Not So “Random” Act of Kindness

I sat in the Social Security Office nervously anticipating my first appointment in the retirement process. The room was crowded and noisy – my least favorite environment.  I first saw her through a window. She climbed carefully down the steps of the bus, took her walker from the bus driver, and slowly made her way into the room.  She had a beautiful smile.

She was ushered immediately into a room for her appointment, and my turn came soon after that. When I was finished, I looked around for her, but she was nowhere to be seen.  A cold March wind whipped around the door as I went outside. There she was near the driveway waiting in her walker. I looked at her for a minute as I walked to my car. Then God prompted me to go and talk to her. Approaching a complete stranger was totally out of character for me, but I walked over and greeted her. She said she had gotten in and out of her appointment more quickly than she expected and now had a long wait for the bus.  “But it will be fine,” she said, smiling warmly at me.

Again God checked in.  “Offer her a ride.”

I rebelled. (Moses and Peter are my soul-mates!) I don’t know her, I thought. I don’t know where she lives. She probably won’t ride with a white person. I have a lot to do today.  Then I thought:  It’s cold. It’s dangerous trying to maneuver out here with a walker.  She’s very friendly. Maybe she’s not worried about my being white.

Finally I asked her where she lived. On the north side of town about a mile from my house!  I heard God “chuckling” in the background. I asked if she wanted a ride home.  I helped her into the car, put her walker in the back seat, and we headed for home. We had a lovely conversation about how she had injured her back and how helpful her teen-age son is.

As we drove into the apartment complex, she told me I could drop her off at the office, but I drove to her apartment door. As she got out of the car, I got the walker out of the back seat and pushed it to her. As I turned to leave, I gave her one of the “random acts of kindness” cards our church had given us for situations like this.

She said, “Oh, no, honey, I don’t need this. I already know why you gave me a ride. God always sends me an angel when I  need one.

2021 Update:  This post was published on May 15, 2015. Reading it again, my attention is grabbed by the graciousness of this woman. I remember the gratitude with which she she accepted the ride. I would have panicked if some stranger offered me a ride. I also remember how easily we chatted as we drove the ten or so miles to the northside of Holland. The title of this post when it was first published was Angel Unaware.  As I re-read the story,  I’m not sure which one of us was the angel.

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From My Reading – January

“Our communion of saints is not dependent on whether or not we live in the same neighborhood or like the same news channel. Our unity in Christ, our being a part of the communion of saints, is not dependent on whether or not we share the same theological perspective or fully comprehend each other’s lived experiences. Rather, the only thing our unity in Christ, our being a part of the communion of saints, is dependent upon is God. Period. And God has made us a part of the large communion of saints together, the body of Christ together, because that is what God does. And God has yet to ask our permission to do it. As people who follow Jesus, it is just who we are” (Shannon J. Kershner, pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago).

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“Rene Girard, the founder of mimet­ic the­o­ry, dis­cov­ered a sim­ple yet pow­er­ful pat­tern detectable in all inter­per­son­al rela­tion­ships, claim­ing that ​imi­ta­tion is the fun­da­men­tal mech­a­nism of human behav­ior.” In oth­er words, we become and we behave like the peo­ple with whom we keep com­pa­ny. This is why, with both warn­ing and encour­age­ment, St. John wrote, ​Beloved, do not imi­tate what is evil but imi­tate what is good” (3 John 11). The bap­tized lifestyle is the art of imi­tat­ing the Mas­ter Artist, the one who both cre­at­ed all things good, and the one who is restor­ing good­ness to all things. It is this god­ly mis­sion of good­ness that gets reflect­ed in chil­dren of God as they prac­tice the art of imi­tat­ing Christ”(Eric Peterson in the Renovare Weekly Digest for Jan. 4-8 website).

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“Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you” (Ruth Bader Ginsburg)

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There are forces today in America trying to divide people along racial lines. There are forces today that are still preaching hate and division.  There are forces today that want us to return to the old ways, to lose ground to take our eyes off the prize.  It makes me sad, for we don’t want to go back. We want to go forward and create one community – one America.

The journey begins with faith in the dignity and worth of every human being.  That is an idea with roots in scripture and in the canon of America, in Genesis and in the Declaration of Independence.  The journey is sustained by persistence – persistence in the pressing of the justice of the cause.  And the journey is informed by hope- hope that someday, in some way, our restless souls will bring heave and earth together , and God will wipe away every tear” (John Lewis in the Afterword of Jon Meacham’s book His Truth  is Marching one, John Lewis and the Power of Hope).

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“My preaching professor in seminary gave his students this charge: help folks hold two seemingly opposing truths, one in each hand. [For example, we] cannot be unafraid; we need not be afraid. The storm is real; Jesus is here. This is hard work, holding them both. Let nothing trouble you or frighten you; we live in terrifying times. For the one who has God lacks nothing; we long for a peace, fellowship, unity we do not have. God alone, God alone, God alone is enough. May it be so” (Kate Kooyman, Reformed Journal: The Twelve).

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“The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members, a heart of grace, and a soul generated by love” (Coretta Scott King).

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“If the God you believe in as an idea doesn’t start showing up in what happens to you in your own life, you have as much cause for concern as if the God you don’t believe in as an idea does start showing up.  It is absolutely crucial, therefore, to keep in constant touch with what is going on in your own life’s story and to pay close attention to what is going on in the story of  others’ lives.  If God is present anywhere, it is in those stories that God is present. If God is not present in these stories, then they are scarcely worth telling” (Frederick Buechner in Whistling in the Dark)

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Living in the Now

Living in the moment is a practice that many of us struggle with.  As a child, I was taught to be productive, to accomplish things, to make the most of every day. Sitting in a comfortable chair with a book was met by the question, ” Don’t you have anything better to do?”  In my mind, I didn’t.  But the seed of the need to be busy/active was firmly planted and watered in my childhood and teen years.  And the seeds of living in the past not in the now were even more strongly modeled.

Much later as an adult, I learned that “being with” God in the moment was as important as “doing for” God. But it was harder to learn how to  live in the now – not in the past or the future.  This post, first published in May of 2015, describes one of the experiences that taught me the importance of freely giving myself over to the now.  

We often talked about what we could do together outside of work. I was the Director of Spiritual Formation and she was the Director of Worship Arts; our schedules were crazy. We could never seem to get our act together.  Finally, we decided to spend a day at Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park about thirty miles away in Grand Rapids, Michigan which boasted sprawling botanical gardens, a tropical conservatory, outdoor sculptures, and indoor art exhibits.

The day finally came. We felt like kids skipping school.  When we got to the park we decided to spend a few hours “on retreat” and then meet for lunch. I wandered through the gardens and then headed toward a large man-made waterfall that I remembered from past visits.  I was dismayed to see that the waterfall had been “closed” for maintenance.  I sat on a bench under a tree close by intending to read, but I soon put the book down and watched the families and couples and senior citizens walking by. I thought happily that I was living in the now.

Soon it was time to rejoin Cathy for lunch.  As I headed back toward the café, I saw her coming toward me, barefoot and exuberant. I grinned back at her. “What have you been doing?” I asked.

Fifth Third Bank Summer Concerts at Meijer Gardens ...

I’ve been dancing for the Lord,” she said excitedly. “What?” I responded in disbelief. “Where?” 

“There! “she pointed.  “I saw the stage and I had music on my iPod so I decided to dance to the 23rd Psalm.

Nothing moves me more than Cathy’s sacred dancing, and I fervently wished I had been there.

“Do it again,” I pleaded.

She looked at me in disbelief.  “It wasn’t for people to see.  It was for the Lord!”

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Parables: Part 6: The Parable of the Amaryllis

A parable is literally something “cast alongside” a truth in order to illustrate that truth. The website Got Questions labels the 35+ parables that Jesus told as “inspired comparisons “and then adds that a common description of a parable is: “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning” -a definition from my childhood. Jesus often ended a parable by saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” This was his call to listen to the parables, not just as one would listen to an ordinary story, but as one who is seeking the truth of God. I hope that my little parables inspire that intent in you. 

A few weeks ago, my daughter-in-law presented me with an amaryllis kit. The kit contained a an ugly brown bulb, a pot, and potting mixture. I have been gifted with blossoming amaryllis plants before and was told that they would bloom again, but I had to let the bulb dry out.  In fact I had two pots with dried up ugly bulbs in the storage area of my garage which had come along with me the last time we moved.  I had not known what to do with them to force them to bloom, but they were given to me by a special friend so I didn’t want to throw them away.

Now that I had the instructions for planting this new bulb, I decided to experiment with the two old bulbs; now I had three Amaryllis bulbs in pots. A few days later, I found another boxed Amaryllis plant outside  my patio door – Fedexed by the same friend. I carefully potted this one too and put all four in my bedroom in indirect light and kept the soil damp (not wet) as the directions said.  Soon two of them took off and produced stems that were several inches high.  The other two followed suit a week or two later. 

I became very attached to these plants. Every day I checked on them – some days more than once. I said encouraging words over them, hoping they all would bud and then bloom. On Christmas Eve the plant from my daughter-in-law produced a  bud. On Christmas Day a red flower was beginning to peek through.  Soon it will be in full bloom.   I hope that in a week or so, all four will be blooming! When the blossoms die, I will put all four plants in the storage area of my garage and trust that the magic of nature (and a little water provided by me) will create four blossoming plants for Christmas.

This process sparked some parable-like thoughts about dead things that can be brought  to the feet of God and recycled into blessings 

♥   First, of course, I pictured my husband’s sick, wasted body and exhausted mind transformed into something new and beautiful after death.  I have no idea when or how that will happen or what form it will take or what it will look like. But I trust that God will “water” Fred (and all our departed loved ones) so he will become as beautiful as my red amaryllis plants.

♥  Then I thought of the tradition of “bringing in the new year. ” The year 2o2o was as ugly a year as the brown bulbs covered with a crust of dried out leaves of my amaryllis plants, Surely we can hope and work so that out of the lessons and experiences of 2020 will blossom new dreams and possibilities as sturdy as the amaryllis stalks and as lovely as its flowers.

♥  Finally, I thought about how my selfish thoughts and actions can be redeemed by God’s grace and forgiveness and recycled into new acts of beauty and blessing. My dark sorrow and hopelessness can be refreshed by God’s spirit and turned into joy.

Once again the beauty of nature can bring us hope and redemption!


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Parables – Part 5: The Parable of the Pansy

A parable is literally something “cast alongside” a truth in order to illustrate that truth. The website Got Questions labels the 35+ parables that Jesus told as “inspired comparisons “and then adds that a common description of a parable is: “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning”-a definition from my childhood.  Jesus often ended a parable by saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” This was his call to listen to the parables, not just as one would listen to an ordinary story, but as one who is seeking the truth of God. I hope that my little parables inspire that intent in you. (This post was first published  on September 20, 2020).

A good friend brought me a huge container of pansies this spring.  I put them in the place of honor on a small table on our patio.  Because of COVID 19,  my sister did my plant-shopping this year. As pink begonias, red and white geraniums,  two beautiful gerbera daisies, purple and white petunias, impatiens and three varieties of marigold were brought to my home, I filled pot after pot.  Soon colorful plants bordered all three edges of the patio.

Eventually, the pansies were edged out to a spot toward the back of the patio because I expected them to fade away as summer progressed. But they surprised me. They kept blooming. So I watered them and thinned them and, as my husband would say, “loved on” them.

A few days ago, as I was watering all these beautiful flowers and thanking God for their existence, I was shocked to find a pert yellow pansy with purple markings standing proudly in the pot of yellow gerbera daisies. Miraculously (to me at least) the genetic material of this delicate plant had migrated at least eight feet across the patio and found a home with tall and sturdy daisies.  

Last week my husband became part the  Hospice of Holland program. We are experiencing a flurry of new regimens, new breathing treatments, changed medications, and new (and wonderful) people. He is gradually beginning to get used to the idea that he will not get better. And I am pondering how to ease into thinking and speaking about  the reality of the spiritual aspects of this new stage of life -not only for him but for myself as his caregiver.

So as I stood there marveling at the amazing experience this little pansy in my pot of daisies had undergone, it occurred to me that its life is a lovely metaphor for our experience in God’s Kingdom on earth and then in heaven.  This little pansy moved from life as a seed into a life of  shared occupancy with daisies – all without understanding how or why this transition had even come about. Or caring!

It seems as if we will have a similar  experience as we breathe our last breath as humans and move to a forever life with God in heaven.  We can only imagine what it will be like.  We don’t know how we will get there.  But we can believe it will be a more beautiful and fulfilling life than we could ever dream of.  

 2020 Update:  About three weeks after this was posted in September, my husband died unexpectedly at home, as he wished. Even the hospice nurse was surprised at his death, since he seemed to be improving under hospice care. I read him this post after I published it because he loved the transition the pansies made from one pot to another. He has now transitioned to his forever life. When the pansies bloom again in the spring, I will remember the joy they brought him – and perhaps are still bringing.

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Recycling Loneliness

I think I have been a “loner” since birth.  My father baptized me and then disappeared into the chaos of World War II, never to return. My mother retreated into unmitigated grief for the rest of her life, even though she re-married and had four additional children. Those children formed a tight pact which unintentionally excluded me – or maybe I made a  pact that excluded them.

Anyway the pattern was set, aided and abetted by my introverted personality style, for my pursuing a loner’s internal lifestyle. On the outside I was a teacher, a non-profit director,  a  volunteer, a successful writer, and even the spiritual formation director of a large congregation. All of these roles kept me active and fulfilled, but did not change my internal aloneness – and perhaps, aloofness.

Now I have been sidelined into an experience of loneliness by this awful pandemic, specifically because of health concerns that could make COVID-19 dangerous. For me this has been intensified by my husband’s recent death which has deprived me not only of his presence and companionship, but also of the intense occupation of caregiving. 

Since I’m an introvert, being alone rarely means being lonely. But last week I sat down and counted the number of minutes I had spent in face-to-face contact with someone: 

  • 90 seconds of interaction from the distance of several feet with the person who delivered my groceries
  • about 7 minutes in the bank
  • about 30 seconds in the drive-through lane of a pharmacy as I interacted with the pharmacy tech
  • and, blessedly, about 2 minutes with two of my grandchildren as they came to pick up garbage bags full of pop cans to recycle.
  • In addition I spent 90 minutes in a Zoom call with my spiritual formation group and 20 in conversation during a haircut

That adds up to about 120 minutes of face-t0-face interaction with others in 7 days.  I was astonished! Of course, I’ve had several interactions by phone or by e-mail. But my time spent face-to-face with another person has been severely limited – as it has for millions of people.

I have pondered this “aloneness” now for days.  I rarely am at a loss of what to do with myself. I rarely feel lonely.  I miss Fred dreadfully, especially as a partner in conversation, but I never have really thought of myself as missing face-to-face companionship until this week. And yet, with some amount of dread, I realized, that nothing can be done about this until we are victorious over the pandemic.  How do we live with the aloneness?

And then  I read a quote in Sojourner from Wes Granberg-Michaelson’s latest book,  Without Oars: Casting Off into a Life of Pilgrimage: 

“For ages, those living as monks, cloistered nuns, hermits and wandering pilgrims have mastered the art of turning loneliness into solitude, creating a real presence to themselves and to God. These spiritual explorers were often confined – as many of us are now – into narrow spaces, yet pilgrimage to the authentic explores an interior landscape.”

How do we master the art of turning loneliness to solitude First, how do we deal with loneliness? We can recognize it and face it. But as Wes-Granberg Michaelson says, we can also turn being alone into solitude. So, you ask, what’s the difference? Here is one distinction: loneliness is a feeling of discontent, of being alone in the world, isolated even if people are all around you. Solitude is refreshing and self-renewing. It is the state of being alone without being lonely.

Turning Loneliness into Solitude

So, I’m seeing that experiencing solitude rather than loneliness is a choice. We have to choose to leave the the pain and sadness of loneliness and step into possibilities of the restoration and rejuvenation. It’s like turning off a busy highway onto a quiet country road, a space of  beauty and possibilities.

I imagine that everyone’s experiences during a time of solitude are different. And I suppose that solitude can even look (and feel) like wasting time. But it not time wasted; it is time found and joyfully appreciated.

I find that I move out of loneliness and into solitude when I care for my plants or when I watch the birds flitting around the bare branches of a tree in full view from my recliner.  I can be happy in solitude without setting foot outside. Sometimes I sit and gaze at my well-loved wall hangings: a piece of colorful abstract art that I borrowed from the library off and on  for years until I won a silent auction and proudly brought it home. Three paintings by the same artist of a serenely green pastoral landscape, populated by trees and cows and clouds and ducks on a pond. A wooden chessboard carefully crafted and beautifully stained by a friend of Fred’s. A new striking and brilliantly colored painting I “commissioned” from a local artist to illustrate/interpret Psalm 23:6 which I read during the scattering of  Fred’s ashes:  “Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life . I’m back home in the house of God for the rest of my life.”

I spend many hours of solitude reading.  This week it is Barack Obama’s first volume about his life in service to his country. A Promised Land is filled with memories, family stories, musings about life as a black man, revelations about his spiritual and emotional growth – along with an intimate record of his life in politics. But solitude prompts this story of a life well-lived to offer many moments of self-examination: How do I make decisions? Am I willing to forgive quickly and not prolong an issue? How would I deal with public criticism or resentment or attack? How can I express compassion and understanding in all of my interactions with people?

Since being struck by Granberg-Michaelson’s quote, I have recycled many lonely moments into solitude by seeking “real presence” to myself and to God.  I invite God into my sorrow and my tears, knowing that he experienced both. I moan about the “dark winter” of 2020 and plead for his blessing on the efforts to end COVID-19 and the horrific influence of Donald Trump. I reflect with gratitude on the gifts and prayers from my friends. I struggle with God to understand my role for my life these days. And I pour my thoughts into writing.

And now my solitude is broken. The doorbell is ringing.  Amazon Prime has just delivered a copy Without Oars, Casting Off into a Life of Pilgrimage – a Christmas gift from a friend!  Becoming a “spiritual explorer” just got even more exciting.

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Parables: Part 4 -The Parable of the Shoveling Neighbor

A parable is literally something “cast alongside” a truth in order to illustrate that truth. The website Got Questions labels the 35+ parables that Jesus told as “inspired comparisons” and then adds that a common description of a parable is: “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning”-a definition from my childhood.  Jesus often ended a parable by saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” This was his call to listen to the parables, not just as one would listen to an ordinary story, but as one who is seeking the truth of God. I hope that my little parables inspire that intent  in you. (This post was first published in 2015).

It had snowed all night.  In the morning, as I opened the door to get the newspaper, I was greeted with a blast of cold air. But the door had only opened about four inches. High winds had sculpted waves of drifts across our front yard and up several steps to the front door during the night.  The snow covered the bottom of the door.  Later when I tried again, I  gained only a few more inches.  The back door was blocked as well.  We were prisoners in our own house!

A few hours later, I heard the noise of a snow blower. I ran to the door to see if our neighbor was once again blessing us with the gift of snow blowing.  Of course I couldn’t get the door open. I was so relieved to see him, I wanted to be sure I could thank him, so I put my shoulder to the door.  This time I opened the door enough so that on while on my knees I was able to grab a shovel next to the steps, snake it through the wrought iron railing. and pull it into the house.  I tried to shovel the snow away from the door from  inside the house, but I didn’t make much progress.

Suddenly there was no more engine noise.  I looked up and saw our neighbor at the bottom of the steps.  He yelled, “I’ll get that in a minute.”  Since our unspoken agreement had always been that we would shovel the steps and he would do the rest, I shook my head and said, “That’s okay.”  He came up the steps and smiled a big smile, “I’ll get it!  I love doing this stuff.”  Finally I realized that this lovely man was going to solve all my snow-related problems, and I smiled and said thank you at least a dozen times.

All through the day when I looked out the window at the drifts, I smiled in gratitude. When I left to do some errands, I smiled gratefully  at our ease in leaving the house and driving out onto the street. Before I went to sleep that night, I again was full of thanks as I remembered how our neighbor had blessed us.  Suddenly this whole experience became a parable.

Here was this man giving me the gift I so badly needed (making it possible for us to leave the house) and I had said, “No thanks, I’ll handle it.” – when I knew I couldn’t.  And then he offered again, telling me he loved doing it for me.  How many times have I stood in front of God totally blocked in by some problem and said,  “No thanks, I can handle it,” Gratitude-Quote-520x245knowing I was at the end of my rope. Why do I insist on trying to run my life, when God has repeatedly said, “I’ll handle it; I love doing this for you.”  And have I ever been as extravagant in my gratitude to God for sustaining my life and making a path through obstacles and pain and helplessness as I was to my neighbor?

We had only had a few inches of snow last night, but as I write this, my neighbor again is clearing our path.  I think this little object lesson from Jesus will live long in my memory.

2020 Update:  Now that we live in a lower level apartment instead of a house, we have the benefit of having the maintenance man (I call him Wonderful Lonnie – but not to his face) use a snow blower to clear the snow off of the patio. The parking lot and driveway are also plowed.  The lesson described in this parable, however, is well-learned.  Since Fred died, people are constantly asking if I need help with this or that.  And if I do need help, I  usually say yes (except to food since I am diabetic).  I understand now that when God says, “I’ll handle it,” he usually uses people I love (or strangers who will become people I love) to carry out the task. 

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From My Reading – December

“What we do when faced with our deepest wounds determines whether there is authentic spirituality at work or not. If we seek to blame other people, accuse, attack, or even explain and make perfect, logical sense out of our wounds, there will be no further spiritual journey. But if, when the wounding happens, we find the grace and the freedom to somehow see that it’s not just a wound, but a sacred wound, then the journey progresses. Then we set out to find ourselves, to find the truth, and to find God” (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, September, 14, 2020).

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“It’s so much easier to learn to love what you have instead of yearning always for what you’re missing, or what you imagine you’re missing.  It’s so much more peaceful” (Anna Quindlen).

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“To start seeing that the many events of our day, week, or year are not in the way of our search for a full life but are rather the way to it is a real experience of conversion. We discover that cleaning and cooking, writing letters and doing professional work, visiting people and caring for others, are not a series of random events that prevent us from realizing our deepest self. These natural, daily activities contain within them some transforming power that changes how we live” (Henri Nouwen).

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“We recognize the effects of white supremacy in human hearts and minds, as well as in institutions. But more importantly, we know that God has given us the power to battle and ultimately overcome all principalities and  powers through his Son, our Savior. That means praying like New Testament Christians, so that the power of the Holy Spirit can be poured out as it was at Pentecost. We must discern the principalities and powers we fight against; we must pray against them and teach against them. This is where boldness comes in, right? It takes extraordinary boldness to say, “White supremacy is a demonic spirit. The source of it is pure evil. But the Spirit of the God in Jesus Christ is stronger” (Eugene F. Rivers III  in Plough).

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What an incredible power we have, to walk through the world, making somebody’s day” (Krista Tippett).

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“When you remember me, it means that you have carried something of who I am with you, that I have left some mark of who I am on who you are. It means that you can summon me back to your mind even though countless years and miles may stand between us. It means that if we meet again, you will know me. It means that even after I die, you can still see my face and hear my voice and speak to me in your heart.  . . . .’ Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,’ the good thief said from his cross (Luke 23:42). There are perhaps no more human words in all of Scripture, no prayer we can pray so well” (Frederick Buechner in Whistling in the Dark).

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