What NOT To Do For Your Country

Tomorrow, a new president will take the oath of office.  Whether you voted for President Trump or not, there are lots of people who are telling you what you should be doing for your country, either in support of his policies or in opposition to them: folks are telling you to register voters or call congress or attend a protest or donate to a cause or pray for a candidate.  All of those actions might be important, but they are not most important.  In fact, I believe the most important thing you can do for your country is not to do anything.  Let me explain.

 

Character is Destiny

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus believed that character is destiny.  What he meant is that who you are will inevitably determine what you do.  A brave man will act bravely, a dishonest man will act dishonestly, etc.

Jesus said the same thing in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?  Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:16-18).

The English word character has roots in the Greek word for engraving.  You might say that character is etched into a person; it is something foundational to who the person is.

Formation vs. Education

In our culture, we tend to overlook the slow importance of character formation and instead prefer the quicker and easier work of intellectual education.  Our leaders talk about improving education and argue about how best to do that, but I cannot recall a public figure who has recently been talking about the best way to form character in our children.  Education is important, but education without character will be useless at best and dangerous at worst.  Character matters.

One of the major themes of the New Testament is about how a follower of Jesus can become Christlike in character.  The reason the New Testament is so concerned with character change is because the early Christians knew that you can’t actually live like Jesus unless you are being changed like Jesus from the inside out.  Only then—with a “mind transformed and renewed” (Romans 12:1-2)—is Christlike living possible.  It is not possible to love your enemies, e.g., without first becoming the kind of person who loves her enemies.

The moralistic instruction that we are constantly given—be more civicly engaged, reach out to your neighbor, call your congressman, pray for your senator, start a movement—is all good advice, but it is given out of order.  Before you start a movement, you first need to be the kind of person who starts a movement; before you pray for your senator, you first need to become the kind of person who prays for her senator.  Character matters.  “Good trees produce good fruit.”

This is why I believe the most important thing you can do for America as our new president assumes office is not to do anything.  Rather, you should focus on becoming.

So, how is character formed?  How can we become the kind of people who do good things, or to use Jesus’ metaphor, the kind of trees that produce good fruit?

Silence and Scripture

I believe the most effective way to become more like Jesus is to spend the first 15 minutes every morning in silence and scripture.  Before you reach for your phone or check your Instagram feed or see who won the late game, you need to just sit and be still and read a bit of Scripture.  Taken by itself, the principle of the #First15 seems useless: how does sitting in silence result in any new voters registered or any new movements funded or any congresswomen prayed for?  But becoming the right type of person will result in your doing the right type of actions, and on a daily basis nothing will be more formative to your character than the #First15.

Character is destiny: good trees produce good fruit, and bad trees produce bad fruit.  Who you are determines what you do.  There is a lot that needs doing in America, but doing comes after being.  If you become more like Jesus, you’ll inevitably act like him.  (In fact, the more you become like Jesus, the more Christlike actions will be second nature to you.)  This is what the early Christians meant by discipleship.

It was fifty-six years ago that President Kennedy delivered that thrilling conclusion to his Inaugural Address: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”  As a new President assumes office, I believe that what’s most important for you to do for your country is to be a certain sort of person: someone who thinks and acts like Jesus.

 

 

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Early Thoughts on the Election

I went to bed early last night and woke up really early this morning, and even though I like to remind myself that no one knows the future, I was still surprised by the election result.  Here are some early thoughts, in no particular order.

 

Donald Trump’s victory reminds us once again: no one knows the future.  I wrote last year about how the experts always want us to believe that they can predict the future, but that they are always wrong.  None of the experts predicted Mr. Trump’s victory in the primaries, and none of the experts predicted his victory last night.  I’ll say it again: No one knows the future.  Though the inherent obscurity of the future could seem terrifying, I tend to find this truth strangely comforting: it means that there is potential in every situation for the grace of God to be at work.

The reason our politics is so bitter is because we don’t believe in the transcendent and the eternal.  If naked political power is all there is, then you have to fight tooth and claw to achieve it.  Since we’ve killed off God in the West, we have nothing else to live for.

We should pray for Barron Trump.  A ten year-old little boy, thrust into the spotlight.

I cannot imagine what Hillary Clinton must be feeling this morning.  As with any celebrity, it’s easy to forget that Mrs. Clinton is a real person.  She’s been reaching for the presidency for much of her life; the bitterness of her loss this morning must be overwhelming.

This election proves how distant the elites that run our country are from millions of ordinary people.  The establishment–including the conservative establishment–was opposed to Donald Trump’s candidacy.  And yet he won anyway.  It cannot be good for America in the long term for the people with power–in the media, in academia, in business, and in government–to be so different from the people without it.

We have no shared purpose as a people.  I think Rod Dreher’s metaphor is helpful:

Here’s the problem, as I see it. Is the American nation (or any nation) more like:

  1. The diverse crowd that gathers at the shopping mall on Saturday afternoon, or
  2. The diverse crowd that gathers at the football stadium on Saturday night?

The difference is that the only thing the first crowd shares is little more than a geographical space, but the second crowd shares not only a geographical space, but a purpose.

Our problem is that we want the solidarity and sense of purpose that the football stadium crowd possesses, but without its shared sense of a mission greater than the individuals engaged in it. I don’t think this is a problem that politics can solve, but it is certainly a problem that politics can exacerbate. As the next four years will demonstrate.

Instead of the Stadium as a symbol, I might have used the Cathedral, but of course America, as a foundationally secular nation, is better represented by a stadium. Plus, these days, Cathedrals function more like Malls, in the sense I mean in this post. There’s not much shared sense of purpose there, only a diverse group of people gathered in a particular geographical space to pursue private ends. The Mall really is the symbol of our place in this time.

 

I suspect the Bradley Effect was in effect yesterday.  I wrote about the Bradley effect in yesterday’s post.

Politics exposes our idols.  Millions of people would be in despair this morning had Mrs. Clinton won.  Millions of people are despairing because Mr. Trump has won.  Ravi Zacharias has it right: “The loneliest moment is life is when you have just experienced that which you thought would deliver the ultimate and it has just let you down.”

I’m glad the Church is “of no party or clique.”  My job is to be a pastor, a shepherd of people.  That responsibility does not depend on the fortunes of any party or clique, and my calling is to people, regardless of how they vote.  I’m glad of that, this morning.

As my friend Matt Judkins, a pastor in Oklahoma, puts it:

 

 

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Brief Thoughts on Voting

I was at my polling place (a beautiful old church in East Dallas) 10 minutes before the polls opened this morning, and there were already 10 people in front of me.  Voting always makes me reflective, and here are some of my thoughts and reminiscences, in no particular order.

 

The sacred solemnity of peaceful voting always strikes me.  There is just something about being surrounded by my fellow citizens, who may or may not share my beliefs, as we all line up peacefully and patiently to cast our votes.  There is just something sacred about walking into the voting booth as a free man.  I think voting represents America much better than fighter jet flyovers at NFL games–that’s just a show of power: our real power lies in the peaceful ritual of Election Day.

Nothing is more important than the peaceful transfer of power.  There are lots of issues I feel very strongly about, issues I believe matter to God.  But I don’t think anything matters more than the peaceful transfer of power.  This 229 year-old experiment we have with our Constitution is exceeding rare in human history, and unless we are governed by laws with a peaceful transfer of power, nothing else is possible.  I lived in West Africa as a small boy, and I distinctly remember watching from the verandah of our house, which was perched on the side of a small mountain, and looking down at the capital city below as the sirens sounded and soldiers shouted: there had been a coup attempt.  Nothing is more destructive than chaos.  May our system continue long into the future.

God bless the election volunteers.  I remember the first time I voted (must have been November, 1998).  I was home from college and I went with my dad up to our polling place, which was a school I’d attended.  In the 1950s era gymnasium/auditorium/cafeteria, we checked in with the volunteers and I was surprised to see I knew all of them–they were ladies from our church.  I was impressed then with their civic commitment, and I have been impressed with election volunteers ever since.  These people make our freedom possible.

The longest line I ever waited in to vote was in 2004.  I was living in Richmond, Virginia, off of Monument Avenue.  I went to vote around midday, and the line wrapped around the city block.  No one complained.

It is shameful that I don’t know more about the down ballot races and propositions.  I am an educated guy.  I read the newspaper every day.  I care about local issues.  And yet there were a few races on my ballot this morning that I knew nothing about.  There was also a long and complicated proposition having to do with the pension fund for civilian city employees.  I was mortified to read it and realize I didn’t know what I should do.  I left it blank.  That is unacceptable.  I never want to be in that position again.  It is my responsibility to be more informed.

But it is also shameful how our media don’t prepare us for these important races and issues.  I have a good memory and a varied media diet, and yet I walked into the voting booth knowing very little about issues beyond the headlines involving our leading presidential candidates.  I know that there may not be a market for journalism devoted to issues,  particularly down ballot issues, but I still think it’s shameful how little space our media devotes to anything other than the presidential horse race.

I wonder if a variation of the “Bradley Effect” will play a role in this election.  The Bradley effect derives its name from the 1982 candidacy of Tom Bradley for governor of California.  Mr. Bradley, a black politician, was ahead in the polling before the election, but lost the actual election.  Why?  Political scientists concluded that potential voters were not honest with pollsters, telling the pollsters that they were going to vote for a black man (the socially acceptable answer), while not actually doing so in the privacy of the voting booth.  I wonder if the same thing might happen today with regard to Mr. Trump–are there people who will privately vote for him, even though they’d be embarrassed to say so publicly?

I don’t know why cell phones are banned at polling places, but I’m glad they are.  In Texas, cell phones and other “electronic communications devices” are banned within 100 feet of voting stations.  I don’t really see the problem with a ballot selfie, but I’m not complaining.

Finally, the Presidency isn’t going to save us, and our future will not depend on tonight’s results.  I believe it matters whom we elect–I want good people serving in office, from dog catcher on up to President of the United States.  But, our ultimate hopes do not lie with our politicians, and the church does not depend on politics to carry out its mission; our hopes lie with God, and the church depends on him.

In other words, Jesus is Lord, today, tomorrow, and forever.

 

 

The fox knows many things;
The hedgehog knows one big thing.
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Does Public Polling Hurt Democracy?

Tomorrow is election day, and all the media organizations are poring over the polls, eager to tell us who’s up and who’s down and who’s going to be the next President of the United States.  I’m curious what tomorrow will bring, too, but I worry that our modern obsession with polling presents a problem for our republic.  Here’s why.

Public Polls are Self-Fulfilling

“Don’t throw your vote away.”  This is the advice we’re constantly given.  If we vote for the candidate whom the polls say has no chance of winning, we feel as if we’re wasting our vote.  People want to back a winner.  So, when the media tell us that this or that candidate is definitely going to lose, it makes us less likely to vote for the candidate who is behind, thereby reinforcing the polling results.  Many American political campaigns are based less on ideas than on the “inevitability” of this or that candidate.  I’d argue that inevitability was the main argument of George W. Bush’s candidacy in the Republican primaries of 2000 and Hillary Clinton’s candidacy in the Democratic primaries this year.

Public Polls Prop-up Our Current 2 Party System

Because the polls tell us that voting for a 3rd party candidate is a futile exercise, many of us reluctantly support the 2 main parties in elections.  Unfortunately, this means there are significant parts of the electorate and significant ideas that are not given a hearing.  It is telling that so many people appreciated Bernie Sanders’s message of economic populism, a message that was relatively unheard in previous Democratic primary campaigns, even though it’s clear now there’s been an electorate eager to hear it.  It is also telling that Donald Trump was the first Republican candidate that I know of to explicitly call the Iraq War a mistake.  What if there was another party on the left that was able to make the arguments the Democrats refuse to make, or another party on the right that was able to make the arguments that the Republicans refuse to make?  The point is that if alternative political movements and parties were able to gain traction in our system, new ideas would gain traction as well.  Competition is good in the public square: it makes each of us refine our ideas and our arguments.  Rival parties would make Republicans and Democrats better, which would make our republic better.

Public Polling Perpetuates the Red/Blue Divide

It doesn’t seem as if Texas is going to turn blue any time soon, any more than it seems that California will turn red, and I think public polling perpetuates this divide.  If people in the minority party in various states weren’t convinced that their votes “wouldn’t count,” then perhaps they’d be more likely to vote, which in turn would require politicians and parties to make more effective arguments in so-called safe districts and spaces, taking no votes for granted.

Public Polling Encourages the Media to Focus on the Horse Race

I’ve written before (and it’s not an argument unique to me) how the media obsession with who is ahead and who is behind–the “horse race”–is bad for democracy.  Public polling encourages the media to make every story about how this or that development will hurt or help a candidate, and discourages the media from telling the electorate what ideas the candidate supports, and how those ideas will play out in government.  This unhealthy obsession with the political horse race means that we begin to assume that the only thing that matters is winning, and politics becomes a permanent campaign, with actual governing an afterthought.

Okay, Smart Guy, What Should We Do?

I think there are 2 actions we could take that would begin to undue the malign influence public polling has on our republic.  (Note that in this post I’ve been talking about public polling.  I see no problem with candidates and parties conducting polls for their own purposes, as long as they don’t make those polls public.  And, I can certainly see the value of exit-polling, because that kind of polling doesn’t influence elections results, but rather gives us more insight into the electorate.)

First, I think Americans should be encouraged to vote for the candidate we like most.  Rather than voting for whom seems most likely to win, or whom we dislike least, if we each began to vote our beliefs, our republic would be better served.

Second, I think we should consider legal and Constitutional limits on the publicizing of polling results before elections.  The First Amendment would seem to prohibit any restrictions on the press.  I believe strongly in the importance of a free press, but perhaps there might be narrow laws or even Constitutional amendments that could be passed that would appropriate.  (For example, the Supreme Court has ruled that the press does not have the right to publish child pornography.)  I’m not sure what the answer is here, but I think it’s at least worth exploring, and it might be the case that the Fourteenth Amendment (“equal protection of the laws”) could have some bearing on the issue.

Am I Missing Something?

I’m worried about the negative effects of public polling.  Am I missing something?  Is there a greater public good I’m overlooking?  Let me know what you think.

 

(If you’d like to read more on this issue, Jill Lepore had an interesting essay that looks at the historical development of opinion polls in the November 16, 2015 issue of The New Yorker called “Are Polls Ruining Democracy?”  She was also a guest on Fresh Air in February 2016.   The BBC explored the polling and whether it should be banned before elections here.)

 

 

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Brangelina

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are getting divorced.  Though I don’t know them, I’m grieved at the news: divorce is always painful, and the thought of their 6 children having to grow up without a mom and a dad in the same house makes me sad.  This news of yet another failed celebrity marriage has got me thinking.

 

Our Deepest Problems Are Spiritual Problems

Our deepest problems are spiritual problems.  If this were not the case, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie would not be getting divorced.  If our deepest problems were merely material problems, then money would solve our problems.  If money could solve our problems, then rich people would never get divorced.

Our culture is obsessed with material reality.  We’ve bought into the self-evident lie that the only reality that matters is that which we can see, taste, touch, and measure.  But, this belief is self-evidently false, because material solutions don’t actually fix our deepest problems.  Spiritual reality matters.  Our deepest problems are spiritual problems, and so they can’t be solved with material solutions.  Spiritual reality is just as real as material reality, but because we can’t see, taste, touch, and measure spiritual reality, our culture pretends it’s not real.

Unfortunately, the effects of spiritual brokenness are quite real, and these effects are all around us:

  • War is a result of spiritual brokenness;
  • Divorce is a result of spiritual brokenness;
  • Racism is a result of spiritual brokenness, etc.

Yes, these problems have material results, but the roots of these problems are spiritual.

Again, if our deepest problems were merely material in nature, then we could buy solutions to our problems.  This is the false god of wealth.  If our deepest problems were merely material, we could solve our deepest problems through technological invention.  This is the false god of progress.

If our deepest problems were merely material, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie wouldn’t be getting divorced.

 

What about you?  What is the spiritual brokenness in your heart producing in your life?

Anxiety?

Adultery?

Anger?

These come from our hearts, and their effects can be seen in the material world.  But, they can’t be fixed with material solutions.

This is the human predicament: our problems all have spiritual roots, and we can’t fix ourselves.

But…

This is the gospel: the God who is Spirit entered into material reality and fixed our Problem himself.

 

Do you understand?

 

 

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Dallas Cops: Freedom’s Martyrs

We live in a culture of overstatement in which the words “freedom,” “hero,” and “tragedy”–among other words–are overused to the point that they are almost meaningless, but I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that the five Dallas police officers murdered last Thursday are freedom’s martyrs.  Here’s why.

 

Martyr is a Greek word that means “witness.”  The early Christians used the word martyr to refer to those believers who refused to compromise their faith in the face of the hostile Roman Empire.  In their refusal to apostatize, they were witnesses to their belief that Jesus was Lord, and not Caesar, and they were witnesses to the power of sacrifice.  Rather then killing the church when they killed the Christians, the Romans found that the church actually grew when it was persecuted.  In fact, Tertullian, one of the early church fathers, famously said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

The Dallas police officers are martyrs–witnesses–because of the circumstance of their deaths, which, though I’ve had several days to think about it, still strikes me as extremely powerful.  The police officers who were killed were killed because they were protecting the protesters who were there to criticize the police.  When shots were fired, the officers ran toward danger, not away from it.  I think it’s fair to assume that most of the police officers in downtown Dallas last Thursday disagreed with the claims and conclusions of the Black Lives Matter activists, and yet they were there to ensure those activists’ right to peaceful protest.  The murdered police officers are freedom’s martyrs, because in their deaths they bear witness to the freedom so many of us take for granted, namely the freedoms specified in the First Amendment.

Tertullian thought that the deaths of the early Christian martyrs caused the church to grow stronger.  It remains to be seen if the deaths of the Dallas police officers will cause our society to do the same.  We could choose to use their deaths to further our own partisan purposes, in which case the murdered men will have become propaganda.  Or, their deaths could wake us up and cause us to dedicate ourselves to working towards a society worthy of their sacrifice and of the freedoms they died protecting.

Which will it be?

 

 

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A Brief Thought on Suffering

I woke up early Friday morning to the news that five Dallas police officers had been murdered, and I immediately started frantically texting the cops who are part of my church to see if they were safe.  When the first response came back–“I am here on the scene, but I am okay”–I was overwhelmed with gratitude. And then I felt guilty that I felt grateful, because the fact that my friends were safe necessarily meant that someone else’s weren’t.  But that’s the way it always is, isn’t it?  We are all so nearsighted when it comes to suffering.

[Dallas Police Chief David Brown (source: Mark Mulligan/Houston Chronicle via AP)]

Is God Tolerant?

Tolerance is not just what we need to live peaceably together in an increasingly diverse society (though that’s true): tolerance is much more important than that.  In fact, I think it’s fair to say that life itself depends on tolerance, as does the fate of the entire world.

 

False Tolerance

Tolerance is not, despite how the word is often employed, a vague sense that all beliefs and all religions are basically the same.  This is a false idea, and this is a false definition of tolerance.  In fact, it’s the exact opposite of what tolerance actually implies.

True Tolerance

Tolerance is about recognizing that all beliefs and all religions are not basically the same.  In fact, tolerance recognizes that many beliefs and religions are inherently contradictory, and no amount of hand-holding and attendance at diversity seminars will make inherently contradictory beliefs the same.

Rather, tolerance is about making space for irreconcilable differences.  Tolerance is not about agreement, but about tolerating viewpoints with which you vehemently disagree.

Limits of Tolerance

It should be said that the one thing that we cannot tolerate is violence (which is not the same thing as speech, however ugly and hateful that speech might be), because violence makes tolerance itself impossible.  But, with the exception of violence, tolerance makes room for all other actions and choices and beliefs.

A Theology of Tolerance

One of the main expressions of tolerance in the American Constitution is in our First Amendment: our right to religious freedom.   (The First Amendment literally says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”)  But religious freedom is not just a nice idea, codified into law.  Rather, religious freedom is a principle built on the bedrock of reality, because it’s a principle that is obviously true: all people are free to believe whatever they want to believe.  You cannot force anyone to believe anything.  God created us as completely free creatures, and we can use that freedom in whatever way we want.  We are even free to believe ugly things and free to act in ugly ways, free even to reject God himself.  And God permits this freedom.

God, you might say, is tolerant.

In fact, I think that the Lord is far more tolerant than I would be, were I in his place: I’d never have allowed that evil man to massacre all those people in that Orlando nightclub.

But then again, neither would I have so loved the world that I would have given my only son for the world, knowing that the world (which I created) would reject and kill him.  God’s tolerance, you might say, made the Crucifixion possible.

Which means God’s tolerance also made the Resurrection possible.

Which means that tolerance is part of God’s plan to save the world.

 

 

 

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My Friend’s Orlando Thoughts

I haven’t yet come up with anything interesting or helpful to say about the murders in Orlando, so I haven’t written anything.  But I read something my friend Jacob Sahms wrote that struck me, and I share it below.

 

Reading and hearing the responses to the violence in Orlando, I’m struck by the outrage – and the way fingers start pointing at anyone but ourselves. If we’re going to be the peacemakers who are called the children of God, then the solutions all start with us.

Do we talk and act peacefully? (Yes, that includes driving.) Do we recognize that we’re all children of God, even the people we don’t agree with/like? Do our dollars and our votes endorse peace? Do we teach our children peace and love for all? We can pray all we want for peace, but if we’re not part of being peace, then “thy kingdom come” isn’t actually something we’re part of.

Jacob Sahms

He’s totally right: “the way fingers start pointing at anyone but ourselves.”  Certainly true about me, and I don’t like it.

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace….

2 Brief Thoughts on Elections

Christians make two mistakes when it comes to elections.  Either we are triumphalist, thinking that because our candidate won, all will be well, or we are defeatist and despairing, thinking that because our candidate lost, all will be lost.  Both reactions are mistaken.

Elections Are Important

Don’t get me wrong–politics matters.  I voted yesterday, and I think it matters who is elected, from dog catcher to president, and I want our leaders to lead and our government to run well.  It matters whether the trains run on time and the roads are paved and the trash picked up.  But as important as all that is, politics is not ultimate, and political power is not most important.  There is something more important than politics, and therefore Christians shouldn’t make the mistake of believing that our hope depends on how the election returns come in.

But Political Power is Not *Most* Important

Faithfulness is more important than politics and election results.  David Watson is the Dean of United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, and he wrote a blog post yesterday about the temptation the church faces to value political power over faithfulness.  Professor Watson’s article is worth quoting from at length (though you should read the whole thing):

My fellow evangelicals, let me state this clearly: the “system” will never serve us, because the “system” is not of Christ. The “system” is a political machine beholden to special interests, lobbying groups, large corporations, financial contributors, and other entities, many of which are not the least bit concerned with anything remotely resembling Christian values. The idea that you can tear down the “system” and reshape it to serve you is, and always has been, a lie. It has been a lie since the time of Constantine. The “system” is about power, but Christ’s power is the power of the cross, and God’s power is made perfect in weakness. Christians must always stand outside the “system,” even when it is ostensibly Christian. As Christ taught us, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matthew 6:24). Christians willing to compromise core tenets of the faith in order to bend the political process to their will may win in the short term, but it will be a pyrrhic victory. In the end, they will lose far more than they gain. “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (Mark 8:36). It’s not worth it. It’s not even close….

His ending makes our choice clear:

Who will we follow? Will we follow Christ and rightly understand ourselves as a countercultural family of faith, or will we baptize an idol of crass materialism, place a crown on its head, and call it Jesus?

Good stuff.

 

 

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