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Gazing Afresh On Jesus…

Every month I take an assembly with this very wise older Vicar and we normally end up having a coffee afterwards where he normally has at least one profound nugget!

A couple of weeks ago he used the phrase “there are just some days when I need to just gaze on Jesus a bit more!” This phrase has been resonating with me for a couple of weeks.

For me one of the biggest questions is “why do I, do the things I do?” -and by that I mean the vocation stuff (which even though I’m not currently vicaring in the way I used to, still feels as strong as ever, perhaps stronger although expressed in a different way at the moment!).

Why do I do what I do? Is a question that has lots of answers… at times I might have said, “I’m paid”, “I’ve promised”, “I’m not too bad at it”, “no one else will do it”, “other people are expecting it”, “I have a vision and passion for it” all of which are ‘right’ in some senses, but the main reason why I do what I do, is simply because I love Jesus! He is the motivating force for all of the Christian life, he is our raison d’être for it all, yet sometimes like all important things I know I need to be reminded of him, and why I love him!

I love my wife, Allana, and I have promised to “love and cherish and be faithful too” her, but sometimes we need to remind ourselves not just of our promises to, but our love for, someone. Indeed, it is easier to be a better husband the more time I have spent with her and the more I am reminded why I love her!

There is a difference between being “in love” and “feeling in love” which is a distinction we often fail to make as Christians as our discipleship falters when perhaps we don’t ‘feel’ in love with God.

Scripture urges us to “not forsake our first love” -the idea of the first love is the one who has the primary claim on our heart, as we re-discover the beauty of our God, we see the ugliness of the idols that distract us from the real thing! We see the flaws and faults in the counterfeits the world tries to seduce us with! -Interestingly bank Clarks spend lots of time with real money so that they can instantly see a forgery!

We need to keep gazing on Christ to remind us that he is better than everything else the world has to offer! Yet, even so, sometimes our memories fail about his wonder and glory, we end up serving our of a duty and we need to be reminded to gaze afresh to restore our joy.

In the Anglican prayer book there is an interesting phrase in the pre-communion prayer which says about “our duty and our joy” -Cramner (who wrote the prayer book) knows that sometimes we don’t always feel like following Christ, but when we do it anyway that actually expresses a deeper love, love that is a choice, love that is demonstrated in commitment. Love that is more than just a feeling.
Yet, serving from a place of duty is something most of us have probably done at times, although is good, is tiring, and is not the greatest motivator, instead we need to re-discover our love for Christ afresh, anew, again.

When the call feels more duty than joy, perhaps we need to “to return to gaze at Jesus” -sometimes we need to sit and wait and just be with Jesus, sometimes it takes a long and questioning gaze to restore our souls, sometimes a briefest of glimpses can be all we need to restore us.

As I thought of gazing on Christ, the idea is beyond -above- words. As I gaze on Jesus, I am reminded that he gazes back at us. Coming before Christ just as I am, allow him to see me without the masks, the uniforms, the baggage and just standing there as his friend.

At the heart of everything is our relationship with Jesus, his love for us and our love for him, our gaze upon him causes our mixed up and jumbled minds to fall in love afresh with him, and to see from that position of love and surrender, everything else falling into place, and aligning back into the right order.

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Speak up? Shut up?

I have been in situations where I have been around Christians and their friends who aren’t Christians but seem in conversation like they are trying to ask them about faith and spiritual things but the Christian refuses to speak up!

I have also been in situations where I have seen insensitive Christians shoe-horn the gospel into a conversation and have probably done more harm than good by their lack of pastoral sensitivity and wisdom!

There are some situations where as the body of Christ we need to speak up, and others where we need to shut up, we as Christians need to be self aware enough to know which situation is which!

We need to be people praying for wisdom and discernment for situations and people.

Peter talks about “Always be prepared to give an account for the hope that we have…” which I believe means being people that speak the right thing, at the right time, to the right person… yet the passage continues “but do so with gentleness and respect”. I know of situations whereby someone has ‘won’ the ‘argument’ but lost the person by their behaviour and attitude.

As I thought about this, I wonder whether these two failures in mission stem from a couple of heresies? The lack of speaking up sometimes could be that we need to be reminded what amazing good news Jesus actually is!

Perhaps we have fallen for the lie that people are not interested? When actually people are more open and interested than we often think!

Maybe the Holy Spirit is gently challenge us to relax and talk honestly and openly about our faith?

Yet, the other opposing heresy is that everything rests on our shoulders and if we don’t manage to hit them with an atonement theory they are risking their souls to the fire of hell! Yet, I would suggest that in every person we meet God is already at work in their lives -even if they are choosing to walk away from him- and that God has many people and opportunities to people to recognise and realise him in their lives and accept his message of liberation and hope. Often we have been so keen to ‘help God out’, ‘do him a favour’, and -do what only God does- that we often try and “yank off an apple before it is ready”, when something is ready and at its right time, it is a beautiful thing, but our impatience can actually be counter-productive!

It sometimes takes a step of faith not to jump in with both feet but let people who want to talk, talk when they are ready!

Paul talks of us having our conversation seasoned with salt, when seasoning is right it doesn’t over-power, nor is it bland, yet many of us as Christians need to learn how to season our conversations better, little more? Little less?

When I look at Jesus, he is a great example of conversations seasoned with salt, he often hinted at things, told parables and used metaphor, he asked people questions and heard their answers. Jesus allowed people the time and space to grow and work things out for themselves, it is a long way into his ministry that Simon-Peter realises who Jesus actually is. Jesus let people belong before they believed.

So, a challenge is I believe to be prayerful and discerning about when to speak up and when to shut up, asking the Holy Spirit to help us get the seasoning right in our conversations.

Not missing opportunities, nor forcing opportunities, but partnering with the spirit of God, in step with his spirit, and responding well to the opportunities that present themselves!

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Sodal and Modal…

When I was in my last parish of Kingswood, we took a few guys to B1 a Fresh Expression in Birmingham and this is when I heard the expression “Sodal or Modal Church” which is something that for me was revolutionary!

You like me might be going: “sod..what..el?” … “Mod’s weren’t they dudes on motorbikes?”

Put in its basic terms, Sodal is a missional Church on the move, sometimes (unhelpfully and derogatorily called Para-Church), the sodal style of Church is often seen most visibly in the developing world and in countries undergoing persecution, it often grows exponentially, having simple but effective structures that make decisions quickly with minimal resources, commonly networks inter-connected small groups, theologically “what the gospel is” and “what it means to be a Christian” is theologically distilled to its core-components.

Yet, the modal Church probably looks like most of the Churches we know within Christendom whether it be the big new wine Church or a traditionalist model like Salisbury Cathedral both can be what Avery Dulles would call “Church as Institution”, it is established, often having lots of resources and puts its energies into buildings, staffing, projects, rotas. Change is slow and has lots of people involved, often with complex management structures. The modal Church has often been there for a while and is planning to stay for ever.

If we want to link the two modes of Church with passages of scripture, the Sodal is like the tabanacle of the people of Israel which was packed up and carried from place to place as they Israelites followed God in to the promised land. The modal Church is more like the Temple, built not as a tent but with bricks and stone, with an understanding of permanence.

Interestingly ‘Modal’ Churches will often have a stance of ‘defence’ whether that is combatting heresy or whatever whereas ‘Sodal’ will be on the ‘attack’ rather than fighting theological wars will be trying to reach out and grow missionally.

Yet when I read the New Testament I am struck that Modality and Sodality are both operational, the Church in Jerusalem begins to look a bit “modal” with its established feeding programme etc, but when persecution comes it gets dispersed and then rediscovers a Sodal identity and we see most of Paul’s work (and Jesus sending out the 72 in Luke 10 in pairs) is very sodal. I wonder whether we have made these two modes a choice, in the affluent and consumerist west a modal model has become our default setting, a setting which has served us well through out Christendom but now works less effectively in out post-christendom context.
I wonder whether we need to think of Sodal and Modal Ministry as the “white and black notes of a piano” which when played together can be beautiful. I remember hearing Graham Cray speak and say we can reach 40% of the population through “Good Church done well” (modal) but there is another 60% who will not be reached if we simply do what we have always done!

Perhaps as our resource heavy western consumerist western modal church has become too established, complicated and bureaucratic (as opposed to theocratic) with all of our resources at our finger tips -and sometimes we share these with Churches in the poorer parts of the world- and yet despite our resources we are failing to do what the Sodal underground or deprived church is achieving -actually making disciples! As Lent approaches maybe we need to think do we need to stream-line our Churches? Perhaps we are so busy doing things that we have not stopped to ask whether we should be doing what we do in the first place.

Maybe, take a moment to re-think what it means to be Church, should it be like the paratroopers behind enemy-lines and we have become a great huge warship?

Perhaps, we need to re-read the book of Acts and ask God, how we can become more the Church we were meant to be and less the Church that we have become?

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The Call To An Obstinate People…

Yesterday I (somewhat randomly) had to go to the induction of a new principal at the local Bible College, and the preacher based his sermon on Ezekiel 2 and 3, which is God calling the prophet to the people of Israel who are described as “obstinate and stubborn” (Ez.2.4), “hardened and obstinate” (Ez.3.7) and “a rebellious people” (Ez.2.7 & 3.9). Hopefully these are not the phrases to describe the average student at Moorlands (at least I hope not!).

The people of Israel feel very much like insiders, just like many people in our modern-day Churches, they don’t see themselves at fault or needing to change, everyone else needs to be more like them -it is this attitude which is so hard to break through, and they will resent being challenged.

Yet God continues to send his people into tough circumstances and people with hard-hearts who block their ears -Elijah and Nehemiah’s lives were threatened and Jesus was crucified by those he came to save.

In my last parish it was at times hostile, not from those outside the Church community but those within it, leaving my family hurt and me struggling with (at times debilitating) depression. One colleague said of his challenging parish: “as we tried to move forward, and you discover that it’s your Church folk who’ve slashed your tyres!”

God says to Ezekiel “Go now to the people of Israel and speak my words to them. You are not being sent to a people of obscure speech and strange language…surely if I had sent you to them, they would have listened to you, but the people of Israel are not willing to listen to you because they are not willing to listen to me!” (Ezk.3.4-7). Sometimes, it is harder to be sent to mission amongst people you know, who are like you, who are people ‘of your’ tribe -easier sometimes to go somewhere far flung and glamorous! It is true the biblical saying that “a prophet is not welcome in their own town” -the call to speak the word of God to our own people is a great challenge and awesome responsibility.

Struggling in my last parish which was those outside the Church warmer to the things of God than those within it I really felt like I was a complete failure, but here the passage speaks words of hope for those ministering in challenging contexts, as the Lord makes it clear to Ezekiel that “success is not due to the level of response of whom we are talking, that is between them and God, but rather whether or not we faithfully and obediently did what we were called to do!” Success in the Kingdom of God is about our obedience to him, “well done good and faithful servant” the Lord will say “not well done good and fruitful servant, for it is the Lord that makes it grow, some are called to fertile soil and others to stony ground, but all of us need to be faithful to Christ.

On one occasion I got a pretty toxic letter from a couple of the nastier members of one of my Churches which really knocked me for six and here the Lord speaks comfort “Do not be afraid of their words…Do not be afraid of what they say” (Ezk.2v6&7) “…For they will know that a prophet has been among them” (Ezk.2.5).

Remembering that we do this for God who is faithful, God who will vindicate his people, God who says: “my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Is.55.11), although at times it feels as though words are falling on deaf ears, God is at work and this side of eternity we may not see what he was doing, and even if people have chosen to reject Jesus, the fact that we and he by his love held out the word of life and love to them remains important and reveals the persistence within God’s character to welcome the prodigals home and reveal his love to full extent of his love to the older brother and the pharisee (Luke 15).

As I see friends on facebook climbing the ecclesial dizzy heights whilst I feel like I’m sat on the bathroom floor at times, two thought strike me, first as a solider we don’t get to choose where we are sent, we surrendered that a long time ago. Secondly, perhaps sometimes the best teachers are needed in the most challenging schools -perhaps if God has called you to a challenging situation he sees within you more than you think you contain?

God says to the young Ezekiel “I will make your forehead like the hardest of stone, harder than flint” (Ez.3.9) which talks of God helping to make him resilient, God working in him as well as through him, God gives him a scroll to eat (this is Ezekiel after all, there has to be some craziness in the passage!) which fills his stomach and yet tastes as sweet as honey (Ezk.3.3) which reminds us, even when everything feels hard and tough God and his word remains good, sweet, nourishing and beautiful.

So, whatever we face, whether openness or obstinance, we are called to be faithful knowing that God will also be faithful to us.

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A Post Essay Coffee (sent & sanctified)

I have just been swamped whilst writing an essay (both were truly dreadful) where I lost the wood for the trees trying to understand “Church” and “Mission”, after a night of frantic typing and endless coffee I ended up having a coffee with my boss/friend/colleague Dave.

Dave, being a brainy bloke, made a throw away comment about Church being ‘both sanctified and sent’, which was for me the lightbulb moment with what I had (largely failed) to get adequately down on paper!

The word Missio, from which we get the word “Mission” stems from the Latin word “sent” -the Greek word is “Apostolos” from which we get the word ‘apostolic’ and “apostle”, yet the word “Church” “Ekklesia” (“Ek” -out- “Klesia” called), so
Mission is “the sent ones” and Church is the “Called Out Ones”.
This image of being “called out” conjures up images of leaving something behind to embrace something new, indeed the sacrament of Baptism is full of this imagery “dying to an old life and rising to a new life”, indeed Peter uses the imagery of the Christian as an “Alien” and Jesus talks in John’s Gospel about “friendship with the world being enmity towards God!”

Yet the incarnation and the life of Jesus was not one of sanctified separateness -although Jesus was the most pure and holy person ever to exist in human history- but rather as one who comes alongside eating with tax collectors and prostitutes but pointing towards a better way, they glimpsed and grasped the Kingdom of God rather than Jesus’ holiness become contaminated. Jesus didn’t compromise his holiness but he was unafraid of risking his reputation!

I would suggest a more Biblical understanding of “Ekklesia, the called out ones” comes from the image of being commissioned -cf. Matt 28, called to use Paul’s image of an “Ambassador” –‘in but not of’ alongside but pointing to Jesus.

Yet many Churches are fearful of contamination and compromising their holiness, which means they withdraw from the people and issues that Christ is calling us engage with, a wrong understanding of sin and righteousness re-creates a new generation of Pharisees. Indeed, sadly Churches which have something of a pharisaic stronghold will grow by other Christians wanting to “defend their faith and scripture” which can lead to a siege mentality, forgetting a great quote of some theologian or other who was asked to defend scripture/God and said “Defend scripture that would be like defending a lion, pointless, instead I just need to open the cage and let it defend itself!”

In the book of Acts Philip meets an Ethiopian Eunuch (gentile and defiled) who says “here is water, what can stop me being baptised?” -actually the answer was quite a lot from the Old Testament- but yet Philip did Baptise him and the Gospel went to Africa. Simon-Peter went to Cornelius a Roman solider and yet they were filled with the Holy Spirit too. I fear that in today’s Church culture Peter and Philip would be accused of “selling out”, “going liberal” or “theologically dodgy”, rather than a continuation of Jesus’ reconciling ministry to the marginalised, disenfranchised, ostracised, the last, the least and the lost. Church always functions at its best Christ-like when it has it’s heart on the edge.

The Church was never meant to be just for the religious and respectable, Christ-like behaviour has become blurred with Daily-Mail Reading Middle Class Morality, the call to be ‘salt and light’ has sometimes been confused with the yeast of the pharisees!

Yet ‘salt and light’ are most needed where it is decaying and dark!

Being “sent” and being “sanctified” when done right blesses and equips the other, yet too often we have made this a choice, are you sent or sanctified, the truth is we are both!

Somehow we need to walk the tightrope of faith where we incarnational ministry, salty and lighty lives, rather than being indistinguishable from those we are trying to reach, with a toothless but socially acceptable message that has little resemblances to the gospel revealed in scripture, asking how Jesus would react into this situation, what does the Kingdom look like here.
Jesus met with the rich young ruler, and loved him, Jesus was approachable to him, yet did not lower the bar of discipleship for him, the call to follow Christ by picking up our cross remains unchanged.

The Holy Spirit is missional, he evicted the disciples from cowering in the upper room to the streets of Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit continues to send us in partnering with him to see God’s Kingdom come on “earth as it is in heaven”.
So, let us think afresh of what it means to be sanctified (become more like Christ, rather than becoming more like a Pharisee -I remember the Simpsons with Bart returning from a Christian Camp saying he had a great time and learned to be much more judgemental!- yet discover what it means to be truly ‘full of grace and truth’) and what it means to be sent.

Let us resist the pit-fall of being so holy we do nothing good or positive, or being so sent that become Christian chameleons, indeed the ‘sanctified’ and ‘sent’ call is a tension we need to learn to live with, which when we get it right means we are truly represent Jesus as we seek to be his ambassadors.

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Going East?

There was yet another knock at the monastery door and the monk went to answer it, yet again, and discovered more hippy young people asking if this was the Buddhist temple. They had been disturbed all day with this. Again, it was a young guy asking where to find the Meditation centre, but this time the monk ended up chatting to him and discovered that he was wanting to go to the meditation centre because he had a deep yearning in his soul for something deep, real and authentic, filled with questions about life, God, truth and simply about how to make life work, to ‘be happy’ and to ‘be a good person’. He and the monk talked long into the night, and the young guys discovered that the Christianity he thought he had rejected was something of a caricature, that what he thought/sought from Buddhism provided was available in the Christian faith, and the practices he felt he needed were there in abundance in the Christian tradition.

For any of us who have been involved in mission and outreach for a while have noticed something of a transition, we live in an age of greater spirituality but less engagement with traditional types of established religion. For the postmodern generation their spiritual hunger and hunting has led them to explore Eastern theology, philosophy and practice such as Buddhism and meditation.
Understanding spiritual maturity and openness is a complex matter, where we have thought that having someone in Church but thinking about fishing was better than having someone fishing and thinking about God (which is a caricature of the difference between the modern generation -in church thinking of fishing- and the post-modern generation -fishing thinking about God)! Each generation has to learn afresh how to communicate the unchanging truths of Jesus, and what is certain that what we have done in the past might need to be re-looked at to see if it still works for the mission in the 21st century, and perhaps the things we have previously thrown out might need to be picked up afresh to reach a new generation?

An image I refer to often in my mind as I think of God showing us a new way into the future is of David being given Saul’s armour to fight Goliath, it being too big and cumbersome and David fought Goliath another way, which worked, and David won the battle! Too many of us are trying to fight Goliath in the clunky armour of a previous generation.

Yet, I am excited by this generation, and believe that God has gone ahead of us -for such a time as this- preparing the way, opening doors and preparing hearts and minds to meet with God.

The conversation around spirituality has gone East, are we prepared to go onto unfamiliar territory for the sake of the Kingdom of God, to learn new things, new ways of talking and being, to reach the people we find there, and as we wander we discover that Jesus has got there before us, has gone ahead of us and will be there long after we have left. When Paul left the comfortable Jewish world and began to speak in Athens (Acts 17) he learned a new way of preaching the same unchanging message to a new audience (compare the message with Peter in Acts 2 it sounds very different, but yet was the same message inspired by the same missionary Holy Spirit).

Those of us who are Anglican clergy, have to promise that we will ‘proclaim the Gospel afresh to each generation’, yet too often I think we simply proclaim it ‘again to every generation’, often answering questions they’re not asking and missing the keys that God has put within the culture (and every culture) to draw people to himself and his arms of love.

The Monks in their monastery soon had a group of travellers exploring faith with them, discovering the rich treasures of Christianity, realising that the Christian faith was not about wearing Sunday best, minding your P’s and Q’s and reading the Daily Mail… Discovering the dynamic and depth of a real Christianity living the way of Jesus.

What of us, are we prepared to re-think how we do Church and Mission to discover both the spiritual seekers but also the work of the missional God active within every culture and wanting to draw everyone into a real relationship with himself.

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Contemplation.

We are gathering together a community called “Poole Neo Monastics” and exploring ideas around rules/rhythms of life, hospitality and communitas (if you want to know what Communitas see a previous blog!), social action (helping being who are having a tough time) and social justice (protesting at injustice), reciprocity (sometimes the right thing is to receive someone else’s generosity/hospitality), activism (not just talking about stuff but actually doing it) and contemplation.

Contemplation really matters. Church in its own way can end up making us feel like a hamster on a wheel, which gets us running fasting and faster (but often less and less productive but more and more exhausted, giving our time to an insatiable that is never satisfied and only ever cries, “more” and “faster”). Indeed, often these Hamster wheels are distractions from the real work of mission and ministry, a friend says: “Jesus wants us to have maximum fruitfulness for minimum weariness, the devil wants us to have minimum fruitfulness for maximum weariness!”

Athletes have time following their events called ‘intentional recovery time’ it makes sense we need a Godly rhythm to maintain fruitfulness and to stay the course for the long-term.

I heard a story of two lumber-jacks who were in a competition to see who could fell the most trees, one did not stop and chopped from morning to night, exhausted he sat down thinking he must have won, and yet he discovered he had chopped much less than the other lumberjack, who looked much less red-faced than he did. “How did you manage that?” he asked, “after every-tree I felled I re-sharpened my axe” he replied.

Often, we are hacking away with a blunt axe and exhausted arms. Jesus says: “come to me all who are weary and heavy laden, and you will find rest for you souls”, we where made for life not exhaustion, fulfilment not burn-out.

I have often reflected on the story of Mary and Martha (and if I’m honest often sympathised with Martha) and yet I forgot the wider biblical narrative, from Mary’s place of intimacy sat at Jesus’ feet we see her (from John’s Gospel) anointing Jesus, being their as he is crucified and being the first witness of the resurrection where Martha disappears in the narrative. From her investment of her life in Jesus enabled her to be there when it really mattered. A former Vicar I worked with talked about “investing in your secret history with God” a similar idea to Soul Survivor when he talks of “living for the audience of one!”

Yet, for me the narrative of contemplation is corrupted by Christians, too often (as with the rest of life) we get the ‘shirkers’ and the ‘workers’, my theory is that sadly too often the ‘shirkers’ have used the language of reflection and contemplation as religious rhetoric to cover their sinfulness and laziness: “I’m just waiting on God” -which means to actively seek- sometimes is misused to indulge in disobedience. Sometimes I think we con ourselves and appease our consciences with this talk.

An athlete needs recovery to maintain their performance, but a sluggard that does not engage in faithful obedience will just become less and less match-fit.
What we need, I believe, is the discernment to know and understand the difference between laziness and contemplation/rest/reflection and restoration.

For me the command to “be still and know that I am God” is not an indulgent thing, but a costly discipline which is difficult. “Those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength” is not only a faithful promise of God but also requires a step of faith and obedience from us.

Contemplation, prayerful reflection and Biblical meditation is not often easy (sometimes when we are parched and dry coming into God’s presence can be like jumping into a cool stream on a hot day) However, often seeking God and being renewed can feel like the lumberjack sharpening the axe whilst his colleague stormed ahead.

Being on our own with God is often a challenge place to be, being still is not easy, being with ourselves before God often means we face the stuff we don’t want to face -too often busyness is a form of avoidance from dealing with the things that need dealing with!

So, to be contemplatives, to be people who walk deeply with God, to be renewed, healed, restored and transformed is something beautiful, but requires us to surrender to God, to allow him to speak to us, and to listen to his voice. To hear the voice of God is wonderful, but also uncomfortable, it is the voice of loving affirmation and the voice of challenge, God often puts his finger on the bits of our lives we would rather ignore. Yet, in hearing and heeding the voice of God we are submitting ourselves to the refiners’ fire who purifies the gold within us.

We need to be people of contemplation, with a relationship with God that has those deep reservoirs of divine faithfulness, that can enable us to be like Mary who was faithful when it mattered.

The final image I want to leave us with is that of a bow and arrow, this retreats back, but to advance forward, to retreat back in and of itself is not the point (and actually is tiring on the arms!) but it is the withdrawal that propels us forward.

So, let us in our walk with God, take that moment to go deeper, to reflect and be restored, the discipline is not easy and is counter-intuitive, but it is worth it in being fruitful obedient servants that finish the race well.

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