The Number You Have Dialed Has Been Disconnected: American Christianity and Covid-19 in the Hospital

One of the most sobering things I witness in the hospital is the sudden onset paralysis of the American Christian faith.

I’m visiting a patient with disheveled hair and two devices strapped to her aged face. Her eyes have started departing from one another, adding to the assessment of her waning orientation and increasing fatigue. Her arms are strapped down in soft, blue foamed wrist restraints because Covid-19 and the toll of inpatient isolation have progressed to the degree that she is not able to participate or comply with her own treatment. The lying on the stomach, the acceptance of the high flow oxygen forced up her nose and non-rebreather mask pulling across her face, the decision-tree of what to do next–they all are outside of her grasp.

Her lifelong devotion to God and service though is intact, as much a part of the fabric of her spirit as her fingerprints to her body. She mumbles words of self-denial, praise to Jesus and the afterlife. She is visibly comforted by affirmation of her work and legacy, echo of her rejection of “this world” and recitation of scripture. It is in this setting that I, my own face covered by three layers, connect a patient to their family with gloved hand and Zoom login and seek to connect with her, a human and suffering friend.

When the patient starts crying, and states she has “no more” when the faces pop up one by one on the tiled screen, I hold her hand and observe aloud that she is crying, to ask about her sadness. I’m rebuked like only a church-kid can be by a two-dimensional virtual visitor. I broke the rule about the gag-order on “negative” emotions–it might crack the portrait of good health and thriving I’m not seeing.

Later, in a phone conversation, and weeks before that, and years before that, and tomorrow, we speak with family, so many families, about the course of Covid-19, the devastating effects on the unvaccinated lungs and, when indicated, the knowledge that it has progressed too far. In church-speak, doors are closing. Just because we can do things to the body, if the body cannot process it, should we? What is the role of the hospital and violent interventions known to be futile in this particular set of conditions? What is the role of the patient and family’s beliefs about death, life, and God in this set of conditions? Though the flesh is weak, how might the spirit become stronger?

It is painful to watch and listen when people of faith, usually hailing from specific streams of Christianity, feel forced to divorce their heart, mind and bodies from reality in order to keep their doctrine intact. When the doctrine is not a friend or companion to the bad news, in the mess, but rather rigidly adversarial and promoting of dissociative behavior. When people have sat under years and years of teaching and been discipled out of any theology of suffering, tolerance of doubt and ambiguity, and curiosity about emotions and grief, they arrive at the hospital with toothpicks when they need a steel beam. Rare patients and families with these backgrounds find themselves on a libertive journey where their lived human experience and their relationship with the Divine work in tandem to pull them to a new dimension of their faith tradition. This is done with not insignificant stress, caution, and loneliness as new information is clunky and old faith containers stretch.

And some follow the automatic and worn neurological path of denying what is seen for what is unseen, to the degree that they resort to lying, rudeness, and hostility in the gymnastic effort to maintain a narrative that is itself on life-support. “We have faith so it doesn’t matter what you say: they’re going to walk out of here.” To the degree that updates about their loved one in the ICU may actually be an offensive affront to the triumphant theology to which they are now so desperately loyal. “He’ll be fine. I prayed all day.” To the degree that an 80-year-old woman’s sadness would be denied in exchange for a one-dimensional interpretation of hope. “Don’t speak negativity over her. God’s ways are not our ways.”

In a study done by the Pew Research Center in September 2021, 55% of Christian respondents share that their church and religious organizations have not made a difference in the handling of the pandemic. While most religiously-identified people would trust their clergy to speak about vaccines and public health, most leaders have not. (Others have happily filled the void.) Protestants are less likely to be vaccinated than their Catholic, other-faith or non-affiliated counterparts. Which means I’m more likely to see them in a serious illness conversation towards the end of life. In the face of one of, if not the most universal and pervasive event of our lifetime, across age, culture, class and livelihood, the Christian leader in America has abstained from the conversation, habitually maintained mute on suffering and loss, and too often failed to recalculate and recommunicate what hope and wisdom could be. The invitation inherent to the passing moment goes unanswered.

It’s not the text. It’s not the God. It’s not the ancient ways. It’s not the intellectual and emotional capacity of humankind, Christian or otherwise. It’s a disabling interpretation and incomplete programming contingent on a cocktail of escapes, privilege, and, when challenged, denial.

Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be permanent. Human hope is rooted in our capacity to both remember and change our mind.

In the hospital, I accompany some Christian people when they enter into what feels to them like a new frontier of holding their grief and their God together. I celebrate when they connect their most human moments with their deepest experiences of the sacred. In the context of Covid-19, the irony of finding a deep breath of theological air as though underwater for too long within the experience of losing their bodily capacity for oxygen and movement is piercing.

And I watch and hold the hands of more Christian people who cannot break the surface, whose entire devout discipleship has not equipped them for the most human and inevitable times of illness and death. I hold the angry gaze of family insistent upon a god of wins, avoidance of suffering and the subsequent rejection of a virus, vaccine and the body. And I grieve with them, for what might have been.

A Slow, Low Walk in Lent

(Reposted from 3.6.19 BC)

When the holes of self become seen and embraced, when the grief is given over to, and we split the bill of life, there lays the possibility for shalom wholeness.

I can see no way forward without looking at our pain; I can realize no greater integrity and fullness by denying the truth.

Ash Wednesday’s kick off of Lent is a great collective recommitment to making room for death and dying. Instead of passing time, we mark time, in a way that opens and reveals. It requires individual work and reflection, but it is not a solitary endeavor. It is an ancient rhythm, a group pilgrimage. We together face calvary before the empty tomb, a wide and long caravan, spanning over the ages, linked by the gravity of human suffering and depravity.

It is not too hard to detect this.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

It is very easy to take ourselves too seriously, which is to say, we start denying ourselves of self-awareness and spiritual integrity. In our piety, we reject our feelings. On our pedestal, we let our fears drive us. Amongst our people, we sustain an image that wedges dynamite between the appearance and the person; a small situation, an innocuous question, and explosions occur.

It is also easy to take ourselves too lightly, particularly when we are accustomed to being dismissed. Our sadness is illegitimate, and so is our happiness. Our dreams are selfish; self help is a curse word. The abuse we have sustained is no big deal. Our gut is gagged. Our bodies are unknown and unloved.

Both of these are not the death and dying of Lent. Lent is shape and those are chaos. Lent is a trajectory, and those are a spiral. Lent is going to become liberation; those are isolation.

Which is a meandering way to get at the importance of the observance of lent as a part of a group, oriented in a faith tradition or family, stuck in a stream that is larger that one’s own vices and virtuous flat affect. Some of us are new in learning the church calendar; we only knew about 4th of July and Easter and Christmas Eve. We didn’t walk this lenten lowly walk as children, and so we are children today. Lucky for us, the Good News has always been for the least and littlest. The ones lacking inhibitions and who give thought and pause to lots of silly things and curiously consider their big toe. The least, who haven’t started collecting all the shoulds and trophies and filters.

If we follow in the footsteps of the suffering Christ, the weeping mother, the ancient way, we may just become reacquainted with our own brokenness. We can only hope. For on this path, initiated with ash, we find there is room to look at the somber truth of ourselves and the brokenness of our hearts. We find there is room to confess the dirtiest of sins and grieve the most hushed of abuses. We find there is room, in a faith featuring a long suffering Savior, to be our self–not too big, not to small–with others. Here we are reminded, the invitation is not to not be sad or tired, but to not be lonely and stuck.

On this joint pilgrimage of Lent, our broken pieces melt a little into one another and the whispered laments gain a little strength. The ash on my forehead seems similar to yours, and yours doesn’t make me love you less but more. Sorrow and grief turn out to not be the monsters we so long avoided, but the markers of a beloved humanity bursting with attachments and vulnerabilities…like a crying Jesus or collapsing Mary. Praise be.

Oh, here in the dust and dirt! Here in the honesty with one’s mess, here linked relentlessly to one another! Here grow the Easter lilies. Oh, here, here we must be again, because we forget this is where it begins.

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Recommended hands to hold during your lenten journey:

Rachel Held Evans – Lent for Lamenting – a late biblical scholar and author of major lifelines for me (Inspired and Searching for Sunday), Evans posted throughout Lent her resources for guiding this time of lament, particularly for those of us who feel “on the outs” with our church history, our church, our extended family, our faith, or God Themselves. This is especially poignant since Rachel has died, and left behind a legacy of inclusion and justice.

Christena Cleveland – 7 Last Words of Christ our Black Mother – public theologian, social psychologist, and justice-oriented believer, she is de-centering the perceived male whiteness of the crucified Christ in her project. Focusing on the 7 last words of Christ, in black church tradition, she imaginatively reinvigorates our beliefs and perceptions of calvary and Easter. Introduction linked but full series available by becoming a patron of this change-maker (as little as $2/month).

Dominique Gilliard and Erina Kim-Eubanks – Lenten Lamentations – an incredible resource meant to help guide those of us wanting to remember rightly and allow for disruption along their lenten journey. If truth is the only actual way forward, and we know Easter is ahead, perhaps we will have the courage to be truthful about our past. This series brings to light pieces of our country’s broken racial history that require deep, collective lament; looking at them to remember rightly will only further attach us to our need for the Divine and our connection to one another—sounds holy. There is also a congregational liturgy to use in conjunction with this sobering, truthful guide.

The Hospital Labyrinth

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Lent and Redeeming Humiliation

“The spiritual journey is not a career or a success story. It is a series of small humiliations of the false self that become more and more profound. These make room inside us for the Holy Spirit to come and … Continue reading

A Suffering Community

I am grateful to learn through experience and study about suffering, privilege, and the ways in which I miss out when my life is situated to buffer against pain. A 2nd article is up on The Table today, just scratching the surface and sharing some names that have been so helpful to me on this continuing journey. I continue to open up to the suffering of others and the vulnerability of this Kingdom walk, reliant upon the community and the Christ found in these margins.

Discipleship through Suffering

I’m thankful for the opportunity to add to the resources at the Center for Christian Thought’s The Table. Here is the first article I contributed on the theme of Suffering.

God, Grief and Group Projects

There are times when it seems inconceivable to believe in a God and those are the same times I’ve found it impossible to breathe without faith. Each breath requires a prayer. Each prayer a resistance to turning stone cold.

The air tight apologetics I was raised in, that tried to make story irrelevant, emotions sap credibility, and choice an insult, are a vapor. It is only the story, only the feelings, only the choice to believe in these moments when we cannot get warm. And what good is faith if not for these moments? Where proofs and data were intended to bulwark (bully?) faith into being, the test of life, of exposure to suffering, of engagement with my internal world and the true external world–those pulled me into immersion in this faith river. Those were in fact the currents that keep me and hold me, when all else has failed, and me right along with.

I’ve been asking God, Parent and Creator, I Am that I Am, “Isn’t it too much?” The attacks, the weaponry, the assault, the epidemic of lies, on the airwaves and on my street–it just. never. stops. More so, isn’t it too much, what my friend has had to bear? And that friend, and this friend, and that family member, and that country, and that people? How, God–how are people supposed to pray, to give, when they are rampaged by suffering, betrayal or disappointment–by inconsolable grief to every cell of their being? How can you expect us to believe in You under the weight of this breaking?

Is there a way to find you God, to find Love, real, not through the threshold of pain?

Is there a way to edit Gethsemane and Golgotha and keep the empty grave?

Before I knew real pain and injustice, my sturdy and safe faith was clear and confident. It’s not to say lacking in value, nor deny it a piece of the puzzle, but it was as skinny as a pre-teen with an early growth spurt–all bones and corners and a little anemic.

It’s just not that straightforward anymore. And it’s also not such a lightweight.

In the moments of highest exposure, greatest pain, and deepest grief, we are naked before God. The garden story, to me, is not only about guilt and shame but perhaps more about grief and isolation. When tragedy falls hard, there is no where to hide and we want layers and holding and concealment. Oh to have the weight of something covering, of absorbing the racking sobs, of comforting the abandoned child within.

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Impossible is the new story, and the only way we make it into the next moment is thinking, hoping–believing?–that impossible is not the end of the story. Faith is setting our eyes outside of our raw chaos–daring to think that the people who we find next to us may be of some help–that the lineage we come from, the story we’ve been ingrafted into, will repeat. The story of suffering into love. Of grieving into wholeness.

I walk with tender and vulnerable people. I am a tender and vulnerable person. Not one person whom I really know is whole. I used to see people as whole; I used to expect people to have it together. To generally be doing well. I saw them as independently successful or overall autonomous. Now, the wholeness is only done in groups. When our broken pieces, our faith, and our love for each other melt into a whole, the sum greater than the parts–the impossible becoming possible, a minute at a time. When the holes of self become seen and embraced, when the grief is given over to, and we split the bill of life, when the victory is relief lighting all pairs of eyes–this is wholeness as it was meant. This is shalom that will stay.

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And somehow, tomorrow happens in this way. Somehow the crying takes pauses. The shameful parts don’t seem so paralyzing. The death doesn’t define the life. The suffering breaks into love. And our resources are multiplied. Our generosity renews itself. Our faith is linked and sacred anew. It turns out we were made for this. It turns out everyone is doing better when we’ve all shown we’re doing a hell of a lot worse.

This will only make sense to you who have carried your stomachs in your throats for days, who also soak your steering wheel with the occasional cry fest. You’re not alone, you who audaciously prayed despite the circumstances that merit calcification of the heart. If you are searching for covering, if the cries are muffled, I hope you will ask for help. Reach and grab someone before the mask is clad, before the thoughts take over and spiral you into isolation. Include another soul into your hole-ness, and find yourself more whole than you thought. Let someone be more of who they were made to be by including them in your grief. Pray a breath prayer as a radical ellipsis into the future. Give something out of the bankruptcy and find your own anxiety and impossible a little farther away. Be undone and in turn done in by the connection and comfort of others, God incarnate.

I don’t know if God is known resiliently without deep acquaintance with suffering, but I know for us it’s been the best introduction. Regrettably, and redemptively, so.

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The good, the bad and the ugly.

Sometimes suffering comes crashing upon our personal lives despite our best maneuvers—perhaps a tragic accident or diagnosis, a betrayal or crime. But sometimes suffering touches us in the embrace of a friendship—through walking with a loved one who finds themselves in the throes of struggle.

It was natural to say yes when my neighbor asked me to read over some letters she had received. Though her English is excellent, the official documents were laden with terms difficult for me to decipher as a fluent speaker. This small invitation into Lily’s* life was the beginning of a long initiation process. I was soon researching the housing department and learning with her how to stand up against illegal hikes in rent. It is under her tutelage that I have learned about renter’s rights, power company corruption, the complexity of gaining citizenship, a vehicle towing racquet in cahoots with LAPD, and the impact of incarceration on our community. She is not a local politician or a professor of community development, urban culture, or theodicy, but perhaps she should be. Lily has taught me more than any textbook or class. And she has done so through allowing me to be her friend.

Lily has a small stature but immense presence. In her person, faith and bewilderment, celebration and grief, are fast companions. She has shown me how to walk with God in suffering, and she has generously opened a world to her friends through that posture. Lily’s life has included waves of undeserved suffering, the other not subsided before the next hits; interacting with suffering is not optional. With each wave, her authentic friendship with God has moved her theology further from steady explanations and resolutions to suffering, and my own with it. What I have lost in certainty, I’ve gained in empathy. Nerves newly exposed. As a witness and companion to Lily, I have felt the discomfort of losing touch with that worldview and the reassuring, privileged sense of order and justice in the world I once held. I have also felt the companionship suffering breeds. When we have gone through dark valleys, she is one of the first to listen. To cook. To cry. And I am bowled over all over again at the way love and friendship multiply themselves.

As aware as I have become of my privilege from trying to keep up with spiritual giants such as Lily, I continue to have impressive blindspots. I speak out of new knowledge and experiences too often, instead of letting them settle, and staying humble and contrite. I struggle to apply the things I’ve learned at Lily’s side to the little souls under my care.

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As a mother, I am daily challenged by the desire to nuance judgments and descriptions that seem inescapable in our binary climate. But parenting doesn’t wait for preparedness. I cringed when I first heard my oldest talk about bad guys, many years ago. It’s hard for me when they play cops and robbers. I pray, “God, please help relieve my heart from things I cannot carry, feelings you’re not asking me to feel. Grow in my children a sensitivity that is loving. Help me know…what is good to teach them.” 

How do you help a child, so honored in Scripture for their simplistic faith, refrain from oversimplifying people into good and bad? How do you decide what is innocent play and what needs to be reframed–in the name of loving playmates who have been terrorized by, guilty of, or in the middle of cops and robbers? How do I help this mess of boyhood mine to embrace suffering, to endure loss, as an invitation…when I barely remember myself? To have more time between hearing about something and knowing why it happened. How do I show them misfortune is so often the ultimate bridge between people, not a charge against them?

When things go sideways, from a toy breaking to a sickness, I watch their minds and hearts try to make sense. To sum up whys and dive into despair or push away with blame. I see the nature of Job’s friends in the Bible, of my own craving for judicial order and linear effects. This is a big job–to fight the goliath of distance from suffering as an adult, and also try to be alert to it as a parent. This is a calling.

Walking alongside Lily was initially a choice, indicating my privilege. But now I consider it a luxury in its own right. She’s shown me more of Jesus, and because I’m learning, just by being nearby, I have hope for my kids. That their privilege, their resources, and their choices will not keep them away from truth and complexity. I hope they have to unlearn less than me, and that extending friendship to suffering will be second nature.

We are all learning beside each other, in this big city, on this little street. Suffering lives nearby. But friendship and love are growing like weeds, thriving in its shadow. A child, with children, I’m lucky and humbled to reside right here.

Eyes to See

I have to see my neighbor to respond. I have to be near them to identify they’re hurt, that there in their face is Jesus, and in the space between me and them is the salvific command, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Perhaps others have better memory. God has seen it fit for me to stay in physical proximity to arrays of need, since moving to the equator at 13 till now, at 32, living on an equator between rich and poor. And I still forget. I still forget we belong to each other and the good samaritan example is the climax of this life of Christian discipleship.

Yes, there are needs everywhere, and so many under my own roof, but there’s something forceful about living in a place where your looks don’t match, your culture and background don’t match, and your norms are shown to be privilege, with daily reminders of the inequity and blight of this temporal world. It is my pleasure, my privilege, and my pain to be a guest here. Yes, becoming less and less each day but no matter how it all develops, it started with choice, and that sets me apart. It will always set me apart.

I live and love in a beautiful neighborhood with lush, inventive yards, gourmet home chefs, majestic magnolias, and strollers and children and small businesses everywhere. There are also money stores, robbing the poor, and failing schools, feeders to a criminal justice system that feels more criminal than just. Heat reverberating off the cement, bouncing off the stucco, gleaming in the sweat of hardworking people, pointed in the bars on the windows and burning in the hearts of the mothers wanting the best for their children.

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It is here, between three planes of cement, with a faraway sky looking down from above, that a neighbor was attacked, stabbed more than a dozen times, in the middle of the thoroughfare between the middle school my husband works in, that started my entrance into this zip code, and the elementary school my children attend. At 11 in the morning, before God, in the alley that looks like a gutter, blood was pooling, and people poured out from all the walls.

It is here I was reminded with scarlet and shrieking alerts that good samaritans do not work remotely. And though physically I may live in the midst of need, I can emotionally and mentally relocate. Her cries echo still in our community, pulling us out of our silos, pointing us, pointing us, back to the road to Jericho. Asking us, asking us–when was the last time you touched the stranger, risked your safety? When was the last time it cost you something to prepare for this eternal life?

The men called the professionals and offered advice. The impromptu team of women bent low, the first to touch, to ask about her kids, as though meeting in the market–the lifelines of connection, family and what to live for. The Lord shielded the eyes of the children, no classes out between nutrition and lunch, no transfers between electives and schools. Pressure, and touch, and prayers applied. Blood thickened, the loss slowing. Hearts went out, and were returned emboldened.

We didn’t know where all the wounds were. We never do.

In time the uniforms arrived. She was taken to better help. Her son on the way. Her attacker found. A young man, wounds inside, being chased by his own attackers. God have mercy.

I was on my way to precious office hours. The privileged work I’m paid for, the place where children are not tugging and the climate is controlled. I saw my friend running. The screaming was not a normal screaming. The interruption was glaring, the invitation stark. I couldn’t miss it. But so often, so often, I do. In less dramatic stories, I find the angle to the other side of the street. I don’t look up from my text, my text of Christian employment, domestic hurry, measured sacrifice, as though that could be true. I miss the bending to the ground, the giving and finding of life, the neighbor I so need.

I forget that the commands are in the middle of the gift, the good samaritan told in the context of how to gain. The mystery of this Christian life is not how well it coincides with our American identity and sensibilities and comfort. The mystery of this Christ-filled life is how the giving and the lessening and the kneeling is our only way of promotion and purpose. The broken hallelujahs. The breaking of the bread. The exposure of scars.

“In shattered places, with broken people, we are most near the broken heart of Christ, and find our whole selves through the mystery of death and resurrection, through the mystery of brokenness and abundance.” -Voskamp, A Broken Way. Blessed are you when bad things happen and faćades fall down–favored, preferred, attended to by God are you when…

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This morning I was replanting feeble seedlings in a garden bed. I am a stranger to growing green, to trying new things, and risking failure. As I pressed on the good soil I had mixed in with the old, surrounding the small plant–propping it up with a hope and a prayer–I heard “you hem me in, behind, and before…you lay your hand on me…” I felt so lucky to have laid my hand on that dear woman in a time of brokenness, and a few days later, replanting for abundance, both pressing and feeling pressed upon. A couple hours later a friend sent me the same text, graphic and new.

Yes, there is no where we can flee from His glory. In death, in pain, in the gutters of our own selfishness, we are not abandoned. We are surrounded, as though a woman in an alley, bleeding but helped, wounded but rescued. We are each so human, so broken. Vulnerable. And these very things, which Jesus tenderly modeled, are the currency of God’s favor and love–of transcendent life. Give and receive; break and find life.

See and be seen.

Nostalgia – Lent Day 1, Week 1

<< With gratefulness, I’m using my college friend’s devotional guide this Lenten season that brings in the scripture readings, reflections, parts of Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book record, and actual coloring pages designed by different artists. >>

The theme for the first week is Nostalgia. Like Garret, I have a strong internal voice from yesteryear, that influences much too much of how I evaluate Today. This unwelcome companion to my adulthood wants to define success for a life it knows nothing of and a life that yearns for godly success on its own terms. My old voice competes with the answer to “What is God’s invitation to me now, here?” and I feel, and know, and see that this voice contributes to my ongoing battles with discontent and depression.

I echo this part of the guide’s reflection: “…help me navigate the passion of my past with the wisdom of my present.”

I am filled with questions. What does spiritual formation look like now–what has it looked like for wives and moms of young kids, unpracticed in self-care, uncomfortable with traditional gender roles, and unfurled in this age of pseudo-connection and polarized faith? What space does passion inhabit when I am engrossed in other people’s needs almost every waking moment? What does the suffering and lament of Christ this season invite me to, as I both set aside temporal longings and find fulfillment and footing in the ancient, sacred rhythms?

img_5067The passages for today are 1 Kings 19:9-14, and Ps. 103:8-14. We were directed to listen and focus on particular verses in the song.

To me, verse 10 sang freedom. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. He does not maintain and enforce the old yardstick by which I measured my self; that was not His idea anyway.

Verse 8 also fought hard against the voice. The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He does not hold me to a standard of motherhood and womanhood I cannot keep. He did not author the rubric I use to berate myself. His judgment is loving. His approach is calm.

In case you too are working hard to claim the Good News of liberation from past plans that have become judgments, I share this. Life is brutal; our God, our Savior, is not. His suffering is purposeful, foretold, redemptive. At times, I suffer as a part of His call. But other times, I suffer because of something empty, expired, and exhausting–a noise so consistent, so established, it’s been excused and accommodated though it no longer fits or rings true. As I step into more reflection this week, I am aware of the perils of this nostalgia soundtrack and my need for a Savior’s voice.

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