This Beverage of Life

This Beverage of Life

“The Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith:  She believes in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth , and the sea , and all that are in them; and in one Christ, Jesus the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God:  [announcing in prophecy] the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ, Jesus our Lord, and his future manifestation from heaven in then glory of the Father to gather all things in one, and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race . . . . .

As I have already observed, the Church, having received the preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it.

She also believes these points of doctrine just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth.

For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the content of the [apostolic] tradition is one and the same.  For the churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world.

But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shines everywhere, and enlightens all [people] that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth.”

Irenaeus, Against Heresies I, 10, 1-2, trans. A Roberts and W. Rambaut, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol.I, ed. A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, and A. C. Coxe (Buffalo, N. Y.: Christian Literature Publishing, 1885); translation has been slightly modified.

Irenaeus

The Drill

The Drill

A friend of mine describes the Christian life using a military metaphor that is both helpful and enlightening….I know – what a bargain!

drill

Not this kind of drill!

Being a Christian is about learning the basics:  Prayer; reading (i.e. exegeting and interpreting) scripture; Christ-likeness; learning the Fruits of the Spirit; living the sermon on the Mount; renewal of the mind; developing spiritual habits formed in the furnace of Trinitarian relationship, etc.  These basics are like the “basic drill” an army unit performs to stay sharp.  In other words, the existential reality for the army is the drill performed in peace-time: Marching; cleaning; inspection; fitness; and so on and so forth (one doesn’t want to push a military metaphor too far – there’s enough of that going on already)!

But the basics serve the special missions:  Either planned or spontaneous mission/evangelism; specific seasons of ministry; short or long-term mission; local or national or international.  In short, an Olympic athlete’s gold medal was forged on the running tracks of Trinidad; the swimming pools of Portugal and the cycling arenas of Argentina – the actual final in which it was won is almost a moot point!  The basic drill serves the special mission.

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Blessed are….

With thanks to the excellent team at Holy Ground, Exeter for showing this video recently, and Fr. Simon Rundell SCP for providing it, and of course Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber for writing it in her book ‘Accidental Saints’.  This has the aroma of Jesus all over it.

To assume the Gospel is to lose the Gospel

To assume the Gospel is to lose the Gospel

“If you get to the place as an individual in a family or in leadership in a local maxresdefaultchurch, you get to the place where the Gospel is that which is assumed, but which you’re not particularly excited about, the next generation puts the Gospel to one side.  It assumes it too but doesn’t really care.  The generation after that loses the Gospel.

So when you come likewise to something like the Lord’s Supper, I would argue that one of the groups of churches that is most likely to lose the centrality of the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, is precisely the Plymouth Brethren; precisely because it’s so central for [them].  That’s not an insult, it’s a perennial danger in every denomination:  that which is most understood to be central can accidentally become that which is merely assumed – and then is on the edge of being lost!”

D. A. Carson

“A perennial danger” maybe the perennial danger.  I have found that as wonderful as being involved in a church can be, the power of assumptions are quite something to behold.  We assume too much because what we assume is too little.  There is a cognitive displacement that takes place, as though the Gospel is a stepping stone to actual ministry, or actual church business:  The Gospel is actual ministry and it is actual church business.  I suppose it gives rise to the reason why Carson would also say “I cannot think of  why any thinking Christian would not want to study theology.”  

Any departure from the Gospel is, of course, a catastrophic mistake more serious than if the escaping Israelites had set up home in the middle of the parted waters as they escaped the despotic Pharoah.  Many churches have “set up home” in the place where they are still being redeemed, because they have assumed the Gospel, they have fallen for the perennial danger; they have cuddled the wolf thinking it is a lamb.  This leads inevitably to a fossilising of corporate church life and of personal devotional life.  That is how the theological wolves pacify the churches today.

Institutional monotony is as alive and well in decaying Catholic churches as well as so-called charismatic-evangelical churches.  Give us a baby in a manger any day but do not give us the Christ who walks on water or wakes the dead!”  The Gospel obviously gives both – and shows that the baby doesn’t stay in the manger because he likewise doesn’t stay in the boat….or the grave for that matter.  A water-walking, dead-rising Messiah is a Messiah we can’t control, and the moment we have controlled him…..it’s not Him but another sentimental Hymn of slogans (this is the point to say that a truly great hymn can be reduced to sentimental sloganeering no less than a soppy bad hymn – it is the culture in which it is sung that makes the difference).  If it is a culture of Gospelised content, then wonderful.  But if not, then it is noise and wind!

Let us not lose sight of the Gospel because we’ve been too busy or too lazy to see it.  In 1534 John Calvin wrote on the importance of the Gospel, the opening of which reads:

jean-calvin-028“Without the gospel
everything is useless and vain;
without the gospel
we are not Christians;
without the gospel
all riches is poverty,
all wisdom folly before God;
strength is weakness…”

I have quoted it in full here, and it is a brilliant reminder of the things that are of first importance.  Our cognitive displacement is, I think, part of our tendency to sloganeer words rather than live with their reality and depth.  In other words, actual biblical content has been displaced in favour of mere words that are biblical but function as religious slogans.  This happens in our worship, mission, evangelism and devotions.  Often, what we think is Christianity is a parody, a shadow a pale reflection.  The Gospel, and all its content and entailments is biblical Christianity.  An assumed Gospel is a sloganeered Gospel, empty of power, depth and meaning – and who wants that?  Not me!

And we say this because we love the church.  And we love the church because Jesus loves the church.  Dodman Cross

Risk-Opoly-Chess-Battle-Scrabble

games

We set up the board as it should be set up.  A place for everything and for everything, a place.  You go first.  Ah, nice move.  The Knight advances.  My call:  A7…. That’s got to be a hit – the aircraft carrier I reckon, well….Eighteen points for that word?  How can that be?  Lead-piping in the Library is no match for an attack of infantry and cavalry – it’s going to be a blood bath.  Your move:  Rats!  A geography question – If a Lieutenant attacks the Spy, deep into enemy territory – who wins?  Draw a picture and I’ll try to guess who!  But do not pass go, there is no £200, but there is a jail.  Only three 6’s get you out of that, and you know what the fundamentalists think about that!

This is gibberish.

A Christendom model of Church is equally gibberish in a post-Christendom context, a bit like playing the rules of one game whilst playing another!  Trying to keep all these games going in some sort of super-human Robo-Cop-Christian kind of way, is demeaning and dehumanising, a bit like what Stanley Hauerwas in Resident Aliens calls being nibbled to death by ducks (p.126).

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Lord, being a pastor is impossible!

Lord, being a pastor is impossible!

I am re-reading the brilliant book by Dave Hansen ‘The Art of Pastoring’ and the same day I came across this wonderful article by Mandy Smith re-printed below.hansen

There is a dynamic in being a pastor that is quite incredible.  We are neither managers nor mechanics; farmers nor chefs; social workers nor nurses.  And I am grateful for those who do these things.  Yet pastoring with integrity is most certainly not “running the church” (God forbid), but it is about being squeezed by Heaven’s Hands whilst living and loving in this pressurised mixed up world, often perfectly encapsulated by individual congregations around the world.  Too many people bemoan “the state of the church” myself included – but take one minute to think about it….how can it be anything but, this side of Glory?

bartonMy own church is no exception (and they are entirely innocent of anything this blog produces ;-), and whilst the list below is an accurate reflection of pastoral ministry, it ebbs and flows with varying degrees of weight and emphasis throughout the points on the list in a pastor’s ministry.

I am totally confident in the Gospel of Jesus Christ to break rocks to peices and re-make old, sin-tired hearts anew.  And that process by definition is hard, tough, gritty, life-changing and will divide people.  That is why P. T. Forsyth is right to say that the Gospel, when proclaimed faithfully, will both attract and repel its hearers.  The Gospel is a dividing thing, and so it should come as no surprise that churches are places, under Gospel proclamation, that wrestle, Jacob-like, with the Angel of the Lord, until a new person is formed.  The church is not a happy social club where we are meant to just “get on” and “be nice”, not a place where things should be smoothed over into a kind of bland conforming mediocrity, but a gathering of sinners learning what it means to be the New Humanity created in, through and by, the atoning and redemptive work of Christ.  The church should be a lot rougher, not smoother.  And that’s how grace works:  Grace doesn’t work or isn’t needed in a wonderful, open, tolerant, all-loving, all-embracing community (this is how some people wish the church was) – how can it?  To exercise grace, there must be un-grace and disgrace. To exercise patience, there must be impatience and all manner of urgencies.  To exercise true agape love, there must be self-love and no-love, etc, etc.

Sinful men and women all of us.  And some of us sinners go on under the call of God to be pastors.  And it is these pastors who face what I think are astonishing complexities in everyday life, simply because we are going about the business of the Kingdom of God – and that is terrifying in its own right.  Jesus builds his church, and this sometimes (often?) despite the church, despite me.

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The mirth of believers

The mirth of believers

We live in a broken world, with astonishing levels of violence, rivalry and scapegoating.  And only a fraction of it makes the news.

But one of the most counter-intuitive resistances human beings can do, and should do, is to laugh.  Laughter is what makes us human, and since we are all made in God’s image, as Sydney Harris says, “God cannot be solemn, or he would not have blessed us with the incalculable gift of laughter.”

The New Testament does not have one single account of Jesus laughing.  But it would be a mistake to think he never did.  Jesus was most gloriously free and always unashamedly himself.  He wore no religious masks.  Laughter is not less than holy, but an actual fact of it.

I can’t read the story  of the seemingly rude encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman in which Jesus refers to her as a dog – as anything but Jesus humourously teasing out of her a response that is a product of true faith, faith that sees.  I suspect he even had a wry smile on his face as he did so, and so did the spiritually astute woman (Mark 7:24).

Sometimes our churches can be communities that are reduced.  Places of simmered down spiritualities.  Dour, serious, pious!

Maybe we’ve thought that to permit laughter is to allow victory to the devil.  Some people get very serious when they get religion.  That’s a shame.  Maybe they think laughter represents weakness, corruption and foolishness of the flesh.

I think one of the holiest sounds in our churches, or anywhere, is laughter.

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Phenomenal Penh

Phenomenal Penh

Here’s my brief write up for the Baptist Times on the mission to Cambodia we experienced in November 2015….

From Torquay to Cambodia

Barton Baptist Church recently undertook a mission trip to Cambodia, involving the whole church. Minister Richard Matcham reflects

Cambodia

It is an incredible thing to attempt a full-scale mission trip that includes the whole church! We always knew that all of us should be involved, but that only some of us will go.

Barton is a small-ish Baptist Church in Torquay, and we took ten people on a mission trip to Cambodia in partnership with a church in Australia, who themselves took thirteen people.

We wanted it to be an inspiring time of trusting God for provision, hearing God’s voice, uniting for the team and church, and the like. We didn’t want to merely see the seasoned travellers go, but the unseasoned. We didn’t want those with missions’ experience to be the only ones, but those going for the first time.

Nor did we want only those with the means to go, but also those with no natural means to go. In the end we had a good combination. For those who stayed, they prayed. “Some will go; some will stay; all will pray!” That was our tag-line.

It was a sweet irony that a Baptist church in the English Riviera partnered with a church in Victoria, Australia, called the ‘Riviera Christian Centre’. This church has been partnered with several ministries within Cambodia for the past fifteen years, and every year, they take more people, young or old, experienced or not, to experience the world of Christian ministry within the format of short-term mission.

Cambodia was simply breath-taking, amazing people and truly amazing pepper! It was also heart-breaking. The country is a generation from the catastrophe of the Pol Pot era in the 1970s. Thus it is a “young” country, but it is emerging at pace as it faces the future.
The ministries we experienced were connected to the big city church in the capital Phnom Penh (or ‘Phenomenal Penh’ as I like to call it), and two particular ministries: one devoted to the education, feeding, health and nurture of children from very poor backgrounds, called ‘Transform Cambodia’; the other, a ministry that offers support, education and dignity to women and children who had been caught up in the trafficking industries, called ‘Precious Women’.

Every aspect of ministry focus had its historical tragedy, but there was not one without present or future hope. In a country where the Killing Fields have become an open museum and a testament to human evil, there is hope, and a significant part of it is located within what the church is doing, empowered by the Gospel.

Cambodia2Outside the capital, we visited the town of Poipet, on the Thailand border. This border town, displays the usual subsistence-level poverty and great wealth, side-by-side, as it is in many places around the world. Here, we supported the ministry of the church (a plant from the capital), including youth work, preaching, outreach and evangelism, prayer, pastoral ministry and the like.

There was much here that challenged many on the team, but despite whatever each individual on the team was experiencing, I for one, was so impressed with how the personal difficulties were covered for the sake of the corporate unity and the wider mission. The group held together in a truly astonishing way, even though for some, the difference in culture was challenging!

It is my hope and prayer that, in doing something like this, we gain a fraction more of the Kingdom of God and the wider world. That our churches exist for more than our local communities; that it is good for our local communities to see and know that their local church has done something out of the ordinary. That they are people who take God seriously, that God is not content with mere localism, even if we are; that our horizons must expand if we are to love and serve in a world that desperately needs to experience the love of God in Christ.

A banner of gratitude and thanks hangs at the back of our church from the members budding Christian community in Poipet. It reminds us that Barton Baptist Church is inextricably linked to the worldwide church. And we’ve been there to make and then tell our own stories of the love of Christ!

barton
The Revd Richard Matcham is minister of Barton Baptist Church in Torquay

 

 

Twelve glorious pounds gets you this:

relating-faithHaving a commendation on the back cover, it is no surprise that I am a fan of Rob Knowles’s work.  I am also a friend!  Friend first, then fan, or “Frand” as my son tells me!

Anyway, below is the write up on the Authentic Media website for his alarmingly critical-but-profoundly-biblical look at church and culture and church-culture!

If £12 is too much, you could get it here for £7-ish.    If that is too much, get in touch with me and I’ll send you a copy myself!  You can see why I think this so important by reading my redacted version under “commendations” below.

In this book, Robert Knowles seeks to encourage Christians to embrace and model authentic biblical Christianity – or “Relating Faith” – in their discipleship, church, and mission. Our faith is relational in that “love for God and neighbour sums up the Law and the Prophets” and in that, in response to the Great Commission, we are to relate our faith in Jesus Christ to the world where it is actually at today. Such “relating faith” is biblical not least in that Christians are to be matured and refereed in their love, or biblical lawfulness, primarily through the Holy Spirit’s formative and relational activation of biblical speech-acts.

Knowles argues, however, that the Western church has so allowed itself to be shaped by ancient, modern and postmodern Western culture and thinking, that it has in effect lost its authentic biblical shape as “relating faith”. Knowles identifies five broad kinds of inauthentic or unbiblical sub-culture within the contemporary Western (and especially British) church that, whilst they are by no means the whole truth about the church, have still critically compromised its biblical shape and mission so as to render the church “non-relational” and even oppressive. Knowles then argues that these five counterfeit non-relational church sub-cultures are responsible for Christians hopping between churches or else leaving the church in droves, and for non-Christians increasingly seeing the church as irrelevant.

In order to address this problem, Knowles gives detailed expositions of the shape of authentic biblical discipleship, church and mission on the one hand, and of the shape of Western modernity and postmodernity on the other hand. In the light of these expositions Knowles argues that the apparently more “modern” and/or “postmodern” shape of the five inauthentic or unbiblical contemporary church sub-cultures that he has identified has resulted, in part, from a long-standing anti-intellectual, anti-theological, and anti-biblical attitude of cherished ideological and cultural ignorance within the church. Notably, Knowles argues that this pietistic attitude has allowed the church to see false prophecy as “true”, and to see the truly prophetic, the theological and even sometimes biblical doctrine as, at best, of only marginal or “merely academic” importance. This conclusion forms the platform from which Knowles calls Christians back to authentic biblical discipleship, church and mission – to “relating faith”.

COMMENDATIONS
“Rob’s gift to the Church is to communicate rich theological truth in profoundly relational ways with the Scriptures at the centre. Those who want more and know there’s more but just don’t know where to look, would find in Rob’s work a goldmine of wisdom, and Christ is the fount of it all.”
– Rev’d Richard Matcham, Minister of Barton Baptist Church, Torquay

“I am glad to commend this book. It combines such technical-sounding topics as speech-act theory and postmodernism with very practical issues in bible study and the Christian life. Dr Knowles has shown that these are down-to-earth tools and issues which can be of practical use in everyday Christian discipleship. Issues such as that of church leadership are also raised in a practical way.”
– Anthony C. Thiselton, Emeritus Professor of Christian Theology, University of Nottingham

“Rob Knowles is one of those people who has had a massive influence on my life and ministry; his work is always thoughtful, challenging, and very helpful. Rob always seeks to be thoroughly biblical, and he’s never one to duck the tough questions or offer easy platitudes. I thoroughly recommend this volume as one which will help you significantly in your life and ministry.”
– Rev’d Ted Fell, Vicar of All Saints Anglican Church, Kings Cross, London

Finally, a review from the above link.  I’ll use Tim’s review, I’m sure he won’t mind, since we were the central defense duo for the famous Woodies FC in the late 90’s.  I’ve saved his bacon a few times and now by quoting him he can return the favour!

By ‘Tim’

A very enlightening read for anyone who attends church; a helpful read for people who are struggling with church; and an indispensible read for people who lead Christian churches or facilitate church activities, church structures or church communities.

Dr Rob Knowles has written a book about how the church can be more like God intended it to be. Knowles is a philosophical theologian who has written a previous, more theoretical book, an exposition of Professor Anthony Thiselton’s theology (Anthony C. Thiselton and the Grammar of Hermeneutics – Paternoster, 2012), whose influential thinking he also scrupulously acknowledges here in Relating Faith.

Relating Faith had me ‘laughing out loud’, ‘nodding in agreement’ and ‘making sharp intakes of breath’ in equal measure. Before I explain why, a quick, simplified précis of the contents.

Part one of Relating Faith (on Discipleship) outlines some ways in which people can experience, and be formed as disciples by God, through reading the bible. This section has practical examples and a novel model for devotional times. This section of the book proceeds in detail to expound Christian discipleship in terms of love, or biblical lawfulness.
Part two, (on Church) draws on this account of Christian discipleship as ‘love for God and for others’, and explains the ways in which the church has often departed from this emphasis. No one tradition is given prominence, and whatever your church tradition there is something challenging for you to reflect on.
Part three (on Mission) summarizes contemporary ideas in the Western world, and how these influence church culture and Christians’ attitude to and practice of relating to those around them – particularly with respect to mission.

Back to the reactions I mentioned earlier, and also a chance to comment on the style of the book.
• ‘Sharp intakes of breath.’
The book is hard hitting in style. It contains detailed accounts of the ways in which our behavior tends to be narcissistic. It also describes many ways in which church has become distorted. Behind this, one senses the author’s conviction and excitement that a more ‘truthful’ view of things can ‘set us free’ from such distortions. Grace is also strongly highlighted (chapter 3). If you have similar assumptions to me, then I expect Dr Knowles will convince you that the Western church has a longer way to go before it appears like the ‘bride of Jesus Christ’ than you previously assumed.

• ‘Nodding in Agreement.’
The book puts forward a detailed explanation as to why we sometimes find church less than perfect. The author uses ‘types’ such as ‘Applause-seekers’ or ‘Local Heroes’ to describe the ways in which the church has (sometimes unwittingly) copied ways of doing things from the culture surrounding it, such as celebrity TV shows or business models of leadership. From my limited experience of different churches, these examples often ring true. More fundamentally, this analysis offers a different starting place for reforming churches than ’10 things to make your meetings more welcoming’.

• ‘Laughing out loud.’
The author has a way with words. A classic example is the 101 word sentence in chapter 9, in which Knowles seeks to essentially capture the downsides to the ‘consumerist-driven’ ‘bad aspects’ of postmodernity influencing western culture. The book is aimed at the general reader. The author himself acknowledges on p.168 that there are a plenty of ‘long words’. Some people may find reading takes a fair bit of effort. But it’s a good way of expanding anyone’s vocabulary, plus it’s a gripping way of getting a handle on some of the key ‘buzzwords’ and ‘ideas’ which really shape contemporary society.

Personally, I found the book contained dense nuggets of description which chimed with – or even explained for the first time – my experiences in many different spheres of life. To give just a few examples: it provoked new excitement about devotional times; raised awareness about the influence of the culture around me, including why I have sometimes in the past found various jobs rather oppressive; convicted me that I had failed to love others, perhaps because I related to them in ways which were more about trying to win approval in my internal church structures; and gave hope and a particular vision for the church – as a God centered community of people – as potentially loving, wise, growing and relationally mature.

If you’re serious about your faith, PLEASE get this book!
relating-faith

The 11th Plague: Pornography

Free CandyOver the years I have mentored and counselled many young men and older-to-middle-aged men on the addictions they have regarding internet pornography.  I am convinced this has to be at the centre of all discipleship discussions and in no way shirked by ministers and anyone in leadership responsibility.

In every case I have assumed it is happening in the lives of these men and I have never been wrong (in this at least)!  The prevalence of shame and guilt linked to this addiction is destroying not just marriages and relationships, but people as individuals.

shame

Pornography is the ultimate locust plague and the newest form of the Golden Calf; the ultimate consumerist need; a dehumanising consumption of humanity – by humanity – on a scale hitherto unknown.

It presents itself as something good, something delicious, but it is not; it may look like a nice cake but it is horse manure wrapped in icing that is laced with despair and brokennness.

Yes I know pornography is as old as the skies.  Yes I know the complexities of the nature-nurture debates and the desire-affections debates and the secret Victorian obsessions and the Canaanite fertility symbols that demonstrate in one way or another this is not new:  mankind is obsessed with sex.  But what we face today as a “postmodern” people in a global world is new.  Something has shifted, and the statistics below merely highlight the beginnings of this new-(but old)-world-order.

We are now beyond the territory of the erotic (marital) sex of the Song of Solomon, and we have walked blindfolded into the horror show of Ezekiel 16 and 23.  Some may say that since this blog is a Christian blog, that I am some sort of lemon-sucking prude, a proper Victorian anti-sex Puritan.  Well I’m not.  The statistics below (from but one country) will contain the detail of what and why I am against this vile trade in people who are made in the image of God.

The Guardian online recently published an excellent article by Laura Bates entitled ‘Rape is not a punchline or a way to sell Christmas presents‘.  She writes,

“In fact, there is evidence of some links between the portrayal of women as sexual objects and attitudes that underpin violence against women and girls. The government-commissioned Sexualisation of Young People review found evidence to suggest a clear link between consumption of sexualised images, a tendency to view women as objects and the acceptance of aggressive attitudes and behaviours as the norm. And the 2010 report by the American Psychological Association on the Sexualisation of Girls detailed links between sexually objectifying images of women and girls in mainstream media and significantly higher levels of acceptance of rape myths, victim-blaming, sexual harassment and interpersonal violence.”

I find it astonishing we need government-commissioned reviews to reach this plainly obvious conclusion.  This runs in tandem with the idiotic advertising strategies of various corporations around the world to suggest and insinuate rape and abuse of women in order to sell their grubby wares!  It should take more than public shock and complaint to realise this; or is the saturation of our minds by advertising companies now so dense that enticements to rape and abuse are the thing that will keep our economies strong?  In fact, “woe to you” if that’s what it takes to run a business in profit, and maintain a strong economy.

BTW, this post is not about anyone’s right “to do what they want” or whatever narcissistic neo-liberal construct of society you choose to adopt (as though anything one individual does is completely independent of anything and everyone around them (whether you are a Christian or not) – what nonsense)!  It is simply about the fallout from this industry that is destroying real lives on an industrial scale.  

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