Seventy-seven Times?!

This Matthew 18 stuff is hard, really hard …

What do you do when your friend gives you a gun? For Roger, this was easy: he used it. And he says that if he had the chance, he’d use it again. Roger’s entire life has become consumed by one unquenchable desire: avenging his daughter’s death. Sarah was out on her bike when she was hit by a drunk driver. She died almost instantly. The driver was sent to prison for manslaughter. But that wasn’t enough for Roger. He borrowed a gun and when the driver was released years later, he shot him, fully intending to kill. Now the tables were turned, and Roger found himself charged with attempted murder, facing the possibility of a similar long prison sentence. I asked him if squeezing the trigger and watching the man collapse in agony made him feel better. “No,” he said, “Only killing him could have made me feel better.”

Thus begins a little book entitled Why forgive? It is full of stories, horrific stories of pain and injustice suffered by ordinary people like you and I. But the book is also full of hope, illustrating vividly the life-giving power of forgiveness, and why “to err is human, to forgive is divine.” Its message is a huge challenge in the face of the world’s horrific injuries inflicted daily by terrorists, armies at war, ethnic conflict, as well as by tragic accidents, disasters and disease, alcohol and drug abuse, family violence, sexual abuse etc. etc.

With the mind of an accountant, adding and subtracting offences and pardon, Peter asks Jesus: “How often do I need to forgive the one who wrongs me?” With the mind of God, in the business of unbridled mercy, Jesus gives an outrageous answer: “Seventy-seven times seven.” In other words, there’s no end to the need to forgive…

The Bible is full of admonishments to forgive those who injure us. We know that – it’s ingrained in our minds. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray “Forgive us our debtors as we forgive those who sin against us.”

We’re good church folk – we know we “should” forgive. We recognize the importance to let go of hurts and resentments. However, most of us are really good at telling others to forgive. When it’s our turn, it can often feel impossible to extend heartfelt forgiveness.
Believe me, recently I had another opportunity to practice this — it was mighty hard. And to be told that we ought to forgive can actually make things worse. We might heap a whole bunch of guilt onto ourselves, simply adding to the anger and vengeful feelings instead of helping them disappear.

Here the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35) has something to teach us. Jesus tells an incredible story of the king who forgave one servant an impossible debt. But then that servant turns around and refuses to forgive a fellow servant who owed him a debt much smaller than the one the king forgave.

At first hearing, the servant’s behaviour is shocking. Why does the servant, having been treated so generously by the king, immediately act so ruthlessly toward his fellow servant? The king is justified in his harsh retaliation. But upon deeper hearing, this parable should make us blush… We often treat one another in similar fashion.

When the forgiven servant hears that his debt is forgiven, he shows no appropriate response. Scripture does not tell us whether he rejoices, whether he gives thanks, whether he celebrates with wife and children who are spared imprisonment. All we learn is that on the way out he refuses … the plea … of a fellow servant. That creates a very serious gap in the story. That gap makes a very important point. The servant clearly has not “experienced” the king’s forgiveness. We already hear that in how he approaches the king. His debt is beyond any reasonable ability to pay — 10,000 talents represents more than the wages of a day labourer for 1,000 years! Yet he says, “I will pay you everything” – how naïve can you get? The servant thinks that he is dealing with the king on the basis of justice. What he receives but never grasps is the king’s mercy.

God is in the forgiveness business, but we have a hard time forgiving each other – and even ourselves. A Chinese proverb describes this human inability to forgive rather bluntly: whoever opts for revenge should dig two graves. God is not stopped from forgiving us because we are unforgiving towards each other. But there is a link between our experience of God’s forgiveness and our capacity to forgive another sister or brother.

Forgiveness is quite different than justice or retribution. That is what Jesus is trying to teach us. The first servant keeps thinking in terms of justice, and fails to realize he has received mercy. Mercy is a divine gift which transforms the heart. God deals with us, not on the scale of justice, but by granting mercy. A heart transformed by God’s gift of mercy is set free to offer mercy to another in turn.

Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu was chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Tutu says to forgive goes beyond unselfishness: “To forgive is a process that does not exclude hate and anger. These emotions are all part of being human.” Tutu  continues, “You should never hate yourself for hating others who do terrible things; the depth of your love is shown by the extent of your anger.” Tutu stresses that, “When I talk of forgiveness, I mean the conviction that you can come out the other side a better person.”

Hatred comes in many forms; the great hatred of 9/11, civil and ethnic conflicts, suicide bombings in major world cities. Apart from world-scale events of evil, there is a lot of small stuff we sweat every day, small stuff needing the healing touch of mercy: We suffer painful family relations. We feel unjustly treated at work.  A friend deserts us, or betrays us. A teacher judges our son or daughter wrongly. A pastor abuses our trust…

We must not take these actions lightly for they affect the health of the world. In the same way, however, we must not take Jesus’ call to forgiveness lightly, for it too affects the health of the world.

One of the first things Anglican priest Dale Lang did after the fatal shooting in a Tabor high school, quite a few years ago now, was to forgive the boy who killed his son. “ If you can’t reach that place of forgiveness, then you’re going to get stuck in that place of anger and bitterness ,” said Lang. Dale Lang still travels the country sharing his tragic experience of loss and his call to mercy. A number of years later similar words were spoken by another father whose son, an RCMP officer, was killed in the Mayerthorpe ambush on a farm: “If I let hatred for my son’s murderer eat my heart, I would become another victim of the shooting,”

God is in the forgiveness business in and through Jesus. In Ephesians 1:7 Paul writes, “In him [Jesus] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the richness of his grace.” Paul later reminded the Christians at Ephesus, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ also forgave you.” Paul asks the Romans (14:10), and us: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Why do you despise your sister or brother? We will all stand before the judgment seat of God.”

The last paragraph in the book Why Forgive?  reads as follows: Forgiveness is life-giving power. It frees us from every constraint of the past, and helps us overcome every obstacle. It can heal both the forgiver and the forgiven. In fact, it could change the world if we allowed it to. But too often we stand in its way, not daring to let it flow through us unchecked. With God, we hold the keys to forgiveness in our hands. And we must choose whether or not to use these keys – every day.

With the mind of an accountant we ask: How often did you say, Lord? With the mind of God Jesus answers: Seventy-seven times seven … Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

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Discernment Challenges

Slowly, though reluctantly, it seems that the Anglican Communion is choosing ecclesial unity rather than division over the question of same-sex marriage, at least for now. The Anglican Church in New Zealand recently postponed their decision on the question, citing too much painful division on the horizon should it sanction same-sex unions as a marriage. The Church of Scotland has opened the door cautiously to studying the question. Both the Church of England and the Anglican Church of Canada will engage the same question next month but report deep divisions in their ranks. This seems to leave The Episcopal Church (TEC) in the USA as the only Anglican body having definitively changed the Marriage Canon to eliminate the one-man, one-woman clause.

What to make of this? Having only recently moved into the Anglican family, I am a new participant in this highly charged conversation. I confess my own struggle, not necessarily with same-sex partnerships, but with calling such partnerships marriage. And in light of the Orlando massacre which deliberately targeted LGBTQ women and men, I run the risk of being perceived as unsupportive of this vulnerable group suffering grave injustice and discrimination.

But nothing could be further from the truth. As a lover and disciple of Jesus committed to living my life in his footsteps,  I desire fullness of life (John 10:10) not just for myself but for all God’s people. And so I struggle ever more deeply, between authentic compassion and care in Jesus’ name (which Scott Sauls articulates so poignantly in his blog), vital in this time of profound grief in the LGBTQ community, and long-standing cherished understandings of marriage and sexuality.

Along the way I’ve become all too familiar with painful discernment challenges. When faced with difficult decisions and moral dilemmas in my personal life, I often have to take several big steps back from the situation in order to re-frame, rethink and reorient so as to discover a new angle or two. St. Ignatius’ recommendation to foster healthy detachment is an arduous task yet in the long run one well-worth pursuing.

When caught in a discernment dilemma, I make every effort to root my spirit in prayer and meditation, while engaging a trusted and seasoned mentor in my quest, all with the purpose of seeking Christ’s wisdom and light through the lens of Holy Scripture and the tradition of the Church. That wisdom and light requires ruthless self-examination through piercing, painful, questions such as:
1. What am I not seeing? What are my blind spots? Odd question, because as soon as I can see the blind spot, it’s no longer a blind spot.  🙂
2. What assumptions or emotional baggage prevent me from seeing in a new light?
3. Why does the direction/decision remain so unclear or conflicted or resistant?
4. What motivates the unclarity and resistance: negative energy arising from fear or ignorance, unresolved baggage or false attachments; or positive energy arising from genuine concern and important caution, from a deeper hunger for justice than the presenting issue portrays, from the loving desire to do the right thing?
5. Why does the current framing of my dilemma create unfocused energy and struggle?
6. What in the opposite perspective do I need to hear, heed and honour?
7. What is the delay in clarity telling me?

I remember more than once, when I have desperately wanted to forge ahead in an important decision while trying hard to ignore the muddle in my own mind and heart, as well as the ambiguous rationale in Scripture. Each time a wise mentor would hear me out and finally, carefully and gently, would say: “When the road ahead is not clear, it’s not time to decide. In that case, wait for the clarity.” I would groan, hating the answer, but knew enough to admit, with great reluctance, that my friend and mentor was probably right.

The prophet Habakkuk experienced this very thing:
I will stand at my watch-post, and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,
and what he will answer concerning my complaint.
Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision; make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay. (Hab. 2:1–4)

If it seems to tarry, wait for it. Given the collective Anglican foot dragging over the controversial question on same-sex marriage, I wonder if it might help to take a few similar big steps back. For those who have been part of this conversation for nearly an entire generation and whose lives are directly impacted in adverse ways by this delay, this will be an exasperating suggestion. For those who realize (with or without chagrin) the slow pace of change in a 2,000-year old ecclesial body, this stepping back again and again is simply part of the sorting and sifting in the Holy Spirit’s orbit.

For discernment is much more demanding and time-consuming than debating and voting. Good discernment presupposes goodwill in every participant, our commitment to let God heal our hurts, harness our ego, and free us from false attachments and fear. Discernment can require stepping back and waiting over and over again, until the mist begins to lift. Discernment requires deep listening and heeding of all voices in light of Scripture, Tradition and Reason/Experience — the much beloved three-legged Anglican stool.

A close companion to good discernment is dialogue.  I am learning much from Andrew Marin who says, I am more concerned with working towards dialogue that actually promotes a shift in social engagement and relations than standing on one side yelling at the other to change. This past January, Angus Ritchie said something similar in his article,  “The pursuit of truth and the pursuit of unity do not represent a zero-sum game, because of the importance of dialogue in discerning the truth. The debates which continue to rage on these issues remind us that we need one another’s perspectives. Each “side” in this dispute has something to say which the other needs to hear – a fact that is possible to recognize without hedging one’s bets.

Discernment presses counter-intuitive questions. In the current issue on same-sex marriage, such questions could include:
* Is it possible, heaven forbid, that those who resist defining same-sex partnerships as marriage have something worthwhile to speak into the question?
* Does such reluctance necessarily originate in ignorant, homophobic attitudes and motives, or in unacknowledged sexual hang-ups?
* Can the reluctance to ecclesial sanction of same-sex marriage arise from healthy, prayerful consideration, from genuine and justified caution and from a place of radical love?
* What is at stake in the proposed changes?
* What are we not seeing or hearing, because our own pain and desire clouds our ability to see and hear?
* Is the current ecclesial tension and division generative or problematic, i.e. a fruit of the Spirit or an obstacle to the Spirit?
* What in the experience and perspective of the other does each of us need to hear and grapple with?

The Scriptural grounding for the concept of a permanent same-sex relationship to be on par with marriage seems tenuous. Yet we cannot dismiss the experience, desire and witness of persons with same-sex orientation nor can we dismiss the possibility that something new is emerging in God’s economy of love through their presence in our Christian communities. More specifically, how can the unique potential blessing of a same-sex covenant be affirmed as an expression of God’s justice, love and mercy while at the same time honouring the integrity of the traditional and nearly universal understanding of marriage? Does the Marriage Commission Report This Holy Estate strive to open a space for another, third, way of considering the matter (par. 5.3.3)?

Are we willing, once again, to lay aside rhetoric and polarizing terms, own feelings of pain, fear and frustration, and increase efforts to listen deeply to one another yet again? Michael Coren recently wrote an article published by the United Church Observer, in which he admits that many who cannot in good conscience endorse same-sex unions as marriage are “loving followers of Christ who do enormous amounts of good work in numerous areas.” In New Zealand, a new Working Group on the subject is urged to  “constantly come back to the conservatives, to be sure that the recommendations are acceptable to them.”

In a few weeks, it is our turn as Anglicans in Canada to engage once again the painful questions. Spiritual maturity requires the questions and the deep listening in community in a safe space shielded from political pressure. It will not be easy. Yet we did not choose one another: God chose us to be Christ’s witnesses in the world, together.

The Anglican instinct to keep walking together in love is demanding, yet reflects poignantly the Gospel imperative to carry one another’s burdens and grow spiritual bonds of affection as the one Body of our Lord. I pray for the grace of charity and mercy in all conversation partners. And for the grace to remember: if the vision seems to tarry, do not lose heart. Wait for it.

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Eucharist and Justice

If you are surprised by the combination of these two words above, stop and think for just a moment. Your surprise reveals the massive amnesia among most western Christians about the fact that celebrating the Lord’s Supper ought to have huge consequences for how we treat the most vulnerable among us. It is urgent that we reconnect these two principles in order not just to recover faithfulness to Christ, and to ensure that our Eucharist is “valid” (1 Cor. 11:29) but to save the very planet we inhabit, our common home.

When writing the latest essay for one of my M.Div. courses on the above subject, I unearthed some poignant words which are crying out to be reclaimed, from the Gospel itself to the early Church Fathers to today. I am sharing them here with the hope of awakening all of us from our consumer slumber. For if we truly are what we eat, and if we partake in Holy Communion over and over for years, then just about every cell in our body has been nourished with the sacred meal. Christ’s Body and Blood – that’s who we are. From that reality it ought to flow without question that we in turn are then called to bring Jesus’ body and blood out into the world, to lay down our lives for the sake of our sisters and brothers in need.  May it be so.

On the night before he gave up his life for us, Jesus, at supper with his friends, took bread, gave thanks to you, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “Take this, all of you, and eat it; this is my body which is given for you.” After supper, Jesus took the cup of wine, said the blessing, gave it to his friends, and said, “Drink this, all of you: this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, which is shed for you and for many, so that sins may be forgiven. Do this in memory of me.” ~ Eucharistic Prayer 5, Book of Alternative Services, Anglican Church of Canada.

‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and clothed you? When did we see you sick or in prison and visited you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ ~ Matthew 25:35—40

Although world leaders have increasingly talked about the need to tackle inequality, and in September agreed a global goal to reduce it, the gap between the richest and the rest has widened dramatically in the past 12 months. Oxfam’s prediction, made ahead of last year’s Davos, that the 1% would soon own more than the rest of us, actually came true in 2015 – a year earlier than expected.  ~ Oxfam Report, Jan. 18, 2016

When we seek liturgy which fosters social justice, we are confronted with an immense challenge – celebrating liturgy which changes not only the hearts of worshipers but, through them, the way the world – and the church – are organized and function. ~ The Liturgy that Does Justice, James L. Empereur, SJ, and Christopher Kiesling, OP. Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, 1990

I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream. ~ Amos 5:21-24

The 28 richest countries have resettled only 1.39 per cent of the 4.6 million Syrian refugees – a total of 129,966 refugees – a fraction of the 10 per cent of people who need to be urgently offered a safe haven. Only 67,000 have actually made it to their final destination. ~ Oxfam Report, March 29, 2016

Our habits and our predetermined ways and the structures of our society have fastened such blinders on our harnesses that, as a whole, Christians and Christian churches in our society have only the haziest notion of any moral imperative flowing from the Sunday meeting in which we celebrate God’s word of human liberation and solidarity and then act it out in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup. As obvious as those ethical demands are, they simply do not impinge; they do not get through to us. We are too well protected by the world we live in.
(Fr. Robert Hovda in Let’s Put the Eucharist to Work, US Catholic, June 12, 2008)

Those who hold strange doctrine … have no regard for love, no care for the widow, the orphan, none for the orphan or the oppressed … because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour. ~ St. Ignatius of Antioch, 100 AD

I recall you in the last place to the Christ of the Blessed Sacrament. … I say to you, and I say it to you with all the earnestness that I have, that if you are prepared to fight for the right of adoring Jesus in his Blessed Sacrament, then you have got to come out from before your Tabernacle and walk, with Christ mystically present in you, out into the streets of this country, and find the same Jesus in the people of your cities and your villages. You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slum. ~ Our Present Duty, Anglo-Catholic Congress, 1923. Frank Weston, Bishop of Zanzibar

Do you wish to honour the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk only then to neglect him outside where he suffers cold and nakedness. He who said: ‘This is my body’ is the same One who said … ‘Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also to me.’  ~ St. John Chrysostom, 349 – 407 AD.

Why is it that in spite of hundreds of thousands of Eucharistic celebrations Christians continue as selfish as before? Why is the gap of income, wealth, knowledge, and power growing in the world today—and that in favour of the Christian peoples? Why is it that persons who proclaim Eucharistic love and sharing deprive the poor of the world of food, capital, employment, even land? ~ Sri Lankan Bishop, in Gabe Huck’s Let’s Put the Eucharist to Work, US Catholic, June 12, 2008

As each Sister is to do the work of a priest — go where he cannot go and do what he cannot do, she must imbibe the Spirit of Holy Mass, which is one of total surrender and offering. For this reason, Holy Mass must become the daily meeting place, where God and his creature offer each other for each other and the world. ~ Blessed Mother Teresa, Rule Book, Sisters of Charity, p. 31; R. 33.

The Eucharist, whether seen as Holy Communion or as the Mass, can become a kind of product created for individual spiritual customers. It’s supposed to have a trans-forming effect on us so that we leave church determined to do something. We should be seeing the world in a different way and have different priorities because of the Eucharist. It should affect what we do with our time, how we spend our money, how we look for a job, how we vote. ~ Gabe Huck,  Let’s put the Eucharist to Work, in US Catholic, June 12, 2008

In the third century, the North African bishop, Cyprian, wrote once to reprimand a wealthy woman in his church who made no offering of her resources for the care of the poor but who presumed nevertheless to show up at the communion table. From Cyprian’s perspective, the poor and rich alike must spend themselves for others. This is the concrete self-gift of the church, the gift celebrated in the Eucharist. The wealthy woman who refused her gift was denying – even mocking – the thrust and imperative of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is, above all else, a sacrifice: yours–joined to Christ’s. ~ An Easter Sourcebook, Gabe Huck, Gail Ramshaw & Gordon Lathrop, LTP, 1990

When you have partaken of this sacrament, therefore, or desire to partake of it, you must in turn share the misfortunes of the fellowship… all the unjust suffering of the innocent, with which the world is everywhere filled to overflowing. You must fight, work, pray and – if you cannot do more – have heartfelt sympathy. ~ Martin Luther in “The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ, and the Brotherhoods,” 1519, published in Luther’s Works, Volume 35: Word and Sacrament I. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960

If a poor man or a poor woman comes, whether they are from your own parish or from another, above all if they are advanced in years, and if there is no room for them, make a place for them, O bishop, with all your heart, even if you yourself have to sit on the ground. You must not make any distinction between persons if you wish your ministry to be pleasing before God. ~ Didascalia of the Apostles, 230 AD

Anyone who celebrates the Lord’s supper in a world of hunger and oppression does so in complete solidarity with the hopes and suffering of all men, because he believes that the Messiah invites all  . . . to this table and because he hopes they will all sit at the table with him. In the mysteries, the feast separates the initiated from the rest of the world. But Christ’s messianic feast makes its participants one with the physically and spiritually hungry all over the world. ~ Jurgen Moltmann, in Liturgy, Justice and the Reign of God, Frank Henderson, Stephen Larson, Kathleen Quinn, 1999

The Eucharistic celebration. . . is a constant challenge in the search for appropriate relationships in social, economic and political life . . . . All kinds of injustice, racism, separation and lack of freedom are radically challenged when we share in the body and blood of Christ. … Reconciled in the Eucharist, the members of the body of Christ are called to be servants of reconciliation among men and women and witnesses of the joy of resurrection. As Jesus went out to publicans and sinners and had table-fellowship with them during his earthly ministry, so Christians are called in the Eucharist to be in solidarity with the outcast and to become signs of the love of Christ who lived and sacrificed himself for all and now gives himself in the Eucharist. .. Baptism, Eucharist & Ministry, par. 20 & 24, World Council of Churches, 1982

In the fullness of time, you sent your Son Jesus Christ, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all. He healed the sick and ate and drank with outcasts and sinners; he opened the eyes of the blind and proclaimed the good news of your kingdom to the poor and to those in need. In all things he fulfilled your gracious will. ~ Eucharistic Prayer 1, Book of Alternative Services, Anglican Church of Canada

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Christmas 2014

NativitySceneTo be honest, Christmas Day is no time to be born, especially when you love Jesus as I do. Confession: love Jesus, 364 days, jealous of Jesus, one day. But my parents didn’t share this sentiment. I was their first-born of five and remained the only girl. Born and raised in the Netherlands, I was doted on,  the only one receiving presents on Christmas Day. I still cherish those days of warmth and love – their memories still give off fuzzies.

As a teenager I had a stubborn justice streak, though, some strange wild desire to do the unconventional in the name of Jesus, something that made my Sunday-observing Catholic parents very nervous, especially at Christmas time. Given that I was my parents’ firstborn child, on Christmas Day, this created a lot of pressure not to rock boats on Christmas Day because, besides Jesus’ birthday, it was my special day and by extension my parents’ special day as my arrival had ushered them into parenthood.

But my zeal for Jesus got the best of me, and one year I announced I would not be home for Christmas (my birthday), but would volunteer at the nearby nursing home to be with those who had no family. I was in for an odd experience: delightful surprise at one of my best Christmases ever combined with sour comments about “being rebellious” and spoiling the family fun.

This memory came back last year as, once again, my zeal for Jesus got the best of me. Together with husband and daughter I spent Christmas Day volunteering at the local community Christmas dinner with all who had no one to celebrate with. This time there were no sour comments or resentful looks; we all agreed it was the best way to honour Christ’s birth. I’m hooked now; the family gathering will have to take place on another day close to Christmas. Pope Francis takes every possible opportunity to point out the obvious: followers of Christ are to look, sound and behave counter-culturally, especially in what has become the peak buying and consuming season of the year. Jesus, born in a stable, came into the world to fight and defeat the demons of greed and selfishness, prejudice and hardness of heart. From the manger to the cross, Jesus fought these death-dealing trends in the human heart, thus opening the gates of heaven through radical compassion and mercy, love and self-giving for the “least of these.” Read more at: http://www.prairiemessenger.ca/14_12_17/litlife_14_12_17.html

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