Of Good Report and Praiseworthy

An inclusive group of women and artists are working to create “Meetinghouse Mosaic.” Their goal is to fill LDS meetinghouses with art that is more accurate in representing the historical Jesus and will allow diverse Saints to more fully identify with representations of Him. They are sponsoring a gallery show at Writ and Vision next year. The call for submissions is below, but be sure to check out all the other virtuous and lovely things they are doing at https://meetinghousemosaic.com/

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Avoiding Affinity Fraud: The Las Vegas Mormon Ponzi Scheme

Today, the Washington Post published a story detailing an alleged Ponzi scheme that targeted Mormons. (It’s worth noting that one of the alleged fraudsters—the one who seems to have thought up the scheme—was not Mormon. The rest? Yep. Mormon.) Ultimately, Mormons and others lost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Avoid Blaming the Victims

Before I go any further, I want to make something clear. Because I’ve been on the internet long enough to know that people are already formulating comments painting the victims of this fraud as greedy or as overly naive. Both reactions, while appealing, are wrong. The victims of this Ponzi scheme were, in fact, victims of people committing fraud. Blaming the victim of a crime for their victimhood is psychologically natural. But natural doesn’t mean right, morally or substantively. And blaming crime victims is neither right nor moral.

But also, both accusations miss the mark. Were the victims naive? Maybe. But remember Bernie Madoff? His investors/victims included banks, investment funds, charitable foundations, universities, pension funds, and plenty of other sophisticated people and entities. So dismissing victims as simpletons and naïfs doesn’t work.

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Christ as a Reader of Scripture: A View of the Temptation Scenes in Matthew and Luke

“Victory and triumph to the Son of God,
Now entering his great duel, not of arms,
But to vanquish by wisdom hellish wiles!”
—John Milton, Paradise Regained

Milton turned a lot of heads in Paradise Regained by setting Christ’s victory over Satan in the Wilderness Temptation scene, rather than the places that most of his contemporaries placed it; the Virgin Birth, the struggle in Gethsemane, the Crucifixion, or the Resurrection. But Milton had a method to his madness. For the author of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, the battle between Jesus Christ and the devil was a battle of interpretation. Both knew the scriptures well, and both had the ability to incorporate them into their own narratives. As Milton sets it up, the victory must go to the better reader.

This is not quite what Matthew and Luke are doing in their versions of the Temptation scene, but it is also not quite NOT what they are doing. Especially Matthew, who is the most scripturally knowledgeable of all the gospel writers and whose audience had the most interest in understanding how Jesus related to the Hebrew scriptures. Matthew’s version of the Temptation might reasonably be described—though not with anything like Milton’s scope—as a competition between Jesus and Satan to determine the best reader of the Bible.

Here’s what I mean.

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Gun Violence in Our Upside-Down World: A Sermon

We Mormons don’t give sermons. We give talks. We like our pulpit-talk, and all of our talk for that matter, to be collegial, mild, and soft. Given the choice we’ll always take banana bread. “Talks” don’t make waves.

Today I want to sermonize. I want to call down a some fire on Pentecost and shine with the Glory of the Lord. I want to call our people to real action, challenge our thinking, and pound the pulpit while I do it. 

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Presenting A World of Faith, Second Edition

The first edition of A World of Faith, by award-winning Salt Lake Tribune religion reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack, with illustrations by the phenomenal artist Kathleen Peterson, was published in 1998 to thunderous applause. Plaudits for this edition came from former president Jimmy Carter, Notre Dame University President Theodore Hesburgh, and professional free-thinker Paul Kurtz. It was an enormously successful volume. A commemorative version was published in 2001 to celebrate the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.

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New from BCC Press: Living on the Inside of the Edge from Christian Kimball

If you are one of the people for whom this book was written, you will know it immediately, probably from the title: Living on the Inside of the Edge. This is a book—and we are pretty sure the only book—for Latter-day Saints who can’t be all the way in but don’t want to be all the way out. The back-row-sitting, striped-shirt-or-pantsuit-wearing, read-a-book in Sacrament Meeting crowd that feels Mormon to the core but sometimes wishes they didn’t. Christian doesn’t want to try to convince you to stay, and he doesn’t want to encourage you to leave. He wants to give you some practical advice about how to be reasonably happy as an edge-dweller.

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Does Mormonism break our ability to properly grieve?

(CW/TW: Domestic abuse; gun violence)

Recently, a terrible crime was committed in Southern Utah. A man shot and killed his wife, his mother-in-law, his five children, and himself. It is a horrible story. But what interests me today are the public statements made by both the man’s family and the wife’s family. I’m sure you are already familiar with both and they are abyssmal, although in different ways. However, they both point to something I’m curious about: do Mormons know how to properly grieve?

Now I want to be clear, I understand that everyone grieves in their own way and that nobody should be held up to some sort of standard for proper grieving. But, in Mormonism, we all know what good grief looks like.

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Say It Again, Sam (a Plea to Bishops)

You know that moment: the person blessing the sacrament looks at the bishop. The bishop shakes his head. And, instead of standing up and handing the trays of bread or water, the person repeats the prayer. The congregation may be puzzled the second time through. By the third, fourth, or fifth time, they’re holding their collective breath, praying that this time he gets through it.

The first time, his voice is clear, notwithstanding the small error. The second time, if you listen closely, you can hear it begin to shake. And every subsequent time, the shaking gets worse.

So what’s up with that? Well, some combination of tradition and the Handbook. But we should back up a little: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints doesn’t have a lot of liturgical prayers. By and large, we’re devotional prayer people. But we have a couple liturgical prayers. The big ones are the sacrament prayers and the baptismal prayer, two prayers that we get from our scriptures.[fn1]

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Splendour in the Brown Grass: Some thoughts on Getting Older with Poetry

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death.
In years that bring the philosophic mind.

—William Wordsworth: “Ode: Intimations of Immortality

Unlike his fellow great Romantic poets—John Keats, Percy Shelly, and George Gordon, Lord Byron—William Wordsworth did not have the good fortune to die young and tragically. While his peers blazed like meteors and consumed themselves in their brilliant flames, Wordsworth had to figure out how to grow old.

Did I mention that he was 33 years old? Yeah, Romantic poetry has always been a young person’s game.

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The Truth of Relationship

M. David Huston lives and works in the Washington DC metro area. He is a husband and father of four who has previously written for poetry, international affairs, and LDS-related publications.

Hymn number 272 in the LDS hymn book poses one of the most important questions around: “Oh say, what is truth?” Interestingly, the song never answers the question it poses—it describes truth (a gem, a prize, the first and last) but never offers a definition for the term. The Doctrine and Covenants calls truth the “knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come (D&C 93:24), which (if I’m honest) isn’t much help either given our limited understanding of the past and the future (and, really, of the present).  And since I’m not a philosopher by training, I’m not well equipped to survey the thousands of years of thinking on the subject (though Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers a fabulous starting point).[1]

All that to say, the phrase “I know the church is true”—which is ubiquitous in most LDS Wards and Stakes and is common fare in General Conference addresses—is phrase I’ve always struggled to understand. You see, common usage of the term “truth” seems to be tied to claims/statements. Generally speaking, what most people seem to mean when they say a thing is “true” is that a given claim/statement aligns with facts on the ground (or in heaven!).  Yet “the church” is not a claim/statement; church is a social group. How can a social group be “true”?

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Introducing the New Testament (or: How I wish CFM began)

“We are Surrounded by a Great Cloud of Witnesses” by Brenda K. Robinson.

Strangely, this year’s Come Follow Me materials lack a general introduction to the New Testament. It’s useful at the outset of a year of study to take a mile-high view. So here’s a hypothetical lesson outline.

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The Women of Matthew 1

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David. And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah. (Matthew 1:2-6)

Readers of the Old Testament learn very quickly that, as soon as the “begats” start, it is OK to start skimming. The elaborate genealogies mean very little to us today, however important they may have been to the Bronze Age tribal cultures that produced the Old Testament.

Matthew, however, has some tricks up his sleeve that we are going to miss if we don’t pay close attention to the list of who begat whom. Specifically, we will miss the significance of the four women who appear in the 42 generations listed from Abraham to Jesus. These women are: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba (the wife of Uriah), each of whom had a prominent role in the Hebrew scriptures that Matthew is consciously choosing to map his own work onto.

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“I can see people, but they look like trees”: Insight and Humility in the Gospel of Mark

They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?”And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again, and he looked intently, and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, “Do not even go into the village.”
                                                —Mark 8:22-26 (NRSV)

The story of Jesus healing the blind man in Bethesda is, in at least one way, the most remarkable of the New Testament’s miracle stories: it is the only time that Jesus needs two tries to get it right. The first time is only half a miracle. The man can see people, but they look like trees. He sees, but badly.

This is one of the very few stories that appear only in Mark’s Gospel—90% of which occurs in either Matthew or Luke (or both), who had access to Mark when they wrote their own versions. The fact that the later evangelists left this bit on the cutting room floor suggests that even they felt uncomfortable portraying Jesus as someone unable to heal somebody on the first try.

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The Little Lord of Small Concerns

My concerns are so petty.

Whenever I pause to pray, that’s almost always my first thought. Who am I to ask God for anything? He’s already given me everything. A warm home, a loving family, good health. So what if my baby won’t nap? So what if my puppy needs surgery? So what if I constantly feel overwhelmed by adulting? That’s called life.

Nearly all my petty concerns will resolve themselves, with or without divine intervention. So who am I to waste God’s time? Who am I to ask for mild creature comforts when so much of the world is suffering? I would genuinely rather God direct his energy to those who need it more. So my solution is often to just not pray. Some piece of me believes that’s a selfless act. I assume God’s energy, like mine, is finite. In a finite universe, I confess I’m not a priority.

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Blame Christmas

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Towards the end W.H. Auden’s For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, written 80 years ago, Auden gives an imaginative narrative voice to a marvelously contemporary and thoroughly professional Herod the Great, the man responsible for the Massacre of the Innocents, at least according to Matthew 2:16-18. The Herod of Auden’s prose-poem is a hard-working, highly intelligent, rigorously sensible man, someone wise enough not to imagine that he knows everything, but grounded enough to be confident in the consequences of even that which he does not know. The story of Jesus, he realizes, whether or not it is true, must be stopped immediately, because the masses of people in the world are delicate, desperate, and often deplorable, and in need of the disciplining, dependable myths which are central to the religious and civic order. Allow them to start thinking about God’s relationship to humanity as a personal Gift, as an expression of divine Love, as fundamentally a Mystery, and madness will reign. In imagining Herod in this way, Auden was perhaps updating, and making more relatable, the equally hard-working, highly intelligent, and rigorously sensible Grand Inquisitor of Fyodor Dostoevsky, but honestly, this man is a figure well-known to many of us, and sometimes–especially for people like me who take traditions seriously enough to think they are worth arguing about–maybe is us as well.

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Solidarity with Ukraine this Christmas

The war being waged against the civilian population of Ukraine—denying them light, heat and life itself—shocks the conscience. There is no silver lining, no higher purpose to the horror being deliberately visited on Ukraine’s families.

Nevertheless, their resilience allows us to hope for and work toward a better future. As Timothy Snyder put it, “Ukrainian resistance to what appeared to be overwhelming force reminded the world that democracy is not about accepting the apparent verdict of history. It is about making history; striving toward human values despite the weight of empire, oligarchy, and propaganda; and, in so doing, revealing previously unseen possibilities.”

At this time of the year in particular—when Christians around the world commemorate the humble commencement of a remarkable series of events that changed the world—hope is called for. Stanislav Shyrokoradiuk, Bishop of Odessa-Simferopol, said in an interview today that “More than ever, Christmas this year is the festival of longing for real peace to come amid all the misery we are currently experiencing. We will therefore celebrate Christmas more consciously than ever this year” (my translation). 

I will do my best to join him.

In the Mountains, Everyone is on a “Thou” Basis

I know the title of my post has a strange ring in the ears of most native speakers of English—”thou” is an archaic pronoun, and even members of the church who are accustomed to hearing and even using it on a regular basis only do so when praying. So what’s the deal with the title? Well, “thou” is what you will find in English translations of the scriptures where “du” is found in German versions. Take, for example, the season-appropriate twenty-first verse of the first chapter of Mathew:

And [Mary] shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.

In German, that verse reads:

[Maria] wird einen Sohn gebären; ihm sollst du den Namen Jesus geben; denn er wird sein Volk von seinen Sünden erlösen.

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O Come, O Come Emmanuel

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel.

Who needs to be ransomed? Until recently, I had always thought this “ransom” essentially meant “bail” like in the famous Boyd K. Packer analogy of the Atonement. 

But a ransom is a price that, in a just world, never would have been set to end a suffering that, in a just world, never would have been borne. 

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Now Let Your Servant Depart in Peace: Simeon’s Song in the Advent Tradition

Nunc Dimittis or Asunto místico by Fiovanni Bellini (1505-1510) 

The world’s first Christmas carols can be found in the Book of Luke. The three major canticles—Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), Zachariah’s Benedictus (1:67-79), and Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:29-32)—are among the first Christian praise songs that we know anything about. They are much more than Luke’s attempt to reconstruct dialogue that he was not around for. They represent the powerful thoughts and feelings that the very first Christians had while contemplating the central event of their new religion.

I have written before about the Magnificat, perhaps the best-known of these canticles. Today, though, I want to focus on the third of the three, the Nunc Dimittis (“Now you let depart”), or the Canticle of Simeon.

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Why I Tithe

Natalie Brown holds a PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. She is writing in her personal capacity, and her views do not represent those of her employer.

A voice on the internet recently noted that some portion of Mormons would tithe even if the Church burnt their offerings. This voice arose from understandable frustration that the Church has generated billions of dollars from tithes while oversight of how that money is spent (or not spent) is lacking.

I share this frustration. I believe that such revenue should be spent on projects that address the pressing economic injustices of our moment, including reinvesting that money in LDS families who increasingly struggle in our present economy. Indeed, I have found myself thinking about tithing lately because I have recently taken a second job in order to replenish my family’s budget by approximately the same amount we pay in tithing. From the standpoint of efficiency, tithing does not make sense.

While the membership can and should discuss how tithes are spent to promote more effective stewardship, the question of how tithes should be spent is, for me, distinct from the question of whether I should pay them. God will hold those in charge of administering funds accountable. As someone who believes in God’s existence, the more pressing personal question is whether I’m willing to make the sacrifice He asks of us today.

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Tolstoy’s “Master and Man”: An Advent Sermon on Love

“The Christian doctrine shows man that the essence of his soul is love—that his happiness depends not on loving this or that object, but on loving the principle of the whole—God, whom he recognizes within himself as love, and therefore he loves all things and all men.”

― Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God Is Within You

We begin not with a poem, as is so often my wont, but with one of the most striking and beautiful pieces of prose that I have ever read. Leo Tolstoy’s 1895 “Master and Man” is usually classified as a short story, but, like most things by Tolstoy, it is very long. One could be forgiven for calling it a novella. And if you plan to read it (and you should definitely plan to read it), you should exit now and read it before coming back. There will be spoilers.

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Lullay, My Liking

One of my earliest memories is lying under the glowing Christmas tree with all the other lights off, listening to my dad’s LP collection of Christmas music.  Last year, as I tried to recreate this collection digitally, I rediscovered a song that was deeply embedded in my memory.  Lullay, My Liking—in this case sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir accompanied by the New York Philharmonic—was mesmerizing to me as a child.   

Then, I didn’t understand why it affected me so deeply, but I now realize that the interplay between major and minor chords with a sweet and hopeful resolution at the end set some of my core preferences for emotional music.  Hearing it again more than 40 years later brought memories flooding back. But as a parent, Mary’s 15th century crooning lullaby of “Lullay, mine Liking, my dear Son, mine Sweeting, Lullay, my dear heart, mine own dear darling” struck me somewhat differently.  The poignancy of the resolving chords now sound as fragile to me as they did hopeful. The emotional pull is still there, but deepened with adult understanding.  My own experiences with the devastating love of parenthood has changed the song for me.

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Your Sunday Brunch Special: Mormon Free Will as Primary or Emergent in History as a Superposition of the King Follett Sermon and Polygamy

Free will is often confused with what Latter-day Saints have traditionally named Free Agency (and later emphasis: Moral Agency). There is a background.

In Joseph Smith’s (JS) teaching after 1838 there is a clear notion of uncreated souls=spirits=minds. This is represented in Mormon literature after 1890 by JS’s King Follett Sermon (KFS)—a name externally attached to JS’s April 7, 1844 sermon after a relatively short time, at least by the 1850s. In KFS, Souls are not created and exist in some way as permanent beings that can have no end because they have no beginning. KFS is the historical representative of this idea because it was the most frequently published of JS’s sermons through time. Which KFS, is a legitimate question because there are many versions. That is for another time perhaps.

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BYU and Cryptic Standards

A couple weeks ago, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that BYU-I was declining to renew[fn1] instructors’ contracts based on nebulous and unexplained criteria.

And yes, I understand that the BYUs have odd and specific contractual provisions, one of which is that employees’ employment is contingent on getting an ecclesiastical endorsement from their bishop. But here’s the thing: the bishops of the two instructors the story interviews did provide ecclesiastical endorsements. That is, the people in question went to their bishops. They answered the questions bishops are supposed to ask. Their bishops endorsed them. They had current temple recommends. They had done everything that the BYUs say they needed to do.

But they were told they weren’t renewed because they didn’t get “ecclesiastical clearance” and therefore didn’t qualify to teach at BYU-I.

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The Joy of the Saints: An Advent Sermon (3rd Week)

Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy. (2 Ne 2:22-23; 25)

First, we must draw a sharp distinction between happiness and joy. We can see the difference in the words themselves. Happiness comes from the Middle-English root word hap which means “chance” or “fortune.” The same root can be found in words like “happen,” “hapless,” and “happenstance.” Happiness is the feeling we get when good things happen to us, and the feeling depends entirely on the situation. When the things that cause happiness go away, so does the feeling they produce. When Solon tells Croesus, “Call no one happy until they are dead,” he means that, as long as a person remains alive, their fortunes could always change.

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Two Great New Books and One Awesome Christmas Sale from BCC Press

Oh boy, have we been busy at BCC Press. Here it is December, and we are proud to present two more amazingly awesome, incredibly relevant, and deliciously readable new books just in time for Christmas shopping and Christmas-break reading. And, trust us, you will want them both.

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Blackout Recipes

My parents were born in the Great Depression and took the church’s program of self reliance seriously. We kept a cow, goats, pigs and chickens and had a big garden and an orchard of peach, plum, apricot and pomegranate trees. What we called the back porch was a room the same size as the eat-in kitchen that was dedicated to food storage. There was a chest freezer big enough to hold butchered animals and shelves of food storage featuring white five-gallon buckets of wheat and textured vegetable protein as well as the canned goods and preserves.

My parents lived full lives without ever needing to actually rely on their food storage, but I’m glad I grew up in a household where we at least practiced self reliance for several reasons. Here are just a few: First and foremost, a sun-warmed peach picked from the tree at peak ripeness is a bit of heaven on earth—definitely add this to your bucket list. Second, having thrown numerous chickens into cardboard boxes to contain the flailing following their decapitation and prior to dunking them in boiling water to prepare for plucking, I have developed a healthy respect for the suffering that the meat on my plate represents. Third, crystallized honey and peanut butter makes an excellent snack in times both good and hard.

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Peace Is Not a Verb: An Advent Sermon (2)

Peace is not a verb. One cannot go through the street “peacing”—not even during Advent. One might, in a very limited sense, use “peace” as a verb by appending to it the words “out” and “dude” in quick succession. But only if one drives a VW bus and wears love beads. For the rest of us, peace cannot be an action word, nor do we have good one-word alternatives to replace the unwieldy infinitive “to make peace.”

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The Name of the Church: Some Half Baked Thoughts

I recently wrote a guest post regarding my nostalgia for the ‘I’m a Mormon’ Campaign. In that post, I argued that the campaign espoused a sort of inclusive Mormonism that we would profit from remembering and embracing. 

It was not my intention to start a debate on the wisdom of moving away from the Mormon moniker. The comments on that post, on the other hand, almost immediately did. As did the comments on a recent interview I did with Mormonland on the same subject. 

 With that in mind, it’s time to give the people what they want and share my own thoughts on the question. In this post, I don’t intend to make a full pro/con type argument surrounding the effort to remove “Mormon” from our vocabulary. Instead, I just want to offer two points on the debate that I feel are worth further consideration and, at least in my view, offer some nuance as we continue with that conversation. Both of these points are reflective of the ongoing thinking I have on the topic and may not be fully fleshed out. With that in mind I ask for your patience, and for you to set expectations accordingly. 

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