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Under His Wings

(An Online Message for August 2, 2020, the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Psalm 91)

It was a blistering hot mid-summer day, not unlike a few we’ve experienced in New Hampshire and Maine this year. Luckily, however, my family and I were riding out that particular heat wave on the shore of a cool and crystal-clear pond at the foot of the White Mountains.  Granted, this was a public beach at a state park, and it was in the days before Covid-19 and social distancing, and so we were sharing the experience with a few hundred or so of our closest friends (!); but that was alright, because all that really mattered is that get in the water and beat the heat!

However, late in the afternoon and seemingly out of nowhere, there was this massive thunderstorm that hit with a vengeance.  The rain came down in sheets, the wind blew like crazy, there was thunder crashing and lightning flashing from every direction – and since the storm had come on so suddenly, everyone on that beach followed their first instinct, which was to find shelter and to get there fast!  However, the only real chance for that was the bathhouse, a very basic (and extremely small) structure at the edge of the beach. 

Well, you know the old saying, “any port in a storm!”  That was us, friends, and for the next half hour or so, we were up close and personal with just about everybody who’d been on the beach. Actually, it was quite interesting, in that the women and children were sent into the inner parts of the building – both sections, incidentally – where there were benches and it was dry.  The men, by contrast, being manly and protective men (!), were all huddled together in the entryway and along the eaves of the bathhouse – the wind and rain blowing the whole time and soaking us to the bone, prompting one of the men beside me to ask if this was what it was like for the men left on the deck of the Titanic! 

Now, don’t get me wrong – as the storm raged on we were all very glad for any kind of shelter; and the storm did pass eventually. But I must confess, I came away from the experience convinced that there are certainly some places of refuge much better than others!

The bottom line is that we all need refuge; as the old song goes, it’s a bare necessity of life!  And there are many forms of refuge: certainly, the kind of physical shelter that keeps us safe from the elements – our homes, our vehicles, even a bathhouse at White Lake State Park.  But there are places of emotional refuge as well, the places we go when our lives start to feel a bit stormy: a corner nook or an easy chair at home where you can really relax, or a private retreat somewhere in the woods. Or for that matter, maybe the refuge comes in the love of a caring family member or friend.  The point is, we all have those places of refuge in our lives that bring us rest, security and peace.

 But what happens in life when all the physical and emotional shelters we seek are nowhere to be found; or worse, when the ones we cling to have been denied us or taken away? Not to sound all foreboding here, but where’s our refuge then?

I think, for instance, of those whose homes have been destroyed by flood or tornado or some other natural disaster; in just about every sense, where do they find shelter from the storm?  And what kind of refuge is there for those who suddenly find themselves without financial resources, or who are reeling from the shock of a broken relationship, or have just gotten a horrible diagnosis from a doctor?  In other words, what kind of security really exists when the world we live in is forever shifting beneath our feet?  After all, as Richard Gelson writes, “we need to know what is left to us when we strip away – or have stripped away for us, voluntary or not – the varnish of all worldly vanities.”  What comes to us when everything and everybody else is gone – that’s the refuge that really matters.

And that, friends, is what the 91st Psalm is all about. In fact, everything in Psalm 91 is about the strength, the presence and the utter reassurance of God in the midst of life’s utter chaos!  This psalm is about spiritual shelter; about our living “in the shelter of the Most High,” and abiding “in the shelter of the Almighty,”

There is no lacking for powerful imagery in this psalm! We’ve got God as a “refuge and [our] fortress,”  and because of him we will not “fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day,” staying safe even amidst pestilence and destruction; that even though “a thousand may fall at [our] side, ten thousand at [our] right hand …it will not come near us,”  because God and his angels will be right there to guard us and protect us from any and all harm, bearing us up “so that [we] will not [even] dash our foot against a stone.”  It’s no wonder that long before we were singing “On Eagle’s Wings,” going back as far as biblical times, this psalm was actually sung as a worship song on the eve of battle, as a prayer for soldiers going to war.

Understand, this psalm is not saying that in the refuge of the Most High, nothing will ever happen to us – in whatever battles and storms we face, there are injuries and casualties; and much as we hope and pray otherwise, the reality of life is that sometimes we get hurt.  And it’s important to know that, especially where our faith is concerned: as a pastor, I have known people whose very faith in God proceeds under the assumption that they will be somehow always be miraculously and supernaturally protected from all the difficulties, struggles and pain of human life; but these are the same people who inevitably end up deeply disappointed and in a fractured relationship with God when the storms of life come …and they do come. 

This 91st Psalm is not the promise that everything will always be good in our lives – but it is the promise that all will be well with our souls.  It’s a reminder that of all the shelters we seek out in this world, the only true failsafe for hope comes to us from God.  In fact, it is in the very midst of the storms of life that sometimes even unbeknownst to us, God is there: holding us close and giving us refuge until the storm has past.

An article in National Geographic a few years back described the aftermath of a raging wildfire that had engulfed much of Yellowstone National Park.  On a trek up a mountain to access the fire’s damage, a ranger spotted a bird that had been literally petrified in ash – looking almost like a statue perched on the ground at the base of a tree.  The ranger, who was actually a little sickened by the sight of this dead bird, took a stick to knock it over – but when he struck it, three tiny chicks scurried out from beneath the dead mother’s wings.  You see, this mother bird, sensing impending disaster, had carried her babies to the base of that tree and gathered them under her wings to protect them, instinctively knowing that the smoke would rise and her chicks might survive the fire if she could keep them low and covered. 

Imagine; the mother bird could have flown to safety, but she refused to abandon her babies; and even when the heat of the fire had singed her body, the mother bird stayed steadfast.  Because of her willingness to die, those under the cover of her wings would live.

That’s how God is, friends!  That’s what the Psalmist was saying when he sang, “He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.”  Whatever the disaster, no matter the struggle and difficulty of life, we are surrounded by the strong and tender presence of a Heavenly Father who stays with us through every moment of the storm.  If I might quote another psalm, the 46th Psalm, “Therefore, we will not fear though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the seas …the Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” 

These are actually two psalms I’m fond of reading at funeral services, particularly when the occasion follows a sudden or tragic death.  That’s because when you and I find ourselves in a situation when our whole world seems to have crumbled at our feet with every one of life’s dangers are bearing down on us, we need to know that it’s the Lord who is our refuge; that it’s God alone who will see us through.

That’s the joy of this psalm, friends.  But, in all honesty, that’s the challenge of it, too.  I know that in reading these psalms, it’s hard sometimes for us to reconcile the promise of God’s protection with the terrible reality of life’s dangers; I mean, really, what does saying, “I will deliver you,” mean to the one who’s just lost everything in a tornado, or, for that matter, what does talking about how “no evil will befall you” say to the families of the victims of increasingly commonplace violence on our city streets?  We cannot ignore that there are things in this world and life that are truly “wicked,” and bad things do happen to good people… but the good news here is that even in the midst of these dangers, God’s promises are real; because if God is with us then that evil need not consume us.

The fact is, there are many storms in this life, and not just of the thunder and lightning variety.  There are storms borne out of life’s many unexpected and utterly uncertain challenges.  There are storms of illness, and transition, and grief.  There are storms that rise out of society’s relentless propensity for division and self-destruction.  And there are storms that have absolutely nothing to do with us… but nonetheless will seek to beat against us with everything they have. And we may well be scared and shaken, roughed up a bit or even a lot.  In the end, we may well be bruised and very sore.  But no matter how the storm rages we are safe, we are protected and we are loved because we are under His wings, these incredible pinions that have never folded, nor collapsed, nor abandoned us… that is ever and always good news, yours and mine.

So in all these storms of life, let us call out to the Lord; that he might truly “raise us up as on eagle’s wings.”

And may our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!      

© 2020  Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved.

 

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A Cup of Cold Water

(a sermon for June 27, 2020, the 4th Sunday After Pentecost, based on Matthew 10:40-42)

Her name was Peggy Grenier, and she was an elderly widow who lived in a log cabin up the road from us on the lake, and at the end of a wooded pathway; and for a period of time when I was very young, she was one of my very best friends.  Actually, Peggy was best friends with just about every one of the little kids who spent their summers on the lake, and as I think about it now, it’s a wonder she had a moment to herself, given all the children who used to come to visit her! 

We all loved to “go see Peggy,” and this was because by all indications, she loved to see us!  No matter what she was doing or how busy she was, the moment we turned up at her door, she’d stop everything to visit with us.  We’d tell Peggy all of our long, drawn-out stories, she’d laugh heartily at all our “little kid jokes,” and over cookies and cold glasses of lemonade we’d have these deep discussions about the great issues of our lives – school and friends and how much we hated social studies – but the thing was that all of this truly seemed to matter to Peggy!

What I remember the most about Peggy is that she really did listen to us, and what’s more, she talked to us like we were grown-ups, which at the age of six is quite a thing indeed!  I remember our parents saying to us, “Now, don’t you go up there and bother Peggy every day; she doesn’t need you kids hanging around all the time,” but we never really understood that because you see, Peggy never acted like we were a bother1 She always made us feel welcome, and all these years later I still remember how great that feeling was. And even though she’s long since passed on, other people live there now, and the log cabin itself has been completely remodeled, as far as I’m concerned, that place will always be “Peggy’s Camp.”

To feel welcomed – to be received, as scripture often translates it – is one of life’s great blessings, isn’t it?  I’m sure we can all name moments in which a simple act of hospitality made all the difference: someone inviting us to sit at their table and share a meal; inviting us to spend a holiday with them where otherwise we would have been alone; or has been the case for me recently, stopping by the house to bring a flower or a goodie bag or a simply a word of comfort.  It’s part and parcel of being a good neighbor, yes, and on a deeper level, it’s the act of affirming the great value of that person through a not-so-random act of kindness; but even more than this, spiritually speaking, it is seeing that person through the eyes of God.  It truly is as our reading today describes it, like giving that someone “a cup of cold water” on a hot and muggy day; it’s just that refreshing and life giving…

…and, might I add… an essential part of the Christian life; it is the manner of welcome to which you and I are called as disciples of Jesus Christ. As Jesus himself said it in our text for this morning, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and who every welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

It is worth noting here that these words of Jesus come right on the heels of those other rather disconcerting words from our text for last Sunday, all about how he’d come not “to bring peace but a sword,” about families being set against one another, and about losing one’s life to save it (and all of that, by the way, coming on the heels of Jesus’ dire warnings to the disciples about the inevitability of conflict and persecution). But then, just when any reasonable person might have run the other way, Jesus reminds the disciples of the great importance of the task before them; essentially saying that whenever someone receives them –  that is, whenever someone welcomes them into their homes, and into their “circle of trust” and admiration – they will be receiving Christ himself! Just as prophets and righteous believers are received on the basis of who they are, Jesus says, anyone who gives you even a cup of cold water because you’re my disciple is also welcoming me!  And when they are welcoming me, Jesus goes on to say, they are welcoming the God who sent me.

In these three short verses from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus reminds us of the vital role that his disciples will play in the building up of the Kingdom of God; understanding, of course, that this extends not only to the original twelve but to all who would seek to follow Christ, and that includes you and me.  As disciples, you see, you and I are in the truest sense ambassadors of Christ in the places where we dwell, emissaries of his kingdom.  So anyone who welcomes us into their circle is also welcoming Jesus; and what that means is that anything and everything we do as “guests” will reflect on the one we represent:  our demeanor around those who welcome us matters, as does our sense of graciousness for what we receive, and our ability to speak, act and respond with love befitting the example of our Lord.

Now, you might think that this is an obvious point (in fact, I hope so; I mean, what’s not to understand about what amounts to “loving one another?”), but in truth of fact, there are a great many people, and many “Christians” among them whose lives never quite approach that example; the kind of folks who by their behaviors give too much credence to those rumors about Christians being holier-than-thou, hyper-critical hypocrites!   My point here is that it’s important for you and I to remember that for better or worse, when every day we head out into the world we are carrying our faith along with us; and there are countless occasions throughout the week when what we say, what we do, the choices we make, the attitudes we show toward others – how we live (!) – cannot help but proclaim something about that faith, either positively or negatively.

Which message comes forth… well, that in large part is up to us. 

It actually puts me in mind of one of my favorite quotes from Frederick Buechner,  a passage from his book, Wishful Thinking.  “Who knows,” he wrote, “how the awareness of God’s love first hits people.  Every person has his own tale to tell, including the person who wouldn’t believe in God if you paid him.  Some moment happens in your life that you say Yes to right up to the roots of your hair, that makes it worth having been born just to have happen… how about the person you know who as far as you can possibly tell has never had such a moment… maybe for that person the moment that has to happen is you.”  The bottom line, friends, is that as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are his representatives.  We are in essence his heart, his hands, his feet, his arms of compassion; in receiving us, you see, the people we encounter can and do discover the love of Jesus Christ; that is both the word of encouragement and the word of challenge that our Lord offered to his disciples as they went out into a harsh and uncertain world.  “This is a large work I’ve called you into,” Jesus tells them in The Message version of this text, “but don’t be overwhelmed by it… the smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice. You won’t lose out on a thing.”

In other words, the “effectiveness,” if you will, of true discipleship is not to be measured by the greatness of what is accomplished, but in all the small things that are done greatly.  Just as something as simple as a card, or a call, or a visit shows us how much we’re loved and appreciated, when you and I offer up, as Jesus puts it, “even a cup of cold water to these little ones in the name of a disciple,” not only serves as an affirmation of faith and love and care to that one who was thirsty, it also shows forth the great and giving love of Jesus Christ and of the God who sent him.  And understand, when Jesus refers to “these little ones,” he’s not talking necessarily about children, but rather, he’s talking about anyone and everyone who has ever needed to be recognized and affirmed and valued and loved… or who simply need a drink of water. 

The point is that these are the ones to whom we are called to bring our faith and our love. and the best way we can reveal the reign of Christ in the world is for them to see Christ in us through merciful acts of love and kindness and grace that makes a difference in peoples’ lives. This, I believe, is what makes you and I authentically Christian, and it’s what makes us the church… yes, what makes us the church no matter where and how we meet.

Once again, it all seems so simple, so basic to the mission we share as believers; and yet I would dare say that in these days when people and groups have become so sharply and bitterly divided over so many issues – not to mention quite literally having to have our faces be covered and be physically distant from one another – that this call to bring forth true love and mercy represents one of the greatest challenges that the church faces in this day and age. 

For instance, I don’t know about you, but these days I’m something finding it very difficult to be able to express what I want to express while wearing a facemask!  This whole pandemic has made me realize just how much of ourselves we convey to others simply by the look on our face: the way we smile, or frown, or grimace, or share the abundance of our displeasure… or for that matter, our compassion.  I think I’ve shared with you the story of how I was in our local Hannaford the other day and another woman came barreling around a crowded corner and fairly well careened into my shopping cart.  It wasn’t a big deal – no harm done at all – but what was interesting was that because we were masked we literally stared at each other’s eyes for the longest moment because neither one of us could tell how the other was going to react to this little accident.  Was there going to be anger and heated words exchanged, or would we just laugh it off?  Based on just the masks we were wearing, there was no way to tell!  Frankly, it wasn’t until I made a stupid joke – in my official downeast dialect, mister man, which I’m sure comes as no surprise to you folks (!) – that she could tell I wasn’t upset and she could breathe a sigh of relief… and we both had a good laugh as a result.

It was, in its own unique way, a cup of cold water… and whether or not that woman knew it, a little bit of God was revealed.  And that was reward indeed.

Karen Mains has said it well: “When we give, having put away our pride, then Christ sanctifies the simple gift.  He makes it holy, useful.”  Friends, it may well seem to us like what we give is small and perhaps even insignificant in the wider scheme of things, to those who receive what we have to give it is anything but; and it’s certainly not insignificant to the Lord.  A cup of cold water matters; for what greater reward can there be than a not so random act of kindness resulting in someone encountering God, perhaps for the very first time?

There’s a lot of very thirsty people out there, friends… and we’ve got plenty of water.  

Thanks be to God.

AMEN and AMEN!

© 2020  Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved.

 

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A Fresh Capacity to Listen

   

(a sermon for May 31, 2020,  Pentecost Sunday, based on Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-21; a podcast version of this message can be heard HERE)

To quote a line from an old movie – Cool Hand Luke, I believe – “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate!”

Would you not agree that at the heart of many of our problems lay issues regarding communication, or perhaps more to the point, the lack thereof?  I know that as a pastor I’ve seen this countless times: when the core issue of some disagreement or conflict between couples, within families or even among church members (!) comes down to basic miscommunication and misunderstanding; you know, the old story of “I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize what you heard is not what I meant.” 

In truth, there is much that confounds our hearing and speaking and thus our understanding of one another: the tone of voice we use, our body language, the underlying emotion that shows forth the words we choose, not to mention our own preconceived notions of what’s being said to us!  All of this, and much more, contributes to an occasional failure to communicate; and when you combine this with the fact that we’re all different kinds of people who approach things in different kinds of ways, it’s no wonder that oftentimes it seems as though we’re speaking totally different languages!

 I remember years ago going with our youngest son Zachary and his 2nd grade class on a field trip to a nearby farm where maple syrup was being made.  Now this farm was owned and operated by this delightful older couple who’d been tapping trees on that land for years.  And when we get there the first thing that happens is that the wife leads us all down this wooded pathway to one of the big maples standing there and she shows the children how the sap is collected; she tells them about how native American children used to drink the sap like it was Kool-Aid; and then she pours some of the sap coming from that particular tree into paper cups so they could all taste it for themselves!  And I remember that the kids were enthralled by what she was teaching them. 

Well, from there we walk up to the sugar shack where her husband is waiting to tell us all about how the sap becomes maple syrup; and he proceeds to tell these 2nd grade children about the relative yield of syrup in relation to the sap collected, about the boiling point of sap and the type of firewood necessary to provide optimum and consistent heat, the different grades of syrup that gets produced, and even about the gauge of the stainless steel used in building the sap storage tanks!  The man went on and on with this litany of technical data relating to maple syrup production, even as the children’s eyes were glazing over!  In fact, I’ll never forget it; when it was finally done, and the man asked if there were any questions, one little boy just raised his hand and said, “You know, that’s a really big fire in there.”

Now I know he meant well, but that man might as well have been speaking Greek to those kids: they just didn’t understand!  It goes to show how easily it can happen that we fail to understand what’s being said to us and moreover, how it is that so often, we fail to be understood; and it’s how a lack of proper communication can so often make or break any semblance of community we might possibly have together!

But it’s especially true, I think, as regards the church.  Trust me here; after a lifetime spent in the church and nearly 40 years in pastoral ministry I can readily affirm that given all the diversity of thought and emotion and experience that exists amongst God’s people, it’s a wonder we even understand each other, much less have the kind of unity we seek!  The question is, how can we truly be a community of faith if we don’t communicate with each other, and how are we to communicate with each other if we can’t hear and understand each other?

That’s why it’s good news indeed that God has given us that which we need to understand; what Walter Bruggemann refers to as “a fresh capacity to listen,” that is, a new ability to truly hear and to respond.  It comes in God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, the miracle of Pentecost, that day which Bruggemann describes as “a veritable festival of listening,” involving people from the four corners of the world and every walk of life, each of whom hear in a clear and unalloyed fashion the good news of God’s love.

What’s interesting about our two texts for this morning is that they pretty much serve as mirror images of each other; the same story but with opposite conclusions.  First, there’s the story of the Tower of Babel from Genesis, in which human arrogance and sin leads to a judgment of separation and confusion.  Simply put, “in the beginning” God had given his people a common sense of understanding and the ability to speak the same language; it was ever and always God’s intent, you see, that we truly understand one another and that our lives be built from that understanding.  But when those same people became wholly attuned to the sound of their own voices rather than to listening to each other and most especially to God (as evidenced by the building of “a tower with its top in the heavens,” which was built solely as a monument to themselves), God rightly determined that this “speaking the same language” thing could never end well.  And so God “confuse[d] their language… so that they [would] not understand one another’s speech,” and then divided and scattered the people “over the face of the earth,” making it all the more difficult to understand and be understood! So what we have here is the judgment of God upon our own human tendency toward self-centeredness, isolation and alienation!

But then, in the Book of Acts we have God’s reversal of that judgment, when the Holy Spirit comes down from heaven with “a sound like the rush of a mighty wind,” through the streets of Jerusalem that were filled with “devout Jews from every nation under heaven,”  all speaking all their varied languages unknown to each other.  Except that now, by this miracle of the Holy Spirit, they heard… and they understood.  All of them – no matter their background or experience or prejudice – had that “fresh capacity to listen” to the good news told by the disciples, to hear “in [their] own native language… about God’s deeds of power;” about God’s intention that his Spirit be poured upon all flesh.  It was truly a miraculous day and a vibrant new beginning for God’s people!

One of the central gifts of the Holy Spirit is that because it is the real and living presence of God – one part of that “blessed Trinity” of Father, Son and Holy Spirit – it enables us to truly hear and understand God’s Word with a spiritual clarity unlike ever before; I dare say that in many ways, it is that “fresh capacity to listen” that makes us the church, in that we are called together to attune our ears and our hearts to that Word.  But what I want to tell you this morning is that there’s another part of that gift, one that we don’t always recognize: that in hearing and understanding God, by extension the Spirit also enables us to hear each other more clearly. 

Maybe you’ve heard of the concept of “active listening.” It’s an essential component of all manner of caregiving, and what it means is that if we are truly listening to someone, then we need more than just our ears; it takes careful and special effort to be attentive and sensitive to the person speaking.  In other words, active listening requires a “third ear;” one that listens with love in order to sense what’s really going on with that person; to go beyond the words spoken to get to the heart of what’s being said!  To put this another way, and I suspect that most of us can vouch for this, when somebody truly listens to us, not just with the ears but with the heart, we are given a message that we matter; that we’re not alone in whatever it is we’re facing; and that we’re loved.

That’s what the Holy Spirit gives us; that third ear, that fresh capacity and great ability to listen to those around us with love. For you see, as our hearts are opened to hear God’s voice through his Spirit, we begin to listen to each other with a spiritual sensitivity; we begin to understand the language of the heart; a language much deeper than words as it proclaims the truth of the gospel even as we show forth our love for one another.

Friends, how many times in our relationships with each other have we come away from some kind of conversation or conflict thinking that we’ve totally understood each other, when in fact we’ve actually only heard a small part of what’s been said; for that matter, how often does it happen that we’ve heard only what we want to hear and little more? How often have we been guilty of “turning a deaf ear” to those who stand in the need of love and healing, even and especially those who are the closest to us? And why is it that all too often we’re far more set on what we think we have to say than what we need to listen to? It’s a “failure to communicate” that leads to that which is much worse; and let me just say here that if this is damaging for us as family members, friends or loved ones, how much more devasting is it when such behavior becomes a catalyst for hatred and violence in this world, as we are witnessing right now!

This is not what God intends, beloved, for our language or for our lives; but the good news in our texts for this morning is that God has never been content to allow us to “babble” on without any understanding.  God sends us his own Holy Spirit so that we might truly listen with understanding, and respond in love.

On the day of Pentecost, the people of God were made to truly hear and understand as “the Spirit gave them ability,” and in doing so became the church of Jesus Christ.  And today, in this time and place, you and I continue to be the Church as we seek to be attentive to that same Spirit in our lives: actively listening for the many and creative ways we can reach out in love and ease one another’s burdens, striving to dwell in unity and with true justice as we go about the work of God’s kingdom; on earth as it is in heaven!

But friends, our actually being the Church and living as true Christian disciples… all this starts with listening for, and then listening to the voice of the Spirit.  And the beauty part is that despite all the other noise in this world that threatens to block it out God has given us all that we need – our ears and our hearts – for us to truly hear and understand what matters. 

But, beloved, first we need to be attentive.  For who knows what the voice of the Spirit will be saying next; or for that matter, what might the Spirit is saying to us right now?

Let us be listening for, and then listening to that Spirit, beloved… and as we do, may our thanks be to God!

    AMEN and AMEN!

© 2020  Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved.

 

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