A Different God

Humankind, in moments of fear or suffering, has usually looked beyond itself for some kind of divine help; fertility gods who would bless families with offspring, agricultural gods who would bless crops with rain and sun in season, warrior gods who would protect a village and destroy its enemies. And so it goes. A god for everything and everyone.

Appeasement has always required obedience, submission, and offerings. If we feed the rat god, he will hold back a plague. If we appease the god of thunder and lightning, he will not destroy our home. If we offer a sacrifice to the god of the underworld, he will treat our deceased relatives with kindness. There are a thousand permutations.

It’s not hard to see that Christianity could slip into a similar pattern.

Over the past 15 years, researchers have identified Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as a prevailing spiritual worldview in our culture and among Christians. In it’s simplest form, this worldview asserts that there is a God who exists to make our lives better and if we do the right thing then God will too. It’s karma by another name. Good begets good; evil begets evil. But more than that, if we do the right thing, then God is obliged in some way to bless us.

I recently finished reading Tim Keller’s Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (2013) and was struck by the suggestion that it is possible to love what God does for us, what He provides for us, and how He helps us, without loving God for who He is. This is what men and women have done since the dawn of time; looked to their gods to help them, and “loved” those gods when things went well, or rejected those gods when calamity struck.

Do we not see the same thing in so many Christian lives today?

It’s not just the prosperity gospel at fault here: “God does not want you to suffer. He wants you to succeed beyond your wildest dreams. Just give or do x, y, and z – get the formula right – and he’ll come through for you.” Mainstream Christianity slips into a version of the same thinking when it softens the expectations but advances the same mindset: “If you’re doing your best, God will not let you suffer or fail.

Before we know it, our prayers are all gratitude for what we have received; what we have and what we enjoy. While the Bible encourages gratitude and thanksgiving, it’s our exclusive attention to gratitude and thanksgiving for material things that can surreptitiously distract us and undermine our theology.

Ours is a different God.

Gracious, patient, merciful, wise, powerful, loving, and so much more. He is sovereign over all creation and over all eternity. He is neither our cosmic servant nor our divine water-boy.

When everything is stripped away, yet will I praise Him. When all is lost, yet will I extol Him. Come what may, He is wise, and He is worthy.

Do we love Him, or simply love what He does for us in this moment? The one leads to hope and joy. The other leads to confusion, shame, fear, or worse. It’s worth a moment to prayerfully consider.

Ours is a different God.

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The Table

The lines of people extended all the way from the front of the sanctuary to the rear; two lines, single file. Each line moved slowly. This was not a place for hurry or haste.

I had been in the line myself, with Kim. Together we had waited our turn to extend our hands and receive the bread and the cup. “This is the body of Christ given for you. This is the blood of Christ, shed for you.” Then I was back in my seat; a worship team singing gently in the background as I watched.

I watched as young children walked forward with their parents; some to receive a gentle hand on their back or shoulder and a brief blessing from an officiant. I watched single women and men, married couples, and retirees alike. Some of the participants had considerable wealth; others lived paycheck to paycheck (at best).

Some of those who came forward had obviously lived hard lives and endured significant affliction. Tears squeezed from the corners of their eyes. Perhaps not every marriage was faring well. Others used walkers or canes; not to miss this precious moment. A few chatted softly in their line, greeting others who stood near them.

It was a sweet time to see young and old, strong and frail, wounded and healed all coming to receive the Lord’s Supper.

Then nineteen-year-old Maddy, her mom, and her young brother stepped out.

They had waited until the line was almost done. Maddy has been in a monumental health battle; something that no nineteen-year-old would want and few would be spiritually ready for. I was seated right behind that little family, and it took my breath away when they quietly stood and stepped into the aisle.

Tears welled up for me and many others. And in that moment I realized that this was truly holy ground. The old theater in which we meet suddenly radiated as a genuine sanctuary; a place of safety, healing, and hope. The place of God.

Some voices stopped singing. Who can sing when one’s throat is constricted with emotion? Eyes moistened. Glasses fogged up. Hearts seemed to pound more forcefully.

Nobody was orchestrating or manipulating the moment. It was spiritual purity. The people of God — broken, wounded, suffering, sinful — seeking the grace of God for one more day; even just that day. And there it was, offered without reservation, without inquisition, without judgment at…

The Table.

The Table of the Lord. The Lord’s Supper. Communion. Eucharist. Call it what you will. My theological tradition has frequently reduced it to a simple time of remembrance and thanksgiving. But that day something far deeper and richer was on display. Grace.

I don’t know what 2022 holds for me, let alone what it holds for you. I will surely face heartache, disappointment, conflict, loss, grief, failure, and frustration. That’s the stuff of life; not what I want but almost certainly what will come. And each week I will need The Table. Now more than ever.

Because of grace.

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Growing up…in 2022

When someone says “You’ve grown up!” what exactly do they mean?

In most instances, we say this of children, teenagers, and twenty-somethings. And in most instances, we’re probably referring to weight, height, build, and appearances. It’s the physical changes that catch our eye and draw the comment.

Occasionally, we’ll say that someone has grown up when we see emerging emotional maturity. At last the temper tantrums have subsided. They may seem a little more self-controlled, a little more disciplined, or a smidgeon less selfish. “They’re growing up.”

Or, from time to time we might say that someone has grown up when they demonstrate intellectual maturity. Perhaps they’ve stretched themselves and learned a great deal, even become an expert in their field. We admire their intellectual development and imagine how they might influence society. “They’ve certainly grown up!”

Rarely do we use this phrase to describe spiritual growth. Perhaps that’s entirely understandable.

It’s certainly easier to measure bodies with additional height and weight and definition; easier to evaluate knowledge with quizzes and exams. But spiritual growth tends to happen deep within the soul. It’s really not measured by the quantity of “hallelujahs” and “amens” but by qualities like contentment, empathy, love, joy, and endurance. Spiritual maturity is not a language that we learn but the Christ-like character that forms within us. It’s marked not by what we say when we have complete control but by what slips out of us under pressure. Spiritual maturity might be shaped by disciplines (church attendance, giving, fasting, etc.) but a discipline itself is not always evidence of that maturity.

In Luke 1, leading up to the story of the birth of Jesus, Luke tells a parallel story; the birth of John the Baptist. We know so little of him. We get a snapshot of his birth story, and then years (decades) roll by without any further description. Luke captures those years with the simple statement: “And the child grew and became strong in spirit;¬†and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel” (Luke 1:80).

John “grew up.” But Luke adds a snippet of information that we shouldn’t miss. John “became strong in spirit….” Was he 5’11” tall with brown eyes and a lovely olive complexion? Well-toned and mildly muscular? Fit and healthy? High IQ? Developing EQ? Who knows? But he became spiritually strong — identifiably, noticeably, measurably spiritually strong — and it surpassed all else. Frankly, it should surpass all else for us too.

In a few days, 2021 will belong to the history books and the unknown of 2022 will begin to unfold for each of us. Have you considered any “growth goals” for the year ahead? We have plenty of options. Drop a few pounds. Build some core strength. Improve our finances. Get help for stress-management. Learn a new skill. Enroll for more education.

But will we “grow strong in spirit“?

May 2022 be a year of “growing up” for us all, in multiple ways, and in the ways that matter most for both now and eternity.

(This post is adapted from a message delivered by Nathan Oates, Emmaus Church Community, Lincoln, CA – December 26, 2021)

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Around and With (Christmas 2021)

We all know it. There’s a stark difference between being around people and being with people, in much the same way that there is a stark difference between managing our kids and parenting them.

For some people, it’s just semantics; a fuss about words. But as we consider the Christmas weekend that is coming quickly towards us, it might be worth a moment to reflect.

Many of us will be around people. Some homes will buzz with activity, energy, and family. Parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins (and the odd boyfriend or girlfriend) will come through the door. Other homes will feel far more subdued. Just a handful of folk; perhaps even just two or three. No matter. We can be simply around people, irrespective of the size of the group.

Around is a word about proximity. We occupy similar or adjacent space. We are both here at this point in time. There is a generic physical presence, even if we are just watching sport on a cable network and eating snack food. Indeed, we might listen to the same music, laugh at the same jokes, and offer a running commentary on a game. But we are still just around.

With is a word of engagement and intimacy. It might imply attentiveness and interpersonal engagement. When I am truly with you, I listen well. You get my full attention. I am interested in what you think, feel, and experience. I ask. I initiate conversation. It’s a rich and personal encounter.

We’ve all been to gatherings and met some people who are around us and others who are genuinely with us.

The former feels like a shallow or counterfeit encounter. We had hoped for more. Despite the proximity, we leave feeling disconnected. Our spirits are not lifted. We were not heard. We were barely noticed. The food and frivolity cannot mask the superficiality.

The latter feels authentic and life-giving. Our soul feels nurtured. We leave feeling connected. The experience feels significant. We listened deeply and discovered kindred spirits and sweet souls. We saw more in others than football and chips. They saw more in us.

This Christmas, we have a choice to make. Will be settle for being around or will we (by God’s grace and leading) choose the path of being with? We (especially men) are largely unpracticed in the the art of with, so it may indeed be a grace of God. But it matters no less.

Oh, and that reminds me.

“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God with us’)” (Matthew 1:23).

Yes, while we were dancing around with awkward conversation and petty complaints, competing over food and gifts and achievements, God came into the world to be fully, authentically, deeply, and richly with us. He knows with well. May He go with us, as we try to be more fully with each other this Christmas.

Blessings this Christmas, dear friends.

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Our True Honor

Generally speaking, everything around us and everything within us seeks honor. We want to be noticed and known, recognized and valued, seen and appreciated. Indeed, we spend much of our lives building a resume, not so much for employment as for credibility. We have achievements we point to, important people we’ve met, special invitations we have received, awards we’ve earned, money we have made, education we have attained. Quietly, unconsciously, something within most of us strives for affirmation and validation.

The Christmas story steers us differently.

It’s a story with a limited number of human characters. Zacharias and Elizabeth (the parents of John the Baptist); Joseph and Mary, the magi, the shepherds, an innkeeper, Simeon, and Anna. That’s about it.

I love the layers on layers in the Christmas story. It seems significant that God would reveal the birth of His Son to foreign astrologers rather than Jewish scholars. I love that while foreign dignitaries get a special announcement (via the star) so do the marginalized Jewish shepherds (via the angels). There’s got to be something in there for us to ponder. The innkeeper is not actually mentioned, but some kid always plays that part in Christmas plays. The aged Simeon merely says he can die happy now that he has seen the Messiah. And eighty-four-year-old Anna waited all those years (mostly as a widow) for a glimpse of the Christ.

I’m struck that none of these figures have any significant ongoing role in the Gospel stories. We know precious little about any of them in fact. We don’t get the names of the magi or the shepherds. And Mark’s Gospel and John’s Gospel skip the birth of Jesus story completely.

What do we make of it?

The magi and the shepherds certainly had names, but this is not their story. It is His story. Joseph, Simeon, and Anna surely had plenty of interesting life experiences, and perhaps even a few life achievements worth noting. But this is not their story. It is His story.

The real honor is not in personal recognition but in the privilege of participation…in the story of God.

My ego, pride, and flesh want more. “I matter!” “I’m important!” “I deserve recognition!” But this first story of the Gospel sets the table for the rest of the good news. It’s not that we become important, but that we get to participate in what’s most important…the story of God.

Even Mary’s story is barely told. And the one enduring statement about her (“Hail Mary, full of grace….”) speaks more of what God did for her and through her, than anything she did. Truth be told, this young, poor, peasant girl from Nazareth had no resume worth reading; no attainments worth recording. Yet, she got to experience the greatest honor, the one true honor; the privilege of participation in the story of God.

In this Advent and Christmas season, perhaps it would help us to lay ourselves aside (again, each day) and simply rejoice in the phenomenal work of Christ and the incredible honor to simply participate in His story as it unfolds in us, through us, and around us.

This. Is. Our. True. Honor.

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The Sunrise

It’s tucked in there. You could almost miss it. There’s so much else going on that you could easily overlook it.

At the end of Luke 1, in verses 78-79 to be specific, Luke offers a summary statement that sets the table for the rest of the Gospel.

“The Sunrise from on high shall visit us, to shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Advent (“the coming”) marks the start of the Church’s calendar each year, and began a week or so ago. This season celebrates the coming of Christ two millennia ago (past), honors the coming of Christ to each of us who follow Him (present), and anticipates the second coming of Christ (future).

Luke describes Christ as “the Sunrise from on high who shall visit us.” The Sunrise. It’s a peculiar term to describe Jesus but a powerful one. We don’t find it used elsewhere in the New Testament to describe Christ, but Luke slips it in on us here.

The Sunrise. What an evocative image of Christ.

I love the sunrise. It always seems darkest and coldest immediately before the dawn, and the sun comes as welcome relief. It’s the night hours that heighten our fears and stress. It’s the night hours, those wee hours of the morning, that seem to drag out when we cannot sleep. It’s the darkness that has a way of heightening everything. There’s a good reason why we commonly advise people to wait until sunrise before deciding anything.

Luke saw the world around him “sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death.” Nothing has changed. We all sit in such places, at least at times; sometimes for extended times. Darkness and shadows, doubts and fears, loss and grief, can get the upper hand so easily. And into our darkness and into our shadows comes the Sunrise.

The shadows and darkness produce anxiety and stress. They distort our thinking and exaggerate the threats. A wakeful night can be a fearful night. And Luke sees the coming of Christ to fulfill a particular purpose in our lives: “To guide our feet into the way of peace.” Oh, that we might experience such freedom and grace.

The Sunrise.

Is this not the glorious message of Advent? It’s not just that the Son is coming, but that the Sun is coming. To quote the apostle John, “He is the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens everyone” (John 1:9). This is not enlightenment of the mind that produces mere wisdom and understanding. This is the Light that dispels our darkness.

To receive Christ is to embrace the Sunrise fully. To embrace the Sunrise is to see all things more clearly and to experience the peace of daylight.

How is this week shaping up for your soul? Darkness abounds among us and within us. Can you see the Sunrise?

Luke is the only New Testament writer to call Jesus by this name. We could miss it. But to miss the Sunrise is to miss everything.

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Free From All Else

“To be a slave to Christ is to be free from all else.”

I first heard this statement some months ago, and it continues to echo in my mind. It may be the ultimate paradox. Could it be true that freedom is not about autonomy and personal rights, but the ability to live one’s life choosing one’s master? Is it possible to choose a form of slavery, yes slavery, that leads to authentic, life-giving, hope-restoring, soul-saving freedom?

The apostle Paul seemed to think so.

A term that Paul used at least ten times to describe himself is doulos. In the ancient world there were multiple words to describe slaves, but this word had a particular meaning. Some old English versions of the Bible translated the word as bondslave, though that term doesn’t mean much to most of us today. In short, a doulos was often someone who was a slave by choice and a slave for life. They bonded themselves to a master or a family because that’s where they wanted to be; though always still a servant, never a peer.

Paul understood well enough that the gospel invites us to major changes of status. We were outsiders, strangers, and excluded from the people of God. We were alienated from God but now we are the family of God; brothers and sisters to each other. We were enemies of God but now we are friends of God. We were slaves to sin but now we are slaves to Christ. A lot has changed.

In Romans 6, Paul writes that sin can no longer be master over us because we have died to it (in our baptism) and we “have been freed from sin and enslaved (yes, that word doulos, by our choice) to God” (v.22).

“To be a slave to Christ is to be free from all else.”

We live as an enslaved people; enslaved to greed, lust, materialism, anger, hostility, selfishness, jealousy, malice, fear, addictions, and so much more. These things are like cancer to our souls. They destroy us from the inside, and then proceed to destroy everything around us on the outside. Much like the Israelites in bondage in Egypt, we find that these “Pharaohs” increasingly demand more bricks with less straw, and they refuse to let us go.

Then we die.

And, just like the Israelites of old, we pass through the sea (our own baptism; see 1 Corinthians 10:1) and emerge to finally have a choice. While we lived and Pharaoh lived, we had no choice. But upon our death and resurrection, our choice is restored. We can return to Egypt to serve Pharaoh again. Yes, the Israelites considered doing just that. Or we can choose to serve Christ, and be free from all else.

There’s a lot of talk these days about personal freedom. Some folk have concluded that personal freedom is a core Christian, biblical, and democratic value. This freedom is about protecting our personal rights and preserving self-determination; freedom from political systems and social demands; freedom from government mandates and over-reach. Paul understands slavery and freedom in rather different terms.

I wonder if we would argue for “slavery to Christ” as strongly as we might advocate for “personal freedom”? From what do you most need freedom today?

“To be a slave to Christ is to be free from all else.”

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Our Twenty Miles

In a highly mobile culture, stability sounds quaint and pleasant to ponder, but irrelevant. Californians are heading for the exits like Israel leaving Egypt after bondage. Brace yourselves in Tennessee, Texas, and Idaho. Here we come.

Someone mentioned to me recently that if COVID mandates get any stricter, they’ll move out of the state. Meanwhile, parents are hauling their kids out of school and home-schooling in unprecedented numbers, while many Christians are swapping churches with the same ease that they switch grocery stores; a tolerable inconvenience.

With so many options, mobility and change seems to solve a multitude of problems. A new location offers the promise of a fresh start. A new community allows us to bury prior pain, disagreement, or disappointment. We feel safe when we are little known; disconnected, but safe.

Mobility extends the promise of a do-over; a mulligan. By contrast, stability looks like more heartache, conflict, boredom, limitation, or strain. Consequently, mobility has been cast in largely virtuous terms; courage, adventure, and independence! Stability looks like passivity; stuck and unable or unwilling to step out into new opportunities.

Yet, I find it striking that for most of His life, Jesus never ventured more than 20 miles from where He grew up. Yes, He made a handful of short pilgrimages south to Jerusalem, but Nazareth and the northern end of the Sea of Galilee dominate the gospel stories. Thirty-plus years; twenty-or-so miles.

Yet, He came to seek and to save the world. If ever anyone should have been mobile surely it was the Savior. A gospel tour throughout the entire Roman Empire, followed by a teaching stint beyond Iraq and Iran might have been well-received. But just twenty miles; two days walk? For a lifetime?

Perhaps we underestimate the power of stability. Perhaps it takes more courage, more commitment, and more character to stay put at times. Perhaps what we learn by putting down deep roots surpasses what we become by having no roots at all.

Stability, of course, is not a modern challenge. The Benedictine Order still requires a vow of stability in response to the many monks of the early centuries who drifted between abbots and monasteries like unhappy church-goers.

I understand there are many reasons to re-locate, to change, to move, or to leave. There are also many costs. I wonder if sometimes we are running from something rather than being called to something? There is a huge difference. Aimless wandering cannot compare with missional going.

Mobility and stability. Might our twenty miles be the place of our deepest and richest spiritual formation? Might the community that we’ve grown weary of be the very community that we need the most? Following Jesus closely might not take us far! Just something to prayerfully consider.

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Secret of Contentment

Contentment has long been viewed as a human virtue. Nobody likes to live discontent, unsettled, unhappy, or miserable. If we can arrive at contentment, we have found a good place for our souls. But how do we get there?

In an age of constant discontent, when advertising and marketing stirs it up, when so many life events threaten to derail us, when social media swamps us with false images of counterfeit contentment, true contentment seems elusive.

It’s not a new quest.

Philosophers throughout the ages have tried to grip this slippery bar of soap. Epictetus, an ancient Greek Stoic philosopher from the first century AD (as the New Testament was being written), advocated the Stoic way. He urged people to learn contentment by saying “I don’t care” no matter what the loss.

You miss a meal? Say, “I don’t care.” You face a health crisis? Say, “I don’t care.” You lose a friendship? Say, “I don’t care.” Someone close to you dies? Say, “I don’t care.” The Stoic solution to disappointment and sadness was to grow completely uncaring about everything; utterly dispassionate. Thick skin was the solution to hard things, but it sucks all empathy and compassion out of a person. The pathway to contentment was (according to Epictetus) to be emotionally unmoved by inconvenience, tragedy, hardship, or loss.

Such emotionless living (“Nothing you say or do can hurt me!”) is still broadly practiced today. Pain and suffering can drive us in this direction. But it strips away something core and fundamental to our humanity.

At the same time that Epictetus was teaching “I don’t care” the apostle Paul was advocating another way. In Philippians 4:11-12 he wrote that he had learned the secret of contentment, but he provided a powerful and compelling alternative to the dehumanizing option of the Stoics. Rather than “I don’t care,” Paul found solace, hope, and contentment in saying “God does care!”

It’s a profound shift. It does not deny the burden we bear, but shifts it to the One who invites it and offers to carry it with us. Our hunger, our health, our friendships, and our families do matter. We are the lesser for making them less, but by God’s grace there’s a way through and beyond the moment. As Paul (not Epictetus) would say, “My God shall supply all your needs according to His riches in glory through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19).

The secret is not in Stoicism but our Savior. Contentment comes not from having thick skin but from deepening faith. Our denial of pain and refusal to feel simply hardens the heart towards all of life. It diminishes our capacity to love and undermines our experience of grace, because to love deeply is to feel deeply and eventually grieve deeply.

Contentment is indeed a glorious virtue. The Stoic counterfeit has nothing helpful or glorious about it.

What will drive our days this week? “I don’t care?” Or “God does care”? The choice matters.

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Church and Politics

Scott Dudley, senior pastor at Bellevue Presbyterian Church in Bellevue, Washington recently noted that he’s heard of many congregants leaving their church because it didn’t match their politics, but never once heard of someone changing their politics because it didn’t match their church’s teaching.

Could that possibly be true? Could political opinions and preferences trump Christian discipleship in the Church?

To state the obvious and put it mildly, the evangelical church is struggling.

Pastors and church staff are exhausted and leaving ministry in unprecedented numbers. The anecdotal evidence is mountainous. The formal polls confirm it. The Barna Group, earlier this year, found that 29 percent of pastors said they had given “real, serious consideration to quitting being in full-time ministry with the last year.”

There’s no reason to think that The Great Resignation (as some are calling this era) has subsided. So many pastors and churches have simply reached a tipping point; too much conflict, too much personal animosity, too much division, too much abandonment, too much cost to their families, too much crucifixion by social media. We should grieve this development.

Without the impervious heart of a prophet, it has become increasingly difficult for many church leaders to say “Yes” to God’s call to pastoral ministry.

Curiously, the issues have generally not been theological. The angst within churches and between congregants has been driven by race conversations, political preferences, conspiracy theories, views about a stolen election and a January 6 insurrection, masks, vaccinations, social distancing mandates, and similar things. Congregants assess their pastors based on whether they have said enough or too little on these topics, not on whether they are being spiritually fed and formed. Church members have joined a massive migration to greener fields where their politics will be supported from the pulpit.

It’s a conundrum. We can’t wind back the clock and start again. The water is flowing too quickly under the bridge to just stop it abruptly and re-evaluate. How shall we proceed? It seems we might have at least two options.

First, just hold on for the ride, letting the bricks and blows fall where they may and just plan to regroup and regather once the dust settles. That could be a while.

Or second, encourage a return to faith-based conversations that speak to our journey of personal salvation and formation rather than relentlessly protect political preferences and personal freedoms.

To be candid, this second option seems wholly unrealistic unless and until we embrace a new paradigm. The common call to “unity” just doesn’t seem to be sufficiently compelling at this time. Unity to what end? Unity on what basis? Unity of opinion? Unity of conviction? Unity of preferences?

Lately I have continued to reflect on the potential power of “gospel hospitality” as a model to redirect our conversations and guide us in our responses to each other. In the same way that Christ puts out the welcome mat for Jews and Gentiles alike (despite their disparate religious, social, and political histories), can we find the grace to do the same?

What can we do to defuse the political haggling and re-position gospel hospitality more centrally in our lives? Your thoughts?

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