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praying otterA semi-imagined conversation

-- Right.  Bible reading.  Here we go - Speak Lord, your servant is listening.  Ok, Matthew 11:28.  Jesus said "Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest."  Ok, good verse.  Well said Lord.  Now let's get down to business.  What's this verse really saying...  Well of course "rest" is theologically loaded.  Right from the seventh day of creation we see eschatological perfection modelled in Sabbath....

-- Glen!

-- Speak Lord, your servant is listening.

-- You've already said that.  And I've already spoken...

-- ... Oh indeed you have Lord and now I'm allowing your word to inform and shape my theological precommitments that I might be transformed by the renewing... Well you know how the verse goes.  Anyway I find it fascinating that you say v28 right after v27 when you declare the trinitarian, christocentric dynamic of all revel...

-- Glen!

-- Speak Lord, your servant is listening

-- Are you?

-- Well trying to.  That's why I'm deploying all the hermeneutical tools in my considerable arsenal.  It allows my whole theology to be shaped by these concepts...

-- Concepts?  Glen, have you actually come to me for rest today?

-- Well...  My plan is to get a properly nuanced theology of rest in place.  And once I have this understanding I imagine the experience of rest will sort of, I don't know, umm....

-- Glen?

-- Speak Lord your servant is listening

-- Maybe later...




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Yesterday was self-injury awareness day. Here's a re-post of something I wrote this time last year.

Emma's great introduction to self-harm issues makes the vital point that self-harm is a universal human problem. It's not "the crazies over there."  You and I self-harm every day.  Don't believe me?  Just take note of your self-talk next time you fail at something or get even mildly embarrassed in a social setting. You - like me - will be abusing yourself in ways you'd find shocking if it were directed at others.

None of this is to minimize the deep struggles which self-injurers face when they cut themselves with knives rather than words. But it is to say "We're all in this together" and everyone can empathise to some degree or another.

I thought that here I'd throw in a couple of thoughts that I've found extremely useful from Dan Allender. His talks called "The Wounded Heart" have been foundational for my own pastoral theology (the book is good, but not a patch on the talks).

At one point he talks about the human personality, created with dignity, fallen in depravity and then adulterated with layers as we try to manage life.

It looks something like this...
The Wounded Heart

Beginning from the centre, there are certain things we tell ourselves - strategies for negotiating a fallen world.

Dignity and Depravity:  “I don’t want you to see how bad or how good I am.”

We say both.  I certainly want to cover up my short-comings, but I also want to hide my giftings too. If you know how good I am you'll want more of me. And I'm not sure I'll be able to meet those expectations.  And so I hide.

Shame: “I’m exposed”

I don't need to tell myself to feel shame. At the speed of light, exposure unleashes the engulfing flood of shame.

Contempt (for others and for self).  “I hate you / I hate myself."

There are only two covers for shame - the righteousness of Christ, or hatred.  If I don't receive the covering of Christ, I take my revenge on whoever stands to remind me of my failures.  God reminds me, so I hate Him.  You remind me, so I hate you. And I constantly and inescapably remind me. So I hate me. With frightening ferocity.

Performance: “Here’s my long-term strategy for minimizing shame/exposure in the future.”

Because the experience of shame is so horrific, I devise schemes for avoiding it / handling it when it occurs. For all of us, we avoid circumstances in which it might arise. But if I can't seem to escape those feelings I will hit upon a strategy for managing that shame. Sometimes these strategies will be very elaborate and all-consuming. That's part of the (sub-conscious) plan though. I'm heavily invested in being able to handle these hellish feelings.


Self-harm might seem irrational as a response to our negative feelings, but there is some sense to it. My control-seeking flesh would love to locate the problem in me so that the solution is also in me. My horror at being exposed is thus quickly (instantly in our experience) turned to hatred and this hatred is turned on myself.

The expression of this hatred in self-harm does give relief in the short-run.  I can incarnate the problem – turning the shame into a tangible target for my hatred.  But in doing this I'm redefining my problems.  Instead of dealing with my real problems - sin and depravity - with the blood of Christ, I localise and domesticate them: ‘I’m so stupid/I’m so ugly’ - and it's my blood that pays.

In all this, I incarnate the problems, I take responsibility, I suffer and bleed for them.  But all the while my High Priest stands before the Father, pleading His own blood for me.  And Jesus says:

"Glen, your problem is not that you're ugly, fat, weird, dumb, awkward, a loser. Your problem is far greater than that!  No animal blood could atone for your sins. No human blood could atone for your sins.  Only the blood of God could make things right (Acts 20:28). But my blood has been shed. And it totally covers you.

I have included you in my death. I have put the old you to death. You were crucified with me and no longer live. It's all been judged. It's all been satisfied. And now you're risen with me, far beyond sin, death, judgement and hell.  There can be no condemnation for you. You belong to me and the Father beams at you with pride.

When you feel you need to pay - I promise, it's finished. When you feel you need to suffer - I've gone to hell and back. When you feel that you're exposed - I am your covering.  When you feel you're too ashamed - you're spotless in my sight."

You have been given fullness in Christ, who is the Head over every power and authority. 11 In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the flesh, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having cancelled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross...

20 Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: 21 "Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!"? 22 These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.

--Colossians 2:10-3:3


A few years ago a man came to the prayer centre where I work in great turmoil.  He said “I invited Jesus into my heart 10 years ago and I think I meant it and I think I felt His presence.  But I don’t feel His presence any more.  I think I’ve finally quenched the Spirit through my sins and now He’s left me.”

The guy seemed to know his bible very well.  So I said “Can you think of any verses that talk about 'inviting Jesus into your heart'?”

He thought and said “No, I don't think I can.” (I mean there is stuff about Jesus coming to live in us (e.g. John 14:17) but that's not really the same thing). So I said to him, "You know what is in the bible...?"  We spoke of the High Priest’s clothing in Exodus 28 and 29.

"Take two onyx stones and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel in the order of their birth--six names on one stone and the remaining six on the other.  Engrave the names of the sons of Israel on the two stones the way a gem cutter engraves a seal. Then mount the stones in gold filigree settings and fasten them on the shoulder pieces of the ephod as memorial stones for the sons of Israel. Aaron is to bear the names on his shoulders as a memorial before the LORD...."Whenever Aaron enters the Holy Place, he will bear the names of the sons of Israel over his heart on the breastpiece of decision as a continuing memorial before the LORD.   (Exodus 28:9-29)

"Here's the bottom line" I said “Christ, your High Priest has you on His heart.  My feelings go up and down.  Christ stays up – all the time.  And you’ll only feel Him in your heart (sporadically) when you know you’re on His heart, forever."

The centre of the Christian life is not your personal relationship with God.  The centre of the Christian life is Christ’s personal relationship with God.  But the good news is - Christ includes you in His communion.

Here's a 1 minute video on the topic:



On Saturday I spoke at a carols concert near Eastbourne. I was picked up by a man I last spoke to in March. "How's your wife?" I asked. "I'm afraid she died last month" was the response that crashed through all our small talk. She'd been a perfectly healthy 65 year old. Diagnosed with cancer in April. Buried in November. And now Christmas looks very different.

After the concert many people spoke about the loved ones they had lost this year. One woman - a regular there - had been hit and killed by a truck while cycling. Others had buried spouses.

Yesterday I spoke at a carols by candlelight. Before the service a man in a wheelchair was pushed in. I didn't recognise him at all. The vicar of the church introduced us. "Glen, this is my father."

"Barry??" I asked. Barry was a member of another church, but he'd always been a great supporter of All Souls, Eastbourne. Always full of faith and encouragement. Recently he has suffered a massive stroke and Parkinsons has taken hold. Now he is in a nursing home, finding it difficult to swallow let alone eat. "So nice to see you Barry!" I say. Inside I was thinking "So sad to see you Barry."

I preached again on Christmas in dark places (sermon here). Afterwards a woman told me she'd buried her husband that week. Another man told me his daughter had just lost her child in labour. Another spoke of a divorce this year. Everyone agreed Christmas was hard.

At the end I spoke to Barry. I took his hand and he grasped it hard. He whispered a phrase. I pulled in even closer: "Say again Barry?" He said it again. I thought I caught it but I wanted to make sure. Now my ear is right by his lips. "One more time Barry?"

-- "He shines in the dark."

That five word sermon blew mine clear out of the water. These were not the words of an ill man to a well man. This did not come from a trapped man to a free man. This was from heaven to earth. This was divine wisdom from a man so battered he can barely move his lips. Yet in his suffering Barry knows - and he preaches! - in the valley of the shadow, Christ truly shines.



fountainImagine it.  Imagine that the Father is eternally sending forth Himself in Word and Spirit.  Imagine that He is a spreading goodness.  Imagine that He is infinite plenitude rather than infinite need.  Imagine He is a Fountain of outgoing love.  What then?

Well, for one thing, let's ask ourselves, how should we correspond to God the Giver?  Surely the most fundamental answer must be: by receiving.  Or to put it another way, the work of God is this: to believe in the One He has sent. Or again, we might say that the righteous shall live by faith.  Life in relationship with the Giver is a life of receiving.

But notice therefore that the first thing to which I'm called is not worship but faith.  Of course I am called to worship, but it is the worship that is shaped by a prior commitment to receive the grace of God in Jesus Christ.  We love because He first loved us.

Why do I labour this point?

I labour it, because it seems to me that another point is laboured beyond proper proportions.  And that is the concept of idolatry.

I'm forever hearing that idolatry is the key to the Christian life.  I need to identify my idols and turn from them, returning to the true God.  The underlying assumption seems to be that false worship is the problem, true worship will be the solution.

There's a lot of diagnostic gain to be had in following this insight.  My mind is a factory of idols.  And this does betray and perpetuate my disordered desires.  But we haven't yet diagnosed the underlying problem if we've only seen it as a problem of worship.

First of all I am a receiver.  Therefore first of all I have failed to receive my life, my identity, my joy, my purpose from Christ.

Let's put this in the language of Jeremiah 2:13:

My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.

Sometimes people articulate the problem of idolatry the way the LORD does - as a double-sin.  But often I hear idolatry defined merely as well-digging.  i.e. they diagnose my problem simply as offering myself to the wrong thing.  Yet before that sin there is a primary sin - forsaking the Fountain!  And, pastorally speaking, we miss out hugely if we put the focus on the broken wells.

If my problem is diagnosed as "giving myself to career in an idolatrous fashion" then you might convince me that this is foolish, even that it's blasphemous.  But my heart is not yet ready to trust Christ as the Fountain of Living Waters.  Instead it will seem to me that God is a Taker who is even more demanding than my career.  You might tell me that this is perfectly proper since God is the Ultimate Boss, but my thirsty soul won't buy it.

What's more, you may be participating in the greatest of idolatries - you may be painting God as, ultimately, Taker rather than Giver.  And implicitly you may be pointing me to a false gospel.  For if the problem is "offering myself to a false god", there's a distinct danger that the implied solution will be "offering myself to the real God."  But that is not the gospel.  The gospel is the real God offering Himself for me.  And my real sin is refusing His thirst-slaking Spirit.

But if we fight the double-sin of idolatry it will mean not only facing the worship-denial of well-digging.  Even more deeply, it will mean facing the thirst-denial of forsaking the Fountain.

I have deep longings which I crave. And that craving is not sinful (it might be, but it might not be). Actually my thirst-denial might be the really sinful thing. I might be trying to protect myself from how desperately I want life to work and how disappointed I am. If the Lord is a Fountain then denying my thirst might be an even bigger sin than digging a broken well, mightn't it? But I might not get in touch with that if I keep getting told that my problem is my desires.

Those who think of themselves as more conservative, theologically, can get uncomfortable when you talk about thirst and the sin of thirst-denial. Perhaps it sounds like a capitulation to felt needs. But if the Lord is a Fountain then how we are receiving the Living Waters (or not) is even more important than how we're replacing them.

Remember - the answer to Jeremiah 2 is not to start digging in the right place (as opposed to the wrong place). The answer is to face your thirst and stop digging!

The real way to fight idolatry is to return to the Source of Living Waters.  "Repentance" - "metanoia" - "change of mind" (all one word), is looking again to the outstretched arms of Jesus and seeing that God is Giver. This is what revolutionizes hearts and minds - drinking from the Fountain.


TEP-PodcastCover-1024x1024Andy and I are in a series discussing online evangelism. Last week we spoke to Gavin Tyte about just living out our passions authentically and allowing our love for Jesus to naturally flow. This week we think about more intentional online witness.

Matt Rich runs a chat helpline website called Groundwire that connects with hundreds of people a month, answering questions about the Christian faith, and pointing people to Jesus through their local church.

I think Groundwire is a fascinating example of how pastoral care and evangelism coincide. If you ask me evangelism is pastoral care and pastoral care is evangelism. Our churches and our mission will be a lot healthier when we make those links.




imageThus says the Lord God, It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name.. . . And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name. . . . And the nations will know that I am the Lord. (Ezekiel 36:22-2332)

If God's glory is His grace (and it is), then what does it mean for God to act for the sake of His own name or glory. Obviously we're not talking here of the self-absorbed omni-god of philosophy. We're talking about the Father who has always found His life and identity in pouring out His very Spirit to His Son. We're talking about the God who, in eternity, has determined to be the adopting-by-grace-God. What does it mean for this God to act for His own sake, His own name, His own glory?

I've used this illustration often, but I think it's instructive... A friend of mine was approaching a set of doors and heard high-heels behind him. He stopped to open the door for the woman behind him. As she passed through she shot him a glare: "I hope you're not opening the door because I'm a lady." With enviable quick thinking he replied, "No, I'm opening the door because I'm a gentleman."  Boom!

Not for your sake, not for your sake am I acting, but for the sake of my holy name. Not because you are a Damsel in distress, but because I am a Gentleman. I do not act because you have forced my hand, twisted my arm, or tugged at my heart strings. I act from my own determination to be chivalrous.

That's what it means for God to act for His own sake. Not at all that God is self-centred. On the contrary God is so gloriously self-giving that He refuses to have His gracious salvation construed as merely a response to our plight. It's not that He's a sucker for a sinner. It's not that He can't help Himself when He sees our need and so sighs and embarks on a saving mission. It's not because we're a lady, it's cos He's a Gentleman.

God acts from fullness. That's pretty much the heart of what it means that God acts for His own sake. He is a Fountain brimming over, not a Water Tank to be drawn down.

Therefore what is godliness? It is all about acting from fullness.  Before God we are empty (cf the first 4 beatitudes - poor, mourning, meek, hungry). Before the world we are poured out (cf the last 4 beatitudes - showing mercy, purity, peace and righteousness). From fullness we flow out to the world.

When I get the time I'll write about how this dynamic plays out in church life, in family life, in loving our neighbours, in reaching the world. But for now I hope it's obvious that 'God acting for His own sake' is not a special dispensation to be selfish which God reserves for Himself. It's not about His own self-regard which is ok for Him but not ok for us. Actually, we should follow God in acting for the sake of our holy name because such actions are not demonstrations of self-regard but of the kind of self-giving that comes from fullness.





ladder-to-heavenThere's a famous short piece by JC Ryle called "Suppose an Unholy Man Went to Heaven." It's only about a thousand words but it's had a wide influence. I've heard it quoted approvingly a number of times.

Ryle begins:

Suppose for a moment that you were allowed to enter heaven without holiness. What would you do? What possible enjoyment could you feel there? To which of all the saints would you join yourself and by whose side would you sit? Their pleasures are not your pleasures, their tastes are not your tastes, their character not your character. How could you possibly be happy, if you had not been holy on earth?

The bishop then spells out the heavenly life in stark contrast to earthly pleasures. Therefore...

heaven would be a miserable place to an unholy man. It cannot be otherwise. People may say, in a vague way, they "hope to go to heaven", but they do not consider what they say... We must be heavenly-minded, and have heavenly tastes, in the life that now is, or else we shall never find ourselves in heaven, in the life to come.

If all this sounds like salvation by works, Ryle has a verse: "Without holiness no man shall see the Lord" (Heb. 12:14).

He repeats the verse again and again - it seems pretty much the foundation of his case. But he ignores the way holiness (or "sanctification" - same word) is used throughout Hebrews - 2:11; 9:13; 10:10; 10:14; 10:29; 13:12.  In virtually every case it's a declared status, won through the sanctifying sacrifice of Christ (e.g. "we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." (Heb 10:10)).

In only one of the verses cited above is sanctification mentioned as an ongoing process - but even then the process is anchored to a definitive salvation:

By one sacrifice Christ has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. (Hebrews 10:14)

It's true we must be holy to see the Lord. It's also true - and the whole book of Hebrews proclaims it - that Christ's sacrifice alone gives us that holiness. Yet Ryle seems to want to locate this saving quality within us.

He understands that folks might protest at this. So he addresses the objection we all feel...

You may say, it is impossible to be so holy and to do our duty in this life at the same time: the thing cannot be done. I answer, "You are mistaken." It can be done. With Christ on your side nothing is impossible.

Did somebody say infused grace? And make no mistake, the thing to be achieved here is heaven itself. If anyone complains at this achievement of glory, Ryle reminds us...

It is in religion as it is in other things, there are no gains without pains. That which costs nothing is worth nothing.

There it is - no pain, no gain. And finally the whole thing is unmasked - it's actually a very worldly way of considering holiness! Religion is like all other things, a costly, painful achievement which we make on our way to heaven. Surely Ryle is not being heavenly-minded enough! Surely he's not considering spiritual things spiritually. In the end, doesn't he prop up the whole enterprise on a carnal foundation? Holiness is like everything else, the achievement of hard work.

It seems to me that Ryle isn't being spiritual enough. Now it's true that Ryle says more in his book "Holiness." And there he stresses that holiness comes in Christ alone and he counsels us to seek it in Christ. But there's also all this stuff as well which, if you ask me, seriously undermines the 'Christ alone' teaching he wants to uphold.

Where does it go wrong?

Well fundamentally, in these teachings, everything important about holiness gets located in us and not in Jesus. And from that foundational error flows a characteristic problem with Ryle's presentation. For Ryle the "holy" trajectory for everything seems to be in and up and later.  'Come in out of the world, lift yourself up into heaven so that later you'll enjoy salvation.' All godly travel is coming in from the nasty world and up into glory, white-knuckling it now because later it'll be worth it.

But if Jesus Christ - the Holy One of Israel - defines holiness for us, we get a very different picture.  Because we are so carnal and unable to work up a holiness of our own, therefore Christ descends with His sanctifying love that reaches outwards and downwards, to be felt now. Holiness is Jesus-shaped. It means being met in our filth now, cleansed, and then swept along with Jesus to extend ourselves out into an unclean world, stooping down to the gutters of this world and in this way experiencing now the life of heaven.

It's really not about preparing ourselves for heaven later - it's about living the heavenly life now: the life of self-forgetful, neighbour-loving, cheek-turning, enemy-forgiving love.  That's holiness. It's Christ's own life which He has given us in the gospel. It's ours to live now - not as some qualification for heaven later.

So then, be holy! But define holiness Christianly - i.e. according to Christ.

Be holy! But let Christ's holiness thrust you outside the camp (Heb 13:12-13)

Be holy! But realise it's Christ's gift, once for all, not your continual achievement.

Be holy! But know that the point is to live Christ's life now, not to earn His blessing later.

Be holy! But don't be so carnal as to think it's the ladder to heaven.

Be holy! But make sure it's Spiritual holiness - the gift of Christ's Spirit to you - the very life of heaven to be enjoyed here and now on earth.

Be holy because Jesus your Lord is holy. And right now you're in Him.


Outgoing GodWhat's this verse about?

And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into His likeness with ever-increasing glory...  (2 Cor 3:18)

Is it about enjoying private devotional experiences with Jesus so that we become like Him?   That's a popular interpretation.  And it's half right.  But it's really not the full story.

The NIV footnote says that 'reflect' can be translated 'contemplate'.  But I think 'reflect' is a better translation.  It's a word that means 'showing like a mirror shows'.  The question is this - Is the mirror-like-ness telling us about how the beholder looks at the mirror?  Or is the mirror-like-ness telling us about how the mirror itself reflects outwardly?

My guess is the latter.  Our faces are like mirrors reflecting outwardly to the world the glory of Jesus.

This fits the context.  Paul has been reminding us about Moses's face-to-face encounters with the Lord (2 Cor 3:7,13).  He put a veil on to stop the Israelites seeing this fading glory.  But we (as v18 says) have unveiled faces.  And so what happens?   Others see the glory of Christ as we reflect it out to the world.

So this verse does indeed depend on our having devotional experiences with Jesus - just as Moses did (e.g. Exodus 33:7-11).  But that in itself will not transform us into Christ's likeness.  Reflecting Christ's glory out into the world - that will transform us.

Which is what the next two chapters of 2 Corinthians are all about.

Too often we think of holiness as one thing and mission as another.  Really they are mutually defining and mutually achieved.  Just as God's own being is a being in outreach, so our Christian character is a character in outreach.  To divorce the two is disastrous.

Holiness-in-mission is parallel to God's being-in-becoming. Just as God is who He is in His mission, so are we. Reflecting the Lord's glory is not a private activity - or at least it must not end there.  It's not essentially pietistic but proclamatory.  It's not about locking ourselves in a "prayer closet" - it's outgoing witness (to believers and unbelievers).

Slave-shackles-Does-the-Bible-condone-slavery"Forgive each other just as God, in Christ, forgave you." Ephesians 4:32

That's the flow - grace comes down to us for our sins and then it's meant to flow out to others for their sins.

If that's the pattern, what does it mean when we find another's sin "unforgiveable"? Well at that point we're accusing them of blasphemy. Why do I say that? Well that's what God calls the unforgiveable sin - blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. In Mark 3:28-30 we learn that rejection of Christ as Saviour is the blasphemy - it is the unforgiveable sin (for more on that, see here.)

But that language is interesting. When God says we've done something unforgiveable (i.e. finally and forever rejected Christ), He calls it a blasphemy. My point here is this: when we deem the sins of others to be "unforgiveable" we are saying that they have blasphemed.  They haven't blasphemed the Spirit, they've blasphemed our god.

I'll explain it like this. We might well find ourselves in the position of knowing:

1) Christ has forgiven me,

2) Christ commands me to forgive, and that...

3) the offences against me are minor - not only relative to Christ's forgiveness but even when compared to other atrocities in the world.

But, it can still feel impossible to forgive. At that point we're deeming the offender to have committed an unforgiveable sin.  In other words the offender has blasphemed our real god (our "functional saviour" to use a Tim Kellerism).

I might find countless offences to be "water off a ducks back" but if someone ruins my reputation, or if they harm my career or if they in any way hurt my children - that's unforgiveable.  At those moments it's good to be aware that "unforgiveable" is synonymous with "sacrilegious."  And it's good to identify the real god who we think is being blasphemed.

When the idol of "my reputation" or "my career" or "my family" is uncovered, it's actually a huge step forwards in forgiveness.  Because now I'm confronted with the reality of my own need. I must repent and seek forgiveness.  She may have ruined my reputation.  But worshipped it.  When I confront the ugliness of my own blasphemy, my eyes are taken off the horizontal and fixed on the vertical. I realize I'm not so much "offended party" as "offender".  In the language of Matthew 18, I start to realize the vastness of the ten thousand talent debt.  And the 100 denarii becomes instantly relativized - not just in theory, but hopefully as a felt reality.

So here's my contention - maybe I'm wrong, correct me in the comments - but I reckon...

If there's something "unforgiveable" in my eyes, there's something blasphemous in my heart.


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