Monsters

They lurk in the shadows, waiting to appear out of nowhere. The sight of their enormous teeth, snarled hair, bulging eyes, and outstretched claws makes you jump out of your skin. Just the thought that one might be hiding in your closet or under your bed is enough to give you the heebie-jeebies!

Monsters are a regular sight this time of year. All you have to do is drive around your neighborhood or turn on your TV and you’re in for a scare. I love fall, but I’m always glad when this monster business comes to an end on November 1st!

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Some of us have monsters that stick around all year long. Mine is named “Sleep Anxiety”. From the time I was old enough to understand the benefits of sleep, I have struggled with occasional insomnia. In fourth grade, not getting enough sleep meant I was never getting into college. In college, it meant I was never graduating college. And since then this monster has continued to hide in my closet, waiting for the night before I’m running a race or speaking to a larger-than-our-youth-group crowd the next day.

He’s a tricky little monster, Sleep Anxiety. He always stays nicely under my bed and lets me fall asleep just fine, but just a few minutes later, he jumps up and roars, “Wake up!”. A feeling of panic spreads through my whole body and I’m overcome with fear. I tell him to go away and he goes back under the bed, but the game has just begun and it won’t be long before he jumps out again. And again. And again.

Over the years, I’ve tried everything the experts recommend. I avoid caffeine, even decaf, after 10am. I follow the same ‘wind-down’ routine every night, avoiding screen time before bed. I tell myself all the positive thoughts about how the next day is going to be fine, no matter how much I sleep. I pray and declare the truth that God is in control and that He will do what He wills the next day, no matter how tired I am. I’ve tried medications, but things like Benadryl and Melatonin have the opposite effect on me (I see flashes of light and instead of just waking me up, the monster yells my name 😱!)

When it comes to this type of situational anxiety (or any of the many other “monsters” that keep us up at night) we are instructed to “let [our] requests be made known to God,” (Philippians 4:6) thereby “casting all [our] anxieties on him” (1 Peter 5:7). We’re encouraged to set our minds on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely” (Philippians 4:8) by following Paul’s example of “tak[ing] every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

I’ve tried for many years to do these things, but my monster has remained. And that’s because I thought if I “gave it to God” and “thought good thoughts,” I would get what I wanted. I thought if I pretended hard enough that the anxiety wasn’t there, I’d expose the monster as a fake, and like the movies, say “Aha!”, pull off the mask, and then go to sleep in peace!

But it turns out that’s not what those verses mean.

“Tak[ing] every thought captive to obey Christ” can only happen when I first accept the reality of my anxiety in any given moment. When I “cast [my] [sleep] anxiety on him,” I’m surrendering my attempts to control it or make it go away. And when I “let [my] request [to sleep] be made known to God” I’m giving up any rights to the outcome of that request. Giving it to God doesn’t mean that I’m going to sleep – but it does mean that every time I wake up, after the initial panic, I will experience a conscious moment of His peace.

The only kind of scary movies I can watch are the “scared silly” variety. In my favorite Halloween special, “Open Season: Scared Silly,” Elliot, a mule deer, wants desperately to go on a camping trip with Boog, his grizzly bear friend. Unfortunately, rumors of a “Wailing Wompus Werewolf” prowling around in the forest have caused Boog to delay the trip indefinitely. In an attempt to “cure” Boog of his fear through exposure, Elliot gets his friend, Ian, to dress up as the monster. Elliot pretends to summon the werewolf with an “interpretive werewolf dance,” but, because Ian’s costume is so good, Elliot ends up becoming convinced that the Wailing Wompus Werewolf is real, too!

As the plot plays itself out, you, as the audience, know that there never was a “Wailing Wompus Werewolf” in the first place. All sightings of the monster have proven phony – no one ever had any reason to actually be afraid! But in the final scene, as Elliot and Boog are sitting around the fire on their long-awaited camping trip, who should appear behind them, but the real Wailing Wompus Werewolf! It wasn’t just a legend! Having grown in their confidence and overcome their fears, though, Elliot and Boog quickly befriend the monster with an “interpretive werewolf dance” and find out he isn’t scary after all.

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Our monsters are real, but their power is weakened when we embrace their reality and, as Dr. Caroline Leaf states, switch from “positive” thinking to “quality” thinking. We have the ability, in any given moment, to do an “interpretive exercise” – to acknowledge our outside pressures and circumstances and the feelings and responses we are having as a result. When we are honest about our monsters, we weaken their power and make room for more conscious moments of God’s peace “which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).

*“Detoxing Your Mind: An Interview With Dr. Caroline Leaf” (Elevation Church YouTube Channel)

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Stir

Cool days were made for warm drinks and “cool” has officially arrived! A couple weeks ago, I was regretting taking the air conditioners out of our bedrooms and now I’m pulling out my winter parka and wondering why summer seems so far away. 😭

In our family, fall means it’s time to put away the popsicles and ice cube trays and bring out the hot cocoa! The perfect after-school treat, our girls love to mix up a cup of smooth, rich, chocolate goodness – complete with mini-marshmallows, of course. 😉

The only problem is, when it comes to hot cocoa, our eyes seem to be bigger than our stomachs and more often than not, I find mugs half-full of no-longer-chocolate-looking muck sitting around. Occasionally, these mugs make their way into the refrigerator, but they end up getting left there because a cup of gray-ish colored milk with the chocolate all sunk to the bottom is anything but appetizing!

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Last week I wrote about temptation and the battle between doing what we feel will satisfy us in the moment and doing things the way God has commanded. It’s been around since the beginning, it’s a part of our every day as human beings and, as far as we know, it’s not going away anytime soon.

Thankfully, our God has not left us to fight this battle alone – we have His very presence with us and our greatest chance at having victory over any given temptation is a simple acknowledgement of this. He isn’t there to sit back and watch me fail, He’s there to help, and giving Him space in my head in a moment of struggle is considerably more effective than relying on my own willpower.

Unfortunately, it’s the space in my head that’s the problem. Not only do I have a brain full of theories and ideas, I’m surrounded by a world offering me an endless supply of more, and what the Holy Spirit has to offer tends to settle down to the bottom of the mug!

As a church, we’ve been studying the book of Matthew and learning how we can “Live and Love Like Jesus”. In reading along one Sunday, I noticed that Jesus’ words in His “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7) were not just a list of wise teachings – every one of them was a correction on the common practices of the Jewish religious leaders of His day. The Pharisees were all about the outward show, human praise, and, when it came to sin, the letter of the law. Rules, judgment, and punishment were the ingredients to their ‘success’.

But if you start breaking down what Jesus said, you’ll see a common theme: trust.

A person who trusts the “author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2) knows only He can make a person rich in spirit. (Matthew 5:3)
A person who trusts the Savior (John 1:29) can “mourn” over sin because He brings “comfort”. (Matthew 5:4)
A person who trusts the Almighty God (1 Chronicles 29:11-12) isn’t grasping for power and control because they know He already holds it all. (Matthew 5:5, 6:10)
A person who trusts the Bread of Life (John 6:35) knows they can be satisfied only with the things of God. (Matthew 5:6)
A person who trusts the Judge of all the earth (Psalm 9:7-8) acts with mercy because they know He is the only unbiased authority. (Matthew 5:7, 21-26, 43-48, 6:12-15, 7:1-5, 12-14)
A person who trusts the Lover of their soul (Zephaniah 3:17) doesn’t set their affection on anyone or anything else, because they know He is enough. (Matthew 5:8, 27-30, 6:19-24)
A person who trusts the “arm of the Lord” (Isaiah 59:1) doesn’t need to create division, take revenge, or avoid hardship, because they are a member of His kingdom. (Matthew 5:9-12, 31-32, 38-42)
A person who trusts the Good Shepherd (John 10:10-11) forms their entire lifestyle around His ways, not just the actions that are seen by others. (Matthew 5:13)
A person who trusts the Light of the world (John 8:12) isn’t afraid to make the reason behind this lifestyle change evident, because they know others need Him, too. (Matthew 5:14-16)
A person who trusts the God of truth (Numbers 23:19) doesn’t pick and choose between His commands because they all reveal His heart. (Matthew 5:19)
A person who trusts God for security (Psalm 16:8) can speak simple, honest truth because they don’t live in fear of pleasing people. (Matthew 5:33-37)
A person who trusts the All-Knowing God (Hebrews 4:13) doesn’t need to be seen doing good things because they know their Father has a clear view of their heart. (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18, 7:15-23)
A person who trusts in His Name (Exodus 3:14) doesn’t need to make a name for themself. (Matthew 6:7-9)
A person who trusts their Provider (Psalm 34:8-9) doesn’t live in fear, but simply asks God for what they need. (Matthew 6:11, 25-34, 7:7-11)

If you’re a human, I bet you can find whatever temptation you struggle with on this list. We’ve all got a little Pharisee in us, which means we fight against the very same pride-gripping, kingdom-building, satisfaction-seeking, divided-heart tendencies. And like the Pharisees, our human nature tells us the weapon in this battle is more control, more rules, more threats, and more punishments.

But Jesus’ words point us to trust, which is a much better strategy! When I acknowledge the Holy Spirit’s presence in my moment of temptation, I’m not inviting Him in so He can tell me something about my sin, I’m inviting Him to tell me something about Himself. I could list every reason something is sin and predict every possible outcome, but none of that will be as effective as a simple reminder of why I can trust Him instead.

Last week I went on a 10-mile run… and didn’t bring my earbuds. I almost went back to the car and got them – was I really going to spend almost two hours running without the distraction of music or a podcast? It seemed crazy, but the space in my head was feeling full, so I decided it would be good for me.

I started out praying for other people, thinking, “I can still be productive!”. But a few minutes in, the Holy Spirit took over and began an hour-and-a-half long counseling session (for free!) and dug right down to root of a particular sin-struggle in my heart. And rather than hearing the voices of “Something is wrong with you!” or “You need to fix this!”, I heard “You don’t have to live in fear.”

Trust in the unchanging character of our God doesn’t just materialize in a moment, it must be stirred up daily. Our ability to give Him space in our heads during a time of temptation happens because we intentionally give Him space in our heads when we’re not in a time of temptation.

It’s all too easy to get stirred up with His love and faithfulness for a day or a season, but then stick Him in the refrigerator, assuming we can just pull the mug out whenever we’re ready for more. But it’s the daily stirrings of time in His Word or the stillness of time alone with Him that keep His richness up top!

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This “Chocolate Milk” analogy is not my original, but was taught to me by the one and only Tracey Paradis – my teacher, mentor, and friend who never stops reminding me that trust is the way!

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Castaway

When you’re married, spending quality time with your spouse is crucial. And when you’re the working parents of three children and you make it to 9pm, quality time together looks like watching a no-emotional-or-intellectual-energy-required TV show.

This September, that show came in the form of “Castaways,” an ABC reality show where 12 strangers were ‘abandoned’ separately on a group of uninhabited islands in Indonesia. To “win” the show, they had to remain on the islands until an unknown “day of rescue” and the only thing they knew (based on the fact that they were left with another castaway’s luggage rather than their own) was that others were out there somewhere.

In the first two episodes, several of the castaways set out to find the others and were successful in their efforts. As a pair or trio, they were able to pool their resources, combine their energy and effort, and most importantly, have someone else to talk to!

In the third episode, one of these pairs, Tim and Krichelle, made their way through the forest to the other side of their island, where they found another castaway named Eric. As the audience, you were celebrating with Eric, who, in his own words, was “starving for human connection”. No longer would he need to create imaginary conversations with the tools and objects he had named – Eric had found the companionship he was desperate for.

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But as quick as you were celebrating, you were scratching your head when, instead of going with Tim and Krichelle back to their camp, Eric chose to remain alone. And then, after going to their camp to visit them a couple days later, he still did not stay. “Even though I know everybody needs everybody and that’s how the world turns,” he said, “I just dislike asking people for help. You know, it’s a pride thing. I’m just gonna try to do it on my own for as long as I can.”*

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Sin has been a part of the human experience from the very beginning. The struggle between doing what we feel will satisfy or fulfill us in the moment and doing things the way God has planned or commanded that we do them is part of every human’s everyday. Paul’s words in Romans 7:18-19 may be some of the most relatable verses in the Bible because we all know what it feels like to “have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.”

Temptation is no fun and no joke. Life would be so much easier if it didn’t exist! If my human brain would just agree with God that His ways are best and everything in me was willing to follow those ways, I would never hurt myself or anyone else. But that happens pretty much never and more often than not, I’m sitting in a moment where I have to make a choice. I can fulfill my selfish desire. Or I can put my selfish desire aside and walk in what God has told me is better.

We know from Paul’s other words in 1 Corinthians 10:13 that, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” Because we’re human, we like to create this “way of escape” or “way out” (NIV) by threatening or punishing ourselves, making promises that we’ll ‘never do it again,’ or by setting harsh rules for ourselves. If those methods don’t work, we simply resign ourselves to the fact that we are failures, throw up our hands and stop trying. Or even worse, we convince ourselves it’s ‘not really sin anyway,’ and hope we stop feeling convicted about it.

In Romans 8:12-14, Paul gives us the only solution that works: “Therefore, dear brothers and sisters, you have no obligation to do what your sinful nature urges you to do. For if you live by its dictates, you will die. But if through the power of the Spirit you put to death the deeds of your sinful nature, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.”

The real “way out” is the Spirit of God living within me. I have His companionship right here, available to me 24/7, and His companionship is the answer to my struggle!

By inviting the Spirit into my moment of temptation, no matter how unnatural that seems, I’m admitting that I can’t do this on my own. Temptation can only be defeated “through the power of the Spirit,” so my part is only to cry out for His help. By inviting the Spirit into the moment, I open up a conversation with Him about what is right, rather than engaging in pointless debate with myself. And inviting the Spirit in gives Him the chance to remind me of His goodness and shift my desire from that thing that’s in front of me over to Himself.

Our instinct reaction in moments of temptation is not to think about God! If we’re thinking about Him at all, it’s that we want Him to leave us alone or that we believe He’s already abandoned us because of our choices. Like castaway Eric, we let our pride tell us we can handle it on our own.

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Eric’s willpower only lasted about one more day after he left Tim and Krichelle that second time. Only eight days in to the show (“rescue” came on day 41), he hung up his hat and quit the game. As the audience, it was frustrating to watch someone give up so quickly, when the one thing that would have helped was readily available to him. Everything inside of you wanted to jump in the TV and shake him and say, “Dude! What in the world?! You had the companionship you needed right there, why didn’t you take it?”

Temptation is real, but I’m never a castaway. My way out is my constant Companion and His help is just an invitation away!

*Castaways, Episode 3, “Only the Lonely”

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Web

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A foggy mist hung over Valley Forge park last Thursday morning as I pulled in and got ready for my run. Thankful for the cooler temperatures and shade, I set off on the Valley Creek Trail.

Though I was running by myself on an empty trail, I soon realized I was not alone. That foggy mist I was telling you about had revealed to me that I was in the company of hundreds of spiders! Yikes! All along the sides of the trail, in bushes and in trees, condensation had collected on webs and made what was not normally visible to the average passer-by apparent to the naked eye. I’ve been on this trail many, many times, but I had no idea I had so many *friends* joining me!

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One of my favorite stories from the Bible is the story of Naomi and Ruth. During a time of famine, Naomi, along with her husband and two sons, moved from Bethlehem to a foreign region to find food. Though they found what they were looking for and remained there for several years, Naomi’s husband and sons all died, leaving her alone.

A widow in that time had little chance of surviving on her own, so Naomi decided to return to her home land and her own people, hoping to find a support system there. Though her sons had been married and her daughters-in-law offered to come with her, Naomi knew they had no obligation to be her support. Their chances were much better if they went back home and remarried, so even when they offered to come with her, she insisted that they not.

And though Orpah gave in and “kissed her mother-in-law” goodbye, Ruth “clung to her” (Ruth 1:14). Seeing Ruth’s determination to stay, Naomi “said no more” (v. 18) and the two set off for Bethlehem. This unexpected show of support from Ruth during a foggy time not only encouraged Naomi, but led her to discover that her web of support was even greater than that. Back in Bethlehem, a kinsman-redeemer was revealed who married Ruth, committed to care for her and Naomi, and provided an heir for their family.

In our busy, busy, always-on-the-run world, it’s easy to feel alone. But our God, who has promised to provide for us, is working a web of support – it just might not be visible until we’re in the foggy mist.

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This summer, while returning to Tim’s family cabin after a beautiful hike in northern Vermont, a car pulled out of a driveway without stopping and drove straight into our car. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but our car was not able to make the return trip home. Naively trusting the other driver would follow through on his promise to get in touch with us about his insurance and assuming that his insurance would cover our rental, we kept the rental for a full week after we got home, racking up a $1000 bill.

Unfortunately, this promise remains unfulfilled and, in hindsight, we see our mistake. We didn’t call the police on site and left the scene of the accident without even getting the driver’s full name, let alone his insurance information. And we’ve been learning all of this as the beginning of the year sports team fees and several other large expenses were due.

But last week I received an email from the director of our swim team informing us that an anonymous donor had covered all three of the girls’ team fees for the season. That’s $835. And though I’ve already cried every time I’ve told the story, I’m tearing up again writing this. It’s been a foggy time, but we can see now that our web of support is bigger than we realized!

Thank you, whoever you are, for supporting our family in this way. You have no idea how much it means and how loved we feel. And thank you to everyone who gives to Hope Community Church – you have no obligation to give, but your generosity makes it possible for us to put our full-time into ministry without having to work other jobs. Thank you to everyone who has loved and supported our family over the years – you’re part of a beautiful web the Lord has been building up around us!

God’s provision is always perfect and His most often employed method of meeting our needs is each other. The church is always being built up as a support system, even when we can’t see it. So if you’re in a fog and feeling alone, look up – you probably have more friends than you realize!

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Mud

Nothing beats running in a pair of new shoes. So fresh and clean and bright. Sometimes you just want to take them off, hold them, and marvel at their beauty.

And when you’re a trail runner, nothing beats the day you ‘baptize’ your new shoes on the trail!

This week Tim and I embarked on a 9.3 mile trek of Evansburg State Park. Having received some significant rain in the past week, we knew this was a little risky, but our minds were set and we headed out.

With half of our course being multi-use horse trails and the other half winding along the edges of the Skippack Creek, our shoes were doomed. Though at first we tried to make our way around the giant mud pits on dry ground, we soon realized it wasn’t worth the effort and gave in to the mess!

By the end of the run, our shoes were barely recognizable and, even after a good hosing down, will never be their fresh-and-clean-and-bright selves again!

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But that’s actually the best thing ever.

I love that my shoes are dirty because it means I used them for what they were made for! I hope when people notice them they’ll think: “Wow! She must be a trail runner!” These shoes were made for a purpose and the signs that they were successfully used for that purpose bring glory to their makers and wearers!

As a human being and follower of Christ, I was made for a purpose. There are times when figuring out that purpose seems confusing, but Isaiah 43:7 makes it clear:

“…everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”

I was created for God’s glory and it’s tempting to think that if my purpose is to glorify God, I do that best by staying fresh and clean and bright. That by putting on a smile and polishing up my lifestyle, people will marvel at my ‘beauty’ and be drawn to Jesus. But the previous verses of Isaiah 43 say otherwise:

But now thus says the LORD,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.” (v. 1-2)

It’s not on the safe, swept, and predictable sidewalks that we bring glory to God, it’s in the deep waters (and mud pits!). We weren’t created for polished and perfect lives – we were created for the mess. We can smile all we want and say how “good” God is, but maybe we don’t really know how good He is until He’s pulled us from the muck. Maybe we don’t know how able He is until we reach the full understanding that we aren’t able to rescue ourselves. Maybe His unconditional love can only be understood when we’ve stepped in a big pile of poop (yep, we were on horse trails, remember?).

As I was reading through the Psalms this summer, I noticed a pattern – maybe you can pick it up, too:

Turn, O Lord, deliver my life; save me for the sake of your steadfast love. (Psalm 6:4)

Be gracious to me, O Lord! See my affliction from those who hate me, O you who lift me up from the gates of death, that I may recount all your praises, that in the gates of the daughter of Zion I may rejoice in your salvation. (Psalm 9:13-14)

For your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my guilt, for it is great. (Psalm 25:11)

You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness, that my glory [my being or heart] may sing your praise and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever! (Psalm 30:11-12)

May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations. (Psalm 67:1-2)

Do not remember against us our former iniquities; let your compassion come speedily to meet us, for we are brought very low. Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and atone for our sins, for your name’s sake! (Psalm 79:8-9)

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared. (Psalm 130:3-4)

Bring me out of prison, that I may give thanks to your name! The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me. (Psalm 142:7)

All of these “for the sake of’s” and “that I may’s” point to God’s glory and they only exist because there is also pain, suffering, and sin. All that mud on us shows a watching world what our God is made of. We may feel dragged along a flooded horse trail, but because of it, we get a chance to show off His steadfast love, His power, His forgiveness, His joy, His ways, His compassion, His salvation, and His freedom!

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At the end of 9.3 miles, Tim and I were convinced of two things. First of all, mud is more dangerous than we realized (as proven by our turned ankles and pulled muscles). And second, running through miles of muck can leave your feet feeling soggy and gross!

The biggest danger of committing our lives to Jesus and following His trails is not that we’ll experience hard times and turn away from Him completely. Yes, there will be injuries and detours, but most of us will stay the course.

The greater danger is that we’ll become soggy. That we’ll absorb the muck and mire and let that become what defines us. That, rather than God’s reputation, it will be about ours, and pain and puddles will be all people see when they think of us.

I wasn’t put here to be an admired specimen of perfection or a pruned-up pity-party. I am here to bring glory to God and even if I’m waist deep in the flood, I’ve still got a face to look up, a mouth to cry out, and a hand to point up to Him!

Our trail run yesterday was a Virtual Run of the Superhero Showdown for Super T’s Mast Cell Foundation. Taylor, life dragged you through the pit, but you never got soggy. You never stopped pointing to Jesus and giving God glory! It was such an honor to know you. Thank you for all that you taught us and all the lives you touched.

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