Beyond the Shadow of Doubt

Acts 2:14a, 22-32 | Psalm 16 | 1 Peter 1:3-9 | John 20:19-31


Oh, the Easter joy!

We proclaim our resurrected “Alleluias!” as we continue in the glorious season of Easter. There’s not enough to be said of the exuberance of Easter morning joy, the euphoria that comes with the masses celebrating our Risen Lord: our newest frocks, the fragrance of the lilies, and music of the angels. We get caught up in the moment, carried away into the sentiment of the masses, but the mass sentiment that sends us into praise also carried us into cries of “Crucify him!” not long ago. All the more reason for our renewed praise to resound to the heavens, for God’s will surpasses our will, God’s triumph overcomes our transgressions, and God’s love knows no limits . . . even for the masses and especially for the individual.

If the Easter joy hasn’t caught up to you yet or if you’re spiritually fatigued or maybe even heartbroken, you might sympathize with Thomas today. Grief strikes us all differently, and I can imagine Thomas as one not so quick to rebound. We have the luxury of hindsight that gives us assurance of what’s to come. No matter how sincerely we move through Lent and Holy Week and enter into darkness of life without Jesus, we know Easter’s coming; so we never really lose sight of the Light that is Christ. And don’t get me wrong, I’m infinitely grateful for this eternal hope. But our kinship with Thomas is this: he attends to his very real and present grief, and he’s openly honest about doubting even the good news proclaimed by his friends.

In case you’re lost in thought about your own heartache or grief, let me draw you in as we move into deeper understanding of our dear apostle Thomas. Moving deeper into understanding requires equally deep listening. You’ve probably heard me mention holy listening before–something familiar to you if you’re involved in contemplative practices or if you are familiar with the work of Parker Palmer. In Parker Palmer’s Circles of Trust, the circles or groups use a “third thing” to get us outside ourselves, untangled from our monkey minds of busy thoughts and self-centeredness, and get us closer to God. Poetry is most often used as the third thing, for good poetry has a way of pointing toward greater truths, which is the case in Denise Levertov’s poem “Saint Thomas Didymus.” She writes from the viewpoint of Thomas, taking us in and through his web of grief.

Before I share the poem, however, it’s important to know that when we use a poem or other reading or art or music as a gateway to deeper understanding, we set our intention on being present and still as we can be. We heighten our awareness like a hunter, seekers that we are, as we listen for what pricks not only our ears but our hearts. What makes us tense or relaxed? Where do we sense a surge of energy or feel our flesh tingle with goosebumps? Trusting that we are in a safe and holy place and time, we open our whole selves to prayer, opening heart, mind, and soul to hear, ponder, wonder, and maybe even understand what God might reveal to us.

Now with presence and prayerful attention–maybe even closing your eyes, we turn to Levertov’s portrayal of Thomas, who begins with a flashback to a time earlier in Jesus’ ministry when a father with a son possessed comes seeking healing (Mark 23-25). She writes:

In the hot street at noon I saw him

a small man

gray but vivid, standing forth

beyond the crowd’s buzzing

holding in desperate grip his shaking

teethgnashing son,

 

and thought him my brother.

 

I heard him cry out, weeping and speak

those words,

Lord, I believe, help thou

   mine unbelief,

 

and knew him

my twin:

a man whose entire being

had knotted itself

into the one tightdrawn question,

Why,

why has this child lost his childhood in suffering,

why is this child who will soon be a man

tormented, torn, twisted?

Why is he cruelly punished

who has done nothing except be born?

The twin of my birth

was not so close

as that man I heard

say what my heart

sighed with each beat, my breath silently

   cried in and out,

in and out.

 

After the healing,

he, with his wondering,

newly peaceful boy, receded;

no one

dwells on the gratitude, the astonished joy,

    the swift

acceptance and forgetting.

I did not follow

to see their changed lives.

What I retained

was the flash of kinship.

Despite

all that I witnessed,

      his question remained

my question, throbbed like a stealthy cancer,

known

only to doctor and patient. To others

   I seemed well enough.

 

So it was

that after Golgotha

my spirit in secret

lurched in the same convulsed writhings

that tore that child

before he was healed.

And after the empty tomb

when they told me that He lived, had spoken to Magdalen,

told me

that though He had passed through the door like a ghost

He had breathed on them

the breath of a living man —

      even then

when hope tried with a flutter of wings

to lift me —

still, alone with myself,

        my heavy cry was the same: Lord,

I believe,

help thou mine unbelief.

 

I needed

blood to tell me the truth,

the touch

of blood. Even

my sight of the dark crust of it

round the nailholes

didn’t thrust its meaning all the way through

to that manifold knot in me

that willed to possess all knowledge,

refusing to loosen

unless that insistence won

the battle I fought with life

 

But when my hand

   led by His hand’s firm clasp

entered the unhealed wound,

my fingers encountering

rib-bone and pulsing heat,

what I felt was not

scalding pain, shame for my

obstinate need,

but light, light streaming

into me, over me, filling the room

as I had lived till then

in a cold cave, and now

coming forth for the first time,

the knot that bound me unravelling,

I witnessed

      all things quicken to color, to form,

my question

     not answered but given

its part

in a vast unfolding design lit

by a risen sun.*

Such is Thomas’s transformation, as imagined by Levertov, the unfolding of belief that leads to Thomas’s declaration of “My Lord and my God!”

How beautiful it must have been for the other apostles to witness Thomas’s declaration. We have no sign that they had outcast Thomas for his unbelief: if anything, they may have held him nearer in his tender grief, which is what we do for those we love. Thomas was among the apostles that night the week after Easter morning. Thomas was in that closed room. Surrounded by others he felt alone in his doubt. As God would have it, we see Thomas there, and we witness the outreaching, the outpouring of Christ’s love for him. Christ overcame death and the grave for all, and all means all, no limits or restrictions.

Here today, whether we are strong in our faith and belief or weak with pain and doubt, as we come with praise and thanksgiving for our Risen Lord, may we feel the light streaming in, allow it to swim all around us, and usher it into the world with peace and great joy. For the Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

 

*“Saint Thomas Didymus,” Denise Levertov, The Stream and the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes, New York: New Directions Books, 1997, pp. 80-84.

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Nowhere in Particular

Stairs to nowhereCamp Mitchell Stairs to Nowhere

they seem to be

in the early afternoon sun

where everything looks like a silhouette.

I almost missed them,

so loudly distracted

walking through

the crunching

crashing

multitude of leaves,

mere skeletons now,

void of the autumnal vibrance

of weeks ago.

Had there been a cabin here?

Was this would-be/had-been stoop

discarded?

Could I stand perched above

and take the next step in faith?

Maybe,

if I could see where I was going,

what came next.

(I’d probably fall.)

Even the leaves are still

and quiet

Except for the ones

whispering,

still attached

at greater heights,

closer, maybe,

rooted to something

deeper than I can comprehend.

(Eventually, they’ll fall, too.)

I continue on my way,

clamouring among the bones

once more,

not knowing where

the path may

lead.

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“Nothing complicated about it”

When thinking about how we move through the day, I’m more likely to imagine a digital clock ticking the minutes and hours away as we scurry from home to school to work to lessons and sports to home to bed. So much of our day is guided by appointments and obligations, most that make our lifestyle possible and others that make our lives enriched, and we consider ourselves privileged to do all this.

Then I come across something like this, reading out of a book I happened upon in our church lending library:

“In ancient times people found it natural and important to seek God’s will. With little spiritual guidance and in utter simplicity, they heard from God. There was nothing complicated about it. They understood that every moment of every day presented an opportunity for faith to fulfill a responsibility to God. They moved through the day like the hand of a clock. Minute after minute they were consciously and unconsciously guided by God.” -Jean-Pierre de Caussade in Abandonment to Divine Providence*

I confess that I do not in every moment think first about how my next move will “fulfill a responsibility to God.” While I may occasionally think, “God, what would you have me do?”, it doesn’t often enter my mind when I am making my daily rounds around the house or through our city’s streets. I’m more likely to be caught up in my own thoughts about what I have or haven’t accomplished on my unwritten to-do list. We are creatures of habit, and my routine is about what I need to do next, what I’m expected to do. It shouldn’t be a surprise that our society is primarily full of egocentric people, taking care of ourselves before everyone else because our primary thoughts are typically about ourselves. It’s natural for us to put #1 first, whether that be me, my family, my country, etc.

What would it be like if it were “natural and important to seek God’s will,” to hear from God, to move through our day “minute after minute . . . consciously and unconsciously guided by God”? De Caussade has a way with words (even in the translation) that points both toward a simple yet profound beauty. This beauty comes to me even as I see photos of the horror of the Syrian refugees and read the clamor of American citizens advocating for rights to marry or to live without fear.

The guidance of God contrasts sharply to the suffering and oppression at hand. Any action that is born of hatred and violence, of fear and anger, does not align with what I understand to be God’s will, that we love God and our neighbor. Christians aren’t the only ones who believe this, either.

Perhaps that’s why there’s nothing really complicated about it. If we let God’s will guide our next move, we move in compassion. If we believe in God, in God’s unconditional love for us, it is our faithful responsibility to share this love with others, including ourselves. This means that we surrender to the will of God: we surrender to experience the tremendous freedom that is found in the power of unconditional love. It’s not popular. It’s risky and counter-cultural. It makes us vulnerable because we open our hearts and become an easy target. I think God knows this kind of love well.

I’m going to replace the battery in my watch, the watch my husband gave me as a gift. I cannot promise that every time the minute-hand moves that I will first be thinking of God, but de Caussade said we can be “consciously and unconsciously guided by God.” When I fail to ask for guidance, may my faith guide me even when I’m unaware.

*As found in Nearer to the Heart of God: Daily Readings with the Christian Mystics, Bernard Bangley, ed., 2005

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God’s Grace, Our Mission

The Scripture texts for the First Sunday of Advent, Year B:
Isaiah 64:1-9 | Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18 | 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 | Mark 13:24-37

From our turkey slumber, hours of travel, shopping frenzies, or overtime work–
whatever our past week has been filled with – we all meet this morning with the one call to “Keep awake!” We have good reason to be alert today, and we need to set our intentions well, for today begins the church’s new year, in case you missed the silent transition. Just like that we turn the page and begin again, returning to the lectionary for Year B, following the season, and waiting again with expectation for our Lord and Savior who has already come and revealed to us God’s grace.

It would be easy to miss this new day, our new year. The weather has been so
erratic, our schedules so packed, the news full of strife, and the stores signaling Santa’s arrival since before Halloween. But every Sunday morning we mark the day on the hymn board or on the bulletin or on the calendar in the Godly Play room like a slow clock counting the days instead of the hours. We have to pause and think about which day it is. We pause and think about the year, what season we’re in not only in nature but in the church year, too. I like to imagine these four weeks of Advent stretched a bit, creating a small inner loop of the church calendar like an exit ramp or detour—seemingly buying a little time. In this time, we can think about what is going on around us and within us and shed the residue that builds up from too much screen time and air time and general busy-ness that blocks the way for the soul to claim time, too.

For if we heard our soul, it might sound like the prophet in Isaiah, calling for God
not to be hidden from us, to remember that we are all God’s people. Or it might sound like the Psalmist who calls to God to hear us, shine forth, stir up his strength, and help us. “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved” (Ps. 80:3). The people were crying out for God. For these ancient Jews, their temple was destroyed by the Romans. When the world we know is falling apart, don’t we all cry out?

As we give ourselves time this morning, we are privy to Jesus’s conversation with
Peter, James, John, and Andrew. Jesus, too, withdrew to an inner circle and sat and talked with those who had been with him the longest. What he said seemed a bit prophetic and kind of apocalyptic yet also made sense of some of the past events. The disciples did not know it was Jesus’s farewell discourse to them. They must have listened with wonder as Jesus told them things like “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Mk 13:31) and “what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake” (Mk 13:37).

When our suffering is real and crisis surrounds us, it can seem all is dark.  Sickness and death has been coming to those close to my grandmother, among her friends and the elderly in my extended family. Perhaps you, like her, have risen one morning and found it hard to give thanks for all that you have received because what you have is a lot of complications, impossible responsibilities, and a heart weary with sorrow. With faith, we grasp for hope.

I found my thoughts expressed in a commentary on Mark, when R. Alan Culpepper writes that

“what separates believers from nonbelievers is whether one trusts in a God who is working purposefully to redeem humanity.”

When we are watching the world seemingly fall apart around us, if we
believe in the hope Christ gives us—that the Son of Man is coming in glory—then we have a future to look forward to. While it hurts and we suffer in the midst of the mess that is life, we persevere because we know that this isn’t the end. We begin again each time we are confronted with death or loss. We live into the power of the Resurrection that showed us that out of death comes life. When all is gone, there is still the Word.  The Word gives hope because the Word itself is eternal Love. The Word is Love, enduring all things, binding the covenant and promise, and giving forth life and fruit. Love, never forgotten. We are God’s own, to be gathered at the end of days “from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”

In case we forget how any of this is even probable, we can attend the words of
Paul: “the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus.” Jesus Christ as Word, as Love, has given us the grace of God, and it is this gift that empowers us all. “You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul says. We are blessed with the Holy Spirit at our baptism, empowered with spiritual gifts, and waiting for the Lord attests to our own hope and faith. Paul gives thanks to God, for it is God’s strength, faithfulness, and call that enriches, strengthens, and blesses the people. Vocalizing his prayer of thanks undoubtedly gives the Corinthians assurance to persevere, but he points all thanks to God, lest anyone think it is his or her own will that is glorified.  We all have work to do, gifts to use, and it is a good thing to give thanks and praise to one another where it is due—so long as we acknowledge that all thanks be to God.

Our work is hard, and most times it is thankless. It is easier to let these four
weeks fly by, exchange gifts with a premise of joy, shoot off fireworks with a round of “Auld Lang Syne,” and offer a toast to ring in the next secular calendar year. We can congratulate ourselves and one another on what a lovely holiday we’ve had and get back to our regularly scheduled program. We have a choice.

The alternative is to heed our message from Mark that someone is coming. If we
pay attention—being as attentive as a gardener is to his plants—then we will know the signs. If we accept this mission, we are to be watchful, awake, and aware. We are to be attentive to one another and to the world around us. We are to live into our gifts we’ve been given and live with hope and faith, certain of the Love and Grace we’ve received, even in times of trouble. This is our hard work.

We can step back and breathe in the magnitude of what the word gives us today
and in this season. We are all to keep awake. We cannot afford to go through our lives sleepwalking, unaware of where Christ is trying to break through in our lives to reveal the grace of God. We will miss it if we’re not paying attention. We will miss it if we expect too much, too little, or expect nothing at all. Our gift right now is the anticipation of the birth of the Christ Child, who is himself our greatest gift, God Incarnate. The ongoing excitement drawn from this greatest gift is in finding where Christ is made manifest every day, especially now when the darkness draws early and near. Our challenge is to take enough presence and wakefulness into our lives to give witness and testimony to Christ wherever he appears, whenever that may be.

Only we can proclaim when we see the Light break through and spill forth God’s grace.

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Said and Unsaid

A seminary education covers a broad spectrum of everything pertaining to the religious life, much of which is unquantifiable.  How does one measure love? wisdom? mercy? grace? good? evil?

We can talk about God, but how does one experience God?  How do we experience God when evil happens in our life or the lives of others?

There is much written and taught about prayer.  There are steps to follow and different styles to try, but the actual doing is up to the individual.  Each experience is unique, and no one knows how God will be revealed in any given moment.

But God was there.  God is here.  God will be forevermore.

That’s hard to teach.  It’s hard to learn.  That’s faith, right?

Sometimes there are no words, and the silence speaks volumes.  

These are the thoughts I had when I saw these photos, a tribute to Boston by Amanda Soule on the day of the bombings.

 

 

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Day 3

Glory to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.

You’ve given me to be one of those people who get headaches, and I’ve had all kinds.  Dull, ice-pick, tension, stress, heat, sinus, barometric, migraine.

You’ve also given me a gift of healing.  Now, I know how that works.  The truth is, I don’t do anything.  I just call upon you.  I tend to practice this gift with others.  I’m not very good at using it for myself.  That seems to take extra energy, extra effort.  How quickly I forget that you are ever-present and that strength through you knows no bounds.

I’m reminded of your love and compassion in the faces of those who are guests in our country this weekend, especially in the one who is our guest in our home.  Their people have known suffering I cannot imagine, and she practices and lives in her faith and beliefs in a way I can only admire.  Somehow in her journey she has found part of Your Mystery, has reached a point of not understanding, and yet the trust in You is called upon and overrides any slightest hint of doubt, if, indeed, there ever was any.   She doesn’t falter; she does blossom.

I was asked questions, too, about my beliefs.  What it boils down to is that I have more to learn about the Bible, about our history and creeds, but I have a solid grasp on the core of my faith.  I truly believe it’s the core of any faith, that God is about Love — love to God, love to self and others through, for, and as God.  This is practiced and appears as compassion, and it is Good.

Thank you for showing us the way of compassion through the great Teachers, Christ and Muhammed be praised.

Bless our home with radical hospitality.  Bless me with strength and healing.  Bless us all who strive to walk in your way, whichever path we take.

As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.  Amen.

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Flying without a Net

Have I written about faith before? (Sorry, I can’t help the sweet sarcasm!)  I know I have.  I know I’ve mentioned that faith becomes most apparent when we take the leap from security, routine, and stability and plunge into unchartered territory.  Often this happens when we act on our intuition, trying to follow our hearts, trying to live into what we perceive as our “call.”

Well, my friends, we’ve taken that plunge and have been free-flying for a few months now.  There are a few things we have learned thus far.

  • If you thought you knew how you would react if you “failed,” prepare to be wrong. I expected to be bitter, angry, resentful if we spent all our savings and extended our credit to its outer limits.  Thankfully, for the sake of the family, I’m not.  Also, perception of failure is a tricky thing.  Our greatest success in this venture is probably our change of perspective, our new understandings.
  • Expect most of the growth to be within. As mentioned above, most of the changes we have experience are that of understanding, perspective, appreciation and joy.  Our relationships deepened.  What makes our life most rich has become apparent.
  • Attachments are attachments. Mainly I mean attachments to material things.  We get attached to having the biggest and best, fancy this and highest quality that.  We have to let go of some things, deciding what is best for us individually and as a whole — a whole family and a whole world.    We learn what we can live without, and we learn what is truly worth the effort for quality.  Mostly, we want a quality life; this doesn’t always mean we have a top-of-the-line hi-def t.v.  “Live simply that other may simply live” applies to us all.
  • You never go back to where you were before. Even if our daily routine looks the same as it was six months ago, it’s not.  Even if my husband goes back to a “desk job” (in quotes because technically he’s been working at a desk in his “time off”), he’s going back with his new understandings, renewed or even new appreciation.  Once we’ve attained a new level of understanding, once we know something as true, we can’t un-know something.  In time, I’m sure this new level will open other doors for growth as we continue to learn more about the life we live.
  • Don’t underestimate your time. Be realistic about your needs.  Keep track of the bills.  Know how much debt you’re willing to accumulate, how much money it takes to live.  We’ve not been very good about this, honestly.  The lessons above were learned in enough time that we could have returned to the work status of before, before a financial crisis hit.  Be aware of this.  Give yourself a cushion, and if not, be willing to face the consequences.
  • Take responsibility. We choose our way individually.  If we don’t necessarily have control of our environment and what happens, we have the choice on how we respond.  As in my first point, I thought I would choose to be angry if this business venture didn’t succeed at the rate projected.  When it became apparent that deadlines and projections weren’t being met, I had a choice.  For my own benefit and for the benefit of those around me, I choose love.

These are just a few of the lessons we’ve learned as we’ve taken flight.  It’s been an experience, a defining moment in our lives.  I know that in this past year, I have been pulled, if not called, deeper into my true nature.  Part of the magic of the leap may be that we get a clearer glimpse of what the kingdom of heaven is like, through the lens of faith and trust.

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Test of Faith

magchurchcrossI went to The Magnetic Church Conference because when I first read about it in our diocesan communication, it struck me as interesting, something important.  Our priests were willing to send me, and I ended up making the solo trip, the alone time not unwelcome.

The conference is about evangelism.  I’m Episcopalian.  The two E-words usually do not go together in casual conversation, not without a shudder, anyway.  The Episcopal Church is about welcoming, but we’re not so much into going out and collecting.  Apparently, we’re not great fishers.

But this is what the conference told us.  Re-think the way we view evangelism.  It’s not some salesman on t.v. with a bad comb-over, promising everything your heart desires if only you choose to live his path . . . and send him money.  For Christianity, our evangelism is in loving one another, “inviting people along the path and sharing the feast.”  It is best exemplified in radical hospitality and compassion.  And we went on to spend many hours talking about how a church might do this.  There were many laughs at our own and at our Church’s expense.

My personal test, however, lies within the principle of “inviting” others along the path.  I have an “all paths lead to God” kind of mentality, spirituality, whatever you want to call it.  What our speaker called “ecumenical mush” with apparent distaste, I don’t so much have a problem with.  Some people need more tradition than others, more frame work to make sense of the great Mystery.  I like the traditions, the liturgy, but I don’t have to have them.  It’s like having a beautifully illustrated book.  One doesn’t have to have the pictures.  Indeed, we don’t have to have a book at all.*  The Mystery exists whether we name it or not.  But it helps us, we mere humans, to work at this Mystery, to share what we have discovered on our way.  Each of us  — whether unchurched, lay, or ordained — has insights to the Truth of the Mystery.  Our lives are enriched in the sharing of these Truths.  Of course, we are human in our own right.  We only have one perspective in any given lifetime, and our understanding is thus limited.

My test?  Keeping my focus on what I feel is True.  I have to keep in mind that my view of God through the colored glass is different from others’, whether they be across the street or on the other side of the world.  My evangelism isn’t so much limited to the Episcopal religion as it is to the experience of the Divine.  I choose the Anglican Church as home for my spirit because it feeds me deeply and encourages my walk in faith, constantly providing nourishment for my journey.  But daily life is the test.  How do I embody Christ’s love to others.  How do I embody God to others?  How do I embody Spirit to others?  Is this not the cross that Christians bear?

Our free will tells us that we choose how we live our lives.  Sometimes, though, I feel more chosen than the chooser.  Truly, I don’t have to take up the cross.  For me, though, that’s like not smiling at a stranger, not comforting the crying child, not loving those in pain.  When you have a gift, it’s best enjoyed when shared.

Perhaps one of my greatest gifts is Love, and I choose to share that with you, no matter what you call it or how you experience it.  You choose whether or not to receive, but that doesn’t change the presence of the Love that is there, patient, kind, and never-ending.

*I’m not saying we don’t have to have the Bible.  I am saying that Christ lived and practiced what we call “Christianity” without a name, without a Bible.

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The Mystery of the Suffering

Folded_hand_rosary.jpgMany know that today, Good Friday, is the observance of Jesus’ death.  This dark and solemn remembrance illuminates human frailty and betrayal of someone who ultimately accepted his fate for humanity’s well-being.  This day represents what the whole of Christianity is based upon.  This day reminds us to sit with the humility, the shame, the dread and the loss.  This blog post illustrates this day quite well.

Obviously my religious affiliation is primarily with the Christian faith, but there’s so much to one’s spirituality that it’s unfair to restrain it to one order.  I love Buddhist meditation and awareness, Muslim prayer times and pilgrimmages, Jewish observance and debates over the Torah, Hindu imagery, Native American ties to Nature . . . and that’s just a surface level list of appreciation.

What I wonder, though, is if in all these traditions there is a similar time to reflect, a time to realize our failures as humanity.  I’m sure there are.  Along our spiritual journeys we all have those long dark nights of the soul.  Without the dark, can we truly appreciate the coming Light, the Renewal?  If you can stand to be with yourself, stripped of ego long enough to feel the present moment, Easter tidings, no matter what your faith, bring glory to your Soul.

Have a blessed weekend.

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