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Elections and Idolatry: Part Three

11/02/12+ Share

The Power of a Priestly Kingdom

In parts 1 and 2 of this blog series I have sought to locate today’s presidential race in a wider historical perspective. Nationalistic rhetoric does not appear in a vacuum. It has a long and complicated history. My aim was to show that the founding of America happened in the context of burgeoning nationalistic sensibilities. These sensibilities, which have been encoded into America’s DNA, often conflict with some of the church’s core convictions. It is one thing for a nation to claim to be unique; it is another thing to claim exceptional status among the nations, as if they were God’s chosen instrument to bring hope to the wider world, whether spiritual or political.

Such language is eerily similar to Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 4. “Upon my bed this is what I saw; there was a tree at the center of the earth, and its height was great. The tree grew great and strong, its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the ends of the whole earth. Its foliage was beautiful, its fruit abundant, and it provided food for all. The animals of the field found shade under it, the birds of the air nested in its branches, and from it all living beings were fed” (vv. 10-13). Up to this point, this vision recounts Nebuchadnezzar’s view of his own kingdom, the sixth-century Babylonian empire. It certainly does not reflect the standard Jewish view (see Habakkuk 1-2). As the dream continues, he sees an angel command the tree to be cut down, the animals to flee, and the remaining stump to be reduced to animal-like status. The purpose of this leveling is stated in verse 17: “in order that all who live may know that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdom of mortals; he gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of human beings.” As Daniel interprets the dream he makes clear that Nebuchadnezzar is the stump who will be felled, but only for a short time. He will be restored to the more modest position that God had in mind for him, but only after he has learned that “Heaven is sovereign” (vs. 26).

Nebuchadnezzar has to be humbled not because he worshipped false gods (though he did), but because he entertained the notion that his kingdom was special—he fell prey to political hubris. He began to view all other kingdoms as little birds finding shelter beneath his magnificent wings. Nebuchadnezzar failed to recognize that God alone is sovereign over the kingdoms of the earth and that God has exalted him only a short while in order to accomplish specific purposes for the truly chosen people, which was Israel. Indeed, in Daniel 7, the great empire of Babylon is properly seen as one in a string of beasts that temporarily roam the earth eventually to be replaced by others. The only everlasting kingdom, according to the book of Daniel, is that of the “saints of the Most High” (v. 27). These are the chosen people that God has formed, set apart, and appointed to show all kingdoms what the divine reign looks like.

The book of Daniel is one of many Old Testament books that place the relationship between the kingdoms of this world and God’s chosen people into proper perspective. I fear, however, that this perspective has been abandoned by many Christians in America. This is partly because the notion of God’s chosen people has been conflated with America as a nation, as if the church is the spiritual extension of God’s reign and America is the political extension. We have picked up the mantle of the Puritan “city on a hill,” informed by a lingering sense of Manifest Destiny. American Christians serve God politically by doing all that is in their power to keep America on the right track, especially by electing the right officials. They do so spiritually through active service in the church.

Responsibility and the Constantinian Cataract

For this reason, “American Christians” find it morally reprehensible for believers not to vote. If Christians don’t vote, then the right people won’t get into office, and the wrong people will steer America away from God’s divinely ordained purposes. America will become just another nation. Its favored status before God will be relinquished, and all those less worthy nations will grow in power and influence. The world will be doomed! All of this presumes a logic that is not in the least biblical, namely, that Christians are partly responsible for governing the nations. This notion of responsibility is altogether absent in Scripture.

It is worth noting that whereas the Old Testament law was filled with instruction for how the Israelites were to live, care for, and discipline one another, it gives no instruction as to how they should participate in the civic life of surrounding peoples in order to steer them in the right direction. Furthermore, whereas the prophets scolded the Israelites for a host of social and political oversights, they never rebuked them for not tending to the needs of neighboring tribes and empires. The same goes for the New Testament letters to first century churches. It simply was not on the radar of God’s people in Scripture that their divinely appointed role involved helping the various kingdoms of the world become better worldly kingdoms, Jewish kingdoms, or Christian kingdoms.

Furthermore, the notion of “responsibility” that is often invoked today presumes a certain sociological posture that is alien to the divinely mandated posture of God’s people. Many well-intentioned Christians in America have succumbed to the majoritarian logic of liberal democracy. Only people who enjoy majority status have the luxury of assuming that the best way to serve their neighbors is to use whatever top-down power levers are available in order to dictate how the masses should live, for their own good. With great democratic power comes great democratic responsibility. This is not, however, a Scriptural principle. In fact, we find the exact opposite from Jesus. In Luke 22 he redirects his misguided disciples who were angling for privileged positions of top-down power, saying, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves” (vv. 25-26).

The disciples wanted the power and prestige of worldly kingdoms. Jesus warns that they have set their sights too low. Gentiles have that kind of power, and they use it to rule over others while claiming to be doing what is most beneficial for them. Of course, world powers seldom do what is beneficial for the masses. That is why Jesus disarmed and made a spectacle of them (Colossians 2:13-15). He did so by allowing those who purported to be benefactors to crucify an innocent man (himself) because they were threatened by his alternative form of power. Jesus instructed and modeled this alternative for his disciples. He modeled bottom-up service, not top-down power.

If Scripture does not advocate infiltrating the political structures to exercise top-down power over the masses, they why do Christians routinely assume this “responsibility”? The historical survey in part two of this essay points to an answer. Sometime after fourth-century Roman Emperor Constantine began incorporating the church into his imperial project, Christians stopped viewing themselves as a minority group that was uniquely empowered by its Messiah to serve the world with the bottom-up resources with which he entrusted them. It started to develop what Lee Camp, author of Mere Discipleship, calls a “Constantinian cataract” (21)—a new way of seeing the church’s relationship with the world. Yet God never intervened in world history to give his people a new vision of leadership and world governance. They simply assumed that having become a majority they are, by default, responsible for using for good the top-down resources now at their disposal.

But what if the servant posture Jesus instructed his people to assume was not simply a temporary posture appropriate to the subordinate position they occupied in the first century? What if it was intrinsic to the nature of the unique mission of God’s people? If this could be demonstrated biblically, then having the opportunity to exercise top-down power would not automatically translate into being responsible for exercising such power. Instead, it would be a temptation to be resisted, akin to the temptation Jesus rejected in the wilderness, when the devil offered him control of the kingdoms of this world without having to serve it to the point of death, and in the garden, when he faced the temptation to resist those who were coming to arrest him—perhaps with righteous revolutionary violence—rather than submit to God’s will, God’s way.

Service and the Biblical Mission

A survey of the Bible story reveals that a servant posture, distinct from the nations, is what God always willed for Israel and the church. Here I offer a brief summary in terms of ten stages:

(1) In the beginning God creates a peaceful world in which humans live in harmony with God, one another, and nonhuman creation. Had humans never fallen into sin, the sword-backed state and other forms of domineering leadership would never have been necessary for maintaining order and justice. Unfortunately, the earliest humans use their freedom to assert their autonomy over and against God’s will, which leads to their fall from created harmony. Soon after, Cain murders his innocent brother Abel. This lays the foundation for fallen civilization with its vengeance-based state, fear-based society, and unnatural culture. God graciously uses the fear- and vengeance-based human reflexes to protect humans from one another and to maintain basic order in society.  

(2) Nonetheless violence escalates upon the earth to such an extent that God is filled with grief and regrets creating humans. Rather than bring a decisive end to the created order, God washes the surface of the earth clean while preserving a remnant of all living species, including sinful humans. God reaffirms his commitment to life by placing all bloodshed under his jurisdiction and by covenanting with his creation never to destroy it again. In so doing, he places the burden upon himself to find some way to guide creation and deal with sin other than to destroy it.

(3) God solution is to call Abraham out of the heart of Babylon, with its advanced civilization, to become the progenitor of a peculiar people with a particular way of being in the world so that God may use them to bless all nations. Trust in God alone is the test of Abraham’s faithfulness and the foundation for the peculiar people that God is forming through him. Since his descendants needed to multiply in number without losing their distinct identity and because the residents of Canaan were not ready for divine judgment, God relocates Abraham’s descendants to Egypt where they are eventually enslaved.

(4) Though Egypt is an ideal place to grow in number, it proves an unfit place for Abraham’s descendants to order their lives according to God’s intentions. God therefore calls them out of the high civilization of Egypt and into the particular way of life set forth in Torah. Notice that God does not use the Israelites to take over Egypt and to use vast imperially resources to do good. Instead, God delivers the Israelites without their help and instills in them a set of laws that must govern their life together. In so doing, God is forming a people that must depend on their Lord alone for their deliverance, security, and way of life. God is making them an exemplary people whose specific way of life may be used to bless all nations.

(5) After forging a covenantal relationship with Israel, God leads them into the land of Canaan—a land where no truly great empire has ever thrived—and begins to order their lives according to Torah. To make them a witness against the economic oppression and violent nature of empires, God establishes Israel without centralized leadership and a standing army. Instead, God reins over them directly through a plurality of decentralized offices and sustains them with the phenomenon of Yahweh war—a unique form of warfare that relies on God’s strength for victory and not strategic alliances and human military prowess. Without the egocentric aims of a human king, the Israelites would be better positioned to order their lives according to the radical economic, social, judicial, and political vision of Torah.

(6) Shortly after occupying the land, the Israelites forsake the covenant by abandoning Torah. So God stops blessing and protecting them, which leaves them vulnerable to attacks from neighboring tribes. Yet God does not abandon them altogether. Through mighty judges God gives them a taste of what long term deliverance might look like should they renew the covenant. Rather than do so, the Israelites rebel and request a king like the nations around them. This decision launches a tragic detour in the life of God’s people. In choosing a king they essentially renounce Yahweh war, Yahweh’s kingship, and Yahweh’s law. In failing to trust God alone, they reject God’s strategy for forming them to be a blessing to the nations.

(7) Israel’s kings are at their best when they rely on God and at their worst when they rely on their own strength. Overall, the kingship lives up to God’s negative expectations for it and the prophets disparage it. They do not, however, forsake the concept of kingship altogether. In visions of future hope, they depict a truly faithful king who adheres to Torah and whose rule reflects God’s reign. Isaiah goes further than any prophet in remolding the notion of kingship to reflect the kind of posture God always desired for Israel: that of a lowly servant with universal significance (Isaiah 42, 49, 50, 52, 53).

(8) Though Israel’s historians narrate the monarchy in diverse ways, the cumulative canonical effect is a trajectory leading to monarchy’s collapse. Through Jeremiah, God calls the Israelites out of their self-imposed monarchical cul-de-sac and into a dynamic new scattered posture that is conducive to blessing the nations. This scattering is not a temporary hiatus from monarchy but a long-term arrangement that calls for a permanent change in Israel’s self-understanding and paves the way for the impending messianic mission. As strangers in strange lands, they must depend on God alone for their well-being and survival.

(9) God is not, however, finished with Jerusalem. He had chosen this city and its people as the launching point for the forthcoming messianic mission. To prepare them for this, God sends Ezra, Nehemiah, and others back from exile to reorder Israel’s life in the land as a Persian province, lacking political independence and monarchical organization. This community was like the diasporic Jewish communities insofar as it lacked political independence and had to order its life according to Torah under the conditions of foreign occupation.

(10) The ministry of Jesus and witness of first century congregations continue the Old Testament trajectory mapped out by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the diasporic communities. In all their novelty, they make no attempt to reestablish anything like Israel’s kingship of old. Rather they proclaim a king, kingdom, and Christian community that stand in fundamental continuity with Old Testament strands that push beyond the monarchy, especially the lowly servant vision. Rather than position his followers for top-down political influence in Jerusalem and then Rome, Jesus prepares them to be scattered among all nations as aliens and exiles. They are ambassadors for the kingdom of God, living among all the kingdoms of this world. They had no aspirations for running worldly kingdoms because they knew that God looked after them by various powers and principalities. These kingdoms and their rulers, according to the Apostle Paul, are destined for destruction (1 Corinthians 15:24-26). Knowing this, the early church spent all its efforts filling the world with communities dedicated to God’s kingdom—the only kingdom that will last—and inviting all people to join them in seeking it first.

If this is the basic shape of the biblical story, then God’s strategy has always been to place among the various kingdoms of this world a people who live uniquely and fully under his dominion. The rationale behind this is not selfish. It is in the best interests of all nations that God place in their midst an alternative, independent political community that orders its life exclusively on kingdom principles. God has plenty of agents who are willing to maintain the present order. What is needed is a kingdom community that is willing to order its life even now according to the future order. That unique life is God’s offer to the world. It is God’s pilot project or demonstration plot of the future of all creation. It is the evidence that God in Jesus has changed the course of world history. When this kingdom vision is grasped, it is like a precious pearl or priceless treasure that, once discovered, leads people to forsake everything else they once owned in order to possess it. According to Jesus, Paul, John, and James, part of what is left behind includes old world notions of responsibility, effectiveness, significance, and success.

Priestly Irresponsibility          

How can a set apart people that does not get entangled in civilian affairs make a positive impact on the wider world? Could God possibly be calling us to leave the world alone on its path to destruction? Of course not. God has sent us into the world to help save it. But we must ditch the simple choice between (a) making the world a better place by leveraging democratic power in which a 51% majority get to tell the 49% minority how to live, and (b) doing nothing at all to help the world. In Scripture there is an alternative model for serving the world in such a way that is in the world’s best interest, but not on the world’s terms. I will use the priesthood of Israel to illustrate this model.

When God brought the Israelites into the land of Canaan, he divided them into twelve territories according to the tribes of Israel. Ten of Jacob’s sons inherited one territory apiece, Joseph’s two sons each received one territory, and Levi’s descendants received no allotment. When it came to property, economic, justice, another other civil affairs, each non-priestly tribe was given leaders to divide up responsibility and handle its own affairs. The Levites, on the other hand, were scattered among these tribes to dwell among them in a unique capacity. They focused on studying Torah, carrying out responsibilities connected to the sacrificial system, overseeing cities of refuge, signaling when God was declaring war upon an enemy, leading various festivals, and seeking God’s guidance when their host tribe raised questions for which Torah does not provide clear answers.

These Levites bore a heavy burden. They had much work to do that only they were positioned to do. To free them up to focus on their unique responsibilities, God excused them from tending to the everyday affairs of their host tribes. The Levites were not a part of governing the towns of their host tribes; the elders did that. They did not settle judicial disputes; the tribal judges did that. They did not go to war when their host tribes’ boundaries were threatened, nor did they execute capital offenders. There were many aspects of their host tribes’ life that they did not get involved in—they had to trust that God would meet such needs without their help.

Their relative disconnection from tribal life was not purely negative. Since they were not fighting Israel’s wars, they were able to impartially discern God’s will as to whether a given war was divinely sanctioned. Since they were not the judges, juries, and executioners for criminal cases, they were able to extend hospitality to killers who sought sanctuary in their cities of refuge until the tribe’s officials could determine innocence or guilt. Because they did not enforce tribal laws and were not closely related to the accused, they were objective enough to take ambiguous cases before God for a definitive ruling. Because they had no official territory of their own, they could help settle boundary disputes. Lastly, since the land on which they lived was not truly theirs, they felt free to leave it for extended periods of time in order to serve at the tabernacle.

One would be hard-pressed to accuse the Levites of being irresponsible for not seeking to involve themselves in the everyday affairs necessary for non-priestly tribal governance. It would indeed be quite irresponsible for them to abandon their divinely appointed posts to serve those of someone else. They can best render the service to which they alone have been called only if they can trust that God has other people lined up to carry out responsibilities that lay beyond their purview.

Now I know this analogy breaks down at certain points, some of which are important to my thesis. For instance, both the Levites and the tribes were a part of the same chosen people that God was setting apart to be a witness to all nations. Both confessed God’s kingship over every aspect of their life and adhered to the same Torah. This is why, when the messiah came, he could break down the wall that separated priests from non-priests to create a nation of priests. The church’s relation to their host nations is quite different. Modern nations are not God’s chosen people; they are fallen powers and principalities that God uses to uphold the old order. God’s chosen people, the church, has been called to live according to the new order of God’s kingdom. It could be said that the Levites carried out a chaplain-like function on behalf of the other tribes. They were on the same team but had different responsibilities. But that is not how Scripture portrays Israel or the Church’s relationship to the world. God’s people are set apart from world powers as those who are seeking a different kingdom, following a different Lord, and consequently receiving a different inheritance when Christ returns.

Nonetheless, is there evidence in Scripture that God’s people have a set apart role analogous to that of Israel’s priests? Is it possible that God sent us into all nations as aliens and exiles whose citizenship is in heaven precisely so we would not attach our identity to our host nations and would be properly positioned to serve our host nations in ways that only people who seek first God’s kingdom can? Does not our disentanglement from running our host nations free us up to love and serve those who are a burden or a threat to our unbelieving neighbors? Does it not better position us to bear faithful witness to an alternative kingdom that is here in part and will come someday in full? Could all of this have something to do with why God prefaces his covenant-making ceremony with the Israelites after delivering them from Egypt saying, “Indeed the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6)? Could this be why 1 Peter, the New Testament book that most accentuates the scattered, alien, exiled nature of God’s people, echoes this Exodus passage and affirms the priestly status of the church?

This analogy should also not be read as suggesting that the church’s only contributions to wider society are in the spiritual realm. If churches around the world are living out kingdom economics, for example, they will be helping poor people within the body and in their surrounding communities to make ends meet that would otherwise be a greater drain on the broader economy. It also means they will be discipling them as to good stewardship, helping them find good work so they can join in helping others, and warning them against lying and cheating on their taxes and elsewhere in such ways that robs the wider community of resources to which they are not entitled. Believers may additionally take the godly economic practices they have learned from Scripture and apply them to the extent possible in their jobs, many of which will have public ramifications. It is not top-down influence on the wider economy, but it is a substantial influence that makes a positive contribution to the wider economy.

Similar things can be said about other aspects of public life. The church didn’t wait for a majority vote before starting up the first hospitals and Sunday schools when they realized that only the well-to-do were privy to quality health care and education. They began serving their immediate communities by offering what services they could with the resources of the Christian community. This witness had a positive impact on wider society. It raised awareness of various needs and got unbelievers thinking of ways that they, too, could contribute to the health and education of all people. This is what it means for the church to be salt, light, and leaven. We do what we do because God has called us to do so. We serve with the bottom-up power that Christ infused within us and we trust God to cause the seeds we plant to grow.

The above sketch of the Bible story and priestly analogy should suffice to demonstrate that Christians who choose not to get deeply entangled in the political affairs of their host nations are not simply lazy, unloving, or irresponsible. They are not dishonoring the blood that was shed by early Americans to establish the nation we live in today. They are honoring the blood that Christ shed and the Christian martyrs who have followed in his steps. These martyrs traded kingship like the nations for the reign of God and, in so doing, made possible the transterritorial eternal kingdom of which we are privileged to be a part. Since the mission of God’s people in this world entails forming faith communities among all nations that embody Jesus’ alternative all-encompassing politics, for the world’s sake, then focusing on this particular mission is not lazy, unloving, irresponsible, or ungrateful. It is rightly ordered energy, love, responsibility, and gratitude. It is God’s strategy of blessing all nations, which means it is the best way to preserve whatever is good and worth dying for in this world. Those who reject God’s strategy or who seek to merge it with the world’s strategies by making yet another pointless run at “kingship like the nations” are the ones who are acting irresponsibly, if not idolatrously.

To Him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever” (Revelation 1:5-6)

http://www.walkandword.com/blog/?id=343

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End of Sacrifice Under Review

03/19/2012

The End of Sacrifice has received decent press over the past few weeks. Chris Smith wrote a brief review for the Englewood Review of…

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Relishing the View from the Foot...

02/14/2012

Here is a sermon I delivered at GLCC a few years ago and then again recently at Delta Community Christian Church. It unpacks the abiding…

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A good way to think about the Restoration...

01/04/2012

"It would follow that there is no point at which a renewed recourse to the apostolic writings and their point to Jesus cannot renew us. In…

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Tribute to the Englewood Review...

01/01/2012

In my first blog of 2012 I want to thank Chris Smith and the Englewood Review of Books [ERB] for the exposure they have given my work and…

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A Tolkeinesque Sermon on Hebrews

12/16/2011

Is the work of Christ truly sufficient to meet humanity's deepest needs? No book of the Bible grapples with this question more than…

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Big discount for my new book

12/05/2011

Yes, my new book is out, and yes it retails for a hefty $30. But the publishers have graciously given me a coupon code that I can make…

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My first book is finally in print!

11/11/2011

The Politics of Yahweh, the book that came out of my dissertation, is finally printed and scheduled to be available for purchase later…

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MQR Engages Defending Constantine

11/07/2011

Almost a year ago, I wrote a lengthy informal review article for the Englewood Review of Books that engaged Peter J. Leithart's…

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Celebrating the Yoder Index

10/10/2011

Join Branson Parler, Jason Vance, and I as we commemorate the culmination of more than a year's work to get the John Howard Yoder Index

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New Books on War and Enemy Love

09/25/2011

For those of you interested in contemporary conversations about war, enemy love, and Christian faith, there are two books you may want to…

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The End of Sacrifice is Here!

09/24/2011

My second book editing project is finally finished, on the shelves, and ready to own! Herald Press just released "The End of Sacrifice: The…

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Continuing Conversations about...

09/08/2011

When Peter J. Leithart published "Defending Constantine," the initial response was overwhelmingly positive. Stanley Hauerwas' mostly…

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Christ Did Not Come To Abolish...

08/28/2011

Some of you have read the article I posted a while back entitled "With and Against the Grain: Stanley Hauerwas and the Tumultuous Tale of…

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The Spiritual Writings of Yoder

08/23/2011

It may come as a surprise to some that Orbis Press recently published John Howard Yoder: Spiritual Writings in their Modern…

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John Howard Yoder Quotes

08/05/2011

I have been reading through all of John Howard Yoder's books as part of The Yoder Index Project. Those of you who want to keep up with all…

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For God So Loved the World He Sent...

07/30/2011

Thanks to Rob Bell's controversial book, Love Wins, the relationship between God's love and God's wrath is once again a hot topic.…

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"To do" and "Not to do" with Walk...

06/04/2011

To do:

*Provide students, former students, church leaders with resources that I have found helpful for thinking and teaching about…

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Why "Walk and Word"?

06/03/2011

The first major mistake of my fledgling publishing career was to name the first book I edited Radical Ecumenicity. Apparently, not many…

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The Story behind Walk and Word

06/03/2011

Two years ago I was invited by former students, now co-laborers for the kingdom, to attend what has become the annual “Outhouse…

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