AA, a beautiful lake, and other God-filled places

Milton On my way home from covering the Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Pa., I decided to do something that I’ve dreamed about for many years.

I would visit the lake.

There’s a lake just west of Youngstown that’s been special to me since I was about 7 years old. It’s called Lake Milton. I don’t know the story behind how it got its name; I can share my story of why it’s special.

Many of you know that my dad was an alcoholic. Didn’t drink every day but when he did, he couldn’t stop. And he’d get loud and angry and abusive toward my mom. It was awful and frightening. I remember listening to the arguments and shaking uncontrollably. This went on for several years.

Fortunately, my dad eventually recognized he needed help and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. His sponsor was a funny, kind man named John. He became part of the family – we called him Uncle John. He and his wife, Fran, owned a cottage by Lake Milton. They encouraged us to use it for a week each summer.

We had great times there.

We’d get away from the city lights and see the sky dotted with so many stars that it took your breath away. We’d race across the lake in inner tubes until the insides of our arms were raw. Play Whiffle ball in the backyard. Take the metal boat out on the lake and go fishing. Play Jarts (yeah, that was back when kids were allowed to have sharp-tipped toys).

In some ways, those times saved me.

Playing in the water together showed me that family can have fun together. That’s it’s possible to be family. I looked forward to returning to that place every summer.

The lake was a God-filled place when I really needed one.

Over the years, the lake has showed up in my dreams many times. I’ve often thought: I need to go back someday. More than 30 years passed. Eventually, I added it to my bucket list: Go back to the lake.

And here it was as I drove home last week.

The interstate took me right over it. I pulled off at the exit, starting driving around and got lost. I remembered that the turn-off place was a three-way intersection bordered by a gas station. Certainly the gas station was long gone.

Holy crap! There’s the gas station!

I turned right and drove down a narrow, two-lane road and felt like I was back in the fire-engine-red station wagon loaded with a week’s worth of clothes for my parents and siblings and me.

I found the cottage, which is now a bit rundown. The backyard where we played Whiffle ball seemed small and overgrown – you couldn’t have a game there now.

No matter.

I went the final two blocks to the place where we had our boat dock – the place where we swam and fished and raced with inner tubes – and pulled off the road. I got goosebumps. It was all still there, and it hadn’t changed much.

The pier I fell off while fishing? There. The grassy beach. Even the wooden stairs that led down the hill to the beach – the ones my mom always used, while we boys sprinted down – those stairs were weathered, but still there.

And the lake? Even more beautiful than I remembered it.

Wow! Just wow.

I quickly took off my shoes and socks and rolled up my pants legs and waded in. I stood there and smiled and watched the seagulls fly overhead and the boats churn up little waves as they went by.

I felt like I was being baptized in the real sense of the word. Reminded how amazing it is just to be part of something so beautiful. Reminded that you’re loved and that everything is going to be OK, no matter how it turns out.

That God-filled moment soaked in like the waves soaking my pants legs.

I have a friend who tells about going to a park that felt God-like and helped her settle the chaos in her head and find peace for a while. I like to think that we all have our God-filled places and spaces. They’re different for everyone.

And they go beyond lakes and park benches.

One of my biggest ongoing challenges has been to see relationships as God-filled places. To look into another person’s eyes, see love and grace, and summon the courage to take off my shoes and socks and wade in.

To leave the beach, and leave behind my fear of sinking and drowning. To create a sacred space.

In a sense, when we put ourselves into loving relationships, we’re digging a deep space. And God comes along and fills it with rainwater. And soon there are birds flying overhead and docks dotting the shore.

Together, we become a God-filled place. A place oh, so beautiful that it takes your breath away.

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A dusty trophy and a vanilla milkshake

Little League trophy This is my Little League trophy. I didn’t contribute much to winning it. For me, it was more like a participation trophy.  I keep it in a dust-covered box in the basement along with other collectibles from my childhood in Cleveland.

I thought about the trophy when I was covering the Little League World Series this week in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania. How my experience of Little League was so different from theirs.

For starters, I wasn’t very good, and that’s putting it kindly. Until I finally hit a growth spurt, I was one of the smallest players on the team. And not all that coordinated, either. The coach would put me in for a few innings. I was lucky if I drew a walk – just reaching first base was a huge thing.

One year, my left hand got hit by a wild pitch, breaking a knuckle and limiting my summer fun. It healed in time to play the last few games. My first game back? I had to bat against the same wild pitcher – really, I’m not making that up. I struck out on three pitches and couldn’t get back to the bench fast enough.

I got a little better as I grew. I actually hit a home run my last season – how about that? One shining moment. I tried out for my high school baseball team and didn’t make it. The team was very good; I wasn’t.

And that’s OK.

I learned about ups-and-downs in Little League.

The teams were comprised of two grade levels – third- and fourth-graders playing together, fifth- and sixth-graders, and so on. The older kids on my team were very good and we’d go undefeated and win the championship. When they moved up to the next bracket the following year, my age group wasn’t very good –I wasn’t alone in the not-very-good thing – and we’d be lucky to win a game.

Frist place to last place, and back to first. Year after year.

But here’s what I remember most from all of those years: the milkshakes. After each game, our coach would take us to the McDonald’s just beyond the outfield fence and buy each of us a milkshake. I always got vanilla, my favorite flavor. And that was fun.

Win or lose, we got a milkshake.

You may have followed the recent social media food fight over something that NFL player James Harrison posted. He made his sons give back trophies they received for participating in sports without winning a championship. I understand his point: We should encourage more than just showing up.

But I also know there’s another side to it: There’s a lot to be said for just showing up.

Isn’t it true that just showing up often takes a lot more courage than winning? Sometimes, just showing up is a grand accomplishment. There are those many mornings when you need two cups of coffee and a double shot of grace just to face the day. And as you go through the day, everything seems to fall apart.  You don’t get the results you wanted.

And you summon the courage to say: Screw it. I’m going to sleep on it, get up in the morning and try again.

It’s easy in our results-obsessed culture to get caught up in who’s first. We forget that it’s more about the effort than the outcome. It’s about putting ourselves into something passionately and letting things work themselves out.

As Paul puts it in one of his letters, it’s about doing your best – fighting the fight, running the race, trying to keep a little bit of faith along the way.  Faith in yourself. Faith in those running with you. And faith in the One who is with you, especially when it feels like you’re running on empty.

During my time in South Williamsport, former Yankees closer Mariano Rivera was inducted into the Little League Hall of Excellence. He played on a team from Panama that never reached the World Series, but that didn’t matter.

When asked for his fondest memory of Little League, Rivera told a story about staying with a family for a tournament away from home. He drank coffee for the first time because it was offered and he didn’t want to offend the host family by turning it down. That cup of strong coffee made him sick for several days, so he couldn’t play.

Rivera grew up in a poor fishing town in Panama. Just to get a chance to play the game meant a lot to him – not the trophies, not the attention.

“I was happy with what I had, and I didn’t have nothing,” Rivera said. “But what I had was the game of baseball.”

Isn’t it interesting what we remember most? Not the home runs or the wins, but a cup of coffee that makes you sick or a vanilla milkshake that makes you happy.

Little League team

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People or pets? The dog days are here …

Dog We’re in what they call the dog days of summer. For many of us, every day is a dog day. Or a cat day. Or fish day. Or bird day. Or …

Aren’t pets great?

Don’t you love how the dogs comes running to the door when you get home and show unrestrained excitement? All they want to do is lick your face and show you how glad they are to see you. And it doesn’t matter that you’ve been gone only 15 minutes to run an errand.

It’s wonderful to be loved with such reckless abandon. Wouldn’t it be nice if people loved us that way, too? Well, except for the face-licking part.

Or how about when the cat jumps on your lap, curls up and purrs loudly and contentedly as you sip your morning coffee, reminding you that there’s no other place on Earth that they’d rather be. Right there with you, absorbing your warmth and love with a total, relaxed trust. The best place in the whole world.

Wouldn’t it be nice if somebody said that being with you is the best place in the whole world?

Let’s fess up: There are times when we get so aggravated with people, and it’s nice to get away from them and sit on the couch with the dog contentedly stretched out next to us. Or to sit there and let the cat’s purrs transform our lap into a sacred space.

Pets are so much easier to get along with than people. They’re not as complicated and unpredictable, not as demanding and challenging, not as mysterious and messy. People are very messy.

And that messiness makes relationships a portal to the divine.

As much as we like to be with our pets, we have to keep going out the door and dealing with people. Amazing people. Frustrating people. Inspiring people. Loving people. Broken people. Confused people. Self-doubting people. Challenging people. Lost people. People who have all the same anxieties and fears that we do.

Relationships make us grow into who we are meant to be. And the process is always, always, always messy.

If there’s no messiness, there’s not much relationship. Relationships tap into our insecurities and make them bubble up and out despite our best efforts to ignore them or keep them hidden.

They highlight our fears and insecurities in bright, bold colors. They grow and develop in their own time and have their own confusing and confounding rhythms.

They challenge us and fulfill us and yes, they make us want to beat our heads against the wall, depending upon the time of the day.

Relationships are miracles written with leaky pens, in smeared ink.

Yeah, it’s pretty cool to have a dog lick our face or a cat curl up on our lap, but it’s quite another thing to look into the eyes of someone who really loves us and isn’t afraid to show it.

They don’t completely understand us – we don’t even understand ourselves, so that part isn’t surprising. But they want to try to understand as much as they can because it makes them feel closer to us.

They’re willing to pay the price for being in relationship with us. They’re willing to wrestle with the fears and uncertainties and feelings of inadequacy that relationships unearth – theirs and ours.

They decide that we are worth all of this.

They listen, even when they’re not entirely sure what we’re trying to say. They’re patient, even though we’ve just fallen back into the same bad habit we’ve been trying to break forever. They forgive, even though we’ve promised not to do again what we’ve just done again.

They try to meet our needs, even though they’re not exactly sure what to say or what to do much of the time other than to just hug us and remind us that we’re important to them.

They’re willing to dive into the messiness of relationship and let it seep into their hair and ooze into their ears and embed itself under their fingernails.

And for reasons that make us forever thankful and grateful, they’re willing to let the messiness of relationship into their hearts, where it gets redeemed.

These crazy, amazing, grace-filled people want to see all of us – the messy parts, the pretty parts, the crazy parts, the broken parts, the take-your-breath-away parts – and love all of us. And in a truly courageous act, they let down their walls and let us see the messy, ugly, broken parts of them, too.

It’s important to embrace those people. Also, to try to be one of those people. To love with an unrestrained joy and a holy purr.

Purring is encouraged. Face-licking is optional.

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Tattoos, colored hair, and amazing grace

hair The young woman sitting in the back row caught my eye. She had tattooed arms and brightly colored hair. I don’t remember what color her hair was that day; it’s tough to say. Jordan changes it regularly.

Could have been Alpine Green – she’s worn that color, and many more. Rosy Red. Spring Green. Lagoon Blue. Plum Purple. Flamingo Pink. Wine Purple. Fire Orange.

Just to name a few.

Anyway, I remember thinking as I sat down for the start of our church service that Sunday: What’s her story? A few minutes later, she was introduced as our new youth minister.

And I thought: Hmmm. Now I’m really intrigued. What’s behind those tattoos and that shade of hair?

Jordan gets that reaction a lot. She embraces it and uses it to connect with people – well, most times.

She told us how one time she was headed home from church, carrying her churchy stuff in a bag, and she stopped at a store. Behind her in the check-out line was a couple sizing her up.

The man noticed Jordan’s churchy stuff and said something negative about people with tattoos. He suggested – very judgmentally — that she should learn to treat her body like a temple.

Jordan reassured him that she does indeed consider her body to be a temple. The tattoos? Those are her stained-glass windows.

The man frowned. His wife smiled.

That’s Jordan.

A few weeks ago, Jordan shared another story. She was in a restaurant and a lady at a nearby table stared at her as she ate. When the lady got up to pay her check, she headed straight for Jordan’s table.

Oh Lord, Jordan thought, here we go again! I’m not in the mood for a lecture about hair or tattoos. Please, not that. Not now. Jordan pulled away emotionally. Just shut down.

But instead of criticizing her, the woman smiled and complimented her on her blue hair and how it matched the blue rose tattoo on her shoulder. They had a kind, wonderful conversation. Jordan’s moment of dread turned into a moment of grace.

And Jordan used that moment as a reminder: “You have to allow grace to happen.”

Ain’t that the truth?

Nobody knows exactly how it happens, but we know that it does. Grace isn’t a magic wand that takes away all of our problems and gives us whatever we want. Instead, it gently and persistently offers us what we need.

The thing is: We have to work with it. We have to give it the space and the time and the cooperation to do its thing. We have to trust it.

Which is challenging, isn’t it?

For one thing, grace has a way of surprising us. In fact, grace almost always involves some sort of surprise. Grace = Surprise.

Often, it’s more like: SURPRISE!!!!!!

Grace has a track record of showing up when we least expect it, touching us in ways we never imagined, urging us to do things we never thought possible. It leads us into unexpected relationships, points us toward new places, helps us get started on significant and much-needed changes.

Grace fulfills us in ways that we never even knew we needed. Grace takes us to places we never imagined. Grace saves us, over and over. Sometimes, from ourselves.

I suppose that’s why we fight grace so much. We love a certain amount of predictability and control. We want to do things our way, in our time. We want to stay just as we are. We prefer our comfort.

That’s not the graceful way.

Grace turns our lives upside-down in many good and needed ways. It extends a hand and offers to take us someplace that’s better for us.

And along the way, it has the audacity to enlist us as grace-givers. To become people who let grace work through them. To become people who bring grace into the world.

It’s always there, this thing we call grace. In every moment, in every place, in every way. We just have to pay attention and recognize it. Sometimes it presents itself in a nondescript form. Other times, grace shows up wearing vibrant, eye-catching colors.

Flamingo Pink. Wine Purple. Fire Orange. Just to name a few.

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A raccoon stuck in a jar

Raccoon I sat on the back porch last night, drinking a glass of red wine while enjoying the crickets and katydids. What a relaxing night … until a sound next door got my attention.

A small raccoon climbed atop the neighbors’ garbage cans and was trying to pry them open. I walked over to shoo it away and saw that its head was trapped inside a plastic jar. It was going to slowly die of starvation or dehydration.

How awful.

I’m not fond of raccoons. They can be aggressive and carry rabies. But this little one needed help. I reached toward it and tried to grab the jar so it could pull its head free. Instead, the raccoon freaked out, scurried away and hid under the neighbors’ ramp.

Now what?

A few years ago, my daughter gave me personalized cat wrangling gloves after I was bitten twice by a three-legged cat; I went and got those to protect my hands. Also, I grabbed a flashlight and a blanket. When the raccoon emerged, I would throw the blanket over it, then grab the jar with a gloved hand and hold on until it wriggled its head free.

My ingenious plan worked like most of my ingenious plans — which is to say, not at all.

The raccoon hid for more than half an hour. I started to feel ridiculous. I was tired. The mosquitoes were biting me. Forget about rabies — I’m going to get West Nile. I just wanted to go to bed.

Maybe a little prayer would help? After all, the creator of life would support this rescue mission, right?

So I said: Uh, as you can see, I could use a little help right here. How about if you coax the raccoon out so I can free it? And soon, please. I’m getting bit by these mosquitoes of yours. Thank you very much.

A response popped into my head: Yeah, nice going! I’m proud of you for trying to help the raccoon. One problem: That whole free will thing? It applies to raccoons, too. I can’t force it to come out. You’re just going to have to be patient and hang in there. I’m with you, though!

I hate that answer. I get it a lot.

It was well past midnight when the raccoon finally emerged and took off for the backyard. I threw the blanket and missed. I chased after it with the flashlight, hoping the cops wouldn’t show up.

Why am I running through my neighbors’ yards after midnight, officer? I’m helping a raccoon. No, I can’t show you the raccoon. Yeah, you’re right, this all sounds a bit weird. I get one phone call, right?

It didn’t matter. I couldn’t find the raccoon. It had probably run off and was going to die horribly despite my best efforts. Isn’t life like that so often? We try to do something good but come up empty? We wonder if it was worth the effort?

Wait! There it is!

The raccoon had jumped on top of other neighbors’ garbage cans (they just love garbage cans, apparently) and was sitting there, its head still stuck inside the jar. I walked slowly toward it and tossed the blanket again, and missed again.

But this time, the critter fell behind the garbage can and was trapped. I reached down, grabbed the jar and pulled — it didn’t budge!  The raccoon yanked its head away from my hand.

One more time.

I put my gloved right hand on the raccoon’s back and pushed down so that it couldn’t squirm. I grabbed the jar with my left hand, tilted the animal’s head back, and gave a strong pull.

Pop! It was free!

Free to run away. Free to eat again. Free to live. Free to bite me and give me rabies.

I pulled back. The young raccoon looked at me for a few seconds, kind of dazed. Then it ran into the safety of the darkness.

As I held the jar (that’s it in the photo above), I felt … Tired. Relieved. Happy that all the waiting wasn’t for nothing. Sure, I knew that the little raccoon might run out into the street and get killed later that same night. Or get into the neighbors’ garbage, get its head stuck in another jar and starve anyway.

But this was a momentary victory.

Don’t you love those momentary victories?

Your latest cancer scan comes back negative. You make it another hour without a cigarette or a drink. Your kid finally manages to put their dirty laundry in the basket — without an argument, no less. Your parent takes a bite of food after being sick for several days. You manage to pull the jar off a reluctant raccoon’s head.

Momentary victories. Life is full of them. Life is about them.

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Look! It’s a miracle!

Crutches Every summer, my parents would pack us kids into the red station wagon (yes, bright red) and take us on a pilgrimage. We’d visit a couple of shrines in northwest Ohio – pray in the church, eat in the cafeteria, buy holy water in the gift shop.

It was a Catholic thing.

I mostly remember the desserts in the cafeteria and the discarded crutches in the shrines. One of the shrines had a designated place to pray for healing, and people who hobbled up and evidently got their wish would walk away and leave their crutches behind.

Reminders of miracles.

That’s how I was taught to think of miracles: Something that defies the laws of nature. Something extraordinary. God waves the divine magic wand and something disappears – the limp in your walk, the cancer in your brain, the dysfunction in your family.

Ask for the magic, and you shall receive it.

Well, maybe sometimes. Or, maybe not at all.

Most often, it was the not-at-all. And that was quite disturbing. Why did God choose to wave away other people’s problems but not mine? Maybe the problem was with me. Maybe I didn’t pray hard enough. Live well enough. Believe deeply enough.

Isn’t that still a prevalent view of miracles? Pray for one and if you don’t get it, it’s because you’re lacking somehow. That’s why your dad didn’t quit drinking, why your kids are still doing self-destructive things, why your broken-down car won’t start one more time, why the cancer is still ravaging your brain.

Pray harder. Pray better.

After a while, I started thinking: That way of looking at miracles makes God out to be a real ogre. Maybe that viewpoint is all wrong. Maybe miracles don’t work that way. Maybe they’re something else.

Some people label those questioning moments as a crisis of faith. I prefer to think of them as moments when faith gets real. I stopped praying for tuh-duh! miracles. When I have a problem now, I don’t ask God to wave the wand and make it go away, but to help me get through it.

And to recognize that no matter what I’m going through at any given moment, life is always a grand miracle.

Miracles aren’t things outside the norm. Miracles are the norm.

There was a television show a few years back called “Joan of Arcadia.” Joan is a teenager visited by God in the form of a hot young guy. He tries to convince her that he’s God, and she wants proof. So she says: If you’re God, show me a miracle. He stops and tells her to look at a tree right in front of them.

“OK, how about that?” God says.

“That’s a tree,” Joan says, dismissively.

God’s response: “Let’s see you make one.”

Joan hadn’t thought of it that way. What about us?

We think that cancer unexpectedly vanishing from our brains is a miracle. The truth is, our brains are a miracle. And so is cancer. And the immune system that tries to fight it. And the people who help us get through those terrible treatments _ yeah, all a miracle.

The dog that licks your face. The cat that purrs on your lap. The child that grabs the leg of your pants and demands attention. The friend who texts to find out how you’re doing. The stranger who smiles at you on the street. The one who cuts you off as you drive down the highway.

Miracles. All received without asking.

Sunrise. Sunset. Summer. Winter. Birth. Death. Laughter. Disappointment. Joy. Pain. A hug. A snub.

And love. Especially love. Love is an open-ended miracle.

And us. Each of us, too. Just as we are.

Do you remember the scene from “Bruce Almighty” where Bruce gets his divine powers and plays around with them, parting his bowl of soup like the story of the Red Sea? Morgan Freeman as God uses that moment to teach Bruce how miracles really work.

“Parting a soup is not a miracle, Bruce,” God says, “it’s a magic trick. Now, a single mom who works two full-time jobs and still finds the time to pick up her kid at soccer practice? That’s a miracle. A teenager that says ‘no’ to drugs and ‘yes’ to an education? That’s a miracle.

“You want to see a miracle, son? Be the miracle.”

As I see it now, a miracle isn’t about God suspending the laws of nature to grant a personal favor. It’s more about us recognizing that we’re already part of a miracle. And that we’re invited to embrace it, celebrate it, and participate in it.

The miracle is that we’re here, that any and all of this exists.

And if we need to use crutches to get along, that’s fine. We don’t need to pray for the crutches to go away.

There’s a miracle in the limp.

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That revolutionary ‘We’

We hands   Before we pack up the red, white and blue bunting for another year, let’s take a few moments to think about the word that was at the heart of the weekend.

No, not patriotism. Or independence. Or liberty. Or even freedom.

Let’s talk about: We.

You know: The first word in the constitution. The one that puts everything that follows it inside a framework of a collective effort and combined responsibility.

We the people. All of us. Together. Part of something bigger than any one of us individually.

Yeah, that word.

Have you noticed that we don’t discuss that idea very much? I wonder why. A lot of Fourth of July posts went on lavishly about individual rights and personal freedom. And yes, those are important. But they’re only part of the equation, and they’re not even the starting point.

It starts not with me, but with we. A pronoun that’s radical and revolutionary.

Actually, the whole first sentence – known as the preamble — makes no mention of anything individual. It references union, common defense, general welfare. It recognizes that we’re not only independent, but interdependent as well.

Singular, and plural, too.

And it’s not an original concept. Even though the constitution makes no mention of God – the founders did that on purpose — the opening word goes to the heart of actual religion.

It’s about seeing ourselves as part of something bigger than ourselves. About our commitment to be part of the whole.

The creation stories locate us within a diverse web of life. They put us in relationship with each other and with everything that’s in the world – it’s never good to think of ourselves as being alone.

One touchstone prayer refers to God as our parent, not just my parent. And it asks our creator to give us our daily bread. To forgive us. Lead us. Deliver us. There’s not a single mention of “me” or “my” or “I” in the prayer.

And it concludes with a collective amen, an affirmation that we’re all in this together.

It can’t be any other way.

Actual religion has love at its heart, and love by definition always involves relationship. It’s lived and expressed within the context of a commitment to someone and something other than ourselves.

It’s always plural.

It recognizes that others’ needs are just as important as mine, and I need to try to help them meet them. It sees everyone else as equally important. It challenges us to replace self-centeredness with love, compassion, healing and forgiveness.

It’s not easy, of course. And right now, it’s not popular. I’m guessing it never has been.

If you spend even a little time with cable TV or social media, you’ll hear lots of emphatic talk about “I” and “my” and “me” and “mine.” My rights. My freedom. My guns. My religion. Stand my ground. Don’t tread on me. Don’t tax me. Don’t require anything of me.

Leave me alone. Leave me out of it.

You? You’re on your own, too. Unless you do something that’s different from how I prefer to do it. Then I’ll insist that you have to do it my way. And if you don’t, it’s a violation of my rights.

Don’t we hear that a lot lately in our society? Haven’t we lost our sense of kinship to the world, our interrelatedness to one another?

What’s happened to us?

Finding a healthy balance between our independence and interdependence — the “me” and the “we” — is one of our greatest and most important challenges as humans. We have to keep the two in a healthy, creative tension. And it’s not easy. It involves respectful and open-minded discussion. It requires sacrifice, compromise, accommodation and compassion.

And yes, it means respecting and safeguarding our independence as people. A healthy relationship involves independent people freely choosing to love each other and to sacrifice for each other. Helping the other grow into the best version of themselves as we do the same.

When one person in a relationship ignores the other’s needs or insists on getting things their way, the relationship crumbles. Each person must be respected for who they are.

It takes a lot of effort, this being singular and plural at the same time. But it’s our calling to struggle with it and to work at it daily.

Such a radical idea. Such a revolutionary idea. For all of us.

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