Archive for the ‘Theological Questions’ Category

Recently the news reported Tiger Woods’ infidelity concerning his affairs with one or more women.  Usually, I don’t take much interest in the lives of celebrities; who’s dating whom, who’s photographed on a wild bender, or who’s entering or leaving rehab.  These are fodder for the supermarket tabloids, not serious news sources.  However, I believe that affairs are a different matter.  They damage the fundamental building block of society, the family.  Neither the husband nor the wife can come out unscathed as a result of adultery.   Although rarely seen by the naked eye, the deed still leaves grotesque scars.  A sacred trust, as well as a vow to the community and God, is torn asunder in the selfish act.  And, heaven forbid, what becomes of the children as a result?  Do they grow to hate daddy or mommy either openly or secretly for the pain inflicted on the other?  Or does their worldview warp, starting to view adultery as a socially acceptable act?

So what sort of restitution does Tiger Woods offer to his wife in penance?  A public apology and money…lots and lots of money…$60 million to be exact.  When looking at Wood’s marriage you begin to wonder if that was what the marriage was always about.  After all, although the precise numbers are uncertain, they did sign a prenup agreement certain to be worth millions.  Why did Tiger get married in the first place?  Was it solely about money too?  Did he gain new sponsorships as a result of his marriage?  Was that his main goal all along?  Does his guidance come through his conscious or through his lust and his wallet?  It is a sad reflection of our society, or at least an element of our society, when you look at marriage as a strictly financial transaction.  These are not the marriages that last, the marriages that produce well-adjusted children.

At this point you may think that I’m being pretty hard on Tiger Woods here and perhaps I am.  Then again, he’s not alone.  When tying this subject to politics, think back to a recent President or a Governor of South Carolina.  I don’t know if adultery is more common now, but I do know that it is certainly more tolerated.  This toleration must end for our society to survive.  It is a crime with consequences often far greater than theft, fraud, or bribery, but it is rarely treated as such.  Now I’m not saying that we should return to the days of stoning, but there should be a clear, undeniable, and harsh punishment for adultery to show that our society will not accept such perverse and damaging behavior.

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Today is Thanksgiving and, as the name implies, it is a day to reflect and be grateful for all that you have, all that you are.  In tough economic times like ours, I think it best to remember not the extravagances of life, but instead the fundamental things.  Be thankful for your job that provides an income to live, be it lavish or simply day-to-day.  Be thankful for your home, a roof over your head, and a shelter from the storm.  Be thankful for your friends and family who stick with you in times of plenty and times of want.  How much more difficult would life be without steadfast companions?  Be thankful for your health, that which us the strength, will, and ability to accomplish our goals.  But most importantly, give thanks to God, your God and mine; for all that he gives us.

Remember that money can be squandered, time can be wasted, friends can become enemies, family can become estranged, and your health can deteriorate.  And yet YHWH endures forever.  So even if your life is at a low point, I encourage you to be of good spirits and be mindful of all of your blessings whatever they may be.

Today is Thanksgiving in our country.

Give thanks for life.

Give thanks to God.

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Although a vast majority of cars don’t sport bumper stickers, there are still a number of us who do. Some are for candidates or issues, while others tell us where the occupant has been. And then there are ones that express a joke or vulgar suggestion. The common thread is that each one tells you a little something about the owner. As for myself, with the exception of a pro-life sticker, all of mine have been for our political representatives (no great surprise there huh?) Campaigns tell us that a bumper sticker is typically as valuable as a several hundred-dollar donation to the candidate. After all, visibility and name recognition are a critically important component of victory.

Anyway, while driving to work yesterday, I traveled behind an otherwise forgettable car. Although the vehicle in front of me expressed a handful of messages, one and only one of them stuck in mind. It was a simple black and white one, which read, “America Bless God”. It is a twisting of the more traditional “God Bless America”. At first glance, I thought it a call to a renewed spirituality. So many professing Christians believe that the nation as a whole has lost its moral bearing and we are awash in moral relativism, the premise that morality is fluid and personal, rather than fixed and universal. This idea is troubling to both Christians and conservatives alike.

Upon further reflection though, I discovered a whole different shade of meaning. Think about it. America bless God? Does that statement make sense? How can America bless God? I suppose it depends on how you define “bless.” Typically when I think of blessing something or someone, it is to grant some sort of special favor or to make holy. Obviously America can do neither of these two things to God. According to my Microsoft Word dictionary the word can also mean “to declare approval and support for somebody or something” or “to express heartfelt thanks to somebody”. Regardless, the phrase “America Bless God” jogged my memory of a Bible verse. Hebrews 7:7 reads, “And without question, the person who has the power to bless is always greater than the person who is blessed.” (NLT). Applying this verse to the bumper sticker leads to some rather unsettling conclusions. If America can bless God that means that America must, by this definition, be greater (more powerful, holier, etc) than God. I doubt (or at least hope) that the owner of the car doesn’t hold America in higher regard than God. In my mind, the whole “America Bless God” rhetoric harkens back to the McCain campaign’s slogan “Country First”. Don’t misunderstand…I love this country as much as anyone else, but if you were to strip away the ideological and religious foundations you will invariably be led to blind patriotism, worship of the state, and totalitarism. Although they both sound good on the surface, their deeper meanings place America above principles, above God, über alles. Is that the kind of bumper sticker values you have plastered on your vehicle?

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One of last month’s comics from Tatsuya Ishida jogged my memory of high school.  I, like I’m sure many of you, attended one of Virginia’s numerous public high schools.  Mine was Harrisonburg High School.  It’s amazing the growth in the school in the eleven years since I was there.  Here are just a few random observations and questions.  They have a new building far removed from the center of the city that is just huge.  When I visited it, I found myself wandering the corridors feeling like a rat in some sort of lab experiment.  I have read that the numbers of non-native English speakers have exploded.  I would guess that such a statistic would prove an additional challenge to teachers and administrators.  Why is it that according to Wikipedia that our only notable alumni are sports athletes?  I’d like to think that our school serves to enrich both the body and the mind?  But, now I’m getting off the topic of religion in school.

If you look at the webcomic I mentioned, you might wonder how that comic has anything to do with my high school.  Well, in sophomore year, I took biology.  Let me say upfront that I really liked my biology teacher.  He was a personable guy and always took steps to make the lessons both informative and entertaining.  However, during the school year (way back in 1995-96), he mentioned to the class that he would soon discuss the topic of human evolution, not merely as theory, but as fact. These were the earliest days of my political activism having come to political awareness in the later half of 1994 and I was uncertain what I should do.  Evolution ran counter to my own religious beliefs, and I worried that my fellow classmates might fall prey to his arguments.  I believed that evolution is a theory in the same way that traditional creationism is a theory.  Both seek to explain the beginning and purpose to human existence.  Both have scientific data that support and run counter to them.  Both cannot fully be proven using empirical evidence.  Therefore, both require faith.  As a result of requiring faith, both creationism and evolution are facets of larger religious movements.  Looking back, I would expect that my facial expression on hearing such news of evolution in the classroom mimicked Seymour’s in the last panel.  I believed then, as I still do now, that theories of creationism and evolution seek to annihilate one another and using the forum of public schools and our children’s minds to achieve such ends is wholly unacceptable.

Now it would be entirely different if the teacher merely stated that he or she believed in evolution (or creationism) and taught from an equal perspective, but teaching one as a fact stifles the debate and gives school children only one side of the argument (possibly a side that differs from the wishes of their parents and their religion).  The position of a teacher can be very powerful in the minds of impressionable students and offers tremendous credibility to his or her ways of thinking.  After I had a bit of time to think, I began to gather information in favor of creationism in order to provide this balance.  Perhaps some will say that it was merely the foolish idealism of youth, the thought that a student could rebuff a teacher and his or her classmates, but I ardently believe that at any age one must stand up for his or her religious or political beliefs lest they be swept away by the popular currents of the day.

I kept waiting for the day when the teacher would bring up the subject of human evolution.  I lugged around scientific and religious texts, as well as a recorded sermon from my pastor on the topic to and from my locker.  Yet, the day never came.  Perhaps, he ran out of time to discuss the issue, or decided against such a controversial issue, or maybe, just maybe, he noticed one of his students dutifully carrying around materials opposing his point of view.  I doubt I’ll ever know.  Yet, I strongly encourage students, in a respectful manner, of course, to question their teachers, fellow students, or anyone else when they offer up teachings that run contrary to their own values.  My advice to high school and college students is simply this:  You can make a difference.  Be strong and don’t be intimidated.  And beware religion taught under the guise of science in school.

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To all my fellow Christian friends out there, I have what may sound as a radical suggestion for you…forget Easter. “What?!?” you might say.  Don’t you think it is important to remember the resurrection?  Absolutely.  The resurrection is a cornerstone of the faith.  As Paul reminds us “And if Christ was not raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your trust in God is useless.” 1 Corinthians 15: 13 (NLT).

So what’s the deal with Easter?  The problem is that Easter is not a Christian holiday.  It is of pagan origins.  For starters, how many times does the day Easter show up in the Bible?  Unless you have a King James translation of the Bible, the answer is almost certainly zero.  For the record, in the King James version, Acts 12:4 reads, “And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people.”  Now even if you hold that Easter and the resurrection of Jesus are related, using the term Easter makes no sense here.  Why would Herod, of whom the above verse references, care about Easter?  Therefore, every (or most every) other translation uses the word Passover as opposed to Easter.

Easter itself is named after a pagan goddess, Eostre, and was a celebration of this goddess and the coming of spring.  Europeans celebrated this rite (or one similar) long before they had ever heard of Jesus.

So how did the most important date in Christianity and this pagan holiday wed?  After all, we know that Jesus’ death and resurrection historically took place before, during, and after the Jewish Passover.  Why then is his resurrection not tied to the dates of Passover?

Prior to the First Council of Nicaea in 325, some Christians celebrated the Resurrection at the same time that Jews celebrated Passover, while others did not.  At the Council, the majority opinion further distanced Christianity from its Jewish roots by detaching the celebration of the Resurrection with Passover.  The dates of Passover, taking place from the 15th of Nisan to the 21st, differed from year to year as the Jewish people use a lunisolar calendar (as opposed to a lunar year used both by the Julian calendar then and our Gregorian calendar now). The celebration of the resurrection was to now take place on the first Sunday after the full moon taking place after the vernal equinox, March 21.

With the Resurrection now divorced from the Passover, as Christianity spread to Northern Europe it supplanted and mutated with the previous pagan religions.  Old gods and goddesses such as Eostre fell out of favor but their holidays and festivities did not.  In order to make the transition easier, many local traditions melded with this new religion.  Thus bunnies and eggs, reminders of fertility, the arrival of spring, and foreign gods now share equal, or even greater time with the true Christian meaning for this holiday.

For example, while suffering with the flu a few weeks back, I visited my local drug store.  Signs wished customers a “happy Easter” and their shelves were filled with related products.  Guess how many mentions or images of Jesus, the crucifixion, and the resurrection I could find?  Zero.  The shelves were stocked with eggs and bunnies created from a variety of chocolates and other sweets.  Given a choice between Eostre and Jesus, clearly paganism wins out in our society.

The resurrection, like the birth of Christ, has become a mere marketing tool steeped in the religions of old!  For my commentary on the Christmas season, read ‘Tis the Season Part 1 and Part 2.

Looking back, it didn’t have to end up like this.  But the willingness to modify Christianity to coincide calendar-wise with old festivals, as well as a refusal to stand up for the true meaning of our holidays has led us to this state.  As opposed to focusing on Jesus, the Messiah, we now have Santa, the Quid Pro Quo Materialist god, and the Easter Bunny, the Chocolate god.

What would be the easiest solution?  Although many might scoff at the idea, change the dates of the commemoration of the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus away from pagan holidays and back to their historic norms (likely sometime in September and the Passover).  Without the present trappings, maybe everyone will recognize Christian holidays as being about something else…Jesus perhaps?

If you want to celebrate both Easter and Christmas for the seasons that they have become, feel free to do so.  Just don’t confuse a Cadbury cream egg or a basket of plastic grass as a sign of anything Christian.

Until next time!

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Recently, I thought back to an event here in Harrisonburg with Dinesh D’Sousa.  At one point during the speech, he mentioned how it was a good thing that his ancestors were converted to Christianity (presumably not as a result of their own wish) as it resulted in his faith today.  Regardless of whether or not I remember this moment and its implications correctly, I wanted to discuss the issue of conversion by the sword.

Some people claim that when it comes to Christianity, it is perfectly acceptable to convert people using any and all methods possible, including force.  I completely disagree.  Although this tactic may, on the surface, appear to accomplish your goals, such an act actually damages both the convert and the faith as a whole.  Where, I ask, does it recommend the use of threats and/or force to spread the Christian message?  Can anyone find me a quote from Jesus advocating such a plan?  Shouldn’t one’s religious choice be made through spiritual desire as opposed to duress?  Now certainly, as a Christian myself, I believe that Christianity is the one true faith, but far too many have committed wicked acts to supposedly advance the cause.  History is replete with examples of supposed Christians forcing their beliefs on others through compulsion.  The Crusades, the Inquisitions, colonization, and imperialism all spring to mind.  Even Christian groups violently fought each other: the Thirty Years War, the Huguenots against the Catholics, the Spanish versus the French, and Northern Ireland, just to name a few.  How, as Christians, can we condemn the radical elements that advocate violent conversions and executions in Hinduism, Islam, and other religions when we do not reject the practice in Christianity too?  But wait, Joshua, it’s ok because we know that we are right!  Really?  What would Jesus say?  More importantly what would Jesus do?  Did he tell his followers to convert by the sword, or did he say, “Those who use the sword will be killed by the sword”?  (Matthew 26:52 NLT)  If one of the two most important commandments is supposedly, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:40 NLT) how can you justify persecuting your neighbor and promoting bodily harm should he or she either not be Christian or happen to follow a differing denomination?  Would you do the same to yourself or your own family?  Is killing adults so that you can raise their children as Christians acceptable?  How about kidnapping or starvation?  Is perverting the original message through violence right if it swells the ranks of the faithful?  When it comes to Christianity, do the ends justify the means?  Although one can point to numerous examples of such behavior in the past, I cannot condone violence done in the name of Jesus.

For some reason, it seems perfectly socially acceptable to promote the ideals of democratic governance through force as well.  In World War I, we were supposedly fighting to make the world “safe for democracy”.  In the civil wars in Vietnam and Korea, we were fighting to preserve a democratic government from the forces of Communism.  In a more recent example, the conflict in Iraq, we were fighting to promote freedom and democracy in the Middle Eastern nation.  As George W. Bush stated in 2005, “So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world…America’s belief in human dignity will guide our policies, yet rights must be more than the grudging concessions of dictators; they are secured by free dissent and the participation of the governed.”  Although Americans would likely agree that democratic government (or, at least, what we think of when we say democratic government) is the best form of government, how should we go about promoting this belief?  Early in our nation’s history, we thought that leading by example was the best method.  John Quincy Adams, while Secretary of State, echoed American thought when he stated in 1821, “She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart….Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.”  Unfortunately, American leaders began to break free of this historical mooring and fought not for their own freedom, but sacrificed her children for the sake of others.  For examples, one need not look further than the conflicts mentioned in the early part of this paragraph.  Promoting democracy aggressively became a sort of religious zealotry.  Did, as Wilson suggested, the world need to be made safe for democracy?  If we had not entered World War I, would our government and way of life been either constantly imperiled or destroyed?  We held the same mistaken beliefs during the struggle against Communism with the Domino Theory.  Despite the logic of some leaders, the rise of Communism in some far eastern country would not necessarily lead to Communism in America.  After all, less than twenty years after losing the Vietnam War (or achieving “Peace with Honor” if you prefer), the entire Soviet Union collapsed.  And yet, this downfall did not come with some great and heroic military victory over the Red Army, but rather through the inherent weaknesses of the Communist system coupled with the desire for freedom from many of the nations and citizens trapped under such a regime.  Rather than learn from history, our leaders, such as President Bush, prefer to repeat past mistakes.  Although I would agree that a democratic government in the Middle East would be of value, some people pushed for war to establish such a government.  They pointed to the murderous atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein as justification, and then created a conflict that took the lives of about a hundred thousand Iraqi men, women, and children.  When we push our government on others (especially the unwilling ones), do we not lower ourselves to the level of tyrants, dictators, and imperialists?  Is democracy so great that an outside power can create it militarily and not create resentment regarding its bloody birth?  I certainly think not, though history shall prove the final judge.

In closing, I would just like to reiterate my earlier points.  Even though there are many differing viewpoints in this world of ours, and the prevailing trend is to remain silent, one should not be hesitant to properly promote and articulate one’s own thoughts.  Nevertheless, when it comes to the issues of both personal and state religion and politics, one should not and must not resort to the temptation to use the sword to convert one’s neighbors, be they either foreign or domestic.   To do so would be a gross perversion and betrayal of the original principles of both Christianity and American democracy.  Can’t these pillars stand upon their own merit or should we drag them through the mire of coercion, tainting them and their adherents further?  Don’t the notions of freedom, liberty, and love teach better?

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Author’s Note: As promised in my first post, some of my writings will deal with the topic of religion. Although this is the first one to omit politics, I do hope my regular readers find this discussion to be of interest.

Out of the multitude of people in the Old Testament, one person that has consistently held my interest is Balaam son of Beor. Who, you might ask? Certainly he is not a very well known figure, but he still played an important role in the history of the Israelite people. He primarily appears in Numbers chapters twenty-two through twenty-four. I encourage you to reread (or read) the passages if they are not fresh in your mind; however, for the sake of everyone I will be paraphrasing the events in question.

For a bit of back-story, if you will recall, the Israelites left captivity in Egypt and were heading to Canaan, the land promised to them by YHWH (commonly referred to as The LORD). As they traveled, they came upon the kingdom of the Moabites. Now the king of Moab, Balak son of Zippor and his people were afraid of these foreigners and did not want them passing through their territory. Here is where Balaam enters.

“…So Balak, king of Moab sent messengers to Balaam son of Beor, who was living in his native land of Pethor near the Euphrates River.” Numbers 22:4-5 (NLT). Apparently Balaam possessed the power to both curse and bless with very noticeable results. Interestingly, when the messengers of the king approached Balaam with this request, Balaam replies that he must ask YHWH first. Note that he is asking the same god as that of the people of Israel. Apparently understanding of The LORD was not restricted to just the Hebrew people and others too not only knew of him, but claimed him as their god (or one of their gods). Balaam then engages in a dialogue with God. He is told not to go to Balak and not to curse these people. Balaam willing complies. So King Balak sends more messengers asking Balaam to reconsider, “but Balaam answered them, “Even if Balak were to give me a palace filled with silver and gold, I would be powerless to do anything against the will of the LORD my God.” Numbers 22:18 (NLT) Note that for some undisclosed reason be it for love, respect, or fear, Balaam refuses to go against the command of God.

Now we come to a very curious part. Afterward, at night, God told Balaam to go with the messengers of Balak. However, when Balaam did go, it made God very angry. Why would God be angry with Balaam for following his instruction? As you might remember from the most famous portion of the story, an angel blocked Balaam’s path causing a significant vocal and physical quarrel between Balaam and his donkey. After Balaam finally sees the angel too, the angel threatens Balaam with death for his sin. Balaam repents and offers to return home, but as before, the angel tells Balaam to continue on his journey. This encounter only poses further questions. If it was a sin for Balaam to travel here, why was he permitted to continue? When Balaam arrives, he again professes his loyalty to God saying; “…I will speak only the messages that God gives me” Numbers 22:39 (NLT). Next, on three occasions, after either meeting God or being filled with the spirit of God, he blesses the people of Israel instead of cursing them as Balak intended. Needless to say, Balak is quite displeased by Balaam’s efforts and sends him home without any payment.

Although Balaam is not mentioned in the next section, we are not yet finished with him. Here is where things get even more interesting. First, in chapter 31, it is written that the Israelites “…also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword.” Numbers 31:8. (NLT) Later, Moses says, ‘“Why have you let all the women live?’ he demanded. ‘They are the very ones who followed Balaam’s advice and caused the people of Israel to rebel against the Lord at Mount Peor. They are the ones who caused the plague to strike the LORD’s people.’” Numbers 31:15-16 (NLT). Why would they kill Balaam? Apparently, he was killed because he encouraged idolatry and marrying with the native women, which was forbidden to the people. When did these events happen? Why are these details not to be found? Now Balaam appears again sporadically in the Old Testament, but the main gist of his story is here.

You may be asking, why would a man who blessed Israel three times want to lead them astray? The New Testament offers several clues to the fate of Balaam as well as presenting a darker version of his character. For example, Peter writes of false teachers, “They have wandered off the right road and followed the way of Balaam son of Beor, who loved to earn money by doing wrong. But Balaam was stopped from his mad course when his donkey rebuked him with a human voice.” 2 Peter 2:15-16. (NLT) Then in Revelation, “And yet I have a few complaints against you. You tolerate some among you who are like Balaam, who showed Balak how to trip up the people of Israel. He taught them to worship idols by eating food offered to idols and by committing sexual sin” Revelation 2:14 (NLT).

How could a man like Balaam, who supposedly revered God and even spoke to him, turn against him? If he did so, he would not be alone. The Bible is filled with this kind of behavior. For example, foreign wives led King Solomon, who knew so much, into idolatry. Previously the lust of his father, David, caused the death of an innocent man and his own child.

I cannot help but feel, however, that the story offered by the book of Numbers does not tell the whole tale. Doesn’t it seem a bit strange that Balaam follows God’s command to go to Balak only to be rebuked for it later? Why would a man who refuses to speak as only God commands, a man who blesses Israel three times, later try to turn them away from God? Would a man who refuses a reward in order to speak the truth fall so easily to avarice? Why would a man who lives near Euphrates River have anything to do with the people of Israel once he returned home? Now perhaps something was lost in my translation, but I think from the way they wrote, the authors of Numbers, Peter, and Revelation knew a bit more to the story of Balaam than I. Was he motivated by self-interest rather than pleasing God?

The best answer I can find to these questions so far comes from the historian Flavius Josephus in his work Antiquities of the Jews written several years before 100 AD. As he was obviously not present at the events himself, he would have written in accordance with Jewish tradition or some other related source. Balaam appears in Chapter VI of Book IV. Apparently in an effort to win favor from Balak after he was unable to curse the Israelites, as a temporary solution Balaam advises the king to send Midianite women to the Israelites in order to seduce the men. Presumably he was motivated by the desire to regain at least some small portion of his promised reward from King Balak. As a result, the men began to worship the Midianite gods, and therefore incurred the wrath of YHWH. In section 13, Josephus writes,

This was the cause why Moses was provoked to send an army to destroy the Midianites…although this Balaam, who was sent for by the Midianites to curse the Hebrews, and when he was hindered for doing it by Divine Providence, did still suggest that advice to them, by making use of which our enemies had well nigh corrupted the whole multitude of the Hebrews with their wiles, till some of them were deeply infected with their opinions…

Accordingly, this affront led to the death of many Midianities and Balaam himself as described in the beginning of Numbers, Chapter 31.

Even though I didn’t find all the answers to my questions, I still think that Balaam is a multifaceted person who should be remembered and studied in greater detail for both good and ill. If you are more familiar with this particular historical and biblical issue than myself, I encourage you to enlighten us all through the comments section.

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