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Archive for March, 2008

I’ve had a lot of second thoughts since that last post. I knew I would, as I was exploring questions, so my own uncertainty was built into the fiber of the words I was trying to express.

I’m afraid, though, when I challenge or question the whole idea of helping the poor or fighting poverty as an established goal or agenda, that I sound like I don’t think we are to concern ourselves with the poor or the needy, with relieving poverty and alleviating the causes of suffering. I do believe we are commanded to care for those who suffer. I am not sure at all how that should look. And I recognize that what I’m reacting against are plans and programs that address the poverty, feed the poor and alleviate the causes of suffering, but somehow miss the people.

So, even as I’m struggling with the concepts of “feeding the hungry” or “eradicating poverty” as agendas, what IS my responsibility? I find that many of the programs or plans that purport to do those things do so quite inadequately and even seem to complicate matters more. But is it better to something poorly than do nothing at all? What should I be doing to care for people who are suffering in general, and as a result of poverty, in specific?

I don’t totally know. One thing I’m pretty sure of is that the bottom line or starting point is a compassionate heart–the ability to feel the suffering of another, to step into that place of suffering with another person, to weep for the things they are weeping about (and also rejoice with them for the things they are rejoicing in). It’s hard, though, because grieving with someone, of course does not fill bellies (or cure AIDS or rebuild houses destroyed by floods).

Compassion is not an excuse for overlooking practical caring. But, sometimes I think we jump into the practical caring and forget the value of entering into another person’s suffering, of sitting with them and connecting with them as people (as opposed to seeing them only through the lens of their needs), of crying together, of feeling another person’s pain as if it were my own.

Maybe I’m saying that our heart for those who suffer should not end with tears, but perhaps we should make more space for it to start there. I know tears don’t fill bellies, but tears do connect people and sometimes connection gives hope. (Can you tell I’m still really conflicted on all of this?)

Today I was reading something Lingamish wrote about how deeply he was moved while taking a picture of a simple African church and knowing that affluent westerners would be seeing it via the internet that same day. He says,

“[moblogging] confronts us with the world we otherwise might never see. In the process we are richer for knowing about their poverty if it moves us to cry for brothers and sisters who are suffering while we sit in comfort.”

Those words and his affirmation of the value of tears and a heart that weeps for those who suffer, reminded me of the lyrics to on of Michael Card’s songs on his CD The Hidden Face of God:

TEARS OF THE WORLD

In any split second of a moment in time,
in a blink that is one single day.
The sum of the sorrow that wraps ‘round the world
could catch ev’ry soul up and sweep them away.
As vast as the ocean, as deep as the sea,
swept up in one toxic tide.
By the warm salty waves the world weeps its woe,
so how could it be that my own eyes are dry?

Open my eyes, and open my heart.
Grant me the gift of your grieving.
Awaken in me the compassion to weep
just one of the tears of the world.

When God walked among us, in the fullness of time,
He wept tears as old as the world.
Acquainted with sorrow, He took up the cup,
and drank ev’ry drop of the poison that heals.

So open my eyes, and open my heart.
Grant me the gift of your grieving.
Awaken in me the compassion to weep
just one of the tears of the world.

And so comes the call of this sorrowful Man,
to set our small sadness aside.
And to weep sov’reign sorrow, no matter the cost,
to follow Him boldly, and wade in the tide.

So open my eyes, and open my heart.
Grant me the gift of your grieving.
Awaken in me the compassion to weep
just one of the tears of the world.

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An express invitation is extended to the needy to share in the Passover, in accordance with the original command ׳which emphasizes that no family unit, no matter how destitute, should be excluded from its observance (Ex 12:4, 47). In another sense, everyone is needy, and awaits redemption, and prays that it soon will come.

Because my brain is all about networking and making connections, sometimes one thought trips my brain to go in a certain direction, which may seem to other people to have nothing to do with the original thought. 

I have been thinking about the topic of this post for a long time. I did not seem to be able to put into words my thoughts. But when I read the above quote from John at Ancient Hebrew Poetry, (sorry, I don’t have the link to the exact post) thoughts started to come together. Where my brain went with his quote had very little, if anything, to do with the bigger point of his original post. But,  the connection happened, and now I think I’m finding words to at least begin exploring what has been on my heart for a while.

For many months, I have been troubled by one explicit statement and several implied ones along the lines that it is the responsibility of Christians (or at least that it should be one of our goals) to eradicate poverty or at least to fight poverty.

Several questions, maybe even concerns, have been niggling around in my brain as I think about this line of thought (and I know there will be some overlap and redundancy in the questions):

1.Who are the poor and needy, and who determines who falls into that category?

2.Is something missing when “eradicating poverty”  is the starting point or the goal? And, if so, what is it? (This is a question I’ve asked myself in a variety of ways, based on my feeling/assumption that something is wrong, but I’ve not been sure what)

3.Is the point the poverty or the poor and needy? And what are the implications of the point or focus being one or the other?

4.Who is missed and what needs are overlooked by an insistent concern only with the poorest of poor? (I am not questioning this on the personal level. That is, if God has called you, personally, to minister to the poorest of the poor, or even to fight against poverty (or fight for its eradication), I feel no need to call that into question. On the broader level, however, what part of that is a mandate for the body of Christ as a whole, on the corporate level? What needs do we miss right beneath our nose, because we rank neediness according to standards of poverty and human suffering?

5. In trying to “help the poor” (or, for example, Save Africa), do we end up demeaning needy people in the process?

6. What is our role as followers of Jesus in the face of extreme suffering by people around the world, most of which certainly is exacerbated by poverty?

7. What is our role as followers of Jesus in relation to wealthy people? If the focus is on fighting or eradicating poverty, how do we view and relate to spiritually needy people with sufficient or even excessive physical wealth?

8. What are the responsibilities of followers of Jesus who ARE wealthy?

9. Who draws the lines of when a person is sufficiently needy to be “worthy” of serving? (I hate even saying it that way, but sometimes it is what I wonder when I hear the criteria for ministry being tied into a person or group of people’s poverty)

10. Who draws the line for how much wealth and materialism, how much luxury is allowed in ones home before a Christian is judged to be selfish or living too excessively when there are so many people living “in poverty”?

11. Where is the line drawn for consumption becoming a contributor to someone else’s poverty?

Helping the poor and fighting poverty seem like noble causes and also spiritually important. But, when they are the focus and starting point, something seems to go askew or awry or get messed up. 

I have, in small ways lived on both sides of the coin. As a missionary, I felt the tension of living extremely simply compared to what I was accustomed to, and yet, by nature of being able to pay for my airfare to get there, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind in the village we were living in that we were extremely wealthy.  Yes, we had an outhouse. No, we had no running water. But, we had a tank to store water. Which put us in firmly in the luxury lifestyle. When the pipe to to the storage tank at our house sprang a leak, our immediate neighbors went out into the potholes in the road that were filling up with water and did their laundry. Were we selfish and extravagantly wealthy because we had stored water, while our neighbors still went to the center of town and waited in line every day for water? Possibly.

As a single mom, I have received much charity and help. Sometimes I have felt awkward and dehumanized in the process of trying to get the help I qualify for. Mostly, though, I have felt real gratitude at the generosity of others. Am I poor? Sort of. Not really. Don’t know. Depends. If you knew my income, you’d say yes. I qualify to receive food from the food pantry, four times a year (that’s the total amount any family is allowed to go), plus Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. I have a nice car–purchased by my church.  My computer was a gift. As was my second computer when my first one started having troubles.

I’m embarrassed when people come into my bedroom/office, because there sits a very large screen TV . And we all know that if you can afford a large screen TV, you shouldn’t be living off of charity.

Only, it was a gift from my neighbor when he upgraded to a flat screen TV for the Super Bowl.  He thought my kids would like his old TV. Even though I told him we don’t ever watch real TV, and only occasionally watch DVDs. Still, he wanted us to have it. So, there it sits, a mockery. You’re poor? You need financial assistance? But you have a big screen TV.

I read this article, called Charity Tourism, and the rather controversial dialogue that followed out of it with interest, because, again, I’ve been on both sides.  (I’ve fed the homeless at Christmas before. This past year, lots of people generously brought food and gifts by for us, just because it was Christmas and because our finances are really limited. This year, to many people, I am the poor.)  The article was posted in December, and the questions raised, especially in the comment section, continue to rumble around inside of me.

Do we criticize and judge the poor? Am I poor enough to receive such charity? Who is or isn’t? Do we criticize and judge the benevolent? Was I serving my own purposes when I fed the homeless? Was I helping or making things worse? How and when do we decide who fits in which category–truly poor vs. leaching off the system; truly generous vs. arrogantly throwing trinkets to soothe ones conscience?

First, I think it is not too wise to draw such blanket conclusions and make wide assumptions as were made in the Charity Tourism article.  If (being wildly speculative to the extreme), 99 percent of all people who helped the poor were doing so out of pride and conscience-soothing attempts, would that negate the sincerity and humility with which the 1 percent truly gave from their hearts and made a difference? If (being just as bizarrely speculative), 99 percent of the poor just weren’t trying hard enough or were lazy or were using their resources frivolously, would that negate the neediness of the 1 percent?

Of course, I’m being ridiculous in these numbers. I hate stereotypes, though, and it feels like when the talk turns to poverty and generosity, stereotypes, even well meaning ones, abound. And being a literal person who cares about details, I wonder what important realities (and more important, what actual needs of very real people–both the poor and the generous–who do not neatly fit the stereotypes) are missed.

I read another quote from an article on the Lutheran perspective on vocation. The author is talking about “the common order of Christian love.”

This is the realm of the Good Samaritan. People of all three orders [church, household and state] come together here, ministering to each other and “to everyone who is in need.”

“To everyone who is in need.”  I guess where I’m at right now is preoccupying less about who is needy and who is not, who is suffering and who is not. I still care about those who are suffering, and I hope I am passing a great compassion on to my children. But, I do not want to define or limit compassion according to specific criteria. I want my children to have eyes that see suffering and need in the lives of people whose paths they cross, regardless of the degree of the lack of wealth or even the presence of great wealth. Yes, I hope my children have a part in alleviating the suffering in the world. But, mainly I hope that they make a difference by caring for specific people who suffer, by loving people where they are, and by communicating the love, peace and salvation Jesus offers, in the place of suffering, whether or not they effectively relieve suffering or knock down poverty. If my son were to take in a homeless family, and my daughter were to show kindness to Britney Spears, is only one helping a truly needy person?

Even as I write this, I’m aware of injustices, of extreme poverty, of great suffering, far away and nearby (and yet, even as I say that, I hear the disqualifiers that are often used to minimize the suffering and poverty nearby: how can an American, after all, be really, worthily poor? Even the poorest is wealthy compared to the rest of the world). I do not want to make light of the realities that people are living in and with. I do not want to live blindly or so comfortably that I neglect those who suffer from great poverty. But neither am I comfortable with rigid standards and elevation of certain types of poverty or suffering above another as more worthy.  Nor I am comfortable with blanket judgment of wealth and individual resources as innately bad when there is any inequity left in the world.

I hope this doesn’t sound like I have answers. I really don’t. And I also hope it does not sound like I am judging in a blanket way those who are committed to helping the poor and fighting poverty in big, corporate ways.  I am not. Again, I don’t have answers, but  I  do have lots of questions. 

I was thinking–I don’t want to be ashamed of either my resources or my need. But, I have struggled with shame because of both. Are my needs really important in the bigger scheme of things? Should I spend money on this or that when people are going without food someplace else? Do I need this new refrigerator? Is it wrong for me to buy this thing? Can I really receive this gift of charity? Am I truly needy enough? A jumble of questions, all over the map, in the mind of someone who is both poorer than many and wealthier than many more.

Okay, maybe I’ve just realized how the opening quote ties into this rambling topic for me. At Easter, I want to be able to take communion next to you. If you are rich and live in a mansion and have no debt and seven cars and paintings that cost more than the total value of my house which I can’t afford to buy, I want to be able to drink the cup after you and not have you feel guilty on my account. I am your sister. We are in this walk of faith together. Feel guilt when God convicts you, but not because I am kneeling next to you.  Give when and where God shows you. Keep your eyes open to needs around you. But, please don’t focus on my neediness or poverty.  Please, let’s share the bread and wine together, because in Christ there really is no rich and poor. And before the cross, we are all needy.

And if, at Easter, you who kneel next to me, are homeless, I want to be able to take communion with you. I want to be able to drink the cup after you and not have you feel pitied by me. If God moves me to give you the coat off my back, I hope I will do so. But, more than that, I hope when we are there at the table together, that it is not your needs that move me and draw me to you.  I want to join with you, there sharing the bread and wine, because I am your sister.  Please, let’s share the bread and wine together, because in Christ there really is no rich and poor. And before the cross, we are all blessed beyond imagination.

Together we go out–I, along with the one who is loads wealthier than I and the one who is loads poorer than I– singing a hymn, joined by our shared neediness and poverty, rejoicing in our shared blessing and wealth. Ready to bless those who cross our paths, no matter the need. Ready to receive whatever generosity another is moved to pour out onto us, regardless of where we fall on any standard of need.

Idealistic? Probably. But, it’s the cry of my heart, and this picture, dream, longing (not sure exactly what it is) is in the place of my heart that longs to make a difference in the lives of “the poor and needy” while simultaneously feeling quite turned off by that as an agenda.

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I’m going to share part of a poem. And I’d better warn you ahead of time, it’s morbid. Like the Great Word from my previous post, I heard about this poem in the book When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa, by Peter Godwin, a journalist who grew up in Zimbabwe.  (I realized today that I didn’t tell you where I’d gotten that word from. So, now you have the reference, in case you wondered. You can read the first chapter of the book here.)

The poem is about death. Peter Godwin quotes it when he is talking about Zulu graves, which are dug under aloe plants, because they are poisonous to hyenas. Hyenas, of course, are scavengers, and so this is a way of protecting the bodies of those who have died. I’m not quoting the poem to make a point about death. Nor am I quoting it to make the same point the author makes. You can read the whole thing to discover that point (follow the link with the title below). I’m quoting the following part of the poem to make a point about  life.

The Hyaenas
by Rudyard Kipling

After the burial-parties leave
   And the baffled kites have fled
The wise hyaenas come out at eve
   To take account of the dead.

How he died and why he died
   Troubles them not a whit
They snout the bushes and stones aside
   And dig till they come to it.

They are only resolute that they shall eat
   That they and their mates shall thrive,
And they know that the dead are safer meat
   Than the weakest thing alive.

“The weakest thing alive”.

I have been thinking about some friends lately who are feeling very weakened. Well, to be honest, there are days when I still feel impossibly and overwhelmingly weak. There are days when I am not too encouraged by people who comment on how strong I seem to be and their admiration for how I’m making it through various trials. They may see strength, but it feels like I must be faking whatever they see, because in reality I’m about to collapse just around the next corner.

When I, myself, recently alluded to a friend’s strength in an awful situation, she was adamant that she is not strong, that she feels weak and broken and barely able to keep going.

And so, in one way, I want to make space for that weakness. To not forget to grieve with the one who feels weak and broken. To acknowledge how real that place of weakness is. To not minimize it with platitudes. To give comfort to the place where my friend is hurting and afraid and weak.

But, in another way, I want to acknowledge that the weakest thing alive is still…well, alive. And that is a good thing. That, in itself, is a huge thing. That is a sign of strength. The hyenas know it is so.

You might feel weak today, even when a friend is looking at your situation and  calling you strong (saying not so helpful things like, “I could never make it through what you are going through”). And I want to say, You’re both right. You’re right about your weakness.  And your friend is right in calling you strong.

You are acutely aware of your own weakness.  And your feelings which recognize that weakness are not lying. God, who knows we are but dust also knows your weakness (and is not dismayed nor surprised by it).

But you are also strong. Today, again, whether it was conscious or not, you have chosen life. You got out of bed when you felt dismay and despair with your first breath. You took that breath and chose to keep going. You are still going, no matter how stumbling and flailing you are in the going. You may not know where the next breath will come from. You may not be able to comprehend how you are going to take the next step. You may feel paralyzed and overwhelmed. You may feel that you are “the weakest thing alive”.

My friend, that gasping for breath and stumbling along with the next step is its own kind of strength, and I want to celebrate that with you and for you, even while I grieve alongside of you the brokenness and pain and feel your uncertainty about how you are going to keep going.  I don’t know how you are going to make it. I don’t know what the next step should be. But, I want to tell you that I’m glad that you are still living and still going, in spite of all that has happened to you. All the things that you have faced and are continuing to face have weakened you. But you are still going, and you are not “safe meat” for the hyenas.

Who am I talking to now that I’ve switched to the 2nd person? No one in particular and at the same time a few people specifically (most of whom don’t even read this blog). Maybe I’m giving myself a pep talk here. Certainly, the poem encouraged me in a way that also made me smile (A two-for-one bonus!). And it made me think of and pray for one friend, in particular, who is feeling especially weak tonight.

Maybe I’m talking to you, too. I’m not sure.

If you are feeling yourself to be the weakest thing alive, I hope that even in that, you can stop a moment, smile and acknowledge the strength God has still granted you. The strength to keep going against all odds, when you have felt the pull to collapse and give up, from every side and many times.

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uMakhalekhukhwini

I seem to be pretty good at starting series and not getting very far with them. Oh well, I don’t blog to ADD pressure to my life, so if I start running with an idea and don’t end up carrying it very far, this is the one place in my world where I can do so without feeling bad about it. All that to say, I’m starting another series here. I thought about calling it the Word of the Week. But, for sure I’m not going to pressure myself to have to come up with a great word every week, so I’ll just call it A Great Word and then number it. If there’s a 2, 3, 4 and 5, great. I’ll post them when they come up, so know ahead of time, it won’t be in predictable increments. If I don’t come up with any more posts in this series (which would make it NOT a series), well, I’ve already enjoyed finding this word and getting to share it with you.

Now, did you try your hand at pronouncing the above word? It is the Zulu word for cell phone and it literally means:

the screaming in your pocket

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Messing with My Mind

You know how some things seem so polar opposite, you can’t imagine them together? And if you try to put them together, the result is almost discordant? For me, moments like that give me a little shiver up my spine that feels similar to what happens when I hear fingernails scraping on the chalkboard.

I had one such moment recently when Lingamish (again) changed the colors on his blog template–some shade of green hippo severely clashing with royal blue trim on the blog. At the time, I couldn’t think of a word to express what was happening to the nerve endings in my brain when I went to his blog. Lingamish himself described it as “Trippy”. And I thought that was a pretty good word for it.

Well, today I had a similar experience when I followed a link on my gmail home page to a recipe for Spam Imperial Tortilla Sandwiches (I always kind of wonder why the particular links show up when they do. Sometimes a link will be related to something I’ve emailed someone about recently. But I can’t figure out the connection with this one. Maybe I was talking about my redneck roots to someone and Google thought surely I needed one more recipe for how to use Spam?)

In any case, a recipe for Spam is what I was given with that link. And Spam in general, and Spam sandwiches in specific kind of gross me out.  But I can comprehend that somebody, somewhere might like the idea.

It was when I read the recipe itself and the specific combination of ingredients that my brain started blowing fuses. How can alfalfa sprouts and Spam co-exist together? That’s not like Yin and Yang where one type of thing balances out the other. Spam and alfalfa sprouts–that’s not balance. Spam epitomizes processed food that is arguably non-food. Alfalfa, well that’s about as natural “pure food, just the way God made it” as you can get. 

And, really, if you’re feeling the need to eat Spam for whatever reason–perhaps you’re short of time, you’re out on a camping trip, you’re in a post-hurricane scenario without electricity or running water–are you really going to take the time to purchase fresh dill and chop it up to add to the sandwich?

If you have Spam as an actual food option, does fresh chopped dill even show up on your radar screen? Or, coming at it from the other angle, if chopping up fresh dill is something you get in to, does Spam show up on your radar screen?

Eclectic as I may be, I have found my limits. Eating Spam with alfalfa sprouts, sunflower seeds and chopped fresh dill, nicely wrapped on a tortilla, is too eclectic for my brain to handle. (To say nothing of, I’m still trying to convince myself that Spam really does qualify as food, which would be an obvious prerequisite to preparing this recipe.)

But, just in case you are feeling brave, or, perhaps, in need of shaking up your life and stretching your boundaries or stirring something up because you’re feeling a bit bored with your diet–if, for whatever reason, the idea of Spam Imperial Tortilla Sandwiches appeals to you–here is the recipe. And, please, let me know how it turns out (and if you make it, I’d also love to hear WHY you decided to do it. I’m really curious, because the why behind this recipe is totally incomprehensible to me at the moment).

* Exported from MasterCook *

SPAM IMPERIAL TORTILLA SANDWICHES

Serving Size : 6
Preparation Time :0:00

1 cn SPAM Luncheon Meat (12 oz)
1 pk Cream cheese, softened (8oz)
1/3 c Chopped green onion
2 tb Chopped fresh dill
3 Flour tortillas (8″)
1 md Cucumber, peeled and thinly -sliced
1/4 c Sunflower seeds
1/2 c Alfalfa sprouts

In bowl, combine SPAM and cream cheese. Stir in green onion and dill. Spread 1/3 of SPAM mixture evenly over each tortilla. Top with 1/3 each cucumber, sunflower seeds, and alfalfa sprouts. Roll up tortilla jelly roll fashion and wrap in plastic wrap. Repeat with remaining tortillas. Refrigerate 2 hours. to serve, cut each roll in half.

[By the way, my brain has finally adjusted to Lingamish’s color combination, which probably means he is getting ready to change it. I find the adaptability of the brain to be incredibly fascinating.]

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I was going to title this post, How I View God, but that sounds concrete and final in a way that I’m not intending.

As an analogy to how I’m thinking about God right now, I have a very dear friend. When I think about her, at times I use different descriptions. Sometimes I think of her as my first deep friend when I moved to this area from a foreign country. Other times I think of her as the friend who is always there when I need to talk (even late at night or early in the morning). Other times I think of her as my hilarious friend (because I’m very serious, and she can be very funny). She is the friend who has spoken up on my behalf on many times when I was being misunderstood, misrepresented and aggressively opposed by different people. She is the friend who feeds me on weekends when I don’t have the energy to make myself eat, let alone think about what to prepare. She is the friend who organizes other people to help me in practical ways in my struggling to make it as a single mom.  Ultimately, she is my friend in a very rich, full and complete way, but I think about her and the friendship she gives me from many different specific angles.

The same with God. He is God. That is very big and very profound. As a detail, not so big picture type of person, I find myself relating to him at different times, not from the starting point of what all that means, but from specific, concrete angles of how I’m relating to him at a specific time. When I was going through a drought time (personally, spiritually, relationally), I thought about him as the God who refreshes, who makes green, who gives life and revitalizes me. There was another time when I clung to the truth that he is the God who Sees. The God who Understands. The God who Cares. All of these are true. And so much more.

Lately, I’ve been singing a song over and over, which verbalizes how I see God right now. It is “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and is another wonderful find in the hymnal of the church I’m currently attending. I’m not going to quote the whole song here, mainly because where I’ve seen they lyrics printed on blogs, there seems to follow a lot of controversy and even argument about the politics and theology of this song. For me, it is not political, and I don’t really think about it as a theological treatise. The  song feels like an expression of my heart cries and a picture of my walk with the Lord in recent years. I encourage you to look up all the lyrics online. (And feel free to argue about them in some of those places, if you are so disposed 🙂 )

For now, here is the part that portrays God in the way in which I am currently relating to him:

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears

I’m so grateful that he is God in my weary years and in my silent tears, and tonight, as I have been over the past several weeks, I am lifting my voice and singing to him with gratitude for all that that implies. Some days recently, I have sung this song through not so silent tears and out of deep and painful questions. Sometimes the song is as confident of a proclamation as I can muster in my doubts.  I’m singing a “song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,” only it’s the dark present where my faith, right here and right now, is being taught and formed and tried.

The song also talks about “the days when hope unborn has died”. Have you ever been there? How have you experienced God in those times?

And one other part (if I keep going, I’ll end up quoting the whole song anyway, won’t I?)  which my heart joins in praying, asks God to

“keep us forever in the path…lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee; lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee…”

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