ and Barbara Glasson… On arrival we had a discussion about how we wanted the retreat to be. In the past we have had two addresses each day along with the Daily Offices and Eucharist. The rest of the time, including meals, have been in silence. This year we were asked if we wanted the same or something different. I really had to hold back on this one. Let others speak first, Ruth (I said to myself). Don’t bully them into what you want. Someone even said that it was the complete silence which put some folk off coming – especially people who live on their own. So it was agreed by the majority that we would have a discussion straight after the address on that topic, and that we could talk at the evening meal. If you wanted silence you could avoid the discussion and sit at a separate table and I think that worked okay. Well it worked beautifully for me. What glory, what joy. Often I’ve found something in the addresses that merited a good blether after and have been left to go and journal about it instead. Not always satisfying. This worked so much better for me. And as someone who eats alone it is such a joy to have company during the evening meal and the chance to chat. (And yes, I can hear my introvert friends silently screaming at their screens.)

Barbara based her addresses on being ‘bothered’:

  • Who/what do we bother about?
  • Who/what should we bother about?
  • About clergy living with being bothered.
  • About bothering being part of the Christian vocation.
  • About bothering being caring and soothing but also unsettling and provoking.
  • About being partners in bothering.
  • Why bother to be/stay Christian?
  • How do we resource ourselves to bother?
  • How to be-other.
  • About being God-botherers and Gospel-botherers.
  • Is Mission bothering?
  • About finding confidence to bother.

There was a lot of bothering going on and it was all good. In fact, I know I will never hear the word ‘bother’ again without some of the retreat coming back to me.

I read a bit too – about Dying Well and about murder in a monastery. Perfect retreat reading. And I knitted.

book-chairI also dreamt about my dream retreat house which would have double beds, working en-suite toilets, meals on time, good decaff coffee and tea, beautiful chapel with gorgeous, cared-for things, lots of candles, decent showers and hairdriers, large fluffy towels, reclining or rocking chairs everywhere and an up-to-date library. For starters.

In which Ruth reads and reads and reads…

I’ve been on holiday this week for my post-Christmas ‘and relax’. Of course it never is a total relax because you have a whole house to tidy which has been ignored for weeks with all the comings and goings of the Christmas season. There is forgotten mail to deal with, letters to open, filing to be done, the Archers to catch up with, the photocopier to repair, and a whole host of other thankless tasks to undertake.

I had plans of course. Oh yes, I had plans. Of art galleries to visit, movies to see, family to visit. Not one of them happened. And they didn’t happen because I had to wait in for parcels to be delivered, photocopier repairmen to arrive, a new church noticeboard to arrive, and a son who hasn’t got his Christmas presents yet to visit. That left one day in which I was free to go out and it was blowing a hoolie and all I managed was a visit to papa in the Twilight Home for the Bewildered.

I did, however, manage to read. And read. And it was glorious. Want to know what I read? books open

First I finished Fathomless Riches by The Revd Richard Coles, he of Saturday Live fame. The sub-title of the book is ‘Or How I Went From Pop To Pulpit’ and tells of his life as part of the duo that was the Communards with Jimmy Somerville to CofE Vicar and media darling. Of course there was drug taking, unsafe sex, parties and naughty behaviour before his ‘conversion’ experience and a huge shift into the world of religion and then ministry. To his credit he doesn’t talk about others in his book, well not in a kiss and tell way which so many memoirs do. Nor does he hold back on his own ‘sordid’ past and I found so many ways in which this could have been my story too. (Without the pop star bit of course!) The conversion and subsequent journey to priesthood was almost identical to mine, although I never did ‘go to Rome’. So I enjoyed reading his pilgrimage immensely.

I read two Inspector Gamache mysteries by Louise Penny, one before my holiday and one during. I am reading them in order and trying to savour them but I always reach for them when I know I will have time to read them in one go, or at the most over two days. I read Bury Your Dead (no 6 in the series) which was quite different from the others in that very little was set in the village of Three Pines (which is a bit like Midsomer where a small village is struck by a million murders a week, or so it seems). I think reading them in order is essential because the you get to know the characters gradually and that knowledge is so important to the storyline. There are three stories going on in this book, one linked closely to the previous book which is another reason to read them in order. The next book A Trick of the Light is set back in Three Pines and revolves around the art world and also continues the development of all the characters we know and love. I loved this book especially the Alleluia moment at the very end, which will mean nothing if you’ve not read the others. I’m not sure exactly why I love these books so much. Usually I prefer something much more bloodthirsty but I think they create such visual images for me, and who could resist the descriptions of the wonderful food? And there are some lovely spiritual messages in them, although they are not overtly religious.

the beesNow the next book is highly recommended – The Bees by Laline Paull is a most extraordinary book, full of religion and fierce courage and feminism and spirituality and… bees. You will never look at a bee in the same way again, and if you’re not a huge fan of bees then you will be by the end of this book. If World Book Day was giving away this book I would beg to take part and thrust it into everyone’s hands and plead with them to read it. If I say it is a bit like Watership Down I don’t want to put you off if you don’t like books written from the perspective of a creature, but it is worth trying something you might not normally read. Flora 717 is a sanitation bee, born into the lowest caste of bees, only fit to clean. But Flora is different. She is a fierce bee who wants to learn, to explore, to challenge the hive’s mantra of ‘accept, obey and serve’, and she does with exciting consequences. Some have compared this book to The Hunger Games or The Handmaid’s Tale but it is much more. I really couldn’t put this book down.

A History of Loneliness by John Boyne was another Christmas book which I’d wanted to read since I heard the author speak on radio of his reasons for writing the book. I was a huge fan of his Boy in the Striped Pyjamas but this is much more adult and set in Ireland from the 1970s to the current time and explores the child sexual abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church. It is a sad book and makes uncomfortable reading, but there is honesty and truth within it which makes it a must-read. If you are in any way concerned about the celibacy issue then this will confirm all your suspicions. And it highlights starkly the loneliness of ministry which many clergy suffer. It is a novel which surprised me and at the same time made me very sad.

So there we have it. My post-Christmas reading list. I’m trying to squeeze in the next Louise Penny one before I go back to work tomorrow. Greedy, or what?

glowing-book

A Century of Wisdom

books and coffeeDuring Lent I usually give up reading fiction for something a little more theological. It forces me to read something I might easily put aside for the latest bloodthirsty thriller. If left to my own devices I will willingly buy ‘religious’ books but never seem to get time to read them. My ‘unread’ bookcase attests to this. And I hardly ever read during the day except on my holiday. One day I will diary in some readings days and actually stick to it.

On the subject of bloodthirsty thrillers, one of the joys of the clergy conference is the conversations which happen in the Stag Bar. It was there that I discovered how much I had in common with Canon Malcolm Round, which is not something one might have expected. We both share a love of fictional thrillers, the more gory the better. He introduced me to Tess Gerritsen and I introduced him to Phil Rickman’s Merrily series.

But back to my Lent reading this year. I have just finished the first book I read which although not overtly ‘religious’ was certainly spiritual. It is A Century of Wisdom – Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer (The World’s Oldest *Living Holocaust Survivor) by Caroline Stoessinger. The book was a real surprise and not what I was expecting at all. I imagined it would be about her life in the Nazi concentration camp at Theresienstadt where she was imprisoned with her son Rafi. In fact there is very little about her time there because Alice never wished to dwell on that, but instead lived life in the moment, always looking forward. Her optimism and strength is an inspiration, especially when you read that she loved people, loved everybody, was so full of joy. How can someone who spent years in hunger and in the worst of conditions be so positive?

*Alice died on 23 February 2014 at the age of 110, after the book was written.

Alice was a concert pianist in Prague before the war and reckons that it was her musical ability which saved her life and her son’s in Theresiendstadt. She was recruited to play in the orchestra there for the Nazis and in propaganda films they made. She lost her parents, and husband in Treblinka and Auschwitz. Before the war she moved in circles of well-known artists and writers: Kafka, Rilke, and Mahler.

After the war she found that she couldn’t continue to live in Prague because of anti-Semitism and moved to Israel and then later in life to London. When she was 99 her beloved son died. She played the piano every day, taught music to make a living, and loved to receive visitors every day.

Some of Alice’s sayings give us a hint of the personality which made her so unique:

A sense of humour keeps us balanced in all circumstances, even death.

Only when we are old do we realize the beauty of life.

Complaining does not help. It only makes everyone feel bad.

Laughter is wonderful. It makes you and everyone else feel happy.

School is only the beginning. We can learn all our lives.

Stay informed. Technology is wonderful.

My world is music. Music is a dream. It takes you to paradise.

I am richer than the world’s richest people, because I am a musician.

I love people. I am interested in the lives of others.

No one can rob your mind. I admire the Jewish people because of their extraordinary commitment to high education. Education of the children is the most important family value.

We do not need things. Friends are precious.

When I die I can have a good feeling. I have done my best – I believe I lived my life the right way.

In which Ruth finishes her favourite journal

20140208_131328Did I mention how much I love stationery? Oh how I do! Lovely journals with beautiful covers thrill me more than I can say. (I’m a huge fan of PaperBlanks.) I love beautiful pens with vivid violet ink (CultPens are a great source of the unusual) and lovely puffin tins and purple staples and wooden pencils and … You get the picture.

Whenever I go off on retreat or holiday or to a course I take a notebook/journal. In it I jot down little notes and reminders. Sometimes when I come home I transfer bits to my bigger Quotes Journals or blog about the events which happened. This week I’ve been on the Clergy Silent Retreat at Whitchester and finally finished my lovely purple bejewelled journal. Who gave me it? I can’t remember but I’m sure it was a gift. I’m quite sad it has come to an end, this purple beauty, for it contains many truths and many memories. It still looks beautiful and I shall find a space where it can lie face-front in all its glory.

Do you want to know what’s in it? OK, here are just a few snippets:

  • On visiting a church famous for pilgrims, wonder why the people who take the service aren’t more friendly. Indeed, seem positively snooty. Would it hurt to ask where we’re from?
  • Retired clergy who take Clergy Retreats should not talk at length about their holiday memoirs, or insist that we all love poetry.
  • Meet clergy who are bullied, clergy who are gay but frightened to tell, clergy who are deeply unhappy. Praying seems so inadequate. Why is nobody caring for the carers?
  • Note: buy Icon to St Cuthbert by Tavener. (I never did.)
  • “Some gates only open if you work at them.” David Adam
  • “Too often church worship is weak because we have not been faithful in our own daily prayers. Its like trying to be friendly on a Sunday to someone you have ignored all week.” David Adam

O island my lovePuffin2
my windswept and craggy one
with rain and snow and sleet and wind
to batter down my defences
with sun and moon and stars
to remind me of your awesome power
with quiet and rest and stillness
to revive my spirits.

  • At Bishop’s House, Iona I did some manicures for my little flock. Someone said it was like Maundy Thursday!
  • Staffa and the water was like a millpond. Puffins are God’s comedians. Tobit should be in the lectionary more often.
  • Gilmore-Fraleigh style = Achieving/Directing
  • Saw God in the windows of St Chapelle. Adored spiral pillars and fan vaulting at St Severin.
  • “An atheist is someone who wakes up on a beautiful morning feeling thankful, and then remembers there is no one to thank.” G K Chesterton
  • Is there anything so sexual as St Theresa in Ecstasy at Chiesa di Santa Maria della Vittoria?
  • Find it hard to find God in a chantry chapel until I spotted the unicorn.
  • Thomas Traherne is lovely and all that, but he’s really just not me!
  • Every cathedral should have geese in the courtyard.
  • DSCF0227Oh Gaudi how I love thee. How I love your fluid lines, your nature-in-stone, your colour and symbols.
  • Cool light of the cloisters are places to rest and ponder.
  • Everyone should have a Black Madonna in a snowstorm.
  • Pudding stones from 1026 in a church looked like clootie dumplings.
  • Relics Exhibition at The British Museum and adored some stunning reliquaries.
  • In the bible hardly anyone goes back home – you can only go forward home.
  • Who is holy? Someone who earths God in the ordinary things of life.
  • Today, what is it that priests need to become?  Enabler, listener, risk taker, perseverer, being a bit weird, shared episcope.
  • “How can I find God’s will? God’s will, if it exists, is probably locked up in a file in the Bishop’s filing cabinet!”  Margaret Silf
  • Stop reading and start watching and noticing. Everything is a gift.
  • Taking a group on pilgrimage is like herding cats. And I never did have much of a maternal instinct. Why can’t grown-ups catch a bus/ferry/train when they’ve known the time for months?
  • Feral Goats for 2 miles.
  • Shortbread and lemon curd. Yum.
  • An Art Studio on Skye is really someone’s front room.
  • “I have often repented of speaking but never repented of silence.”
  • Rest is not what we do – it is the gift of God.
  • The gift of rest is a gift to others.
  • Accept the discomfort of not being as we would like to be. Accept others are they are.
  • Stillness enables the work of God within us. It is not about what we do, but what God does. God works in the inner heart. That’s why the Kingdom of God takes so long to come – God takes time.
  • We are so concerned with the world right we haven’t put ourselves right.
  • Humility. As soon as you think you have it, you’ve lost it!
  • Vainglory – seeking attention for ourselves, that we are better than others, taking what is due to God to ourselves. This is a big danger for the Church and clergy.
  • God covers our sins, puts his hands over them.
  • Perhaps today’s reduction in numbers in the Church is God’s plan to take away some of our power.
  • “The utterly magnetic God.” Mother Jane  God draws us to himself whether we know it or not.

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