Tag Archives: dying to self

Exploring Solitude: Learning to Be

So What Do You Do Out There All Day Alone?

 “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being,
with all your strength, and with all your mind . . .” Luke 10: 27(CEV)

“Why not? I thought this is what it is all about. I have this list. I told some of the people I would. You are not making any sense!”

I was on my second circuit around the lake arguing with God. This was the first day of an extended period of solitude at the hermitage and things had started off with a big fight.

I had made arrangements for my family, shared my plans with friends and clients, packed my provisions, gathered up my good intentions, and stepped into solitude with considerable self importance.

God went right to work on me. On the first day I ran into a wall. That was why I had thrown my journal on the floor and stomped off to the pasture. That was why I was walking around the lake pleading and arguing with the Holy One.

The word of the Lord that had come unto me was this:

Thou shalt not pray for other people or projects or events while here. Thou shalt not worry and fret about them or their futures. Thou shalt not dwell on the past.

 

Thou shalt pray on my terms.  Any intercession will be at my invitation,  not your over-functioning,  good intended, works righteous,  anxiety ridden,  guilty, controlling ego.

 

Thou shalt partner with me in bringing in my kingdom not by being available to the world, but by being available to me. Thou shalt get the first commandment well established in thy heart before thou shalt be ready for the second.

So it had come to this. My will versus God’s will.

I had planned to pray for others and for the needs of the world, while I was at the hermitage. God’s word to me shook my very foundations. Huh? What am I going to do out here then? This is a question people often ask me when I tell them I take a day a week for solitude.

It has taken me years to untangle myself from relationships and assuming too much responsibility for others’ well being. The notion that just being with God without doing anything in particular is foreign to many. It may take us a while to learn how to simply be present to God and enjoy our relationship with the Source of All Being.

We learn to detach ourselves from the things of creation in order to more fully attach ourselves to the Creator, in whom we rediscover the creation. In this new context my relationship to the world is transformed. Where my attachment to the creation was enmeshed, codependent, grasping, urgent, and possessive, it becomes freer, less sticky, as I allow others to be as they are. No longer do I demand things of people or of the world. No longer do I attempt to control or manipulate them, because my deepest needs are being met my God.

So what does one “do out there all day long?” All kinds of things: read, listen, watch, pray, walk, rest, create. . . .as one slowly is weaned from “doing” itself. One gives up the addiction to producing, efficiency, and ego enhancing, controlling behaviors in favor of the freedom of being, to joining with the One who gave the divine name to Moses as the holiest of names: I am. One discovers the gratitude and joy in sheer being. In this shift of perspective the things of creation are no longer “objects” for me to manipulate, persuade, desire, or possess, but holy beings themselves, each shimmering in their own goodness and beauty.

How this transformation occurs, I believe, is a process over a life time. It is different for each person, according to the work of the Holy Spirit. You may be called to suffer, to face hidden truths about yourself, to encounter evil, to repent, to grieve, and to experience ecstasy and bliss. You may also have periods of very ordinary, grounded experience with little drama or fireworks.

The common thread through the variety and intensity of experience and activity that may occur in solitude is surrender of the self, a kind of dying and letting go of whatever you may be hanging onto in place of God, who wants no less than all of you.

Whether you argue or whine, pout or throw your journal across the room, the task, over and over, is to forsake all other lovers and lay down your life before the One Shining, Sweet, and Unfathomable Power without whom you are nothing.

God has no need of our works.

God has need of our love.  

Therese of Liseaux

 

 

Solitude Practice:

  • How does the need to produce and “do” express itself in you? Through overworking, anxiety, fear, trying to control others?
  • Recall a time when you were able to just be with God. Where were you, what enabled that kind of awareness and presence? How did such a time affect your subsequent presence to your work and other people?
  • When they were little, my children used to tell me at times: “Mom, you need to go out to the cabin.” What helps you become aware of your need for solitude?

Next post in this series: Exploring Solitude: Meeting the Crucified One

Blood on My Hands – A Reflection on Love and Violence

If the Judeo-Christian ferment is not dead, it must be engaged in an obscure struggle against deeper and deeper layers of the essential complicity between violence and human culture.    Rene Girard

Only a few weeks ago on Easter Sunday we sang “The strife is o’er, the battle done; the victory of life is won; the song of triumph has begun: Alleluia!”

Something in me wants to say: Not!

Just what kind of strife is over, what sort of battle won? The constant drumbeat of war and strife seem to drown out any victory for life. Battles erupt and spread through the world like wild fire. Reading Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw’s  Jesus for President , I came across these statistics about defense spending:

The US arsenal is the largest stockpile of nuclear weaponry in the world, equivalent to over 150,000 Hiroshima bombs. US military budget is over 450 billion per year, and it would take the combined budgets of the next 15 countries to equal that of the US (Russia is the next biggest spender at around 70 billion, China at 50 billion, and the entire “Axis of Evil” is less than 10 billion. (p.178)

Then last week we learned of a decisive, courageous act of violence which seeks, if not to end the war on terror, to seriously debilitate it, while attempting to obtain justice for those so horribly wronged.

On the surface I felt a mixture of relief, satisfaction, and a sober resignation to the violence. As the days passed I kept asking, was not the state sponsored violent execution, to which the Son of God surrendered, supposed to end all this? Why are we still killing each other in the effort to preserve peace, when we have already killed the Prince of Peace who shook off death and rose to proclaim the forgiveness of sins?

Christians declare that in Christ’s death and resurrection a momentous, wrenching, earth shattering shift occurred in our relationship with God and with one another. So why is it business as usual? Sin, evil, resentment, lust, greed, war continue to thrive and spread.

With the Judeo-Christian ferment still strong in my heart, the killing of Osama Bin Laden has engaged me in that obscure struggle, which anthropologist Girard describes, against the deeper and deeper layers of the essential complicity between violence and human culture.

The very fact that I may live safely on a quiet street in Kansas, as I leisurely consider such questions, is a tip of my hat to countless individuals whose struggles, deaths, and acts of preemptive and retaliatory violence, have helped to preserve the peace I enjoy.

That peace was troubled six weeks ago, when I woke in the night terrified by a dream. I was staying in the home I grew up in, where I had been sorting through family treasures, photos, records, and sixty years of lives well lived. My father is deceased and mom now lives in a care center. My siblings and I are preparing the home for sale. I was in town that weekend to attend the auction of my father’s collection of Indian relics. The stone tools, arrow points, ax heads, and weapons had been his passion, a focus of a life-long study of the early people who lived in Southeast Iowa and whose history extends back thousands of years.

The dream was deeply disturbing. A demonic, ghostly presence is in the house moving about. A small white poodle lies under a table. Suddenly its fur turns bright red, like blood, as though a red light were shining upon it. I place my hands on the side of the dog where the light was shining. When I pull them away, my palms have real blood on them.

I want to show my hands to my brother. Then suddenly a terrifying presence is with me. I scream very loudly and in screaming, cough up a wad of phlegm, which flies out of my mouth into the air. I think to myself my brother will be here soon, and I wake myself up screaming.

Good grief, I thought, shaken, what was that about? As I lay fearful and pondering the blood on my hands, the blood seemed to change in my memory from wet blood to a small rust colored stain in the center of the palm of each hand.

 

I got up and walked through the house, past the stacks of old photographs and the large ornate memorial pictures commemorating the deaths of various family members. A blue willow plate that traveled in a covered wagon with my Great Aunt Ethel sat among old family dishes. A china chamber pot leaned next to a pile of scrap books containing local history.

The process of closing a home is disorienting, chaotic, and uprooting. Objects handled by generations are stirred up, turned over, lifted out of boxes, hauled down from attics, and exposed to the light. Once Dad took me to Indian mounds under excavation. I remember walking along a wooden platform that circled the mound and looking down at the tiers of the remains.

There are whispered stories of violence in my family history – suicide, murder, conflict, suffering, grief. Who am I to rail against war, when my hands have blood on them in ways both known and unknown to me? My civilized life is complicit with violence. In fact “civilization” stands on the shoulders of violence and layers upon layers of sacred bones.

 

The story does not end here, nor the gift of my dream. Though the roots of terror and violence run deep in the human heart, succumbing to violence to end violence is only a temporary solution.

Anthropologist Gil Bailie writes:

Violence is immensely compelling. Those who witness spectacles of violence can be seduced by its logic even when – perhaps especially when – they are morally scandalized by it. Violence is labyrinthine. It turns back on itself in serpentine ways. The paths that seem to exit from its madness so often lead deeper into its maze.
… We may no longer be able and willing to turn violence into religion [as in primitive approaches to violence, such as human sacrifice and scapegoating], but neither are we able to turn the other cheek, and the conventional way of resisting evil causes the contagion of evil to spread, perpetrated by those who are most determined to eradicate it. How to resist evil in ways that prevent its spread is now history’s most fundamental dilemma. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled – Humanity at the Crossroads, (p. 90)

How do we resist evil in ways that prevent its spread and prevent our own vulnerability to its contagion?  For the followers of Christ, the Way is in the manger and hanging from the cross. The Way is meeting us as we remember Christ’s suffering and resurrection. The Way is obedience to the greatest commandment: to love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. (Matthew 22:37)

Perfect love is what casts out terror, not more terror.

There is no terror in love. But perfect love drives out terror, because terror has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
                                                                        I John 4: 18.

When our love is divided, when our love is parceled out and diffused among many desires, we are like a branch cut off from the vine. When we succumb to fear and anxiety, we wither, wilt, and die. When other desires stand between our hearts and that supreme Love, the power given to us in the cross of Christ is diluted, blocked, and becomes irrelevant to us.

Cain Leads Abel to Death

After I walked through the house, I went back to bed and a fervent prayer rose up in me. I prayed against that dark presence and for each family member, going back through the generations, all the way to Cain and Abel. I prayed for the ancient people, whose relics had been in my family’s respectful care for close to sixty years. The artifacts, now scattered, rested in unfamiliar hands. I prayed for all my relations, my brothers and sisters throughout time and space. I prayed for their protection, for forgiveness, healing, freedom, and peace. I prayed for their fullest joy in God. I prayed with the authority of my baptism for anything evil to depart and leave these ones alone. I prayed through the victory of Jesus won by his shed blood, once, for all.  I prayed like a house afire for everyone I could think of. Recalling my dream, I not only spit on the devil, I hocked a big loogie. Then I turned over and slept like a baby.

Gil Bailie illuminates the significance of the mysterious redemptive power of the crucifixion and the implications for our time with his anthropological perspective.

Humans in crisis easily succumb to social contagions that end in violence that is accompanied by a primitive form of religious intoxication.  In the final analysis, the only alternative to the simulated transcendence of social contagion and violence is another experience of religious transcendence, one at the center of which is a God who chooses to suffer violence rather than sponsor it. (Violence Unveiled – Humanity at the Crossroads, p 66)

“Put down your weapon!” Jesus told Peter, when Peter drew his sword to defend his master and severed the soldier’s ear.

The choice to suffer violence, rather than sponsoring it, is made possible by an extraordinary love for God, the Transcendent Power of the Universe. This is the greatest and first commandment. Only as this is followed may the second commandment of love for neighbor and self be fully embraced. For it is love for God, which gives one the strength for suffering the sins of others, the capacity to forgive, the faith to believe in the unseen possibility of new life, and the hope to endure. Love of God bestows the deeply sustaining and transforming inner communion with Love itself. Love of God releases the rushing river of redemption to flow through us into the world.

.

We are all complicit. We all have blood on our hands. The strife is o’er, the battle done; the victory of life is won for those who have suffered, along with Jesus, the crucifixion in themselves of all that is not love. These carry the stain of the blood of the Lamb in their palms.

Love wins.

For love is
as strong as death, passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.   Song of Songs 8: 6b-7

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Resurrection’s Rude Affront

But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.   Mark 16: 6-8

It is no wonder that they didn’t get it at first.

The distance from his line to theirs
is years of light -
from sorrow to joy,
despair to hope
death row to picnic in the park.

We still don’t get it.
We still haven’t made the perilous journey
beyond the edges of the known territories.
We want mostly to slouch around the tomb
spicing up death
dissecting sorrow.
Misery is kin.
Failure familiar.
But the man acquainted with grief
is intimate with gladness.

And when they arrived,

he was gone.

Of course,
just when you think you are going to put your hands
on divinity,
just when it seems to be holding still enough
to catch
just when swirling matter and energy
hesitates
pauses 

it’s gone to Galilee.

And we are left holding the spices.

Best make a pie
for death will not lie down
to wear grief’s flavor.
There is a joke here,
a cosmic practical joke.

If you go to the tomb
to tend to the dead
and talk to the angel,
you risk losing everything
that holds your life together.
But after you have already
lost most of it anyway
in the event that has brought
you to death’s house,
you really haven’t much to lose.

It is the suffering, the anguish
that has you scurrying at dawn
to touch for one last time
your love.
It is there you may see angels,
when all hope is lost,
all reality laid low.

Then the words of angels
will strike you,
crack you
open
and leave you spilling
down the sides of mercy.

Someone is laughing
and you still damp with tears
had hoped to spend the night
in sorrow’s arms.

A rude affront to ones
adjusted to the gloom,
this grinning angel,
garish almost in his gleam.

 

This post is excerpted from Quem Quaeritis?Whom Are You Seeking by Loretta F. Ross. This readers’ drama has been performed extensively, including a performance by the Metropolitan Memorial Methodist Church in Washington, DC.
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The Morning After

Well, it’s over, thank
goodness.
The lilies droop.
The chocolate bunnies hunch
half eaten in the plastic grass.
Mrs. Mitchell runs the sweeper
in the sanctuary
sucking up the alleluias.
It’s over
and we made it.
We said it wouldn’t be easy.
We said we would be taking up the cross.
But the pain catches us
off guard
and we hunt
for other causes.
We said, “Yes, Lord, we will follow,”
and sauntered into lent
with the nonchalance of toddlers reeling
along some sheer drop off
all ignorant of our peril.
So when it comes.
The event, the person, the inner turmoil
which nudges us to embrace
the cross’s hideous face,
we forget
and call it irreconcilable differences
or stress or heartburn.
_____________
Once I went through a very painful period of deep suffering. When I talked with my spiritual director about it, he asked, “What have you been praying for?”
“To be conformed to God’s will.”
“Well, what did you expect?” he said.
We have an uncanny way of compartmentalizing our life in God. For some of us the things we say to God in church, the prayers, and songs, appear to have little connection to the life we lead outside church. How many times have we prayed “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” and then gone home and worried all week about the state of the economy, our nation, or our families?
Several people lately confided to me how afraid they are about the world. These are deeply faithful people, yet they are afraid. As for me, I, too, fretted most of last week – those useless “what should I do next” worries. The one we follow has explicitly told us not to fear. Yet we try to justify our fear by hunting around for the cause of our discomfort and call it whatever is fashionable – midlife crisis, the government, the economy.
In doing that we subvert the process of growth and maturity God has initiated within us, usually at our request. Think about it. What sort of things have you been asking of God lately?
The sacred action of transformation within our souls as individuals and nations will create turmoil, uncertainty, painful loss, and suffering. This is the cross. At the same time it is purposeful, hopeful, and to those who remain grounded in faith will, absolutely, result in new life and greater freedom to love and serve one another.
For me the bottom line is this, where do I get my news?  What is my foundation, the central fact and eternal truth of my life?  CNN, FOX News, my wimpy ego, or the Risen One calling me to trust in the hidden life and power of God around every bend in the road?
Now – go eat the rest of that chocolate bunny and have a day full of wonders!

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Holy Spirit Contracting

 Demolition, Alterations, Renovations, Disaster Reconstruction

His delight is not in the strength of the horse,
nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner;
but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him,
in those who hope in his steadfast love.   Psalm 147: 10-11

j0432555I have been freaking out. Jesus is in my interior space and he is rearranging the furniture. He pushes a couch across the room. What! Are you going to put that over there? He opens a closet door and starts sorting through things I had hidden away. He is making piles of stuff to haul to the landfill and take to Good Will. Wait, Jesus! I might need that!  The place is a mess.  I hope nobody stops by unannounced.

Jesus doesn’t seem to mind the chaos he is making and pretty much ignores me. He pulls out something and holds it up. “Here take a look at this,” he says. Then I cringe, or weep, or shudder, or feel a tiny bit hopeful.

I asked for this. I prayed one of those reckless prayers which come upon us occasionally. Then I went and asked others to pray for me too. Really reckless. The prayer was to remove those things in me that blocked my receptivity to the Grace of God. What prompted the prayer was my need. You know – the frustration, weariness, sadness, loneliness, fear – it comes in many forms – that eats away at your peace and joy.

You start thinking, well if I could just get this thing changed, or add this or subtract that from Big Sale sign in red over white backgroundmy life – ah then I would feel so much better. As you know, this is the basic doctrine of The  Church of  Unholy Consumption, in which most of us are credit card carrying members. We get our daily devotions from TV commercials and the advertising that permeates every nook and cranny of our lives. We are reassured over and over that our problems may be solved by satisfying our desires. Figure out what you want and then go get it. You deserve it. Don’t know what you want? Well may we make a suggestion? We just got this new ratchet in today!

Of course we have desires and need to respect them and get them met appropriately. But desires may quickly become disordered and increasingly demanding. Ian Matthews (The Impact of God-Soundings from St. John of the Cross) writes, “When desire is out of order, it increasingly causes fatigue, anxiety, confusion, a sense of guilt, and finally an inability to do anything about it. It is a picture of addiction where the person’s dependence is killing him. … Disorder here, while it may bring gratification, ultimately kills joy.” (Page 41)

Jesus, no snake oil salesman of salvation, offers something radically different and – let’s be honest here – painful. John of the Cross writes about the process of deeper communion with Christ, “To come to what you know not, you must go by way of where you know not.”

To simply to be present to a need without having to blame someone, rush out and fill it, or feel ashamed is something people recovering from addictions understand very well. Iain Matthews continues: “Not filling the gap can feel like starving, but it allows the genuinely new to be disclosed. It allows one to live not as a consumer among objects, but as a person among persons fit for communion, for the love which can hold the other, and be held with open palms. That is the level of spirit: availability as a person for communion: the space for the gift of the Other. This is more than just a rearrangement of the pieces.” (pages 44-45)

Albert Einstein said, “No problem was ever solved by the same mind that created it.” Yet we think our problems will be resolved by a rearrangement of the pieces, that is, changing the organization of our lives, our relationships, our jobs, our life partners, our churches, our institutions. We think we can bring wholeness for ourselves by restructuring, redistribution, reimagining, and redesigning. We think strong horses and fast runners will solve our problems. Such thinking keeps us at the surface level and relying on ourselves – our intellect, creativity, and flexibility – for the answers. We refuse to tolerate the painful “gap” through which the genuinely new may be disclosed and Grace may emerge.

cyclone_hedgeshearwavyThere may come a time when you just get sick of it. You see the shallowness, the lack of freedom, the treadmill nature of operating our lives on the level of our senses. You are tired of watching the shadows of your ever shifting, ever insatiable surface desires. You may see a need for a deep down fundamental shift, a conversion of your heart. You may say, “Jesus, I want more than a rearrangement of the pieces. I want you.”

That’s Jesus’ cue. And he hops right to it. He sets to work, not on your external reality – the things you thought needed to be improved – but on reordering your desires themselves. He shifts your priorities, your values. He prunes runaway pride. He hacks out dead attitudes. He fires up a chainsaw and cuts away whole walls of rigid thinking. And friends, it is just as he told us. It feels terrible. It feels like you are dying, because you are.

Eugene Peterson paraphrases the verses from Psalm 147 above in this way: He’s not impressed with horsepower; the size of our muscles means little to him. Those who fear God, get God’s attention; they can depend on his strength. j0178928

Christ opens the gate on that pen of strong horses you had corralled and sets them free. He dismisses all the fast runners – the thinkers, the experts, the latest technologies. And you are left with your fear, your wonder, and your love for this God who cares enough about you to enter into you and create such a rumpus. There in the mess you untie your hope from your own efforts and strength and attach it to the strength of God. And little by little you begin to trust that something new and amazing is emerging, something which you could never think of or make happen in a thousand years.

Now tell me, who wouldn’t love a God like this?

 

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Kids with Knives

Jesus pumpkin 3

Nine kids: nine pumpkins. Grandpa and Grandma, with a pot of taco meat and fixings. After the dumb game where I make them interview each other and then introduce each other to the group, we get to work.

Knives: Five boys around a table covered with newspaper. Two girls in the kitchen. Two more on the patio. Seeds. Lots of seeds and stringy pumpkin innards. Laughter.  scooping

“I am making a bat.”
“I’m gonna have two faces on mine.”  
“Hey, where’s the knife?”

Then – that studied silence of creativity and focused concentration. Grandpa helping with the finer points of carving. Grandma taking photos, hunting up a toothpick to save a broken piece, helping set up the food.

Through it all – a barking puppy named Elijah, confined to his kennel in the kitchen, itching for a wild rumpus. We let him out and some of the kids take him for a walk.

Supper: tacos, chips, salsa, apple slices in caramel dip. Mrs. Miller’s yummy bundt cake with black and orange sprinkles. No leftovers.

Lesson:  We take off our shoes and gather in the prayer room. The sophisticated high school juniors sit down with the middle schoolers. One or two stretch out on the floor. Others wrap up in a prayer shawl. We turn out the lights. We settle down. Elijah does not. He is back in the kennel and very much wants to be in on this lesson. The little prophet, still early in his ministry, has not yet heard “the still small voice.” aleah

What does Jesus mean when he tells us to deny ourselves and to die? We watch a Nooma video about how death is the engine for life. We think about how parts of ourselves can get in the way of our ability to love or to be compassionate. Like the part of ourselves that always has to be right, to look good, or to impress others. The video is pretty sophisticated for this age group. I wonder if it is making any sense. The kids are quiet and listening intently.  

Elijah keeps barking. I bring him in and try to calm him. He only gets worse. I take him back. Grandma, who is not all that keen on dogs, goes out to the kitchen, kneels down before his kennel, and entertains Elijah with a paper towel.

I ask the kids what desire in them might need to die, what desire is getting in the way of God’s work for them and through them. One by one we bring an unlit candle forward to where there is a small statue of Jesus carrying a cross. We light the candle and place it near Jesus as a symbol of what we want to let go of. While we are praying, we listen to Dona Nobis Pacem sung by Beth Nielsen Chapman. Some of us sing along. We are silent for a little longer, gazing at all the candles around Jesus. We say amen. One sixth grader, wrapped in a shawl stretched out close to the candles, announces loudly, “I just love that chant!”

We go outside, light our pumpkins, and carry them home into the dark.Bill smith helping

I say I am too old for this. My youth group days are long over. I say I cannot devote the time and energy these kids deserve. I say we should be having lock-ins, going on mission trips, meeting more frequently. What I do seems so small. I teach them how to be still, silent, and prayerful. And I love them, wholly, and with a kind of wild desire for their highest good in God now and always.

I go to bed deeply grateful for grace in the midst of chaos. I think about the kids in Chicago where knives are wielded for a completely different purpose. At church this Sunday we had celebrated Children’s Sabbath. Some of these youth shared information with the congregation about the horrible neglect and suffering of many children in our country. The kids I work with are deeply loved and cared for by large extended families and a whole church pretty much totally gaga about their every move. My heart aches, thinking of kids for whom a knife is only a weapon, for whom school is a crime scene, and a walk down the street an invitation for murder. What needs to die in us for our children to stop dying?

As we were cleaning up Grandpa told me, “It is a miracle no one got cut!” Hmm, I think, no. Grandpa and Grandma, the miracle is that you are here. 

Jesus pumpkin 4

Special thanks to Bill and Sharon Smith, Eleanor Miller, Jean Schultz, Dave Strobel, “the pumpkin man,” everyone at Crestview UMC, and all of you who try to be present to children wherever they are.

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