This Kind of Finger-Wagging Nanny

I saw this billboard while driving through Montreal a few weeks ago.

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My first thought was: Good! Glad to see the government raising awareness about sexual exploitation and human trafficking.

But after reading it again, something about the choice of wording felt off. Never mind the word sport, which is odd but neither here nor there. No – the word I’m thinking of is criminal. Because that’s really the big punch of the whole thing. They grab your attention with the word SEX (or SEXE, in French, because, as you know, adding an E to the end of the word makes it more romantique). Then they hook you with the notion that you may be the victim of some misconception about buying sex. And, finally, the hammer of truth comes down: In Canada it’s criminal. Whabam!

Wait – really? Criminal? I mean, yes it is (for now!) and that’s good I guess. But that’s the best we can do? Something in my strange little brain says that word should be wrong. “In Canada (like everywhere) it’s wrong.”

Feel free to laugh out loud. Who am I kidding? Is this the 1870’s? We can’t make moral statements in public. We certainly can’t make absolute moral statements – my goodness! What kind of meddling bigoted hypocrite are you? What kind of sex-hating nail-biting Victorian Puritan are you? What kind of fun-hating, long-skirt-wearing, finger-wagging nanny are you?! article-0-045713D60000044D-93_468x352

A quick glance at the comments section of a local news article about this makes it clear that the peoples here are decided: leave it alone – people will do what they do and it’s not our business.

Ah. But of course the steady stream of robbed and raped girls and boys who are pulled and pushed into the sex industry to feed endless appetites are our business, as long as justice for the oppressed is our business.

The fact that we are now appealing to the assumed desire of citizens to not commit crimes in order to educate and dissuade sexual exploitation is rather telling, isn’t it? Hmm, that’s probably still too generous. We are appealing to not wanting to go to jail and be in the papers.

To me, that’s setting the bar a little low. In terms of a vision for human flourishing, that’s some thin gruel. Some thin, no-sugar-added, low-fat, nutrient-free kind of gruel. Not even a hint that some desires are good, some not so good. No clue that human dignity is part of the equation.

But that’s no criticism of the billboard itself. It’s a fine billboard – one for a time such as this.


 

All of that can get categorized under fumbling attempts at cultural commentary, which I personally find interesting, but ultimately falls well short of being ultimate. Now you might assume that I think this is a bad thing! And okay – in one sense I do. But that’s what I mean by it not being ultimate. It’s a bad thing that might lead to better things.

The gospel and God’s kingdom are ultimate in a way that society and culture isn’t. If Canada and the U.S. go headlong into moral relativism and all manner of ethical upsidedownery, as is the charted course, all the more reason why people will find themselves longing for an anchor for their heart and minds, and forgiveness for the wrongs which they can only deny doing for so long. It might all end up being a gospel opportunity – and I certainly hope and pray so.

 

 

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God’s Jealousy, Part 2

It is in the writings of Hosea (the entire book, but especially chapters 1-3) and Jeremiah (chapter 3) that the metaphor of spiritual adultery is developed and clarified. God is Israel’s husband; Israel is God’s bride. But while God is a good, loving, and faithful husband, Israel is described as an adulterous, wayward, promiscuous, whoring wife. Portions of Ezekiel (chapters 16, 23) are so graphic that I wonder how many churches could even stand to hear them read out loud. No wonder Ezekiel didn’t rank atop the podcast ratings… his message was not often pleasant. The language in these passages is jarring, profoundly unsettling, and offensive. And that is precisely the point.

We, like the Israelites before us, are far too adept at euphemising, excusing, minimizing, and denying sin. Needless to say, God seems to take a different view – judging the unfaithfulness of his covenant people to be heinous, evil, and personal. And perhaps that personal element of betrayal is what this metaphor of spiritual adultery really conveys like nothing else. It is one thing to sin in a judicial sense against the law of a good judge, and it is one thing to fall short of the standard of your benevolent master, but it is something quite different to blatantly cheat on your spouse with other lovers.

Just think about the relational dynamics of the first two pictures of sin in contrast with the third. As a lawbreaker and a stumbling servant, I could still look my Lord in the eye, admit my mistake, and vow to do better. But not so easily if my unfaithfulness is personal betrayal to such a jealous and faithful spouse. This is what makes the metaphor of spiritual adultery so powerful, and for the guilty party (that’s you and me, folks) so devastating.

But in that moment of terrible realization, when all the excuses and side-stepping is done, and you find yourself sitting slumped on a pile of ashes, a new light shines. That new light is the incredible promises of reconciliation, mercy, and restitution that we find in the very same passages that moments ago revealed the ugliness of our sin.

Consider Hosea 2:14-20

“Therefore I am now going to allure her;
    I will lead her into the wilderness
    and speak tenderly to her.
There I will give her back her vineyards,
    and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
There she will respond as in the days of her youth,
    as in the day she came up out of Egypt.

“In that day,” declares the Lord,
    “you will call me ‘my husband’;
    you will no longer call me ‘my master.’
 I will remove the names of the Baals from her lips;
    no longer will their names be invoked.
 In that day I will make a covenant for them
    with the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky
    and the creatures that move along the ground.
Bow and sword and battle
    I will abolish from the land,
    so that all may lie down in safety.
 I will betroth you to me forever;
    I will betroth you in righteousness and justice,
    in love and compassion.
 I will betroth you in faithfulness,
    and you will acknowledge the Lord.

Or Jeremiah 3:14-15

“Return, faithless people,” declares the Lord, “for I am your husband. I will choose you—one from a town and two from a clan—and bring you to Zion. Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding.

Or lastly, Ezekiel 16:60, 62-63

Yet I will remember the covenant I made with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you… So I will establish my covenant with you, and you will know that I am the Lord. Then, when I make atonement for you for all you have done, you will remember and be ashamed and never again open your mouth because of your humiliation, declares the Sovereign Lord.’”

The language of spiritual adultery is the nuclear weapon of sin-exposition. It’s God’s most potent form of argument, and to those with ears to hear, it is profoundly humbling. Embedded in the book of Hosea is this idea that God would come at his people with such severe denouncements so that they might realize their sickness and seek him.

We see this amazing interaction in Hosea 5:13-15, followed by 6:1-3.

“When Ephraim saw his sickness,
    and Judah his sores,
then Ephraim turned to Assyria,
    and sent to the great king for help.
But he is not able to cure you,
    not able to heal your sores.
For I will be like a lion to Ephraim,
    like a great lion to Judah.
I will tear them to pieces and go away;
    I will carry them off, with no one to rescue them.
Then I will return to my lair
    until they have borne their guilt
    and seek my face—
in their misery
    they will earnestly seek me.”

“Come, let us return to the Lord.
He has torn us to pieces
    but he will heal us;
he has injured us
    but he will bind up our wounds.
After two days he will revive us;
    on the third day he will restore us,
    that we may live in his presence.
Let us know the Lord;
    let us press on to know him.
As surely as the sun rises,
    he will appear;
he will come to us like the winter rains,
    like the spring rains that water the earth.”


Here are five things I think we can take away from reflecting on God’s Jealousy.

1. Seeing God’s jealousy forces us to un-domesticate God.

There’s an element of unpredictability in God’s jealousy. He is merciful and patient, but woe to the one who experiences the heat of his holy desire! As C.S. Lewis put it so well, he is good, but he is not safe. This is such a needed remedy for us sleepy believers who have a strong tendency to domesticate God with our selective memory and reading. Even Psalm 23 underscores this when at the end David writes “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” The verb  translated “follow” literally means “to pursue, chase, persecute.” There’s an intensity and an intentionality that is lost in translation. Instead of capturing the predatory spirit of the verb, we are left with the rather limp image of a puppy following a child.

2. Seeing God’s jealousy sobers us about our sin, and our redemption.

I touched on this earlier, so just a quick word. In light of all that we’ve seen, our sin is uglier than we thought. But the beauty of the gospel is that this ugliness only serves to humble us further (to remember and be ashamed and never again open our mouths, as in Ezekiel 16), and to underscore, highlight, and magnify the depth of the mercy and the sweetness of the grace that would so completely forgive such misdeeds.

3. Seeing God’s jealousy helps us realize the seriousness of God’s covenant with us.

Here’s one where the Scriptures really have to renew our typical way of thinking. We are so accustomed to the optional, leave it if you don’t like it, take it for a spin, no strings attached kind of deal that we can import that kind of thinking into our relationship with God. But the truth is that we are in a covenant with God, with covenant obligations to be faithful and to worship Him alone. This is not the typical we way we frame our Christianity, but that is probably more due to our cultural bias than to a balanced Biblical understanding.

4. Seeing God’s jealousy helps us understand some of the ways God works in our lives.

If God is a jealous God who, in the words of Zechariah 8, is “very jealous… burning with jealousy for” his people, then this might help explain how he deals with us. Looking back on my own life, I definitely see God’s jealousy as one of the reasons he allowed me to go through burnout in ministry. When ministry becomes a rival lover, it becomes very dispensable to God. I suddenly go from Very Important Leader to entirely replaceable. Indeed – for my soul’s sake, I must be replaced, rebuked, brought to repent, and then perhaps restored. Likewise, in all our lives, a function of God’s love is that he brooks no rivals. A redefinition of love for some of us, maybe, but love indeed.

5. Seeing God’s jealousy reminds us that we don’t get to pick and choose which attributes of God we like.

There is a counter-intuitive argument to be made that I first heard from Tim Keller. The argument rests simply on the nature of relationship. If we deny the authority of Scripture, and do away with the troublesome aspects of God’s deeds and character (as defined by our enlightened cultural moment, of course), what we are left with is inevitably a glorified reflection of ourselves. A deified mirror image of our own beliefs. But this is plainly not a God with whom you can have a real relationship, if by real relationship we mean, among other things, the ability to challenge, surprise, and rebuke. The God of orthodox Christianity is revealed to us, and we must change our minds and our beliefs to line up with that revelation; not change the revelation to line up with our own thoughts.

 

 

 

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God’s Jealousy, Part 1

Having recently studied and spoken on God’s Jealousy, I thought I would take time to put down in written form some of what I shared with the good people who were willing to listen to me.

In James 4:4-5 we encounter some unusual language.

You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us?”

Specifically, the words adulterous and jealously seem strangely out of place. The context makes it clear that physical adultery is not what James is currently addressing, and the idea of God as jealous is not a common one in the New Testament. So how do we make sense of this? What is James trying to say?

Interestingly, the only other place in the NT where adultery is used in a clearly non-physical way is in Matthew 12:39, where Jesus says “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” Even more tellingly, the parallel passage in Luke excludes the word adulterous from the same phrase. Luke 11:29: As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.”

This underlines the Old Testament roots of this language and metaphor. Because why, you say? Well because Matthew was written to a Jewish audience that would immediately have connected the adultery language to those scathing passages in Jeremiah and Hosea with which they were familiar. Luke’s audience, however, was primarily Gentile, and would not have made that connection (thus, I’m assuming, he left it out to avoid the confusion).

So to the Old Testament we must go! We begin all the way back in Exodus 20, in the smoke and thunder of Mount Sinai. In delivering the second commandment, God explains the prohibition of images by saying “for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.” Remember that these words, spoken by the Lord, are some of the very first revelations of himself to his people, who at this point did not have the written law, and were only now receiving the tablets of stone. God is explaining to them what kind of God he is, in contrast to the gods of Egypt or Canaan.

Follow the story to Exodus 32 and we find that the people, having waited 400 years for rescue in Egypt, couldn’t wait the full 40 days for Moses to finish up his business on the mountain. They violate the second commandment in creating and worshiping the golden calf, and then when Moses comes back down the mountain he is, as they say, not impressed, children. Kind of like when I stomp down the stairs and find the kids’ playroom looking like a tornado, a bomb, and a group of chimps had a rave, except very much more so.

So in Exodus 34:14 God says “Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” He has gone a step further from using jealous as an adjective to describe himself and has made it a proper noun – God’s very Name. Jealous. In the next verse, he describes the pagan worship of the Canaanites by saying “they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice for them.” This use of sexual language to describe religious practice begins a long theme winding through the whole of the Old Testament, even if at this point it isn’t clear what exactly is meant, but it is growing clear that there is a link between God’s jealousy, the covenant, and this language of sexual sin.

We find the same language used in Deuteronomy 31 to describe Israel’s future covenant unfaithfulness. “And the Lord said to Moses: ‘You are going to rest with your ancestors, and these people will soon prostitute themselves to the foreign gods of the land they are entering. They will forsake me and break the covenant I made with them.'” Here we see that this language of prostitution is clearly linked to breaking the covenant – an important clue as to the full meaning of this metaphor.

As with so many Biblical themes, what we find in seed form at the beginning of redemptive history grows and unfurls as that history progresses. At this point it would make sense to come away thinking what does this mean?; but further revelation, especially through the prophets Hosea and Jeremiah, will make it crystal clear.

And that’s what we’ll look at in Part 2.

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“A little shameless self-promotion never hurt anyone”

Actually, it did.

I’m increasingly convinced of this – yes – of the untruth of the title of this post.

And yet with a bajillion blogs and sites and articles and posts and pics and rants clogging the interweb, the shameless self-promotion seems necessary for getting one’s message out; one’s brand. Or is it?

I don’t know. All I know is that it doesn’t really jive with me. I’m a real Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde when it comes to this stuff. I’m fiercely drawn to desire people’s affirmation, and that really scares me about myself.

I see how the North American church is sick with celebrity culture, self-promotion being the modus operandi of the whole thing. And I have this funny feeling that I would be purrty happy with the whole setup if I was part of the select few voices at the top. Which scares me. Consider it a gracious gift that this test has been spared me – I do (in my better moments).

I read somewhere recently that celebrity necessarily dehumanizes. Yes, I thought to myself – that’s right. It objectifies the person. A celebrity is not a person, it’s a thing. And what a thing! That’s why when we meet a celebrity and see them eating potato salad or something it is such a strange experience. What? You mean… they do that too? The experience forces a little bit of humanity back onto the object. We need to run in that direction, and hard, for our sake and for everyone else’s.

 

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A Very Boring-Sounding Title: The Foundation of True Discourse

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“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“I can’t understand how anyone could believe that.”

“Anyone who thinks that is a complete idiot and understands nothing.”

We’ve all heard people say things like this, and most of us have said some of them ourselves. But the more I observe people interacting in person and online, the more I see how destructive such attitudes are towards the goals of honest conversation and true discourse.

It is the most natural inclination of any group with shared beliefs to reinforce those beliefs by developing arguments against the beliefs of others. This in and of itself is fine and good. This is why Christians study and discuss the wrong beliefs of Muslims, Mormons, and atheists, and why Camaro enthusiasts talk trash about Mustangs. The last thing we want is to say that one belief is as valid as another, or else we end up with plain old relativism and that is about as helpful as a set of black and white traffic lights or pharmacists who only administer placebo pills. 

And yet something critical is lost when the Camaro Club members come to believe that the Mustang is a useless piece of junk and quite literally the worst car ever made, or when a Christian says that Muslims or Mormons or atheists are completely deceived and know nothing about God or the world. What is lost is simply the truth. In the effort of preserving and reinforcing one’s own beliefs, it is all too easy to leave the realm of truth and reality. Constructing crude caricatures of opposing views is so rampant in religious and political discourse that its easy to lose sight of how harmful and destructive it is. And it isn’t just harmful for the one being caricatured. No – it is even more harmful for the one doing the caricaturing, because even if that person holds the view that is really true, he has left the realm of truth in his attack on the other, and is now frankly unable to convince anyone else of the truth.

Why is this? It’s because of a very simple and understandable reaction that always occurs when someone hears their own beliefs misrepresented. It’s essentially impossible to be convinced by an argument that is not addressing your position. And if I can narrow the focus a little bit to an especially guilty party of which I am a guilty member, we Christians are constantly doing this. The other partners in this fumbling waltz of misfired arguments are the atheists, who I daresay are just as bad. 

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I don’t know how many times I’ve heard Christians quote Psalm 14:1, “The fool says in his heart, “There is no God”” and then proceed to argue that atheists are all fools and if they had any working brain cells they would see that God exists. Now, the scripture is true, and in the last analysis, when all things are revealed and our profound blindnesses are cured, it will be obvious that it is a foolish thing to say there is no God, sort of like it is a foolish thing to say there is no such thing as speech. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t perfectly understandable why someone would be a committed atheist. In fact, I am quite sure I would be a committed atheist if I had been born to atheist parents and if God had not so clearly intervened in my life; there but for the grace of God go I and you too.

The truth is, if the deepest pre-supposition you held was that there is no such thing as the supernatural, God, or anything beyond the physical world, then it makes sense to look at all the data available and conclude, like so many do, that the universe somehow came into existence through a big kablamo and that by endless chance life came into being and through countless eons evolved into what we see today. A lot of very intelligent, sensible people believe this. Likewise, atheists should be able to imagine how an intelligent and thoughtful person could come to believe that God created all things and that Jesus is the son of God.

We need a kind of intellectual empathy that says “I can see how you could believe that.” 

This is the foundation for any conversation which might actually bear the fruit of mutual understanding, growth, and maybe even epiphany. 

Defending the truth is a vital and worthy objective. But often in the interest of defending the truth we build walls instead of bridges, creating insular intellectual communities instead of winsome truth-telling communities, based in fear instead of love.

Someone I know came back from a conference a few years ago and told me “Post-modernism is so stupid!” I don’t disagree with the fact but the sentiment is not likely to convince many post-modernists. Forgive the analogy but if you want the dog to come inside you’re going to have to do something other than throw sticks at it. 

Republicans routinely demonize and draw caricatures of the Democrats, who then turn around and return the favour with interest. Christians get together and make fun of those stupid know-nothing atheists, who also get together and chuckle at the poor misguided fools who believe in an imaginary omnipotent being. And then there was the guy in my class who had decided that any and all Japanese cars were ugly and stupid and that only Fords and Chevys were worthy of appreciation, a position so untenable that it was hard not to laugh. 

Building walls of mutual incomprehension will do a good job of preserving the status quo but it will also prevent any actual conversation and – most shockingly of all – any realization of our own errors and wrong beliefs. Ultimately it is the path to ignorance, blindness, and even hate and violence, for there is a sense in which the kinds of mental attitudes I’ve described contain the seeds of the dehumanization necessary for violence. 

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Blinded by Celebrity Culture

The culture of celebrity is so pervasive that we have forgotten and lost something very important and obvious.

We tend to think that the very best example of a given talent or discipline will be found in the person who is the most famous for it. But this is a very irresponsible assumption to make.

Someone of greater or equal talent to the celebrity may have decided that they were going to make family and privacy a priority. Other talented people don’t have ‘the look’ and therefore can’t create an image that will sell. Still others simply haven’t been discovered yet, and many never will. They will simply continue to write and perform and sculpt and cook and paint and sing in your communities, your coffee houses, local art galleries, your churches, always being less in our eyes because they have none of the waxy sheen and glitter that we wrongly associate with true greatness. The case in point for this is the true story of the world-class violinist who played in a subway for 45 minutes while hundreds upon hundreds of people walked by without ever noticing.

And I think most of us are guilty of ‘not noticing’ all kinds of wonderful talent and greatness all around us. It’s a darn shame is what it is.

This holds true in the spiritual world as well. The church has bought into the celebrity culture so completely that it has forgotten there was ever an alternative. Our worship bands are good but they aren’t exactly Chris Tomlin, David Crowder, or Michael Gungor. Our preachers may be good but they aren’t (insert favourite preacher here). If only we had someone in our church who was a spiritual giant like so-and-so, who could pray like other-so-and-so. But the fact is we are looking at the waxy sheen instead of the substance, and the truth is that there are fantastic preachers in your town, and probably your church.

The truly great prayer warriors and spiritual giants will never be celebrified, and they abound in the quietest of corners in most churches. The music can be as much of a distraction as a help. The North American worship experience has been profoundly and perhaps irrevocably knocked off balance by the inappropriate elevation of the rockstar worship leader, the conflation of worship service and concert, and the confusion of emotional effusion for spiritual power.

What I’m saying is that the celebrity pastor most worth your time is your pastor, the celebrity worship leader most worth your voice is your worship leader, the spiritual giant most worth approaching for advice and prayer is that sweet older person who sits two rows back and to the left and smiles at you when you walk in.

It’s simply the way God has always done things. Greatness comes in the most ordinary vessels.

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A Too-Good-Not-To-Share Paragraph on the Problem of Evil from G.K. Chesterton

Be warned, a paragraph for ol’ Gee-Kay is a five page article for most of us, but nevertheless, here ’tis.

Context: He is here near the end of his book, and working to show how Christianity differs from both mythology and philosophy. I’ve adjusted the formatting for improved ease of reading, since as superiorly intelligent people in the age of the perpetual interruption we are quite unable to follow a train of thought or argument for more than a dozen or so words.

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But if it is not a mythology neither is it a philosophy. It is not a philosophy because, being a vision, it is not a pattern but a picture. It is not one of those simplifications which resolve everything into an abstract explanation; as that everything is recurrent; or everything is relative; or everything is inevitable; or everything is illusive.

It is not a process but a story.

It has proportions, of the sort seen in a picture or a story; it has not the regular repetitions of a pattern or a process; but it replaces them by being convincing as a picture or a story is convincing.

In other words, it is exactly, as the phrase goes, like life. For indeed it is life.

An example of what is meant here might well be found in the treatment of the problem of evil. It is easy enough to make a plan of life of which the background is black, as the pessimists do; and then admit a speck or two of star-dust more or less accidental, or at in the literal sense insignificant. And it is easy enough to make another plan on white paper, as the Christian Scientists do, and explain or explain away somehow such dots or smudges as may be difficult to deny. Lastly it is easiest of all, perhaps, to say as the dualists do, that life is like a chessboard in which the two are equal; and can as truly be said to consist of white squares on a black board or of black squares on a white board.

But every man feels in his heart that none of these three paper plans is like life; that none of these worlds is one in which he can live. Something tells him that the ultimate idea of a world is not bad or even neutral; staring at the sky or the grass or the truths of mathematics or even a new-laid egg, he has a vague feeling like the shadow of that saying of the great Christian philosopher, St. Thomas Aquinas, ‘Every existence, as such, is good.’ On the other hand, something else tells him that it is unmanly and debased and even diseased to minimise evil to a dot or even a blot. He realizes that optimism is morbid. It is if possible even more morbid than pessimism.

These vague but healthy feelings, if he followed them out, would result in the idea that evil is in some way an exception but an enormous exception; and ultimately that evil is an invasion or yet more truly a rebellion.

He does not think that everything is right or that everything is wrong, or that everything is equally right and wrong. But he does think that right has a right to be right and therefore a right to be there; and wrong has no right to be wrong and therefore no right to be there. It is the prince of the world; but it is also a usurper.

So he will apprehend vaguely what the vision will give to him vividly; no less than all that strange story of treason in heaven and the great desertion by which evil damaged and tried to destroy a cosmos that it could not create. It is a very strange story and its proportions and its lines and colors are as arbitrary and absolute as the artistic composition of a picture. It is a vision which we do in fact symbolize in pictures by titanic limbs and passionate tints of plumage; all that abysmal vision of falling stars and the peacock panoplies of the night.

But that strange story has one small, advantage over the diagrams.

It is like life.

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