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The Scholarship

Imagine a young orphan, living in destitute poverty.  This infant is taken in, loved with great tenderness and when old enough, is enrolled into an elite  boarding school.  This school is home to the brightest minds in the known world, most of whom are also extremely kind and wise.  Every opportunity is provided this child, completely free of charge. 

At first the child loves the school, reveling in learning the ABC’s and soon fascinated by his own ability to read words, and then sentences.  He loves the lessons on nature and science, math and music.  As he grows older, however, the child becomes a teenager, then a young adult.  In this process of high school and college, the young man develops some boredom with the school which soon develops into complete apathy.  Perhaps there were some difficulties with lessons for which he did not seek adequate help.  Perhaps he resented having to sit in the classroom on a nice day.  Maybe he grew weary of the effort good education exacted from him.  Whatever the reason, he begins to routinely skip class. When he does occupy the chair, has not done his homework, and therefore cannot participate or contribute to the discussion.  This feeds his indifference and contempt. 

Slowly he has convinced himself that the school is not all he thought it was as a naive child, and part of the way through college, he drops out completely.  Since he has rejected the education offered him, he returns to the kind of depraved existence he was rescued from as a baby.  He still considers himself an alumni of the school, but often refers to it with sarcasm.  The school which offered him every opportunity has become the butt of his most vicious jokes.

A sad story to be sure.  Not only for the young man, but for the benefactor who paid his tuition all those years.  Even if you figure on the low side of $10,000 per year for 12 years, you are looking at a $120,000 pricetag.  That is a lot of money spend gratuititously by a stranger, rejected and scorned.

In this parable, the young man is all of us, in varying degrees.  And the school is the Church.  Let me explain.

The Church is the means by which Jesus desires to save all men.  It is not an add-on, a place to come “do” Christianity or a set of artificial beaurocracy set in place by white-bearded old celebates.  She is a living, growing organism.  So much so that we call her the Body of Christ.  This is a metaphor in a certain sense, but is more literal than we give it credit for.  We are all part of Jesus himself when we are in the Church.  That whole thing Jesus told Peter about the gates of Hell not prevailing against the Church and sin being bound and loosed? As Catholics, we believe it.  The Church is a gratuititously free gift from Jesus to us, an ark which brings us aboard out of our sin and depravity through our Baptism. 

So, like the young man, we are saved through Baptism, snatched from poverty and nurtured with Sanctifying grace.  But she does not stop there.  The Church is the meeting place, over two millenia, of the best and brightest minds of civilization.  The saints nurture us in our understanding of Truth, and through their holiness invite us to delve deeper into the mysteries of God.  It must not be forgotten that all these brilliant folk are not moved on their own power, but by the Holy Spirit who guides and  inspires their thought and virtue.  Perhaps most importantly, what they teach us is not primarily academic.  They teach us about what it means to be human, how to live in right relationships and most importantly, what is our final end.  They lived the drama of human existence with heroic virtue and offer to tangibly help us along our own path.

These same saints paid for this education of ours with their suffering.  “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”.  This is not exactly the same reality as would be seen by a country’s military, however.  We owe our existence as a free nation Washington’s men, and our continued unity to Lincoln’s, and our freedom from Nazi’s to the brave men of World War II.  Christian martyrs, on the other hand conquered only themselves.  They do not seem to be doing anything, really.  The Romans were not immediately overthrown from the grace released by the Christians they burned as torches to light the outskirts of the city.  Evil appeared to have triumphed.  And so it is in every day and age that the workings of Christian martyrdom, bloody and unbloody, costs so much but pays out invisibly.  This is precisely because it is offered in communion with the hidden sacrifice on Calvary. 

This is the saddest part of our analogy.  It could perhaps be conceivable to reject gifts and treasures of many faceless thousands of people (how easy is it to take advantage of the “government” or a “big corporation”?).  But the primary donor that we reject when we treat the Church with contempt or indifference is Jesus Christ.  A totally free gift, of tremendous magnitude, for our own salvation rejected, scorned, or perhaps just taken for granted.

So, how are we like the young man? Often as children we are open and excited about our faith.  Perhaps that is what Jesus is getting at when he tells us we should all be like children!  Often, though, when things get harder to understand we do not seek the answers to our doubts and questions as we should.  Or perhaps we get “grass is always greener” syndrome, preferring to be more like our secularized peers who get to sleep in on Sunday mornings.  Maybe we look as what is asked of us as Christians and find it too hard.  Whatever the reason, our indifference begins to feed itself.  If we are not continuing our religious education after Confirmation classes, we will not understand what is going on at Mass or why the Church teaches what she does on tough topics.  Armed with misunderstandings and diminshed actual graces, it gets easier to “tune out” the faith.  Some of us stay in this place, knowing there is good yet in the Church, but frozen against growing in virtue and love for God.  Others will, like the young man, completely check out.

So what to do?  First, we need to take stock, looking at ourselves in light of this story.  What is it that gets you “stuck”?  Sin? Confusion? Boredom? Those are fairly easily remedied through Confession, Eucharist and study.  I can’t speak for everyone in parish ministry, but I know that I would much rather spend all day in dialogue with someone having difficulty with Church teaching than one minute handling registration forms!  Seek out help in your parish if it is your questions that are keeping you away!  Some of us are in the ark, in good standing with the Church, but just need an extra dose of gratitude for the great gift she is.  In my theological study, I have found that every time I delve deeper into the mysteries of our faith, I marvel at it more deeply. 

As we enter the back-to-school season, preparing our new clothes and supply lists and writing seemingly endless numbers of checks, let us step back and remember the great School we were enrolled in from our Baptism, and give thanks for that great gift.

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The Scholarship: A Parable

Imagine a young orphan, living in destitute poverty.  This infant is taken in, loved with great tenderness and when old enough, is enrolled into an elite  boarding school.  This school is home to the brightest minds in the known world, most of whom are also extremely kind and wise.  Every opportunity is provided this child, completely free of charge. 

At first the child loves the school, reveling in learning the ABC’s and soon fascinated by his own ability to read words, and then sentences.  He loves the lessons on nature and science, math and music.  As he grows older, however, the child becomes a teenager, then a young adult.  In this process of high school and college, the young man develops some boredom with the school which soon develops into complete apathy.  Perhaps there were some difficulties with lessons for which he did not seek adequate help.  Perhaps he resented having to sit in the classroom on a nice day.  Maybe he grew weary of the effort good education exacted from him.  Whatever the reason, he begins to routinely skip class. When he does occupy the chair, has not done his homework, and therefore cannot participate or contribute to the discussion.  This feeds his indifference and contempt. 

Slowly he has convinced himself that the school is not all he thought it was as a naive child, and part of the way through college, he drops out completely.  Since he has rejected the education offered him, he returns to the kind of depraved existence he was rescued from as a baby.  He still considers himself an alumni of the school, but often refers to it with sarcasm.  The school which offered him every opportunity has become the butt of his most vicious jokes.

A sad story to be sure.  Not only for the young man, but for the benefactor who paid his tuition all those years.  Even if you figure on the low side of $10,000 per year for 12 years, you are looking at a $120,000 pricetag.  That is a lot of money spend gratuititously by a stranger, rejected and scorned.

In this parable, the young man is all of us, in varying degrees.  And the school is the Church.  Let me explain.

The Church is the means by which Jesus desires to save all men.  It is not an add-on, a place to come “do” Christianity or a set of artificial beaurocracy set in place by white-bearded old celebates.  She is a living, growing organism.  So much so that we call her the Body of Christ.  This is a metaphor in a certain sense, but is more literal than we give it credit for.  We are all part of Jesus himself when we are in the Church.  That whole thing Jesus told Peter about the gates of Hell not prevailing against the Church and sin being bound and loosed? As Catholics, we believe it.  The Church is a gratuititously free gift from Jesus to us, an ark which brings us aboard out of our sin and depravity through our Baptism. 

So, like the young man, we are saved through Baptism, snatched from poverty and nurtured with Sanctifying grace.  But she does not stop there.  The Church is the meeting place, over two millenia, of the best and brightest minds of civilization.  The saints nurture us in our understanding of Truth, and through their holiness invite us to delve deeper into the mysteries of God.  It must not be forgotten that all these brilliant folk are not moved on their own power, but by the Holy Spirit who guides and  inspires their thought and virtue.  Perhaps most importantly, what they teach us is not primarily academic.  They teach us about what it means to be human, how to live in right relationships and most importantly, what is our final end.  They lived the drama of human existence with heroic virtue and offer to tangibly help us along our own path.

These same saints paid for this education of ours with their suffering.  “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”.  This is not exactly the same reality as would be seen by a country’s military, however.  We owe our existence as a free nation Washington’s men, and our continued unity to Lincoln’s, and our freedom from Nazi’s to the brave men of World War II.  Christian martyrs, on the other hand conquered only themselves.  They do not seem to be doing anything, really.  The Romans were not immediately overthrown from the grace released by the Christians they burned as torches to light the outskirts of the city.  Evil appeared to have triumphed.  And so it is in every day and age that the workings of Christian martyrdom, bloody and unbloody, costs so much but pays out invisibly.  This is precisely because it is offered in communion with the hidden sacrifice on Calvary. 

This is the saddest part of our analogy.  It could perhaps be conceivable to reject gifts and treasures of many faceless thousands of people (how easy is it to take advantage of the “government” or a “big corporation”?).  But the primary donor that we reject when we treat the Church with contempt or indifference is Jesus Christ.  A totally free gift, of tremendous magnitude, for our own salvation rejected, scorned, or perhaps just taken for granted.

So, how are we like the young man? Often as children we are open and excited about our faith.  Perhaps that is what Jesus is getting at when he tells us we should all be like children!  Often, though, when things get harder to understand we do not seek the answers to our doubts and questions as we should.  Or perhaps we get “grass is always greener” syndrome, preferring to be more like our secularized peers who get to sleep in on Sunday mornings.  Maybe we look as what is asked of us as Christians and find it too hard.  Whatever the reason, our indifference begins to feed itself.  If we are not continuing our religious education after Confirmation classes, we will not understand what is going on at Mass or why the Church teaches what she does on tough topics.  Armed with misunderstandings and diminshed actual graces, it gets easier to “tune out” the faith.  Some of us stay in this place, knowing there is good yet in the Church, but frozen against growing in virtue and love for God.  Others will, like the young man, completely check out.

So what to do?  First, we need to take stock, looking at ourselves in light of this story.  What is it that gets you “stuck”?  Sin? Confusion? Boredom? Those are fairly easily remedied through Confession, Eucharist and study.  I can’t speak for everyone in parish ministry, but I know that I would much rather spend all day in dialogue with someone having difficulty with Church teaching than one minute handling registration forms!  Seek out help in your parish if it is your questions that are keeping you away!  Some of us are in the ark, in good standing with the Church, but just need an extra dose of gratitude for the great gift she is.  In my theological study, I have found that every time I delve deeper into the mysteries of our faith, I marvel at it more deeply. 

As we enter the back-to-school season, preparing our new clothes and supply lists and writing seemingly endless numbers of checks, let us step back and remember the great School we were enrolled in from our Baptism, and give thanks for that great gift.

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Lessons Learned From Yardwork, pt 1

Last summer my daughter died.  The summer before that, I was in my first trimester of pregnancy.  The summer before that I was in my third trimester of pregnancy.  The summer before that I had a child attached to my hip that would eat all the grass he could get his hands on.  All this to say that this is the first summer when none of those things apply, and as a result I find myself somewhat available to actually do some projects around the yard that I’ve wanted to get to for, oh, four years.  Mind you, when I say “projects” I am not one of these people who builds retaining walls or puts in their own patio or something.  My current endeavor is removing landscaping rocks (aka “weed holders”) and replacing them with transplanted hostas from other parts of the yard. I think I might get crazy and buy and plant a shrub or two as well.

Today was a perfect day to work on the task at hand.  Cool, dry and I was home alone with Isaac anyway, and heck, kids need fresh air, right?  I was pretty proud of myself, too, for devising a way for my eager preschooler to help.  I had him get his rather large dump truck, and showed him where to dump the rocks.  Then I would load it up, and he could drive the truck over and dump actual rocks onto a pile.  Genius!

For about fifteen minutes.  Considering this was about three times longer than he usually stays on a task I desire him to complete, it was pretty good.  But there are a ton of stinking rocks in that rock bed, and to be honest, he was actually helping at the time he quit!  After that, he piddled around, clipping things with the garden scissors (though not my highest priority weeds), throwing the rocks into a nearby bush, requesting my participation in a stick fight, and generally just being kind of whiny.  My helper was not super helpful to say the least.

I couldn’t help but think that this is often how we are with God.  Or, at least how I am.  I begin with a burst of excitement to “help him” somehow further the Kingdom, and when it starts getting mundane or even slightly uninteresting or frustrating, I start to whine.  Or I get a better idea, to go do something else.  Nevermind if it is actually something God wanted me to do.

If you haven’t read Uniformity With God’s Will by St. Alphonsus Liguori, skip your Starbucks tomorrow and buy it (it costs about as much as a grande coffee of the day. Or better yet, buy it and read it at Starbucks. It’s not long).  He talks about just this thing.  To be really effective in living out our Baptismal call, we need to be doing what God wants us to be doing, not just some nice stuff that strikes our fancy.  St. Alphonsus goes so far as to say that we shouldn’t just accept God’s will, but want what God wants.  I’ve read this little book many, many times and fall short every time.  It is a tall order, because uniformity is not something we “muster up”, it is the action of grace at work in our lives.

On the retreat I was on in February, at the height of my pity party and despair over the effectiveness of my ministry, a fellow retreatant received a word from the Lord for me.  She said, “God wants you to be his useless instrument”.  She explained that this did not mean that I was useless, of course, but that I only needed to do what was asked of me and not worry about the rest.  In theory, I can imagine how freeing it would be to really live that kind life.  That life of uniformity.  Like John XXIII I could say every night, “It’s your Church, Lord, I am going to bed!”  So, as we continue on this path of uncertainty about jobs and family and whether I can keep a transplanted shrub alive, I am praying for grace to align my wants more closely with God’s.

PS: Going back to Isaac for a minute… it would take a lot of trust and discipline for him to keep loading rocks for a few hours.  He’s a kid who is uninterested in our house’s curb appeal.  If he were to keep at a task he found brain-numbingly boring, it would have to be because he trusted my vision for the project and loved me enough to know that I was keeping him on task to complete something great, even if at the end of his little part, he didn’t see any results.  (Okay, theoretically. Stay with me.)  How much more so with God.  It helps to see the big picture of what we are doing for him.  For instance, a volunteer who bakes cookies for a youth ministry event realizes she is “sweetening” the kids up so they might be more open to hearing about God.   But even in times when we can’t possibly imagine how what we are going through helps anything, we need to trust the One who can see the whole project, and understands exactly what our part is in that project.  And in order to trust this One, we must believe that he loves us and has our best interest at heart.  Let’s all pray to be convinced of that love in a deeper and deeper way.  It makes all the difference in the world.

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“When God closes one door, He opens another”

Here’s a look at another common phrase we often use.  As I said in the last post, I think it’s worthwhile looking at what we are really meaning when we say things.  Plus, I like to overanalyze everything. Sometimes you get a twofer.

This phrase has been used on us a lot lately as resumes and interviews have amounted to a growing stack of rejection letters.  It’s meant to be encouraging, a way of reminding us that God has a plan and that He will take care of us.  And for the most part, it is true.  But is God’s will and providence as simple as him opening and closing doors and us stepping through them? Yes and no.

I have stressed in previous posts that suffering does not come from God, and it doesn’t.  It’s a result of sin.  Then why did the saints all see every event, good and bad, as coming from the hand of God?  Because in allowing sin, suffering and evil, God does not just throw up his hands and watch the free-for-all run amok.  He allows bad things in a measured way.  Even the worst sicknesses, losses or injustices can be seen as God’s will because he allows them for our greater good.  He wills not the evil, but the good that can be accomplished in and through us as a result. 

So we can take comfort in the fact that, no matter whether cutting our job was a good or bad decision, it was allowed by God, and is therefore his will for us. It is God who has closed the doors of jobs we may have wanted.   Fr. Walter Ciszek, in his book, He Leadeth Me, has come to rescue me again from self pity on this point.  I’m at the end of the book, and he’s just been thrown out of a town for finally getting to minister in an effective way to God’s people (after 23 years in prison and work camps in Soviet Russia.) Fr. Ciszek says:

 “It was humility I needed: the grace to realize my position before God- not just in times when things were going well, … but more so in times of doubt and disappointment, like today when things were not going the way I would have planned them or wished them.  That’s what humility means- learning to accept disappointments and even defeat as God-sent, learning to carry on… secure in the knowledge that something worthwile is being accomplished precisely because God’s will is at work in our life and we are doing our best to accept and follow it.” (p. 178)

So closed doors are definitively God’s will for us and our peace comes from accepting them as such.  What about open doors?  These are trickier.  When we are given the luxury of many wonderful options, such as in choosing a vocation, many look for a “definite” from God.  A lightning bolt that will signal it is time to ask the cute girl from Calculus out on a date.  But in the face of open doors, I think God respects our free will more than we sometimes think.

When given more than one option, we are free to choose any that is morally licit, that fits our needs and obligations, and that appeal to our natural talents and preferences.  When we wait around for God’s explicit command to do something, it is often an indicator of our fear of choosing the wrong thing, or a conception of God as an evil judge who will smite us if we choose the option he didn’t want.  God doesn’t play games like that, though.  If he gives us more than one good option, we should pray (which is really important!), weigh the outcomes and then simply choose.  He will be happy with the outcome!

So, as we continue to wait for doors to open around here, we are most at peace when we realize that we are not “waiting for God’s will to unfold in our lives” (as I’ve said many a time!).  His will is right here, right now.  In the hallway of humility. 

Happy Pentecost! Holy Spirit, let me know only your will.

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“God will never give you more than you can handle”

People use a lot of cliches when they are dealing with those who are suffering.  There is much truth to some of them, but it has occured to me that it might be good to spend some time examining exactly what we’re saying when we use them.  Words mean things.  And the words we use can effect what we believe about things.  

 “God will never give you more than you can handle”.

This saying strikes me as inaccurate in two aspects.  The first is that it calls to mind an image of God standing back with an armful of suffering, shoveling it out to his unsuspecting children, filling them up with it until they are just about to topple over, then stops.  The next picture in my mind is of a person floundering around shouldering the enormous burden while God sits back and watches.  This image is not accurate, of course.

God is all good. He is Goodness, Love, Perfection.  Suffering is a lack of a good.  Therefore, it cannot be “given”, and even if it could, it could not be given by God!  Suffering is a result of sin, either directly or by the fact that Original Sin earned us a fallen world.  Sickness, the toil of work, the pain of childbearing and rearing and especially death were not the original plan.  God permits suffering because it honors our freedom and because, through his mysterious providence, it somehow works out for our good, if we let it.  Just as he allowed his Son to suffer and so to win our salvation, so can suffering well borne, be a participation in the salvation of the world. It is not given merely for us to “handle”.

Secondly, I don’t know that it is true that he only gives us what we can handle.  In real life and online I have met many people who have lost children.  To be frank, there are many who can’t handle it!  I don’t think any one of us can.  Those who seem to be coping fairly well, from what I can see, are those who have faith.  I would venture to guess that it is because we realize that we can’t handle the loss and we are reaching out for help from God. 

I think this is another reason why God allows us to suffer.  It is too easy when things are going really well to settle into the comfort of believing we gained all this for ourselves.  But when we are experiencing difficulty, when we come face to face with the fact that we cannot control that which is most precious to us, we come to realize that we can’t make it on our own. 

This is no ego trip for God.  Like everything he does, it is for our good.  Because even if we could control our temporal lives, our eternal ones are beyond our reach.  Our salvation is more than we can handle, and if temporal things help us remember that, then we are on good ground.

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Another thought about waiting

In class this weekend, we took a brief detour from the realm of Ecclesiology back into Christian Anthropology, and the basic truth of who we are as people came up: we are body-and-soul.  That’s nothing new.  But our professor reminded us that it is a violence to the human person for the soul to be separate from the body.  This, of course, is why death freaks us out so much.  Even in Heaven, he said, will the Blessed not be totally as they are meant to be until they get their resurrected bodies.  (They are unbelievably fulfilled, of course, and joyful at seeing their Maker face to face.)

Anyway, someone asked about Purgatory, and how the suffering is experienced there since the Holy Souls there don’t have bodies.  He answered that the intellect knows that Heaven is coming (and how amazing it will be) and the will wants so badly to be united to the Beloved that the suffering of purgatory is waiting for that great day to come.  Purgatory is waiting.  

This reminded me of my last post.  If Purgatory is waiting, can’t it be fairly stated that waiting, done well, is Purgatory?  Think about it.  When we wait well, for what we know will be God’s amazing perfect will to unfold in our lives (how ever crappy that perfect will may seem at the time), God can burn away those same impurities in us here on earth that will have to go before we enter Heaven anyway.  Attachment to our own plans, things, ideas.  Inordinant desires for sin or just bad habits.  Dependence on self. Impatience, procrastination, distraction… name your vice, and waiting on things we can’t control has a way of demanding things of us that can burn away the bad and elevate the good. 

So, what are you waiting for? A job? A conversion of a loved one? For your wedding day? For that new baby? The weekend at the cabin? Let’s not waste it, and instead burn off some Purgatory here on earth.

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My Mormon Conversion Part II: Suffering

See the last post for the disclaimer.  In this mini-disclaimer I have to add that I am jealous of the little laminated pictures of Calvin (of Hobbes fame) that he used to explain the LDS take on Salvation History. I may steal and adapt the concept for future use.

So this is the Big Picture, according to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, as I understand it:

God the embodied Father, and his son Jesus created a whole lot of human souls.  But since the Father wanted them to learn and grow and experience things (like he did), he sent them to earth. The first to cross the veil and receive bodies were Adam and Eve.  God told them not to eat the fruit, but he really wanted them to, so that they could experience joy and sorrow, and all ranges of emotion.  So, they did eat it and now get to experience all those things: like sickness, death, hard work, etc.  Then God sent Jesus, who atoned for our sins on the Cross.  So now, when we die, our souls wait in a place whose name alludes me.  But while we are in the Waiting Place, we can still choose for or against God.  Finally, there will be a Judgement at the Second Coming and based on that we will be sent to one of three kingdoms, the highest of which is a place where you are yourself a god and spend eternity with your family.

So, for today I will look just at pre existent souls and Eden, in light of my own experience.  I know there is an undercurrent of the belief in pre-existent souls in popular culture, usually manifesting itself in a sentiment like, “I’m so glad you chose me to be your mom.”  This is flawed on many levels.  First, why would a loving God send souls completely in his presence and basking in the Beatific Vision to Earth??  Why would you want to leave heaven to go “learn and grow”? Second, what good would it be for God to create children who die in the womb, or ones who die as infants? They didn’t get to “learn and grow”.  That would kind of make their lives a mistake.  But if we look at each conception as the creation of a new human life- body and soul- then, yes, it makes at least some kind of sense.  That person now exists for eternity. 

Plus, if we were initially souls, and just dropped into our bodies to experience things, why is the dropping out of them so traumatic? Because we are body-and-soul!  The two together make up a human! They were never meant to be torn apart!

Which leads me to Eden.  I clarified with them the part about God really secretly wanting Adam and Eve to eat the fruit, because it sounded so bizarre to me.  Would any of you parents tell your kid not to do something that  you knew they’d do just so you could punish them? That would be a sick and vindictive God! Further, the idea that the suffering we undergo in this life is God’s way of letting us “experience things,” or “learn and grow”? Now, I will be the first to admit that tremendous sorrow has amazing fruit.  But I take great comfort in the fact that God never meant for death or sickness to enter the world.  I can say with confidence to any suffering parent, “God never wanted your baby to die. That’s not how it was supposed to be.”  Yes, he knew we would fall.  Yes, his solution to the problem of sin is so much better than if we had never sinned.  But make no mistake: God is not pleased with sin and its effects.  That’s why he went so far as to send us himself-his only Son- to fix the problem.

If the effects of sin are just “learning and growing”, then why do we need a Savior? Why would God need to redeem us from something that he intended us to have in the first place? It just doesn’t make sense.

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