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What Luther Says

Ash Wednesday And Lent ('Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down!')

Today is what's called "Ash Wednesday" or the beginning of "Lent" (the "Lenten Season") on the Church calendar.

What is Ash Wednesday? What is Lent? What is my role and response to it all (if anything) as a Christian? These were the questions going through my head the past couple of days and for good reason too.

Only one small problem.

If you asked me to explain to you what this time of year was all about, then I most likely would've spouted off some knee-jerk, "It's a pagan holiday that the Church adopted!" kind of reply and then would've stressed, "Yeah, I know everyone else we know is giving up something for Lent (like not eating meat), but Jesus never said anything about how we need to celebrate this so that's good enough for me!"

Is it though? Is it really? Sadly, this was one of the MANY myths that American Evangelicalism had me believing hook, line, and sinker for far too long.

Thankfully, there are faithful men of God out there like Pastor Joseph Abrahamson to set the record (and us) straight about the origins of Ash Wednesday and Lent.

Redeeming Holy Days From Pagan Lies — Ash Wednesday And Lent

Hopefully, you took the time to read through that (or at least glance at it), because it is extremely helpful and serves to set the proper foundation given where we're headed today.

Ok, so now that we have a much better (and Biblical) understanding of the roots of celebrating Ash Wednesday and Lent, what about our response?

In other words, what type of role do we have to play (if any) in properly celebrating the Lenten season with reverence and thankfulness for what Jesus did and does for us? For that matter, what about the whole "personal sacrifice" thing? Is that something we Lutherans should ever engage in or is that just a "Roman Catholic" tradition let's say? Needless to say, I had many more questions than I did answers.

Thinking back to my days as an Evangelical who was not part of any historic confession of faith -- let alone any local church body -- it wouldn't be all that uncommon for me to agree with and share sentiments like the ones below.

Lent is as old-school as old-school gets. Doing it justice -- experiencing the real cleansing it implies, and the rejuvenation which is its culmination -- means tapping into some of the more, shall we say, fundamental aspects of Christianity. If you're a Christian, Lent is the time for feeling just how real that is, how deeply that goes. It means comprehending that being a Christian goes all the way to literally the very marrow of your bones. It means getting down on your knees and praying for God to forgive how routinely you squander the gift of Jesus' terrible and glorious sacrifice for you on the cross. It means staying rooted in penitential mourning over what happened to Jesus. It means sacrificing to God and others, and God sacrificed for you and the world. It means breaking yourself, as Jesus allowed himself to be broken for you. Old-school, baby! Feel the hollow, riveting truth of all that God is, and all that you are not. For forty days, and forty nights, live in the quiet, empty, cold darkness that must come before.

[NOTE: I'm not quite sure who the source was for this quote, but I had it written down in an old journal of mine]

You can hear the sheer hypocrisy though can't you?

In one breath, it sounds like something someone who celebrates Ash Wednesday and Lent each year would want to say, and yet, in the very next breath that same person will insist that it's all "Church traditions of men" particularly due to the "pagan roots" and especially because "we are to repent daily and not just during a certain time of the year that the Church has decided!" Look, I would know, because I was that guy for so long!

Yes, that point about repentance is most certainly true, but a response like that misses the point entirely. Perhaps this Tweet I saw earlier today will help to explain.

Evangelical: We should live radically, pray to identify our idols, and give them up to focus on Jesus!
Me: Like for 40 days?
Evangelical: Exactly!
Me: Like Lent?
Evangelical: Works righteousness!

See what I mean? It's too bad I couldn't see the truth at the time and until now.

I know we're supposed to live by faith and not by feelings, but that anonymous quote I referenced above certainly expresses the proper attitude, mindset, and posture that one should take I think as we begin the Lenten journey together this year.

Still, we need to be very careful.

As an ex-Evangelical who was burdened by pious "try harder" teachings, is it better for me to "give up" or "take up" or merely "observe and learn more" about Christ and His work for me this Lent season?

Is it weird that my conscience is conflicted telling me that I should "DO SOMETHING" for Lent, esp when I know it's not about my sacrifice but His?

That's the place where I found myself this morning and so I went out in search of anything and everything I could find to help me better understand this important time of year for Christ's Church and those of us who are a part of it. I hope you find it as helpful as I did.

Who can forget the children's nursery rhyme (albeit with dark connotations) that we all learned and then played as a game growing up?

"Ring around the rosy,
pocket full of poesy,
ashes, ashes, we all fall down!"

Believe it or not, those words are true -- "ashes, ashes, we all fall down!" Hebrews 9:27 guarantees as much. You will fall down, sooner or later -- if our Lord does not return first -- you will go back to the dust that the Lord used to create us all in the very beginning (Genesis 2:7; Genesis 3:19).

Death is the one certainty of our existence here in this life that we can try to ignore, hide from, and play games with, but, in the end, it's no game, and there's no hiding whatsoever, especially from the Creator Himself.

It tracks you down and squeezes the last bit of life from you and then your breathless clay returns to the dust, the life in it burned to ashes.

It's quite something too when I think about it, because while this has been the very first year that I've seriously prayerfully considered Ash Wednesday and Lent as a believer in Christ, such truths about life and death were hammered home emphatically for me over the past 24 hours.

Romans 6:23 (ESV) For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Simply put, isn't it just like God to meet you right where you are?

My dear friends, the past 24 hours have proven to me, yet again, just how wretched and utterly helpless I am (Romans 7:24), and how fully dependent I am on God and the righteousness He graciously provides to me in His Son, Jesus Christ, for everything.

Romans 8:1 (ESV) There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

[NOTE: Here's a Bible Study we did recently on this one verse to help add a little more perspective to this discussion today]

That's the glorious news indeed, the "Good News" of the Gospel, which we'll get to in just a few minutes, but for now, I'd like you to tuck it away for a moment.

First, and more to the point, these last 24 hours emphasized to me the truth that we can't earn "brownie points" with God, but can only rest in the truth that it's what Jesus Christ did, who He really is (imparted to us), His Word and Sacraments, and our repentance and faith in Him and His promises to us, that makes us righteous in God's eyes.

We did nothing while Jesus did (and does) it all!

What Satan intended to be an opportunity to whisper his half-truths and lies into my ears, God used to remind me of His promises to me in my Holy Baptism in His name. What Satan saw as a chance to get me to believe his distorted version of the truth, God used as an occasion to remind me that I believe in His truths and the truth as revealed in His Word about Himself instead. Praise the Lord!

Ok, but how does this all tie-in with Ash Wednesday and Lent and where does the "giving something up" or the "personal sacrifice" part come into play during this time of year too?

I mean, if it's true that we want to be very careful to keep the focus on Christ, then why should we even think about "giving up" or "taking up" anything?

It's a fair question, IMHO, and one already addressed by other Lutherans. Pastor Todd Wilken recently issued a similar caution on his blog too.

Pre-Lent: Extra Nos
"God does not want to redeem us through our own, but through external, righteousness and wisdom; not through one that comes from us and grows in us, but through one that comes from outside; not through one that originates here on earth, but through one that comes from heaven. Therefore, we must be taught a righteousness that comes from the outside and is foreign." 
–Martin Luther (LW, 25: 136)
Lent is a dangerous time. It can bring out the enthusiast in us all. The enthusiast shifts the focus of Lent to himself. His own death to sin looms larger than Christ’s. The enthusiast celebrates Lent in himself rather than in Christ. Where will you celebrate Lent this year? No doubt, the enthusiast is fervent. He is earnest. He is sincere. But he is only playing dead. That’s all Lent in me can ever be. Jesus, on the other hand, was really dead. His was the real death to sin. His was the real Lent. Lent really happened in Him. The enthusiast in us hates that kind of Lent: Lent extra nos, Lent outside us, Lent in Christ. But in Christ there is real death to, and for sin –His death for us and His life for us. That’s Lent.

Personally, I thought that was an excellent reminder, especially since I'm coming from the Evangelical side of things and know how dangerous ignoring that reality can be (1 Timothy 1:19).

Of course, there were some who took issue with Pastor Wilken's words, but they also made some equally good counterpoints.

The problem here is I think you’re setting up a false dichotomy. It isn’t either Christ’s death or my death to sin. His death to sin is the very source for my death to sin. These two concepts are linked together as cause and effect. FC SD 2.88 “God in conversion changes stubborn and unwilling into willing men through the drawing of the Holy Ghost, and after such conversion, in the daily exercise of repentance, the regenerate will of man is not idle, but also cooperates in all the works of the Holy Ghost which He does through us”

Secondly, enthusiasim is not focusing on dying to sin instead of Christ. Enthusiasim for Luther and the Lutheran Confessions is the view that God reveals Himself and bestows His spiritual gifts apart from the objective and external Word and sacraments. It’s mysticism.

Simply put, there is a biblical and confessional way to talk about dying to sin. It’s something we have to do. It’s not optional, as any reading of the confessions and Paul will show. Your post on the surface makes it out to be a bad thing. I know that’s not your intention.

*- Francis


I didn’t say it was either Christ’s death or my death to sin. I said, “The enthusiast shifts the focus of Lent to himself. His own death to sin looms larger than Christ’s. The enthusiast celebrates Lent in himself rather than in Christ.” If you want your death to sin to be the point of your Lent, fine.

*- TW


The Means of Grace take what is outside of us and put it into us through a constant process, everyday. Christ’s death becomes our death through the washing with the water of regeneration. The origin is outside, the result is inside accomplished daily through the Means. During Lent, a focus on the Means from without will result in devotion. We focus on Christ who dwells richly within us and who yet comes to us from outside through his Word and Mysteries everyday. It is a mystery that Christ is simultaneously outside of us and inside of us. It is not I that do it, but Christ who dwells within me.

In Lutheran circles, we use the term Enthusiast of persons who claim to receive the Holy Spirit directly into their brain, their mind, without the use of a means. They say that the will of God is known to them without coming through the Bible or the Mysteries. We expect an Enthusiast to say, “Yesterday, God told me to give up Hersey Kisses for Lent.” We respond that God’s Word has no commands about Lent. The Enthusiast might then say, “Maybe not, but yesterday God layed it on my heart, not to eat chocolate kisses during Lent.” Among Lutherans, an Enthusiast is someone who claims direct revelation from God, instead of or in addition to the Word and Sacraments.

This is not to be confused with the common use of the term enthusiasm to mean spirited response, or a deep, warm devotion. In Lutheran circles, the music of JS Bach is the epitome of a God-pleasing enthusiasm.

*- Joanne

I wanted to share all of that with you because, once again, I thought it was a good discussion and I'm hoping to make this a definitive post of sorts on Ash Wednesday and Lent that I can refer back to in the future so I want to be as comprehensive as possible.

Besides, if you're anything like me (or like I was), then the more detailed info to help you understand something that's been completely foreign to you for so long the better, right?

Back to Ash Wednesday, Lent, and this whole idea of "giving up" or "taking up" something as a show of faith and reverence.

Did you know that the Lenten season has been known since the Reformation with the word "Fastenzeit," which means "Fasting Time"? Ok, but why is fasting associated with Lent? Because this time of year invites us to the discipline of fasting as part of our "return" or our "repentance."

Actually, the word "return" or "repent" shows up 1,000+ times in the Old Testament I've been told! During this Lenten season, God is calling us to repent. Plain and simple.

Now, there seems to be an element of "The Third Use of The Law" at play in all of this too -- in the sense that God, in calling us to repent, is calling us to look at what we've done; to look at what we've done with the gifts that He gave us; to look at what we've done with the resources that He gave us; to look at what we've done with our lives; to look at what we've done in our relationships.

God is calling us today and throughout this Lenten season to look at the ways we have despised His Word, and to look at the ways we have off ended Him with our sinful thinking and our sinful deeds (Isaiah 64:6).

For me, it calls to mind all those so-called "secret sins" within the "secret places" of my heart (Psalm 51). Remember, He sees in secret (Isaiah 29:15; Matthew 6:4; Matthew 6:6; Matthew 6:18). What will the Heavenly Father see in the secret places of your heart? Something that will make you run away? I know what He sees in mine and I have repented of it (1 John 1:9; James 5:16).

Speaking of the heart and self-examination, I've also learned that Joel 2:12-14 is commonly read this time of year too. It was the Israelites to whom the prophet Joel was addressing these words.

In Joel 1, he tells the people of God that there is an impending judgment that is going to hit the land. In other words, punishment is on its way (cross reference with Romans 6:23)! Punishment for what they have done (cross reference with Romans 6:23)! It's within this context that the words of Joel 2 are spoken.

Joel 2:12-14 (ESV) 12 "Yet even now," declares the Lord, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13 and rend your hearts and not your garments." Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. 14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God?

Just as God's people have turned away from the Lord in their hearts, so also they are to return to Him with sincerity and full conviction.

The words "rend your hearts and not your garments" in verse 13 tells us that the Lord wants inner sincerity, not just outward show or piety (Psalm 51:17).

What is the rationale for true conversion? He adds, "Do not rend your garments," as the hypocrites do, but "rend your hearts," that is, let your conversion be a genuine one and show this by the fruits worthy of repentance.

*- Martin Chemnitz (Loci Theologici 2:642)

It is God's nature to forgive. Thus, He forgives because of who He is, not in exchange for our repentance. Isn't that something? See, I hadn't realized that until recently, but even in my repentance I was attempting to put the focus on myself (a.k.a. attempting to glorify myself) rather than putting it on God and on Christ (a.k.a. glorifying Him and His Son instead). It was always "Something Good That I Did" and the "Theology of Glory" on full display (Isaiah 64:6).

In the area of temporal punishments we must humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God and let God be free either to punish or withhold punishment, totally or in part.

*- Martin Chemnitz (Loci Theologici 2:642)

So, when we look at Joel 2:14 from a passage that is often read this time of year, we see that God's real purpose in sending this disaster is to work repentance in His people, so that they might receive forgiveness and avert disaster. Furthermore, along with the Lord's mercy comes every other blessing, among them sustenance and protection. The act of offering a "grain offering" here as a sacrifice to God acknowledges Him as Creator and Provider of all good things.

Now that we've taken a closer look at Joel 2:12-14, I hope that it's become clear why this is an appropriate passage of Scripture for Christ's Church to read and meditate upon on Ash Wednesday and during Lent.

God is calling us to return to Him, not to run away from Him. It doesn't matter what we have done in the past. We cannot hide anything from Him because He knows exactly what is in the secret places of our heart. It is for this reason that God expects us to rend our hearts. Yes, that will hurt, but it's worth it, and He promises to restore us with a new heart through the righteousness of His Son, Jesus.

The best (and shortest) explanation I could find to help summarize what Ash Wednesday and Lent is all about and what should be our appropriate response to it is from Rev. Jonathan Fisk's Worldview Everlasting.

The reason for Lent is not to act better, but to remember the depths of our sin so that we might look anew at Christ. I am certain that in our protestant influenced age that it is often used as a time to "get the congregation back to doing this or that." But that is not its purpose. The difficulty you seem to have is that you already are imposing Lent on yourself 24/7. You don’t really need a reminder. This is a blessing for you, though it does not feel like it. I find Lent a beautiful season for meditating on the fulness of the cross, seeing how firmly Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem, and pondering my own weaknesses. This is not about my works, but His. The purpose of fasting is not to be righteous, but to remember that we are not righteous. Thanks be to God, Christ is our righteousness for us! Lent is there it heighten our frustration with the now so that when we remember the not-yet already come in Christ, we are that much more bolstered to face the present that does exist.

There you have it. But wait! There's more from God's Word!

Ezekiel 36:26-27 (ESV) 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

Equipped and empowered, those words to Israel told them they would respond to His goodness by walking in His statutes and observing His ordinances.

What might we learn from this?

We must also teach how to begin this obedience, on what foundations to build it and where to seek it, that is, not from the natural effort of our free choice but from the spirit of renewal. In this way and in this order faith comes first, which accepts or receives the remission of sins and offers peace and joy of conscience. As a result of this, by the same faith we receive the promise of the Spirit who creates the new man unto good works and turns our hearts to obedience.

*- Martin Chemnitz (Loci Theologici 2:339)

Amen! Beautiful, isn't it?

Why run away from a God that is so incredibly gracious and merciful? Can you see how God, after saying, "Look what you have done!" invites you generously, "Come, because I am 'slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love'"?

When God calls us to look deeply inside us, it is because He wants us to see how much we need Him and His free gift of salvation through Jesus. He also calls us to look at Him to see how much He cares for us.

So, in a very real sense, the season of Lent calls us to "Look! See What Christ Has Done And What He Continues To Do For You!" He has done (and continues to do) E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G for us! The Lord didn't spare even His only Son in order to bring us back to Him! He is not just a righteous and vengeful God, but a forgiving and merciful God.

2 Peter 3:9 (ESV) The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

That's the reality. Rejoice in it! We all will -- as we celebrate what Christ's life, death, and resurrection truly means for us 40 days from now.

There is no better blessing than God's Son, Jesus Christ, or His Word which became flesh for our sake (John 1:14; John 3:16; John 14:6). He gave us His Son and He gave us His Word and Sacraments. That is more than enough for us.

Sure, sometimes we want more or we count as "blessings" our family, our health, our career, the Christian friends that we have close to us, the congregations we are a part of, or our sanctification even, and yes, they are all most definitely blessings in their own unique way.

But when all these are gone...better yet...when all of them are stacked up against the Lord and Savior an His atoning work upon the cross for the sins of all mankind, we find that we are blessed by God because we have the forgiveness of sins and the promise of resurrection to eternal life and that's what matters most in this life.

If you would like to dig a little deeper into all of this, then here are some more extremely good and helpful resources that I've found for you...

VIDEO: Return To The Lord Your God – A Brief Video Explaining Lent

AUDIO: Why Lent? Interview With Norman Nagel On Issues, Etc.

SERMON: The Way of Wisdom By Pastor Tony Sikora

SERMON: A Lenten Meditation

VIDEO: Giving Up Kidney For Lent
Q&A: On Lent And Its Ending

Reflection On Lent, Fasting And Fixing Eyes On Jesus

Finally, here are two prayers I found from my new Lutheran Book of Prayer that are a fitting conclusion to today's piece. 

Ash Wednesday Prayer

Gracious Savior, prostrate I fall at Your feet this day as Your Church once more enters the Lenten season to meditate upon Your passion, by which we have been eternally redeemed. In spirit I appear before You in sackcloth and ashes in true repentance; let me receive Your full pardon. Do not let the pleasures of life, the worries of the day, and the activities of my daily routine crowd You out of my heart and out of my thoughts. Draw me to Your wounded side, and cleanse me with Your most precious blood. Bring healing to my soul and peace to my mind. By Your grace, let me crucify my sinful affections, lusts, and desires. Make me more than conqueror over every temptation. I confess to You all my sins. Let none of them cling to me. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Teach me to love You more and more. Give me grace to confess You as my Savior, who has redeemed me on Calvary, lifting me out of the darkness of sin to be Your own. Gracious Savior, let Your constraining love keep me and all God's children steadfast to the end. Amen.

Lent Prayer

Lord Jesus, precious Savior, who went all the way to the cross to redeem me, a lost and condemned creature, graciously look upon me in this Lenten season, and let me find cleansing and healing in Your precious blood. My transgressions caused You the agony of the garden. My sins nailed You to the accursed tree. You were forsaken so that I would not be forsaken throughout all eternity. Make me see the awfulness of my sin and then Your wondrous love that would not let me die. Grant that I may ponder day after day upon Your passion. Let nothing distracting take my thoughts from You. Draw me closer that I might find in You forgiveness and peace. Bless this Lenten season in our many Lutheran congregations. Grant to the Pastors grace to proclaim Your glorious passion with consecrated hearts, that all who hear this message of reconciliation may love You more and more. Abide with my household, and let sin have no dominion over us. As I ponder anew Your death for my transgressions, make me bold to live to You today and tomorrow and forever. Amen.

That, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, is what Ash Wednesday and Lent is all about -- what Jesus Christ did and does for you!

In a Lutheran layman's term, I'm am learning to love Ash Wednesday and Lent since it is prompting me to proclaim my thanks to God, for we have a Savior, our risen Lord Jesus Christ, who has already endured God's wrath and judgment for us!

Jesus Christ, our blessed Savior, Turned away God's wrath forever; By His bitter grief and woe He saved us from the evil foe. Amen.  
*- Lutheran Service Book 627:1

NOTE: I'm not a called and ordained minister of God's Word and Sacraments. I'm a layman or a Christian, Candy-Making, Husband, Father, Friend who lives in the "City of Good Neighbors" here on the East Coast. To be more specific, and relevant to the point I want to make with this note, I'm also a newly converted Confessional Lutheran who recently escaped American Evangelicalism a little over a year ago. That being said, please contact me ASAP if you believe that any of my "old beliefs" seem to have crept their way into any of the material you see published here, and especially if any of the content is inconsistent with our Confessions and Lutheran doctrine (in other words, if it's not consistent with God's Word, which our Confessions merely summarize and point us back to) so that I can correct those errors immediately and not lead any of His little ones astray (James 3:1). Finally, please be aware that you might also discover that some of the earlier pieces I wrote on this blog back in 2013 definitely fall into that category since I was a "Lutheran-In-Name-Only" at the time and was completely oblivious to the fact that a Christian "Book of Concord" even existed (Small/Large Catechism? What's that!?!). In addition, there are some entries that are a little "out there" so-to-speak since the subject matter was also heavy influenced by those old beliefs of mine. I know that now and I'm still learning. Anyway, I decided to leave those published posts up on this website and in cyberspace only because we now have this disclaimer, and only to demonstrate the continuing work of Christ and the Holy Spirit in my life (Hebrews 12:2; Philippians 1:6). Most importantly, please know that any time I engage in commenting on and/or interpreting a specific portion of the holy Scriptures, it will always closely follow the verse-by-verse notes from my Lutheran Study Bible and/or include references to the Book of Concord unless otherwise noted. Typically, I defer to what other Lutheran Pastors have already preached and taught about such passages since they are the called and ordained shepherds of our souls here on earth. Finally, I'm going to apologize ahead of time for the length of most entries. I'm well aware that blogs should be short, sweet, and to the point, but I've never been one to follow the rules when it comes to writing. Besides, this website is more like a dude's diary in the sense that everything I write about and share publicly isn't always what's "popular" or "#trending" at the time, but is instead all the things that I'm studying myself at the moment. For better or for worse, these posts tend to be much longer than most blog entries you'll find elsewhere only because I try to pack as much info as possible into a single piece so that I can refer to it again and again over time if I need to (and so that it can be a valuable resource for others -- if possible, a "One-Stop-Shop" of sorts). Thank you for stopping by and thank you in advance for your time, help, and understanding. Grace and peace to you and yours! 


About JKR

Christian. Husband. Father. Friend.

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Thank you for visiting A Lutheran Layman! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question since we do not exercise censorship. We've seen a similar policy with other blogs and it's worth repeating: Please act as if you're a guest in my home, and we'll get along just fine. I think anyone would agree that the kind of back-and-forth that is characteristic of blogs/chat forums and social media is becoming tiresome for all of us. Still, we should confess, edify, and love (and contend and defend when needed). Bottom line? Search the Scriptures! Apply Acts 17:11 to anything and everything you find here and, if you do happen to disagree with something you find here (which is certainly ok), or think I'm "irresponsible" and "wrong" for writing it, then please refute my position by supporting yours with Scripture and/or the Confessions. I don't think that's an unreasonable request, especially for those who identify themselves as "Christians" here, right? Besides, Proverbs 27:17 tells us "Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another" and 2 Timothy 3:16 says, "all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." If you have an opinion that's great, I welcome it, but try to support it using God's Word. I mean, if the goal here is to help us all arrive at the truth of God's Word (myself included), then it should be easy to follow through on this one simple request (I'm talking to all you "Anonymous" visitors out there). Grace and peace to you and yours!

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