Our Faith Is Not Built On Our Feeling It

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the Third Sunday of Lent [C] (Isaiah 55.1-9, Psalm 63.1-8, 1 Corinthians 10.1-13, Luke 13.1-9). Drew is one of the associate pastors at St. Stephen’s UMC in Burke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the need to rest, true satisfaction, the brief efficacy of idols, resident theologians, the gift of the Psalms, thinking about God in bed, the two types of people in the world, The Rock, and Christ becoming manure. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Our Faith Is Not Built On Our Feeling It

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For The Love Of God

Luke 13.31-35

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting our demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

On Friday afternoon, a man parked his car in front of a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. He calmly walked into the building while the community was in the midst of prayer, and he pulled out a gun. However, right before he began firing the first victim’s final words were spoken aloud, “Hello brother.”

By the time the extraordinarily unprecedented acts of violence came to an end, 49 people were dead, and another 48 were in the hospital being treated for injuries. Some of whom were young children.

New Zealand’s Police commissioner spoke on television during an evening news conference that night to share the horrific news with the country and he urged everyone to avoid mosques and encouraged all mosques in the country to close their doors until they heard from the police.

New Zealand Mosque Shooting

What a horrifically horrible thing to take place. The reverberations of such were felt across the world as mosques here in the US had extra security for their Friday and weekend services. 

Sadly, many of them already have to have security for their worship services.

Can you imagine what it would be like if we were told that this place, our house of worship, was off limits because of violence? Can you imagine how it would feel in the pits of stomachs if we were told to avoid churches because they were no longer safe?

And yet, we don’t have to imagine what that is like.

Whether it’s a church, or a synagogue, or a mosque, we know what violence can do to places of worship.

Charleston.

Pittsburgh.

Sutherland Springs.

And those are just the places in the last few years.

Here we are, in worship, on the second Sunday of Lent – the season of repentance and introspection. In scripture we confront the tones of abject disappointment from the Messiah as the cross get sharper and sharper on the horizon. 

Jesus, it seems, has grown frustrated with God’s people refusing to hear and heed the summons to come home. 

Jesus, it seems, doesn’t have much time for the ruler of the people because he has better things to do. 

Jesus, it seems, sees few alternatives left other than the one that we adorn our sanctuaries with.

Are we surprised that as Jesus’ ministry progresses, his frustrations increases just as the obstacles standing in his way increase?

The political and religious establishments are threatened by this poor rabbi and his message of the new kingdom. Can we blame them? They know what it means to be in the places of prestige and power and then this wandering Jew shows up with his ragtag group of followers with talk of the meek inheriting the earth.

Which makes this passage all the more strange. It’s rather particularly peculiar that the protective warning comes from the Pharisees who, up to this point in the Gospel, have been anything but concerned for Jesus’ wellbeing.

“Go away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”

Are they really worried about him? Or is this but another part of their political machinations to ultimately get him killed?

Scripture doesn’t answer our questions, but it is clear that Jesus is determined in spite of the warnings, to reach his goal. No cunning fox and no city of rebellion will keep him from doing what he must do.

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In fact, those two will ultimately be responsible for Jesus paying the ultimate price in his ultimate place.

During the season of Lent, the scriptures appointed for us compel us to keep our eyes on the cross. Just as the city of Jerusalem is now on Jesus’ radar, so too it is for us. Jerusalem is the end of this marathon of ministry. And Jesus loves Jerusalem.

But it is a strange love.

He compares his love for the city to a mother hen’s love for her chicks. 

Even though Jerusalem has responded to God’s love with rebellion, with selfish ambition, and with violence.

Somehow, Jesus holds that two incompatible things together.

He loves Jerusalem, but in the end his love for her will be the death of him.

And though it’s hard for us to admit, the same holds true for us – Jesus’ love for us, in the midst of our rebellion, it such that it eventually leads to his death.

Jesus is on an unstoppable journey toward Jerusalem, and all that it holds for him, which of course means that Jesus is on an unstoppable journey toward us, the very people who still persist in following our own way.

One of the most difficult things to reckon with in the gospel accounts is how much the ministry of Jesus transcends all of our understandings of right and wrong and first and last and good and bad. It cuts straight through the margins that exist in our world and creates something so new, so very new, that we are still afraid of it, even all these 2,000 years later.

Throughout the gospel of Luke, Jesus is unwavering and persistent in his desire to bring in those who were once cast out, to raise up those once beaten down, and to gather near those who were once lost. 

Which, ostensibly, sounds like good news.

And yet, it’s as if we haven’t heard it.

Or, at the very least, we act as if it isn’t true.

The kingdom of God is always bigger than we can imagine. Or to put it another way, the scope of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are always larger than we limit them to be. 

But, throughout history and even today, the longer we make the table, the more upset we become.

The man who marched into the mosques last week leaving a trail of blood in his wake did so with white supremacist slogans painted on the side of his weapons. For whatever reason, he could not imagine a world in which those whom he killed had any worth or value.

The same holds true for just about all of the expressions of religious violence that have taken place in the world. Whether it was the young man who walked into Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, to the crusades, to the massacre of 6 million Jews, to just about anything else we can remember or imagine, they, in some way, boil down to the fact that people could not stand being with other people. 

There was a story that was reported following the attack at the mosques in New Zealand that received very little coverage. While news outlets were entering the foray of gun control debates and whether or not political leaders would denounce white nationalism, the entire Jewish population of New Zealand agreed to close their doors for Sabbath observance on Saturday – not out of fear or the expectation of violence, but simply to be in solidarity with their Muslim brothers and sisters who were told not to enter Mosques.

Think about that for a moment.

An entire religious institution agreed that rather than doing what they wanted, rather than continuing to maintain the status quo this weekend, they would choose be in solidarity with those who were marginalized and attacked. 

Meanwhile, these two groups, in other parts of the world, have absolutely nothing to do with one another and are often at the forefront of antagonism.

The violence that took place in the mosques was absolutely unprecedented, but so too was the response of the Jewish community in New Zealand. 

In many ways, that’s what the work of Christ looks like. It is beyond out ability to imagine or even comprehend. It is a willingness to be with the very people who rest at the root of our frustrations. It is a witness to a faithful belief that all really means all.

Or, to use the words of another preacher:

No one is an island,

Entire of itself.

Each is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

Each person’s death diminishes me,

For I am involved in humankind.

Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bells tolls,

It tolls for thee.

And yet, how many days will it take before most of us are distracted by the next problem or the next tragedy? How long will we continue to keep certain people far off while gathering in the people we like?

There is something deeply profound and deeply troubling about the cross. It is, of course, a marker of our delivery from the captivity to Sin and Death. But, in it, we also discover our mutual rebellion from the one who came to live and die and live again for us.

There is a great leveling on the hill called Golgotha. Because until that moment, as Jesus says, the house was left to us. And, we can admit on our better days, when the house is left to us we like to chose who is able to join us in the house. We like to create our own rules about who is first and who is last, who is right and who is wrong, who is included and who is excluded.

But so long as the house is left to us, it will not look like the kingdom of God. 

Instead it will be a place that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it. 

It will be a place where every attempt at making the table longer results in more anger, in more vitriol, and in more violence. 

It will be a place of our own making, and therefore our own doom. 

God in Christ desperately desired to gather us in, all of us, like a hen gathers her brood under her wings. And again and again and again we were unwilling to do so. Whether it was our voice that led to the exclusion of others, or we ourselves felt the wrath of being excluded, the door remained closed.

So Jesus leaves the house to us.

But not forever. 

“Truly I tell you, you will not see me until the times comes when you say, Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Those are the words sung by the crowds waving their palm branches as Jesus entered Jerusalem on the back on a donkey. Those are the same words we will be singing in a few weeks.

Jesus does not abandon us to our own devices and to our own houses. Instead he arrives in the strangest of ways and triumphantly declares, through his death, this is my Father’s house!

Blessed is Jesus who comes in the name of the Lord because he is so unlike us! He continues to work to gather all of us in even while we push away. He still mounts the hard wood of the cross knowing that we often choose the wrong thing or avoid doing the right thing. He still breaks forth from the tomb even though we think the house belongs to us!

This Lenten season, it is good and right for us to confront the frightening reality of our reality. Whether its in New Zealand, or in our back yards, this world is full of people, people like us, who simply cannot fathom the other being our brother or the stranger being our sister.

But the cross is free to all, and from it flows a healing stream for all.

And all means all.

Whether we like it or not. Amen.

I’m A Taste Of Grace From Outer Space

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent [C] (Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3.17-4.1, Luke 13.31-35). Drew is one of the associate pastors at St. Stephen’s UMC in Burke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Easter debauchery, living in East West Virginia, the ubiquity of impatience, belief, being afraid in the land of the living, seven minutes in heaven in church, returning to the same message, crying for the Gospel, and silencing the prophets. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: I’m A Taste Of Grace From Outer Space

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Lead Us Not Into…

Luke 4.1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. 

I’ve often talked about the role that commentaries play on the development and proclamation of a sermon. Perhaps the text is very familiar and the pastor desperately wants to find a new angle, or the passage appears to difficult to tackle and the preacher just wants all the help the preacher can get.

That’s when the commentary gets dragged down from the shelf and the pages start flying.

Commentaries can be an invaluable tool when doing this thing I do every week, but sometimes they just fall flat.

I looked through just about every single commentary in my office this week in preparation for this sermon. After all, the temptation of Jesus is indeed one of those stories that lots and lots of people already know. And, to further complicate matters, the devil is in it. 

It’s familiar and it’s difficult. 

What’s a preacher to say about a story most of us know that contains a character most of us ignore?

So I pulled down the commentaries and started reading…

Just like Jesus, we will all face trials and temptations, and we need to do everything we can to resist them in whatever way they present themselves.

When we read the words from the Devil, it is a reminder that we need to take on a posture of intentionality to rebuke his destructive advances.

We read this story at the beginning of Lent as a reminder that we need to let go of the things that are keeping us from being with God.

Did you notice anything there? In almost every commentary I read about the temptations of Jesus, they are ultimately focused more on our temptations than on those faced by Jesus.

Or, to put it very plainly, the commentaries make it seem like Jesus is an after-thought in the never ending battle against our vices.

Or still yet another way to look at it – God helps those who help themselves.

Except, this isn’t a story about us.

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On Ash Wednesday many of us gathered here in the sanctuary and we heard those frighteningly familiar words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Those ashen cross on our foreheads were the first steps into a season that is often marked with sacrifice, repentance, and fighting against temptations.

There are plenty of things we can, or perhaps should, give up.

4 out of every 10 adults in America are obese. Maybe we should go on a collective diet?

The average American has $5,331 in credit card debt right now. Maybe we start budgeting our money?

I could go on and on and on.

But perhaps today can be a sobering reminder, akin to the reality check that Ash Wednesday provides, that we aren’t really capable of resisting temptation. Maybe, if we abandon anything this season, it should be the notion that giving something up it makes us better people. 

Perhaps we should ditch the belief that life is up to us.

If Lent is at all about us, its about how far off we are from God, how unlike God we are, and yet God choose to be like us in order to rectify the wrongness within us.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not entirely sure I’m grateful to Luke for this story about Jesus in the wilderness. It’s certainly dramatic, but the longer I read it, the worse it makes me feel.

The Devil says, “If you really are the Son of God, then do something!

The world is going to hell in a hand basket, there are people starving for food, they’re suffering from the chaos of a world that could be incredible if someone with enough power would smack them into shape, they’re wandering around in darkness waiting for God to give them any definitive demonstration that they can hold on to.”

It’s like the devil takes a good look at Jesus and realizes, “If we combined our powers we really could get this whole show on the road.”

This story has the power to bring me down in the dumps because in it I hear myself asking Jesus some of those same questions. I think I know what would be best for the world, and if Jesus could just get with the program, my program, we could fix all this brokenness around us.

Take away the fact that Jesus is Lord, and in this little vignette, he looks kind of like a jerk. Why won’t he work a little miracle and bring about some food?  Why won’t he just take control of the world? Why won’t he give the world a taste of God’s saving power?

But, those questions are our temptation, and they only go to show how far we are from the divine. It shows how this story is just like any other conversation between two people who simply cannot understand one another.

The devil is operating out of a world view that is remarkably like our own – he wants a demonstration of power and wants immediate gratification.

Jesus is operating out of a kingdom view that is totally unlike our own – he knows the myth of progress to which we are so inextricably tied.

If we were really capable of fixing this world, wouldn’t we have done it by now?

Of course the hungry should be fed, and the wanderers should be led, and the hopeless should be given hope. But we’ve been doing that kind of work for a long time, a really long time, and what do we have to show for it?

We are so much a people of the world, rather than the kingdom, that it is nearly impossible to see the story from any point of view other than the devil’s. Again, if you take away the fact that Jesus is the Son of God, take away the fact that we know the end of the story, the devil’s questions sound pretty good!

That’s crazy.

It’s a crazy thing to realize, here at the beginning of our own Lenten journeys, that the person with whom we have to most in common in this story isn’t Jesus, but the devil. 

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But the craziest thing of all is that Jesus eventually does all of the things the devil tempts him to do. Not out there in the wilderness, but by the time we reach the end of the gospel we discover that he does them in his own time and in his own way.

When he’s with the devil in the wilderness he refuses to turn a stone into a loaf of bread to satisfy his hunger – but later he turns some bread and fish into a buffet for 5,000. Which, incidentally, only incites the crowds desire to him become a version of who the devil tempts him to become.

When he’s with the devil in the wilderness he refuses to worship the devil to gain control of the world – but later he ascends to rule over the earth, not with a powerful and war-like regime, but from the vulnerable arms of the cross.

When he’s with the devil in the wilderness he refuses to test God’s willingness to demonstrate his saving power – but later he dies and is buried in the ground, only to rise again through God’s power in the resurrection.

How strange a story this is for people like us to read. In it we discover that the God who took on flesh to be like us is still completely unlike us. We catch a glimpse of the totality of the gospel in just a few verses. And we even celebrate Jesus’ ability to resit temptation even though he eventually makes all of those tempted realities real in his own way.

One of the worst temptations during the season of Lent is to puff ourselves up as if we are above and beyond the temptations that are thrown at us by the world. 

The hard truth of the gospel is that even if we are able to resist a temptation or two, part of our human nature implies that we will succumb. We will eat the food we know we shouldn’t, we will hurt the people who deserve better, and we will foolishly believe that we know what’s best for ourselves, for others, for the world, and even for Jesus.

I like to think, on some days, that I’m a pretty okay person. I like to believe that given the right set of circumstances I will make the good and right choice. I like to imagine that there is more goodness in me than there is badness.

But, there are parts of me that are indefensible. 

I have made wrong choices.

I have hurt the people I love.

I have thought myself greater than I really am.

At the heart of Lent is a willingness to look in the mirror and realize who I really am.

And if pastoring has taught me anything, there are parts of each of you that are indefensible as well.

A particular word that stung someone so badly they haven’t talked to you in years.

A receptive omission of something seemingly insignificant that became a wedge between you and your partner.

A foolish assumption that elevated you above everyone else and resulted in nothing but more and more resentment.

There is a frightening truth in the words that we often read in church without giving them much thought: Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy. 

There are parts of us that simply cannot be defended.

And, in the words of Fleming Rutledge, if we don’t know that to be true, then we do not yet know the grace of God. If we don’t understand our own defenselessness in the grip of sin, and temptation, and death, then we do not yet know who it is who comes to us as the One who justifies the ungodly.

This Jesus, the one who rebuffs the temptations of the Devil, is the one who comes not to make our lives better or give us the strength to resist our own temptations. Jesus comes to live and die and live again to justify us. 

Take a good hard look at the cross, survey it in all of its wonder and violence, it is the sign for you and me that our God is a God of impossible possibility. When we read the story of the temptations in the wilderness it is a harrowing reminder that Jesus does for us what we could not, and cannot, do for ourselves.

He delivers us from evil. Amen. 

A Return To The Case Against “Ashes To Go”

Last year I tried to make the case against the liturgical practice of “ashes to go.” 

It received a lot of backlash.

And I get it. 

But I still stand by the claim that Ash Wednesday is something that the community of faith does together. And I think the UMC, in particular, really needs to observe it this year. 

As the popularity of something like Ashes To Go continues to rise, we lose a connection with the communal liturgical practice that sets the stage for the season of Lent.

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In case you are unaware of the true phenomenon Ashes To Go has become, this is what it typically looks like: On Ash Wednesday, a pastor (or pastors) will gather in the parking lot of his/her respective local church, and a drive thru line will allow people to wait their turn for a ten second interaction where ashes are hastily smeared on a forehead while the traditional words are uttered, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” 

Or a group of clergy will gather in a public space (like a park or fast food restaurant or a coffee shop) with a simple sign encouraging people to stop in for their “Ashes to Go.” Lines will development during peak hours, people will hear the right words, and they will leave with a reminder of their mortality on their foreheads. 

Now, I recognize that the current pace of our culture makes participating in an actual Ash Wednesday service challenging. I understand the difficulties of a frenetic existence where we are habitually running from one thing to the next. Moreover, I know people for whom the “Ashes to Go” is a sign of the church’s willingness to catch up with the times and start digging itself out of its ditch of irrelevancy. But offering ashes devoid of a liturgy in which the practice is made intelligible, is the equivalent of clanging cymbal without love (to steal an expression of Paul’s).

To those who love “Ashes to Go”: I mean no offense. I only want to call into question the faithfulness and the efficacy of doing so. I have heard about the beauty of meeting people where they are, and the reclaiming of evangelism that happens with “Ashes to Go” but I wonder if there are better occasions to share the gospel without watering down the holiness of Ash Wednesday to fit into other peoples’ schedules.

Two years ago, my friends and I had the privilege of interviewing Fleming Rutledge about Ash Wednesday and she had thoughts on the subject of “Ashes to Go” as well. This is what she said: 

 “It’s pathetic. I know people who do it (people I admire), but people don’t know why they’re doing it. There’s no message involved. Christianity is not just about forgiveness. Forgiveness is not enough; there has to be rectification of evil… When I grew up nobody had ashes, only the Roman Catholics did it, and we all thought it was superstitious. I personally don’t like the ashes very much unless it is done within the context of an entire worship service with a full and faithful homily. Remember: the gospel says wash your face. It’s really weird to listen to that passage on Ash Wednesday and then leave with a cross on your forehead after Jesus just told everyone to wash up.”

I agree with Fleming insofar as without taking place within a full liturgy, ashes merely become another idol, another popular display of religious affection, and it fails to embody what the occasion is all about. Ash Wednesday is not supposed to be easy or convenient; that’s kind of the whole point. It is a disruption of our way of being, a reminder of our finitude in a world trying to convince us that we can live forever, and because the practice is not self-interpreting, it requires the context of a liturgy in which we can begin to understand what we are doing and why we are doing it.

And I use the term “we” purposely. I use “we” because Ash Wednesday is not about individual introspection and reflection. It is a practice of the community we call church. 

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This year, the United Methodist Church (the one I serve) is in the midst of an identity crisis. In the wake of a Special General Conference that resulted in doubling down on the so-called “incompatibility” of homosexuality with Christian teaching, countless members are threatening to leave or withhold their giving, while others are celebrating the exclusion of LGBTQIA individuals from ordination and the ability to be married in a United Methodist Church. I think there is no better time for the church, together, to be disrupted out of its status quo such that it can ask itself: “How did we get here?” 

We can be marked with the ashes on our forehead and realize that we are all incompatible with Christian teaching – thats basically the message of Lent in a sentence.

This Ash Wednesday can then become a marvelous and miraculous opportunity to discover a new way forward for God’s church. 

Outside the fracturing and infighting within the UMC we also live in a world that bombards us with the temptation to believe we can make it our of this life alive, the world is also trying to convince us that we don’t need anyone else to make it through this life at all. According to the world, the individual triumphs. But according to the church, no one can triumph without a community that speaks the truth in love.

Therefore, for me, “Ashes to Go” completely loses its connection with Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent because it just becomes another individualized consumer driven model of the church rather than being the incarnational and rooted practice of joining together to remember who we are and whose we are. 

Reversing The Curvatus

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I have a bonus episode as I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the Ash Wednesday [C] (Joel 2.1-2, 12-17, Psalm 51.1-17, 2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10, Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21). Teer is one of the members of the Crackers And Grape Juice team. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the season of sacrifice, church planting, liturgical practices, church wide interpretation, rendering far, creation cleanliness, and being known. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Reversing The Curvatus

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God Is Not A Country Song

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sarah Condon about the readings for the First Sunday of Lent [C] (Deuteronomy 26.1-11, Psalm 91.1-2, 9-16, Romans 10.8b-13, Luke 4.1-13). Sarah is a frequent contributor and writer for Mockingbird. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the case for liturgical observance, confronting finitude, stewardship campaigns, transactions in the church, hugs from God, being bumped by the Spirit, the 1950s, televangelism, and Lent as a car accident. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: God Is Not A Country Song

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