What’s Up With Sin?

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, August 20, 2017

The last few times I’ve stood here and given a message, I’ve talked about things I didn’t know. I’ve shared my ignorance with you. Just a year ago “I’m With Stupid” was the title of my message. Back in June, I asked “What Are We Doing Here?” I wasn’t at all sure I knew the answer to that question.

Today I’m back at sharing my ignorance with you. I want to talk about Sin: what it is, why it matters, how we avoid it. I certainly can’t stand here and tell you I’m completely ignorant of sin. I have seven full decades of personal experience of sin. But I’m still not sure I know how best to think about it. So today I’m sharing my wonderings and confusions because I want to invite you into thinking about these questions, too.


First, a story. An old New Englander named Norm, a man of few words, came home from Church one Sunday and there in the yard next door was his friend, Alvin. Alvin asked Norm, what did the preacher talk about today? “Sin” said Norm. What did he say about it, asked Alvin. “He’s agin it,” said Norm. And went into the house.

“He’s agin it.” So are we all, against sin, aren’t we? Every last one of us, aren’t we? But do we know what it is? How do we know it when we see it? What’s the core essence of sinfulness? I don’t know. I’ll say that right off. It’s tempting to say we just know what it is when we see it. But if we all know what it is, and we’re all agin it, why do we ever do it? This is where my confusion begins, where I realize just how little I know about important things.


What Is Sin, Really? I’ve read a fair amount of theology about sin. It’s a whole field of study in seminaries. Hamartiology. That’s the four-bit word for it. I wish I could tell you I’d benefitted greatly from reading such theology, but that wouldn’t be an honest statement.

Mostly I’ve learned that sin is “transgressing God’s rules” OR that sin is “missing the mark.” Fair enough. But not really helpful. What are the rules I should follow? What is the mark I’m aiming at? What does it look like when I hit the mark? What does it look like when I miss? I don’t want a treatise on the philosophy of sin. I want a drivers manual for my soul.


So What Are the Rules? So consider sin as “Transgressing God’s rules.” What are the rules, anyway?

There are simply loads of rules in the Bible. Especially in the book of Leviticus. 613 by one famous count from the 3d century. Is sin a matter of breaking one of those rules? Few of us think that’s the case today.

Then there’s that famous list of ten in the book of Exodus: the Ten Commandments. Are these they key rules, the key list of sins? Maybe.

But – and I’m just speaking for myself — I don’t worry too much about violating the Ten Commandments. Perhaps I should but I don’t. I don’t wrestle with whether I’m going to commit murder or theft or worship graven images. It’s other things.

In public discussions, here’s what the world talks about with regard to sin. How about Gambling? Drug use? Use of Alcohol? Extramarital sex? Same-sex sexual attraction? Abortion? Divorce?

Does sin have any bearing on who I should vote for to represent me in Congress or to be Governor? Does sin enter into what I think about healthcare or immigration or taxes? I don’t think there are any bright lines about these things

Here, in contrast, are the things I worry about. Is it a sin if I maneuver my grocery cart in front of yours at the supermarket checkout? Is it a sin if I walk in late to Meeting? Is it a sin if I mentally roll my eyes at something you just said? Is it a sin if I don’t listen to you as carefully as I could? The Ten Commandments don’t seem to help with these.

Authoritative lists of sin always seem arbitrary and self-serving to me. They often seem laced with old, human prejudice. I don’t hear God in those lists. Perhaps you don’t either.


Are We Really Concerned About Sin? Maybe we just aren’t too concerned about sin. I’ve been thinking about the kinds of things we speak about during Joys and Concerns. As I think over the concerns we speak about with one another, they’re mostly concerns about bad things that happen to one of us. Or bad things that happen to family members, or to friends. Bad things like cancer or broken bones or despair.

We don’t say much if anything about bad things we’ve done or bad things we are tempted to do to others. The bad things we do: that’s sin, isn’t it? And yet we don’t seem to talk about things like that.

“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” Jesus taught us to pray, but we seem to live in places where that isn’t a concern we have. Have we gotten beyond sin? Do we no longer believe in the idea of sin? It’s not a term we use very much – if at all.

One reason I come to Meeting, maybe the most important reason, is that I know I am capable of bad things: irritability, certainly. Selfishness. Narrow-mindedness. Greed. Pettiness. I know I need help with these things, from you, my friends, and from God. Do these words mean the same thing as sin?

When Ellen and I married, I promised to be “unto [her], with divine assistance, a loving and faithful husband as long as we both shall live.” With divine assistance: isn’t that a recognition that I need help with sin? Isn’t that a prayer to “lead me not into temptation?” As the tax collector says in Luke 18:13, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

So I’m concerned about sin and maybe you are, too.


Why, Then, Don’t We Use the Word Much Any More? The frequency with which the word “sin” was used in English hit a peak around 1800 and has been in decline ever since. I imagine this decline has been at least as steep among Quakers as among others. Why is that?

“Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth.” Those words from the hymn we sang this morning are a hundred years old. (Great is Thy Faithfulness) Perhaps we’ve just grown uncomfortable with the word “sin.” Perhaps we want to talk about the same idea but using different words. What words? What’s our new lingo about sin?

Misbehavior. Wrongdoing. Crimes. Misdemeanors. High crimes and misdemeanors. Prejudice. We talk of people being mean or naughty, petty or annoying. We use these terms, don’t we? Do they mean the same thing as sin?

Just as often we talk as if we really don’t believe in sin – or even in bad behavior. “Don’t be judgmental,” we say. “Everything happens for a reason.” “Do your own thing.” “Be yourself,” we’re encouraged. But if “I’m myself,” isn’t that just giving in to sin? Don’t I want to be better than I often am? Isn’t that the mark I’m aiming at?

Aren’t there some behaviors that should be condemned and avoided? If so, how do we know what they are? What is sin, anyway?


Can We Get Beyond Lists? Here’s one reason I don’t find lists of sins helpful. I ask myself, Are the items on the list sins because God says so? (And if so, how do I know God says so?) Is sinfulness a matter of God playing ‘Simon Says’ with humans? God says go! God says stop eating shellfish. Or are items on the list for some deeper reason that I should really be trying to understand?

Is there logic to what God asks us to do and not to do? If so, what is that deeper reason? What is the sinfulness of sin? What is the common thread?

When I was eight or nine, one bitter cold winter afternoon towards dinnertime I opened all the mailboxes on our street. Probably I was just bored. Maybe I thought I was helping the mailman: tomorrow he won’t have to open the boxes to put in the mail. After I came in, my parents made me go out and close them again. I felt aggrieved. Why didn’t you tell me that wasn’t OK? Why don’t you just tell me all the rules? That’s silly isn’t it?

Jesus himself skewers the list approach to sins when he’s asked by the Pharisees “which is the greatest commandment?” It’s a trap, of course.

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37)

So Jesus puts love first as the greatest commandment: loving God and loving others. If sin is the opposite of that, then isn’t sin a matter of loving oneself more than loving God or loving oneself more than one’s neighbors?

We all have that tendency, don’t we: excessive love of self. Our perceptions are slanted to favor what we want. They are biased in our favor. Anyone who goes to a sports contest knows that. When the referee makes an important call, half the audience is outraged and half thinks the call is simple justice. It takes divine assistance to get beyond that, doesn’t it?

I’m sure that’s too simple: sin as selfishness. Selfishness – in all its clever, self-serving disguises – certainly is sinful. But I’m sure that’s too simple, isn’t it?

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What Are We Doing Here?

Message delivered at Durham Friends Meeting, June 4, 2017

“What are we doing here?”

I wrote those words on a sheet of paper a few hours after I agreed to bring today’s message. I don’t really know where they came from. My spiritual life is often like that: suddenly there’s a little bit of something on my mind, and I’m tugging at it trying to unravel a knot. The unraveling often takes several days or even weeks. So here I am unraveling in front of you.

What are we doing here? For me, the question brings back memories of “Do we have to go?” That’s a question from my childhood – one more often thought to myself than asked out loud. I knew that it wasn’t up to me. But now that it is up to me, “What are we doing here?” I think, is the grown-up version of that childhood question.


So what are we doing here?

We come from many directions, from miles away, from many different starting points, each Sunday morning.   With my family on First Days, I drive by a Baptist Church and a Presbyterian church in Topsham, drive by the newly planted Hope Church on Pleasant Street in Brunswick, pass close by a Unitarian Universalist, an Episcopalian, and a Roman Catholic Church, and then drive 10 minutes further to be here, a little brick Quaker Church off by itself in Durham.

Probably all of us drive by a variety of other churches to get here.

Quakers have been worshipping on this site since the American Revolution. This part of Maine was an area of settlement for Quaker farmers. This was the Meeting they established. There has been an officially recognized Quaker Meeting here since 1790. This particular building has been here since 1829. There are a lot of memories in these walls.

Maybe a few of us are here in part because of a lifelong family tradition. But most of us aren’t descended from those early Quaker settlers in the lower mid-coast. Probably a comfortable majority of us weren’t born Quakers at all. In Quaker parlance, most of us are not “birthright;” we’re “convinced” Friends.

That’s an odd word to use. Convinced of what?  That’s not an easy question to answer. Any of you visiting today or new to us should know that there is a pretty broad spectrum of beliefs among us. Here at Durham Meeting, like at most Quaker Meetings, we do not bind ourselves to any creed or formal statement of belief.

Many of us describe ourselves as seekers. We know there are important questions and we’re looking for answers. We’re pretty sure there’s a truth deep down at the heart of things, but we also know it is elusive and difficult to pin down in words. It is not something that can be captured by a creed. Spiritual or divine things aren’t like that. We’re here because we’re trying to gain some understanding – anything – of the truth we dimly perceive deep down at the heart of things.


So what are we doing here?

A few months ago, the Quaker blogger Chuck Fager put a Quaker FAQ on his blog. (Answers to Frequently Asked Questions; that’s an FAQ). One of the questions was this: Q.: Can You Sum Up Quakerism In Only Two Paragraphs?  And here’s his answer.

About 360 years ago in England, God had an idea. He (or She) wanted a group of people to come together and do some special pieces of God’s work, in some particular ways. So when a man named George Fox climbed up a place called Pendle Hill, God called to him and showed him that there was “a great people to be gathered” there, to do that particular work, in those particular ways.

That “people” or group was the Religious Society of Friends, the Quakers. It appeared because God gathered it, to do some particular work, in the particular ways we’re supposed to do it. (What we call the Testimonies are part of this work; but only part.) We’re not done yet, and God’s not done with us, and that’s why Quakers are still around.

Fager takes Quakers to be a movement, people who are called to some particular work. He’s telling us we’re here because we’ve joined the movement. We’re here to do work, work like advancing the Quaker testimonies of Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Stewardship of the Earth.

I was struck by Fager’s answer. It’s appealing but it isn’t what I would have said at all. Those testimonies are important to me, but they’re not what brings me to Quaker Meeting each week.  I understand why he can see it that way, and I know he isn’t alone in seeing Quakerism in that way.  But it isn’t how I see Quakerism. I’d sum up the gist of Quakerism in a different way.

For me, Quaker worship is a particular approach to knowing God. It’s a kind of pathway. “Be still and know that I am God.” That’s from Psalm 46. For Quakers, the best way to know God is to settle into silence and listen.

Waiting worship we sometimes call it. This Quaker pathway is one especially suited to seekers. Stilling ourselves to listen, sharing what we learn with one another: that’s a productive pathway to seek those elusive truths deep down at the heart of things.

Why does waiting worship work – for me or anyone else? The answer to that is also my answer to “What are we doing here?”  My hunch about why waiting worship works for us is the belief that God is still speaking to us. I believe – and most Quakers believe — that God still has more to say, but to hear it, we have to still ourselves and listen.

We can do this by ourselves, but joined in community we can do better. Together we can hear more and more clearly.

Quakers believe that God is still speaking to us.  “Believe,” however doesn’t feel like quite the right word. I know this experientially. In my experience, I find that if I still myself in worship, sometimes God does speak to me. Sometimes it’s a leading; sometimes it’s just a question like “What are we doing here?”

I also find the Quaker pathway – waiting worship – works for me because I need a more active approach to knowing God. I can’t be a spectator. I can’t be part of an audience. It’s better when I put myself wholly into it.  I find myself driven away by too many prescribed, ‘authoritative’ words from others. I need a more active approach than reciting creeds or formulas. I prefer silence (at least my own) to saying things prescribed by others that call forth my doubts.  In general, ritual is not good for me as a regular practice.  In waiting worship, there isn’t much ritual. Every worship service is different.

I have to do the work myself. But I also know it’s also better when I join my efforts with the best efforts of others. Seeking with Friends is better than seeking by myself.


What about all the other pathways? What about all those other churches each of us drives by to come here?

I work from the assumption (and I don’t think I’m alone here) that all who seek God are seeking the same God, whoever or whatever God is.

God is hard to know so people come up with different pathways. That can be awkward, even tense, but, awkward or not, that is the way it is.  Trying to simplify knowing God by insisting on one true pathway for everyone leads regularly to trouble.  Sometimes even violence, and I know God doesn’t call us to that.

Instead, I think, ‘Because God is difficult to know, of course people have different approaches or practices to help them.’  Because people are different, I don’t see any point in insisting that there is just one best way to know God.

I know the Roman Catholic Mass works well for some people. Monastic life works well for a few. Hymn singing is essential for some.  Fasting, the Labyrinth, incense, sacred dance, Bible reading, sweat lodges, even bean suppers: all these work for some.

This is the clearest understanding I have for why people divide into different religious groups even if everyone is seeking the same God. For me, gathering with others in waiting worship is best for me.

That’s why, on First Days, I drive past a Presbyterian Church, a UU Church, an Episcopalian Church, and all those others, to come here to this old brick Meetinghouse in the woods.


So what are we doing here? For you, that’s for you to say. But here’s my answer.

I come as a seeker for the elusive truths deep down at the heart of things.

I come for the answers I often find.  But much more, I come for the questions. Questions lead my seeking.

I come for the sense of certainty I find here, the certainty shared among us that there is a truth.  And just as much I come for the uncertainty, the recognition that I may never fully grasp that truth but that it is worth the seeking.

I come for the honesty I find here. Words aren’t spoken here just because they are answers we’ve inherited from the past. Words are spoken because they are the best approximation of truth we can find now, today. I come for the freshness.

I come for the words that are shared from everyone and from every corner of this this square meetinghouse set up in the round. Those words often have divine origins.  And just as much I come for the stillness and the silence in which I hope to hear God speaking.

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Merrymeeting Bay Smelt Shack

Yesterday’s New York Times had a feature article in the Food section on An Icy Portal Into the Small World of Smelt.  Written by Dave Sherwood, a resident of Bowdoinham, ME, the article had this lovely picture of Merrymeeting Bay:

Merrymeeting Bay Smelt Shack NYT 17.3

Says Sherwood, “The massive sheet of tidal ice atop which our shack sits is fickle and unpredictable. The bottom of the bay is filled with sandbars and rocks and fallen logs over which the ice heaves and falls every six hours with all the grace of a dinner plate tossed down a flight of stairs.”

Merrymeeting Bay is a large freshwater tidal bay into which flow the Androscoggin, Kennebec, Cathance, Muddy, Eastern and Abagadasset Rivers.  The continuation of the Kennebec drains it to the ocean.  It is quite unlike anything else called a bay.  Tides push seawater up into the bay (through a narrow portal called The Chops), but Merrymeeting Bay water is brackish, more fresh than salt.  According to the Maine Department of Conservation, “Over 50 species of freshwater fish use the Bay, as well as ten species of anadromous fish, including the rare Atlantic salmon, shortnosed sturgeon and Atlantic sturgeon. At least one rare mussel species inhabits the Bay, and one of the Bay’s small tributaries is the state’s only known location for the redfin pickerel.”

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Free Speech at Friends Central?

On his blog, Chuck Fager has been doing his best (here, here, here and here) to keep us abreast of the recent controversy at Friends Central School concerning a cancelled invitation to a Palestinian (Sa’ed Atshan, a Swarthmore Professor) who had been invited to speak by a student group, and the suspension of two teachers who have been advisers to that student organization.

I want to say before proceeding that I am a regular reader and fan of Chuck Fager’s blog.  Second I want to say that I have stood up often for the right of speakers to speak, even (or especially) speakers with whom I disagree.  (See, for example, this and this.)

And third, I want to say I am also a supporter of the BDS Movement, support for which apparently made Sa’ed Atshan unwelcome at Friends Central.  (BDS stands for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: “The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement works to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law.”) What Israel is doing in Palestine and to Palestinians is cruel and a threat to peace and justice everywhere, the United States is the main financial, political and military supporter in the world for Israel, and the BDS Movement is the most effective strategy currently going for applying pressure on Israel and the U.S. to pursue a just and lasting peace.

I’m glad Chuck Fager is calling attention to the situation at Friends Central School.  I think there are real issues here.  But I do not think they are best understood as “free speech” issues, which is how he has been framing them.

Under the United States Constitution (Amendment 1):

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

That commitment is first and properly what we should think about when we speak of “free speech,” but notice that it speaks only of what government can do and cannot do (make no law abridging the freedom of speech).  We can get onto wobbly terrain when we extend the meaning of “free speech” to mean that no one, anywhere can restrict speech.  One question at issue at Friends Central is whether a school can restrict speech.

When I was a kid, I was occasionally sent to my room or had my mouth washed out with soap (sometimes both), for things I had said.  Whatever the justness of those punishments, in no way do I take them to have been free speech issues.  My parents, because they were my parents, could put restrictions on what I said.  I also believe it is permissible (not necessarily wise) for businesses, social clubs and other organizations to restrict what is said without being guilty of the denial of free speech.  The test for free speech is whether the government is implicated in the restriction.

Friends Central is an independent school associated with the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), not the government.  I believe a k-12 school should properly place some restrictions on who can speak, about what, when and where.  A student who was regularly and loudly disruptive in a classroom ought to be subject to some restriction or discipline, for example.  Proscribing disrespectful language anywhere in a school is something a school might properly consider. Etc.  A good school will have as few such restrictions as possible, and will try to promote respectful, truth-seeking speech more through norms and customs than through compulsion, but that isn’t to say that any use of authority to prevent speech is a denial of free speech.  Such a use of authority may be unwise, but that is a different matter.

The better question in this instance is whether Friends Central was right or wise to restrict speech in this instance.  That’s an important question but a different one than a free speech question.

As someone who believes that the issues in play in Israel/Palestine are among the most important issues of our time, I would want Friends Central students to have an opportunity to learn about BDS and the circumstances that have given rise to it.  Sa’ed Atshan appears to be well qualified to speak about these matters.  In saying this, I’m making a judgment as an outsider.  At Friends Central, those in positions of responsibility would have had to make judgments about whether this was a speaker the school should invite.

Whose responsibility is that at Friends Central?  I don’t know, and I’m sure Friends Central is reviewing their policy on such matters as this crisis smolders.

Typically, colleges and universities have quite decentralized arrangements for extending invitations to speakers, and they should.  Different academic departments and various student groups all are likely to have the right and responsibility to extend invitations.  Once made, the college should stand behind that invitation even if its senior leadership wished the invitation had never been made.  At Earlham, I remember well a tough week when a student group had invited Malik Zulu Shabazz, then head of the New Black Panther Party, to speak.  I considered Shabazz a racist and an anti-Semite, but because he had been properly invited, I stood up for his appearance and worked to make it happen as smoothly as possible.

How about a Quaker k-12 school like Friends Central? Who is authorized to extend invitations to speak there?  How decentralized is that authority.  The situation is different than a college because younger students are involved.  I don’t know what’s proper at a school like Friends Central in extending speaking invitations.  But the answer certainly isn’t ‘anyone can.’  Did the two teachers have that authority? Did they know whether they did or not?  Those are questions on my mind.

Once the invitation had been extended, what was the school’s best response?  That’s an easier one.  I think it would have been better to stand by that invitation. But not because it’s a free speech issue.  Rather, it’s an issue around judgment and good education.


Related:  Academic Freedom: Sponsorship and the BDS Controversy

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A Connectedness of Yearning

What I remember best is the silence.  It seemed to charge the room with a connectedness of yearning.

mary-astors-purple-diaryThat take on his first Quaker Meeting is from Edward Sorel’s Mary Astor’s Purple Diary (Liveright, 2016), a book I read after an attention getting review from Woody Allen in the New York Times Book Review.

Sorel’s book is about the actress Mary Astor (Dodsworth, The Maltese Falcon, The Palm Beach StoryMeet Me in St. Louis, and dozens of less memorable ones).  The sub-title is “The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936.” The Purple Diary of the title is Mary’s and the salacious prime exhibit in her divorce and child custody lawsuits.

Somehow, and successfully, Sorel (an illustrator and caricaturist) insinuates himself into the book. After all, he first learned about the scandal when he pulled up the linoleum in his New York City apartment and found a collection of old newspapers.  Along the way we learn he and his wife Nancy are Quakers.

The book is a a guilty pleasure, but the phrase “a connectedness of yearning” will stay with me.  It’s what I hope for in a gathered meeting for worship.

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Abandonment of the Use of Force

December 17, 2016

atlantic_charterOn August 14, 1941, Churchill and Roosevelt met in Newfoundland and issued The Atlantic Charter,a broad statement of U.S. and British war aims.  War aims? The U.S. was not yet officially at war: the U.S. would not formally enter the war until December, 1941, after the Pearl Harbor Attack.  Nevertheless, Churchill and Roosevelt wanted to rally the world around a set of principles.

Point 8 (the final point) of the Atlantic Charter is a striking statement envisioning a world without war.

8. They believe all of the nations of the world, for realistic as well spiritual reasons, must come to the abandonment of the use of force. Since no future peace can be maintained if land, sea, or air armaments continue to be employed by nations which threaten, or may threaten aggression outside of their frontiers, they believe, pending the establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security, that the disarmament of such nations is essential. They will likewise aid and encourage all other practicable measures which will lighten for peace-loving peoples the crushing burden of armament.

Who is “They”?  Churchill and Roosevelt certainly, but they meant the Charter to speak more broadly for their respective nations.  The Charter articulates “certain common principles in the national policies of their respective countries on which they base their hopes for a better future for the world.”

“Abandonment of the use of force” and lightening “the crushing burden of armaments.”  How far we are from such sentiments today, 75 years later.

I found reference to the Atlantic Charter in an excellent post of Ted Grimsrud on his Peace Theology blog entitled Christian pacifism and the “Good War”.  Worth reading.

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What to Make of Trump’s Election

November 9, 2016

A friend writes this morning  “just wondering what your Quaker Friends are saying after this election?  I write her back:

trump-headlineWell I’m wondering, too, what Quakers make of it and wondering even more what I make of it. “Shocked” seems to be the word of the day, and that certainly includes me.
Two thoughts come first to my mind.  One is that anytime we are surprised by the doings of others we live among (and it’s all those votes that have me reeling, not DJT’s election) — anytime that happens, then that’s on us.  We weren’t paying attention the way we should have been.  We’ve got to pay attention better, listen and look better, open our heads and hearts a little wider.
The other thought has to do with something I said to Robbie yesterday and now am saying to myself.  He was hoping for a leadership position in his scout troop he didn’t get and so is disappointed.  I told him leadership isn’t so much about the position you hold, it’s about what you do, how you carry yourself.  In seeing it that way, I told him, “leadership is taking initiative generously, constructively and persistently.”  Anyone can exercise leadership on that understanding and at any time.  So this morning I’m thinking we better all step up to leadership, taking initiative generously, constructively and persistently.
What initiative(s)?  That’s what I’m thinking about.
Love to hear your thoughts.


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