Of kingdoms and The Prayer of William Madison

Every once in a while, a film slips through the cracks of the Academy of Motion Pictures.  There have been some obvious misses over the years with some classics, but one that not many think about is a coming of age film about a man struggling to find a place in his world and locating it among the most unsuspecting of friends.  Yes, of course I am talking about Billy Madison.

Ok.  Maybe it didn’t deserve a golden statue.  However, something came to my mind in the days following the U.S. election of a reality TV personality as the leader of the free world.  I was seeing and processing so many different people of faith’s reactions to the election.  I have many progressive, liberal Christian friends who obviously were deeply grieved.  I have right wing, republican Christian friends who puffed their chests and paraded around like a peacock (who, we learn in another Academy Awards fail, “The Other Guys” that peacocks don’t fly…) As I sat on my couch shocked but not shocked at all that had occurred, I began to think of the Kingdom and our rather strange obsession with kingdom.  Seems confusing, but note- one has a little ‘k’ and one has a big “K.” As a person seeking to follow Jesus, I have found myself first and foremost aligned with the Kingdom of Heaven living in the kingdom of the U.S.A.

Jesus had a political system that he prescribed and lived by. In the midst of great oppression- violent, political oppression, this was the Roman Empire, folks- he certainly could have spoken clearly about such things. In fact, it seems that is exactly what his people wanted from him.  They wanted freedom from Roman rule and they hoped he would lead that movement.  This is why they wanted to toss him off of a cliff when he suggested that more than just the Jewish people were included in the Kingdom he was talking about. This was crazy talk! You don’t include your oppressors! This is why many were “went away confused” by his message and parables. This is why, towards the end of the story, they wanted Barabbas instead of Jesus, because maybe Barabbas could lead the rebellion. They needed a man of war, a man of violence, and Jesus was coming up short.  They did not understand that the rebellion Jesus was offering was to be carried in a different way and was really quite different

I am no historian, but I think it’s pretty safe to say as far as humanity goes, we have always had this thing with political rule, with the rise and fall of kingdoms. Why is that? Why is it that we get so emotionally attached to an outcome of a political season and election cycle? In reality, it comes down to one thing- Power. Again, as long as there have been civilizations, there has been this need, this thirst, this lust- for power.  Following the Christian faith back to its Genesis (see what I did there?) It started in a garden story where two people were offered a chance at just a little bit more power, even though they’ve been given as much of it and freedom as they could ever require. The first biblical recorded murder? It was about power. Look for conflicts, and you’ll find somewhere involved within it, the struggle for power. Don’t get me wrong, many times this need of or shift of power has been a noble, good, necessary thing.  Just in America’s brief existence as a nation, examples like the desire to even have a country free from religious oppression, to the ending of transatlantic slave trade, to women’s suffrage, to the civil rights movement- these are all examples of a good shift in power.  It is just as easy (maybe even easier) to make a list of shifts in power that were not noble, though at the time they were painted as such, many of those situations tangled within the ones listed above.

So it was in the beginning of civilization, so it is today- humanity gets into groups and gathers power and pushes back and forth for it.  But then there’s Jesus, the person who we claim, as people of faith, to follow.  He offers a politic of power that is completely backwards to these ways that seem normal to humanity, both at his time all the way to today.  His way is completely against the systems of power we are almost seemingly wired to pursue (if you want to dive deep- If we follow his way, and the other way is anti his way, they are, by definition “anti-Christ.” Yes.  That is what that means.)
Read the beatitudes (all those, “blessed are the…” statements.) Where is the power? It’s been lost.  Given away. Offered to.  Look at the way Jesus tells stories, pay attention to when and where and to whom he performs miracles.  When he is literally asked about taxes on two separate occasions- one time he asks who’s face is on the coin. He says, “welp, there ya go.” Another time, he is questioned by Peter regarding a tax (either a temple tax or some roman tax. I’ve read it described as both.) He sends Peter to catch a fish, open its mouth and produce a coin from it that would cover both Peter’s and Jesus’ tax that was requested.  There is no statement regarding that fishing trip occurring, but it’s as if Jesus is responding to something greater than a tax.  He’s responding to power.  It’s as if he’s saying, “there’s more than one power at play here. There is an earthly power, and there is a Power that is not subject to that power.” I find the fish thing really intriguing.  It’s like, ‘the coin is in the fish.  The coin will pay the tax.  But, who put the coin there?” Maybe, that’s the real power to be pursued.

Which brings me back to the initial subject, one William Madison.  Billy, as he’s known, is forced to go back to school to graduate so he can take over his family business.  His first class is with Ms. Lippy who shares a story of a puppy who lost its way.  While the other children are asleep after the story ends, Billy questions the person in the story’s effort in finding his lost puppy.  “You’ve got a pet, you’ve got a responsibility. If your dog is lost, you don’t look for an hour and then call it quits. You get your keester out there and you find that flibbityflooping dog!” (some words may have been changed in this quote….)

The church- evangelical, mainline, progressive, rightwing, no wing, peacock wing, etc etc- we’ve lost our puppy.  The politics of the Kingdom of Heaven have never once changed.  They have been constant since the foundations of the earth. They were on full display in the life of Jesus and in some faithful humans since. (Incidentally, lots of those faithful humans met some awful ends of life on this earth. But, let’s not worry about that right now…)Others you may have never even heard of or seen but may have caught the reality of their execution of this higher way of politics.  Kingdom politics have also never bowed to or been supported or advanced by earthly political power. They simply do not jive. It’s oil and water. What has Jesus asked us to do, politically? Find the commands or ideals he puts forth- there honestly aren’t too many. You can find most of his instruction in Matthew 5-7, something I like to call the “matt-trick.” It’s like a hat trick in hockey (3 goals scored in one game) but it involves three chapters in the book of Matthew. Because, I’m witty. Those 3 chapters hold enough difficult things to keep us busy for a while readjusting our politics.

As far as America is concerned- we should be doing the things we should have always been doing, the things we are called to, which Jesus (and the rest of scripture) is pretty clear about- caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the oppressed, standing against injustice, providing an ear, a shoulder, and practicing intentional enemy love.

Does this new America under Donald Trump promote those ideals? No. That’s silly.  It’s equally as silly to believe it would have been promoted under Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, George Bush (either of them) or any of the other 41 presidents of the U.S. Because the politics of the Kingdom of Heaven will always be counter to the politics of any other kingdom.  My realization, that has been made clear in recent days, is that the church has lost it’s puppy.  We have forgotten our responsibility.  We have lost what we should have been about all along.  My prayer and hope, is that now we will be given the opportunity to find it. Every power shift has offered this and every moment in between.  This power shift has been apocalyptic, though. It’s been a shaking and it may be a tremendous catalyst.  (For more on that idea, check out my friend Zach’s blog.)
Should we participate in earthly politics? I am honestly searching that answer out for myself.  I think we have a voice to be heard, but it’s not about country. It’s not about rights being infringed upon or majority rule or any of those earth kingdom ideas.  It’s about people. Always people.  My friend Johnny always offers the old leadership adage, “we should not be a thermometer, aware of the temperature of our environment but rather a thermostat, a people setting the temperature.” We can’t do that from behind screens and keyboards. We can’t do that getting riled up every 4 or 8 years.  We do that with faithful presence in sometimes difficult places. Directly in the middle of nowhere, as Brennan Manning says is the space between the now and here. We do that only by executing the politics of the Kingdom. Let’s get our keesters out there and find our flibbityflooping dog.

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 Eyes to see and …..?

I am currently in school and for one of my classes I had to attend an event that featured or spoke to a culture or background different from my own. I began perusing.  I was excited about this as I have interests in other cultures. I like to know what different people believe, how they live-there are things I just want to know about. However one thing in particular has been brought to the forefront of my eyeballs and heart again and again and again. Being black in America.

I had a conversation with a deeply respected friend about two years ago. It was after a high-profile killing of a black man by a police officer, which was the second such incident in recent weeks. I wanted to extend some sympathy to him, let him know I was “with him.” I thought I was doing the right thing. He got defensive he said something to the effect of, “Jonathan I appreciate what you’re doing but you simply can’t be with me. Don’t try.” I was taken aback! I was extending an olive branch here! What’s with the hostility? He went on to tell me how he was feeling, that he was had fear and anxiety about walking down the street to his job simply because of the color of his skin. And in that moment, I was heart-broken because he was right. I could never understand that.
A couple of months later, I was sitting on a hotel bed on a quick work trip.  It was Martin Luther King Jr Day.  I typically do not even bother turning on the television in hotels-I see it as a God sanctioned time to read.  As I was getting situated, I did flip on the tv, looking for local news and I found a documentary playing called, “Eyes on the Prize.” It was an epic 14 hour documentary produced in the late 80’s covering the entirety of Civil Rights movement.  It was one of the most emotionally draining things I have ever experienced.  I wept.  I was angry.  “How could people do this to other people?” I was confused. “Why was this not a class, in and of itself in high school?” I could not remember being taught much of anything about the Civil Rights Movement in school, let alone the heinous activities that took place.  I was mortified this was not some foreign land in some ancient time.  This was here, in America, a “christian nation” and it had happened just 50 years prior.  There are people living who experienced this.  The conversation I had with a friend who was expressing the realities of how he felt and the viewing of this documentary made me aware. I didn’t know what to do.

I found my cultural event.  Last Saturday, I attended a panel discussion hosted by the ASALH Pittsburgh chapter.  The panel featured “Distinguished African-American Trailblazers and History Makers.” I listened to stories about growing up with segregation still a very real thing, I listened to the first black man to play in the Jim Crow segregated NCAA Sugar Bowl, the first black woman graduate of Pitt Law school, stories of the first black swimmer to score in an NCAA final, the former head of human resources at US Steel and first African American to graduate from Pitt Law and first to receive tenure at Pitt Law School, and I listened to the stories of working in Mississippi in the summer of 1962 to sign black people up to vote.  The stories were stunning. People asked questions, but I just listened.  I was able to ask Mr. Lavelle (the man who worked in Mississippi in the summer of ’62) after the event “how can I enter in and help without feeling like I am making…..”Awkward pause.  I didn’t have the right word. Or words.  Charity case? Mockery? White Guilt? He looked at me and I think he knew what I was trying to say- or maybe not, but he said simply, “you just have to be willing to step in and listen.”

So, to all my fellow white people, before you drop your epic wisdom about “can we have white history month now?” or “Colin Kaepernick is an entitled, disrespectful baby…” “just listen to the police” or whatever you want to say, I would suggest, have you listened? Are you willing to listen? If not, have you looked back? Go find that documentary. Watch it.  Step into that. The thing I remember the most as I watched that was the overwhelming sense of fear.  That fear came out in the form of hatred and violence. We’re there again, folks. The fear is palpable in our country, in our cities.  Are we willing to stop responding, stop rebutting, stop lashing out and do the hard work of stepping in, being present with our brothers and sisters, and listening? You might not like what you hear.  You might be taken aback, offended, put off, but you might learn something.  Only in listening will we begin to find the space to then act in love.

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My Shortest Blog Ever

This will be my shortest blog ever. Probably. I have so, so much going on in my life right now. Working full time at WV, part time at the Bux, part of a team planting a church and going to school full time- and never forgetting full time husbanding, which is a continual learning  and growing process, and usually mostly involves much failing- here is a jd nugget for you. A fortune cookie, if you will. If you consider yourself any type of leader or are finding yourself growing into leadership and you are not regularly meeting with someone older, wiser and more learned than you, you are simply setting yourself up for total failure. I don’t believe in that word, failure. I believe that there are only lessons in life, however, not having someone walking with you and knowing where you are because they’ve been there- I will call that absolute and complete future failure. 

Life is fun. Life is hard. Life is busy. More than anything, I’ve learned life is a constant learning environment. A classroom. There are people that have been there and are better at it. Find one. Make time for them in your life. I promise, you won’t regret it. 

Thankful to the guy who has been willing to take time out of his schedule because he gets it. I am honored and so grateful. I look forward to the day that I can maybe be that person to someone else. 

T, you have become the Gandalf to my wandering adventure. Thank you for your heart for the kingdom of heaven.  

Of Friendship, Rock n’ Roll and Writing Things I Never Thought I Would Write.

Life- it’s full of surprises. I always tell people, I think if God is real, he seems to deal with people each in how they might best understand. For me, it seems he’s used irony- extreme irony- as well as a brutal sense of humor. You might think that cruel, but it’s kind of my language so it works.

I’ve grown up for the most part in the church. Youth group was my jam as a teenager.  I went to two different ones that really marked me, in mostly all positive ways, which I am incredibly greatful for. The second youth group, I met a family of brothers that were all close to my and my brother’s ages. They were all musical and their parents played church music with my parents so  naturally we became friends in that environment. I became fast friends with Johnny, the eldest brother. Since that time many many many years ago, Johnny and I have been in cahoots. We’ve played music in church settings, in bars and pubs, got married in the same year (14 this year, man😉) and have just experienced life together. I count Johnny as one of my best, truest friends. Friends can be hard to find, so I deeply value what we have in friendship.

Somewhere around 2005 I had a bit of a personal spiritual crisis. I think I came to a place where I was just tired of church. Religion. The “status quo.” I wasn’t anti-God, but really started thinking more critically about what we did as “church” and why in the world we did it. To be quite honest, I operated with a great deal of sarcasm to that point, and the dangerous thing about sarcasm is that it quickly turns to cynicism and then to an almost a bitter hatred. I think that’s where I was with church. I was cynical and creeping into hating it. I didn’t want any part of it anymore. I just didn’t grasp the value, and I was really tired of hearing stories about people being hurt by it. “How can that be of God?” I would constantly ask. In that season, I found myself in a desert spiritually and there is something about desert experiences. They change you. It’s quiet there. Resources are limited. It’s just you and your thoughts. You and the spirit. In that season, I felt deeply in my heart this voice saying, “hey. I get what you’re saying. You have this indignant “right” to say what you’re saying and feel what you’re feeling. But what about them?” And I kept kind of hearing this, “what about them?” “What them? Who them? What about me?!” I would quietly scream back. Then that voice, that whatever in my deepest gut would be silent. Because, desert. All throughout that season, (and many other seasons) I had that friendship with Johnny to fall back on and conversations on his back porch late into many nights. That sustained me, and pushed me forward. Relationships matter. Friendships matter.

The years passed and Johnny and I kept creating and playing music. We had a lot of fun and some interesting adventures. We stole the Wallflowers strawberry jam prior to opening for them (sorry Jakob Dylan!) The music always led to conversations, and the conversations to music but always somehow came full circle back to that question- back to “what would WE do?” and still occasionally I would hear that nudge in my guts “what about them?”

Fast forward to 2014, Johnny and I get together for one of our hangouts. We talk shop- life, music, work, church and have a cold beverage. We have been involved in a great church community and we could totally just be happy there and carry on, but somehow it comes up, because it always does- “what would we do?” And then we start down this road, this new road that sounds like, “well…what if we did?….” We set a 6 month window in our calendars to just pray about those thoughts, ideas, and “what if we did?”

Late 2014 we started taking these conversations a bit more seriously. The question of “what” morphed further in to the question of “why?” Does the world need another “church?” (The answer is no.) So why the conversation? I think it was because there was something deeper stirring. “What about them?”

It’s 2016 now, (halfway through 2016- how did that happen?) We have been having these conversations with some friends about why, about what, and to be quite honest I still can’t fully answer that. But, it’s happening and I’m excited. I’m excited because of the why. The why is “for them.” Maybe that “them” is you. I know it’s me. Or it has been. Or it will be. Maybe you’ve been in that desert. Maybe you are currently in a desert. Like I said, we don’t have a ton figured out, but what we do know is that conversations will occur and a journey will take place and you are welcome into that with us. Maybe for me, this is just ultimately to answer the internal questions and quiet the voices- trust me, it would be much easier to just walk away from this- but I just can’t. Because I haven’t quite found the answer to “what about them?”

So what’s this thing called? It’s called Beloved. Many years ago Johnny and I had both read “The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Henri Nouwen. It’s a transformative work, as Nouwen’s writings tend to be. We were talking on the phone and Johnny said, “you know, if we ever did this, I would want to call a community simply “Beloved.””

And that was one of the things that stuck.

At the end of the day, I don’t know much about the “them” that have been asked about in my guts for years, but I am learning.  They have questions. Hard questions. Concerns.  Hurts. Fears. Issues.  Also joys they want to share in community, in relationships, in late night conversations on a back porch. I also definitely know this- they, you, me, us, -are the beloved. That much I CAN answer. Oh, and there will be rock n roll, because that has been a constant in this journey as well.  The rest, we’ll just need to figure out together.

So join us if you feel that nudge in your guts,  we are going to give this thing a go. We’re going to gather 7.16.16 at Upper Saint Clair High School at 6pm. You can find some more information on our social media spots at Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Things I never ever thought I would say, “well, we are starting a church.” I don’t even like typing it! (There’s that irony and sense of humor) but, I have to. We have to. Because, them. Because, you. Because us. Because of the Beloved.  And I couldn’t be more excited about it.

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Every 17 Years=creepy bugs, and the future. 

It’s 2016 which is a marked year. Yes, sadly it has been marked by the loss of some tremendous creatives, artists and others,  but other things mark it. Stranger things. Red eyed, noisy things.

Cicadas.

Maybe you don’t know what I’m talking about. Cicadas are bugs that emerge every 17 years. They crawl out from hibernation and live a very short life span of a few weeks in which their existence is to get out of their shell, get busy, lay some eggs, and die. Wait 17 years. Rinse. Repeat.

People here in the northeast kind of freak out about these critters. I find them intriguing. It’s one of those oddities of nature. How in the world, WHY in the world? I found some really interesting information about them. For instance there is actually some debate about the number 17 being unique. It’s a prime number. Another type of cicada emerges every 13 years. Another prime number. Bug science people hypothesize that could be to maximize their ability to essentially not be eaten as it lands in the gaps of lifespans of other creatures who would be the cicadas predators. They also affect other things in nature apparently, like birds. Normal birds you might see around your area, they might not show up until after the cicadas are gone as if they know the cicadas are coming too and just avoid it. It’s like a Kenny Chesney concert or a tunnel closing in pittsburgh- you know what’s going to happen, so you just don’t go there.  They hypothesize that perhaps the sheer noise of the cicadas (a single male cicada’s chirp can hit 120 decibels. That’s a freaking rock concert, people) create issues for some birds. In this environment the birds can’t actually hunt the food they normally would because the cicadas are so loud. They are the annoying kid listening to his heavy metal without ear buds on the bus while you’re trying to read. Some of the science folk can’t even really say how the birds know the cicadas are coming, because often the draw down of birds in an area happens before the cicadas even emerge, and it can’t be because the birds remember the last time, because the birds life span is significantly shorter than the cicadas 17 year cycle, so birds might experience this phenomenon once every three bird generations. Isn’t this wild?!  (For anyone interested, this is an incredible video documenting this oddity.  If this somehow doesnt make you have some feels for the little guys, well, I guess I can still understand! haha!)

I was driving to a little gathering of some friends two weeks ago and I could hear the cidcadas singing their little love songs in the trees all around me. I find it to be a peaceful sound, it sort of ebbs and flows rhythmically. It made me start to think of that stuff Jesus talked about when mentioning the provision given to even the sparrows of the field, and how much more  we, people, would be given provision. I’m in this incredibly hectic, emotionally and creatively “buzzing” season of life- where am I headed, what should I be starting, finishing, stepping into, away from, am I on track or way off?

At our gathering we were just sharing some stuff about life with each other, and many of us shared about a lot of these same things- decisions in life, and work, and business, and – always with that question “what’s next?” Last Sunday my friend Johnny shared a bit about the “parable of the cicada” which isn’t actually in the bible, but it kind of is.  God has seemed to always speak through the locust.  It is interesting that they have been markers of things all throughout scripture.  So, Johnny questioned, “Why would God stop using that method?”

So here we are- a marked year. A marked season.  Whether marked by nature, science, or something much bigger and more cosmic, it’s marked.  God is speaking new things, leading to new places, marking things along the way.  As I drove that evening, I began to think of the last time the cicadas were here.  I was 17 years old.  Next time they show up I will be 52 years old.  I began to ponder what might happen in that time frame. Where will I journey? What will I accomplish? Will I have the guts to pursue some of the crazy things I feel in my heart? Will I succeed? Will I fail epically? It can quickly become overwhelming. Then, I heard the noise of the cicada amidst all my questions. Loud, steady, rhythmic, constant.  Just like another voice, constantly leading, whispering, reminding, providing.

Every word that comes down will not go back unfulfilled.

This next 17 will be fun.  Adventures are afoot and in short order.  Stand by…

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A Whore, the Pharisees, and Jesus: Living In the Margins

I’ve been a bit too busy to finish a complete thought.  I have a few started, but- yeah.  Anyway, here’s some amazing stuff from Josh Cogan of Deep Ellum, Texas.  Honored to know people like Josh. His thoughts, wisdom, humility and heart of love are desparately needed.

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     Someone once said that “you are known by the company you keep”. I dont necessarily believe this to be true, but many people I know would tell me not to hang out with “sinners” for this very reason. Now, a “sinner” in this context is almost always defined as someone with a visible “sin,” as defined by whatever this particular person doesn’t agree with. My counter to this close-minded definition of “sin” would be that we ALL have sin in our life, even sin within the depths of our hearts that may not even be known to us. Who are you to take the place of God, judging one’s heart? But I digress. However, I would like to ask you a question: have you ever examined the life of Jesus? 
   There’s one particular story that sticks out to me. In Luke 7:36-50, Jesus is hanging out…

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Angels in the Parking Lot.

Sometimes, you bump into an angel in a parking lot.  This morning, I swung into Starbucks to get some coffee ground. I didn’t even grab a drink, just get in, get the coffee ground, get out, get going.  It’s Monday and I was already running a bit late.  Come on Damico, get going!

I got into St. Arbucks, got the goods taken care of and was walking out and a gentleman was right in front of me also walking out.  He kind of held the door as I walked through, I said thank you.  He looked at me and said, “Oh, you’re welcome! Have a great day!” I always appreciate sentiments like that as sometimes you feel like you are one of the few people who genuinely wish that sentiment to others, so I responded with a, “hey, you too!” He looked at me, with some kind of gleam in his eye, and said “I will! It’s going to be a great day! We’re vertical, man!” I responded with a hearty, “Amen!”

As I got in the car, I started thinking, ‘man- we are vertical. We’re alive. How great is that?!’

I have been binging some Daredevil on Netflix, and there are a lot of themes of redemption and justice and value of life in the story.  It’s dark. It’s gritty. It’s pretty violent. It probably doesn’t have a ton of emotional “value” compared to the books I typically read in that space in the evenings but, there is a message there.  A deeper message. Hope.

We are vertical.

We are alive.  What are you/I/we going to do with that, today, in this moment.

Right now.

Seeing images of terror, anger, hostility, and fear on the news, on the feed, in our neighborhoods, in our communities- it doesn’t often leave us feeling hopeful.I think it’s psychologically natural or human nature to just start to retreat, lay low, get upset. But, there is hope.  There is always hope. Because we are called to a different nature. Because we are vertical.  We are the best option for goodness. For grace. For love. For joy. It’s why we are here.  It’s why we celebrated resurrection Sunday yesterday- there is a better way, a completed way, a finished way to live in and to live to.  When you live in that light, the light of heaven, that you are the light of the world because of that light, (Mt 5:13-16) all of that awful stuff, it simply does not win.  It never wins, even when it thinks it does.

As long as we are vertical, that hope exists. Of course, we have to be walking out of Starbucks on Monday morning and be willing to state publicly to a stranger, “It’s going to be good- We are vertical!” Or walking into our office.  Or the waiting room at the doctor’s. Or while we search for a job.  Or even when we are feeling our most loneliest. When we begin to speak that into our life, surroundings, interactions- things will change.  When we begin to grasp the greater purpose of our placement in this moment in time, things will begin to shift.  Not immediately, or even quickly.  It’s not even easy or fun all the time- it’s hard work!- but it is worth it.

We are vertical.

Today I am grateful for chance encounters with angels in the Starbucks parking lot.

May we be those chance encounters to others and may we live with the knowledge that we are vertical, we are here for a purpose, and that hope is in us.

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(For more goodness, just go read Matthew 5, in the message version if you want.  Here’s Jesus giving the goods of life to normal, everyday people.)