Telling the Stories that Matter: August 22 – Anne Hutchinson, Teacher, Dissident

Anne Hutchinson was born Anne Marbury to a family that was well known for its dissent and disagreement. Her father had been jailed and persecuted for his dissent with ecclesiastic officials in England. He had insisted that so many of them were unprepared, untrained, and incompetent. For this, he suffered. In this, he taught his daughter the value of dissent and the likely outcome. Though, it would seem that Anne needed little help finding room for dissent and challenging the Church to be what it is called to be instead of what it is comfortable being.

Surely, she thought back to her father’s punishment as she stood in the courtroom in Massachusetts undergoing trial for dissenting from the popular opinion of the Puritan officials. Anne had taken to teaching bible studies in her home. She started by inviting her female neighbors and friends but there was something very different about Anne’s approach to the scripture. She wasn’t teaching the same interpretations that the Puritan preachers repeated in the pulpit. She welcomed questions and confusion and did not label them as marks of a lack of faith. Instead, she encouraged the participants to question things like the enslavement of the native peoples and the subordination of women.

She spoke and taught as a minister and authority on the scripture and Christian teaching. She invited the listeners to imagine a radically equal and welcoming Church. She suggested, upon occasion, that the clergy were inappropriately expressing their authority by confining and repressing her brothers and sisters. She suggested that the clergy were using moral and legal codes to insure their own place of power and influence by stripping others of their capacity for action and thought. This would, eventually, cause her great suffering but not before it started to catch among the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Eventually, her home bible-studies were full and being attended by men in addition to women. She had to move the meeting into the local church because her home could no longer accommodate the large crowds. The clergy opposed her teachings under the pretense that she wasn’t qualified to teach and might misinform them but this pretense gave way when they realized that their power over the people was waning and they were choosing to listen to Anne, anyway. They decried her teaching because of her sex and she responded from scripture that her actions were acceptable and in line with orthodox teaching. They were losing their power over those whom they drew it from and they began to get nervous. As is the case with most who oppose the status quo in favor of divine calling, she was attacked and vilified by the powers-that-be.

Governor Vane–one of Anne’s supporters–lost his position to John Winthrop who had Anne arrested, charged, and tried. They resented that she was teaching that women were equal with men and worth equal treatment and consideration. They suggested that she was inciting rebellion and sedition. Further, they were enraged that she would criticize the clergy–the professional religious–even though she was a woman. They forced her–even though she was pregnant–to stand for days and answer the interrogations and accusations of the male board. She responded to all of their charges and accusations and stood firm in her right to say and do what she had done. She is quoted as saying to them, “You have no power over my body, neither can you do me any harm. I fear none but the great Jehovah, which hath foretold me of these things, and I do verily believe that he will deliver me out of your hands…” In desperation, they found her guilty and banished her from the colony “as being a woman not fit for our society.” They were correct but it was by far more of a charge against their society than it was against Anne. Before her exile, she was made to suffer the indignity of a religious trial on the basis of a charge of blasphemy. Further, they felt it was inappropriate that she had allowed men to be present at her house studies and she was also condemned for this. Of these charges, she was also found guilty and excommunicated from the Puritan communion.

Before she was exiled, many of her followers (including Roger Williams) voluntarily left the colony and started a new one in Rhode Island. Due to the abuses of the Puritan judges and officials, Anne suffered a miscarriage. Regrettably, she was mocked for this and informed that this was the judgment of God upon her for her sins. A follower of hers suffered the same fate. She was exiled and found a home with her husband and followers in Rhode Island where she helped lead and manage the colony for many years before her death at the hands of Native Americans while traveling.

In many ways, Anne’s life was proof that dissenting from the powers-that-be can cause suffering and persecution but, yet, it is still worth doing when the powers cannot see the Kingdom. Anne taught Christian doctrine freely and without regard for how it would be received by those who stood against her. Anne dared to profess the radical notion of the dignity and equality of women against a people who stood to gain by repressing women. Consequently, she was crushed in the gears of a system made for maintaining power for those who have it. But in being crushed, she bore a powerful witness to the sin and corruption within the system.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: August 18 – Emygdius, Martyr, Healer, Pagan Convert

Emygdius was born to a family of non-Christians in the third century. He was born in Trier in what would eventually be known as Germany. His noble family scorned him when he converted to Christianity at the age of twenty-three but he was not deterred from his faith. Instead, he hoped to win them as he had been won. Whether they turned him out or simply continued to refuse him, eventually Emygdius found some other place to live and joined with three other Christians who felt a burning desire to share their faith in Rome. Knowing Rome to be a dangerous place for a Christian–especially one with a steadfast love for its citizens–they went aware that they may be walking to their own death.Their love compelled them go when their reason bid otherwise.

After arriving in Rome, he was taken in by a wealthy man by the name of Gratianus. Gratianus had a paralyzed daughter and Emygdius was moved in compassion for her and her devoted father. In his compassion, he prayed for and cured her. Gratianus and his family soon converted and Emygdius’ fiery ministry of healing and evangelism had started in a powerful way.

Soon thereafter, Emygdius prayed for and cured a blind man in the streets of Rome. This miracle gathered the attention of the crowds. They had seen this new man–Emygdius–make the sign of a cross across the face and eyes of a local blind beggar and, then, seen that the blind man was no longer blind. They must have wondered how he did it. He had made the sign of that group–those Christians–and the man’s eyes had gained that which they had never had.He had made the sign of the Empire’s great torture but, apparently, he was taking this sign as a holy thing. In their amazement, they picked him up and carried him to the temple of Aesculapius crying out, “This one is the son of a god! Let’s take him to the temple where he belongs!”

Setting him down, they stared at him in anticipation of the great works he would do now that he was in a temple and being adored. Afraid to blink in case they missed it, they stared at him in rapt attention. Looking around Emygdius noticed that there were hundreds of sick people praying to idols for healing. He offered a simple and quiet prayer on their behalf and many were healed at that moment. The crowd gasped and prepared to worship him when Emygdius stopped them and proclaimed, “I am a follower of Jesus–whom you have crucified–and a Christian.” As the crowd gazed in shock, Emygdius tipped over and shattered the idols in the temple. In a flourish, he pushed over the great statue of Aesculapius demonstrating the superiority of the Crucified King over dead idols. For Emygdius, there was no hope in religious observation and adoration–rather, there was only hope in pursuit of and trust in Jesus. Many were converted to the Gospel of love for enemies and forgiveness for all that day in that temple to other gods.

Eventually, Emygdius ended up in Ascoli Piceno where the local governor–Polymius–demanded an audience with him. Polymius had heard the stories of Emygdius’ healing and evangelistic efforts. He knew how the people responded to this loving and compassionate man. He sensed that Emygdius was the name on the lips of Ascoli Piceno. He wanted Emygdius to join with him and, thereby, to gather the allegiance of the people behind him. He hoped that Emygdius could be convinced and seduced by Imperial offerings of power and glory because he had heard that many Christians could not be converted by force. He offered power to Emygdius but Emygdius refused it insisting that it was not real. He offered power and influence if only Emygdius would worship at the statue of Jupiter. Emygdius refused. He offered his beautiful daughter’s hand in marriage along with the power and influence and left them alone hoping that Emygdius’ desire for the beautiful woman would win him over. Instead, Emygdius shared the message of Christian hope and faith with her and converted her. As Polymius returned to find the two, Emygdius was baptizing his daughter. Enraged, Polymius had Emygdius decapitated.

For Emygdius, the sweet seduction of power and influence was of no interest because it was not real–the promises of power were vain illusions and delusions. Emygdius had seen through the Imperial lie of power and happiness and, instead, knew that true power was found in submission and sacrifice. He had sworn allegiance to the slaughtered lamb instead of the rampaging lion and this allegiance held him regardless of even the greatest threats.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: August 10 – St. Laurence, Martyr, Deacon, Keeper of the Church’s Wealth

Laurence was a deacon in Rome during the 3rd century. Like so many 3rd century Roman Christians, he faced innumerable pressures from the Roman Empire and the expectations of the imperial mindset. Also like many 3rd century Roman Christians, he faced down death because of refusal to cooperate with the imperial lies and deceptions. In the case of Laurence, it was the persecutions executed by Valerian that would result in his eventual death. Valerian, like other emperors, disenfranchised and exiled powerful Christians in the Senate and murdered priests, deacons, bishops, and powerless Christians. Laurence, indeed, was well accompanied in his death and died a faithful follower along with his other brothers and sisters in the faith.

As a deacon, he was a leader within the early Church and intensely connected with the lives of many other Christians. He helped officiate the services of the early Church and offered hospitality and compassion to countless needy individuals and families. As an officiant and leader in Rome, he was well-acquainted with Pope St. Sixtus II. Valerian had Sixtus seized and ordered his execution. This surely had a significant impact on Laurence. As Sixtus walked to his death and martyrdom, Laurence met him and asked him: ” Father, where are you going without your son? Holy priest,where are you hurrying off to without your deacon? You never mounted the altar of sacrifice without your servant, before, and you wish to do it now?” Sixtus looked at his dead friend and took a moment from his own walk to death and glory and remarked to Laurence, “Soon, you will follow me.” Sixtus wasn’t wrong.

Only a couple of days later, the Roman prefect demanded the wealth of Laurence’s church. Since there was great persecution, the prefect was astute enough to know when he could take advantage of the disenfranchised to pad his own pocket. Laurence asked for three days to gather it together for the prefect and, perhaps thinking it was gracious, the prefect granted the time. Laurence quickly distributed the wealth of his congregation to the poor, sick, needy, and crippled people in the community. He took the wealth intended to provide for the needy and gave it over into the hands of the needy. After three full days of pouring himself out, Laurence lead a group of needy people to the prefect. When the wealth of the Church was demanded, Laurence spread his arms wide and indicated the needy people around him. He stared into the eyes of the prefect and said, “You want the wealth of the Church? Here they are.” Looking into the eyes of imperial Rome, Laurence insisted that these poor and oppressed people that Rome placed no value on were, in fact, valuable and worthy of love and devotion. Seeing the shock and rage upon the face of the prefect, and knowing that he had likely signed his own death warrant, Laurence continued: “Yes, prefect, the Church is rich, indeed. Far richer than the Empire.”

His death was ordered. He was seized and beaten. Finally, he was chained to a metal gridiron. He was given a chance to deny his faith but he refused. He had been baptized into death of self and remained comfortable with his commitments even if it infuriated the Empire that didn’t get it (it never does). They lowered the gridiron over the fire and began to grill Laurence. They hoped to prolong Laurence’s pain and suffering. They hoped to demonstrate the power of the Empire over the death and destruction of the body.They reveled in the power of fear over the minds of people. Yet, Laurence had already demonstrated the failure of the Empire to ever change or heal even one person. It was, instead, the love that Laurence offered and the Church taught that was, truly, transformational. He died on the gridiron but not before calling out to his executioners: “This side is already done and if you want me cooked just right you better turn me over.” In his death, as in his life, Laurence offered a mockery of the values and methods of the Empire and the world. For Laurence, as for the rest of us, the only hope for life and change dwelt in a God who was love, a Lord who was a lamb, a Spirit who dwelt in the hearts of people, and a death that brought life.

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The Wheels on the Bus

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The van was filled to capacity as we waited at the stoplight on the intersection of South Ridge St and Patton St. It’s a long light before you can turn left down Patton to make the trek up North Main hill, so I had a little bit of time to find a good station on the van’s radio. Each month, we borrow the van from one of our partner congregations to give rides to and from the big meal we host with another partner congregation. While people are often subdued and quietly thankful on their way to the meal, they are more likely to sing and joke on their way home—they are also more likely to want to have the radio turned on. While before the meal the van is a borrowed vehicle, after the meal it has often transformed into a rolling extension of the meal and God’s jubilee. Those who needed the sustenance of the meal join with those who needed the fellowship of the meal until it’s hard to tell the difference between them. Of course, there never was really a difference: they’re both hungry.

As we settled on a popular radio station, we were just in time for a song that is guaranteed to get stuck in your head for hours (if not days!) at a time. “My blood runs cold. My memory has just been sold…” the radio proclaimed as I turned down Patton St toward the river. Before I could reach up to change the radio station or turn the radio off—even road noise would be preferable to J Geils Band—I noticed that there were several other songs already being sung in the van. In hope that they might have something better to sing, I listened.

As we passed over the bridge under which one of the riders of the bus—one of our brothers and friends—had once taken shelter, I could hear him softly repeating the refrain of a favorite song: “In the name of the Lord,” he sang as he passed over the place where he had once found meager shelter. He had been living there when we first met him and he first started eating with us. Eventually, he moved up to the Northside to a place of his own choosing, where he provided a measure of hospitality to those in direr need—he didn’t have much, but what he had, he shared. Still thankful for how God was moving in his life, his quiet, repeated chorus sounded to me like one of fledgling hope finding root in community.

Passing the elementary school on North Main St where so many of our younger brothers and sisters had once attended, I noticed the crowd of children singing, “The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round…” Their school had been shut down when the city made budget cuts and many of them were now bussed to a different city school. Though their little school had once had a greater than 93% free and reduced lunch rate, it had been one of the highest performing schools in the city. Its students, in the middle of one of the largest food deserts in the city, had outperformed the meager expectations of those who didn’t know their powerful potential with the help and guidance of loving teachers and administrators. But, their school was older and smaller in a city with fewer and fewer students, so it was closed. As several of the parents joined their song, I thought about how some of them were still succeeding, but others were falling behind. I wondered if they sang that song when they didn’t have to ride the bus to get to school; I wondered if there were any better solutions. Yet, in that moment, their song sounded defiantly joyful.

As we drew closer to our stop on North Main, we passed a side street where a number of our dearest friends have struggled with their own sobriety. A particular house on that street was a perpetual source of slavery for our friends who struggled against addictions. It was near that street that I heard Evan singing, “Shut the door, keep out the devil, shut the door, keep the devil in the night” with a voice so insistent that I nearly reached for the door handle. Evan had baked and brought two pies that night: a lemon meringue pie that everyone raves over and a chocolate pie that is his personal favorite. He was very pleased to carry back empty pie tins to his tiny home where he keeps meticulous watch over a little, but constantly expanding, garden. That night, in addition to his very popular pies, he had also brought with him a 1-month-keychain from Narcotics Anonymous for which he was equally proud. His catchy chorus was joined by another sister who shared his struggles, but who had recently relapsed. In her mouth, the song sounded less insistent and more pleading.

As the last chords of “Centerfold” faded from the radio, I gave thanks for the other songs being offered in the van and the voices that lifted them up quietly or boisterously. A part of our commitment to living life in community and to the practices of hospitality, simplicity, prayer, and relationship has meant learning new songs and how to sing them—not just the songs we sing at prayer and on porches, but also the songs that the neighborhood sings in its heart; the stories it tells to those who will pay attention. If we cultivate the ears to hear, and the eyes to see, we find that the siren song of our world and its temptations ends up sounding like a forgettable, synthesizer heavy, 80s new wave hit. That is to say, cheap and inauthentic when compared to the vibrant songs we learn to sing of God’s goodness from those who’ve experienced it profoundly. We’ve got to sing better songs, and if we don’t know any, then let’s borrow a song from somebody who does—in hopes that they might have a better song to sing, let’s listen.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: July 27 – Panteleimon, Martyr, Physician, Opponent of Death

Pantaleon (meaning “like a lion in all things”) was born to a non-Christian father and Christian mother in Nicomedia in 275 CE. His mother repeatedly shared the Christian faith and way with him throughout his childhood but he fell away from his mother’s beliefs and never claimed them as his own. His academic pursuits and able intellect led him to study medicine. His skill in the field was apparent from the beginning and his practice gained attention from many people–including the emperor Maximian. It was, in fact, as a physician that he was first reached by the convicting faith of his mother. Hermolaus, a physician himself, appealed to him arguing that Jesus was “the great physician” and, therefore, worthy of emulation and great consideration.

Hermolaus connected the life and viewpoint of Pantaleon to that of his childhood and his mother’s teachings. For Pantaleon, this resulted not only in the changing of his name to Panteleimon (meaning “mercy for everyone”) but, also, the changing of his approach to medicine. By bridging the gap between Panteleimon’s childhood and his identity,Hermolaus unleashed a great healer upon not only the persecuted Christians but, also, the sick and suffering. Panteleimon truly did offer mercy for anyone and everyone. Though he was employed by Maximian he offered healing and mercy even to the poorest of the poor.

Eventually, he was denounced to the authorities and charged with being a Christian. Given Panteleimon’s incredible reputation as a healer and worker of good, the emperor Maximian hoped to convince Panteleimon to renounce his faith and become an apostate–a well-rewarded and highly-regarded apostate. Panteleimon refused to deny the faith he once had cast aside and, instead, he confessed it boldly regardless of what he stood to lose in doing so.

Further, he challenged the imperial delusions to a test. He challenged Maximian’s best doctors to a challenge: there was a certain paralytic who was considered unable to be healed–Panteleimon invited this man in and gave the doctors sufficient time to try all that they knew to heal the man’s paralysis. Though they were esteemed in imperial eyes, the doctors failed. Panteleimon offered prayer and requested healing and the man stood up free from paralysis. Perhaps Panteleimon expected to be released or to convert Maximian but this was not to be as hatred and shame had filled the heart of Maximian. Maximian–so lost in imperial delusions and unable truly to see life–labeled this healing as trickery and sorcery. He had the healed paralytic executed in a show of savage domination and power.

As punishment for healing the paralytic and being a Christian, Maximian brought some of Panteleimon’s friends–including Hermolaus–before himself and threatened them with beheading if Panteleimon would not renounce his faith. These men were martyred as Panteleimon stood strong and proclaimed that there is more to life than a heartbeat and more to death than a grave. In doing this, Maximian made a statement about life and death and made the point that the empire’s power was death and the control of it. However, even as he condemned Panteleimon–instrument of life and mercy to so many and his own personal physician–to death, his power of death could not restrain the power of life held by the God of Panteleimon.

In anger and desperation for power, Maximian ordered Panteleimon beheaded to make his point concerning death and power. As Panteleimon prayed, the blade failed to cut his neck. As he finished his prayer, Panteleimon heard a voice from heaven calling him home and he lovingly permitted the soldiers to execute him. Having shown the power of life over death and God over the empire, Panteleimon was beheaded and martyred as a servant of life and opponent of the power of death in the year 303.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: July 24 – John Newton, Ex-Slaver and Lost Cause

John Newton was born on July 24th, 1725, to a family of affluence that had grown rich on the backs of slaves. Though his mother died young from tuberculosis, it was his father’s desire that John should become a slave master in the family business on a sugar plantation. Before this could occur, however, John was pressed into service to the empire as a naval officer. For whatever reason, John tried to desert and was punished severely: 96 lashes, humiliation in front of the whole crew, and demotion to the status of servant. John’s well-planned life that had been formed quickly by the desires of his father and the values of imperial England was falling down around him.

His pain turned him to thought of suicide but he refrained from a quick d
eath and tried to throw himself into a dark abyss one choice at a time instead. He requested to be transferred to a slave ship and made a servant of a slaver. His self-imposed punishment and exile was ended, however, when his father sent a crew to recover him. On his way back to England aboard the Greyhound, a terrible storm descended upon them. John had only just changed places with another man when the man was swept overboard and drowned. Having read Thomas a Kempis’Imitation of Christ and in a great panic John prayed to God in desperation for grace and protection. After the terrible storm had passed, that night, he began reading the scriptures and feelings the beginning of his conversion. Whereas the promises and plans of the world had failed him and left him empty, the promises and plans of God began a process of conversion.

He would, eventually, become an Anglican priest—though not until June 17th, 1764—and experience God’s grace and formation as he continued the process of conversion from who he was into what God was making him into. Throughout John Newton’s story it is evident that his conversion was a slow and steady process that involved the persistent formation and repair of all that was broken about him. In fact, it was only after years of being a priest and continuing in relationship and conversation with other Christians that John eventually renounced the slavery that he had grown up under.

Some have criticized John Newton for dwelling in sin even as he claimed the mantle of Christian.Charges of hypocrisy are not unheard when telling the story of John Newton. Even though John later regretted his commitment to the slavery he had engaged in and supported, it cannot be simply overlooked. Yet, it only serves to strengthen the power of his story: conversion is a process that takes time whereby we are made more into the image God has for us. Though John’s continued support of slavery is distasteful for us, it must be remembered that unlike many people who struggled with the issue he did renounce it–better late than never. Also, it makes the story more real and more honest because it so closely resembles the struggles of all Christians in the process of conversion away from the world’s image and into God’s image. Perhaps this is why so many Christians have connected with his hymn “Faith’s review and expectation”—you might know it as “Amazing Grace.” Perhaps, it is that Christians can sing along with John Newton confidently:

Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: July 16 – The Carmelite Martyrs of Compiegne

Constance was only one of the sixteen women who were now facing their own imminent deaths at the hands of those who were the self-proclaimed enlightened minds of a new world order. Yet, she was the youngest and least experienced of all of the women. Constance was still in her novitiate with the Carmelite order when they had been arrested and dragged before a judge to answer charges of treason, espionage, and fanaticism.Thus, Constance was distressed that she would face death without having ever professed her vows as a nun. However, the prioress of the community–Teresa–invited Constance to profess her vows with the community as the older and more experienced women reconsecrated themselves in service to God at the foot of the guillotine. Having finally become a full member of that sacred community, Constance was more than willing to ascend the steps to the revolution’s enlightened butchery, but first she knelt before her prioress and asked for permission to go and die as a martyr for their common Lord Jesus.When Teresa granted her permission, Constance stood quickly and walked confidently up the stairs while singing the hymn “Laudate Dominum omnes gentes”–“All peoples praise the Lord.” Fifteen other voices joined with her as Constance set her own neck in the path of the suspended blade but the rest of the crowd remained deathly silent. Once the blade had fallen and made Constance a martyr, there were only fifteen voices left to sing the hymn.

The women had once lived peaceful lives in a cloistered community of service and devotion. They fed the poor, treated the sick, and offered love to their enemies. But, in 1792 there had been a revolution in France that overthrew the absolute monarchy and aristocracy that strongly favored Roman Catholic clergy and monastics. In the aftermath of that upheaval, the new leaders had favored a viciously anti-religious government that discounted all expressions of faith regardless of their goodness or peacefulness. They ruled by more modern ideas and according to the teachings of those thinkers we call members of “the Enlightenment.”The nuns of Compiegne had not fought against the revolutionaries and had, in fact, helped to reduce oppression upon the poor and hurting but in the aftermath of the revolution their vows of allegiance to Jesus Christ meant that they were targets for elimination. At first, they were simply outlawed but they continued to meet in secret in spite of the commands of the new government. Eventually, they were arrested and tried. In accordance with the demands of Robespierre, their trial and sentencing happened in less than twenty-four hours. The charges were trumped up and they were eventually found guilty of the catch-all crime for those the revolutionaries detested: “fanaticism.”

As each woman climbed the steps that led to her death and martyrdom there was one less voice singing the hymns that sustained them and spoke beautifully of the faith that motivated their actions. The crowd remained silent as they watched each woman approach their death with courage and forgive their executioners. Their song became a trio and then a duet but it had lost none of its passion. Finally, it was a solo performance by Teresa, the prioress of a community of martyrs. Teresa ascended the stairs and followed in the footsteps of Constance and all the other faithful women who had died in the last few hours. She continued the song they had shared. When Teresa finished the song, she offered forgiveness to the executioner and surrendered her neck to the guillotine with a quiet prayer. The lever was pulled and the blade, having not grown tired of carnage, rushed to kill Teresa and reunite her with her sisters in the presence of God.With the death of the last nun, the crowd remained silent and began to leave that place with doubts in their mind–who would claim such savagery as enlightened when it was covered over in the blood of sixteen innocent and loving women? As they left the place, one of the crowd observed, “Look at them and see if they do not have the air of angels! By my faith, if these women did not all go straight to Paradise, then no one is there!” As the crowd left, perhaps some went away humming the hymn the women had sung and left behind for the crowd as an inheritance of a Kingdom-not-of-this-world.

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