Coronavirus and COVID-19: The Best Pandemic Yet?

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A friend of mine quoted words written by C.S. Lewis 72 years ago. I follow his suggestion to replace “atomic bomb” with “corona virus:”

“In one way we think a great deal too much of the coronavirus. “How are we to live in an age of the coronavirus?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of AIDS, an age of terrorism, an age of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the coronavirus was anywhere near our radar: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have acknowledged one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by the coronavirus, let that virus when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—there are really a lot of things we can do from our own homes even if we do not wander around outside our homes—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about the coronavirus. They may break our bodies (a mishap with modern inconveniences can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

— “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948 and updated 2020 by C.S. Hayward) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays

Taking appropriate measures

We have several strokes of good fortune compared to every other pandemic in history. We have Amazon and Facebook, and opportunities to live for more than ourselves. But coping strategies extend beyond merely preventing transmission of the virus, and I would like to comment on standard guidelines. From sampling the CDC:

Clean your hands often

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds especially after you have been in a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.

  • If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Cover all surfaces of your hands and rub them together until they feel dry.

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.

Avoid close contact

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick

  • Put distance between yourself and other people if COVID-19 is spreading in your community. This is especially important for people who are at higher risk of getting very sick.

The first impression that this makes is that it is based on a superstitious and neanderthal concept of immunology, though I would here state that desperate times call for desperate measures and I don’t see why my immune system should stand up particularly well to something as nasty as COVID-19. People are working on not touching, and normally loving touch stimulates the immune system. Social isolation itself is an excellent way to depress the person and the immune system at one stroke. Furthermore, the prolonged effect of obsessive-compulsive cleanliness is to weaken the immune system. However, again, this is probably a case of desperate times that call for desperate measures.

I would pause briefly to comment that it is possible, albeit not obvious, to embrace without touching. Treasure tells how I supported a crying little girl without touching above a handshake that ended the interaction. When I went to give a present to my young nephews, I did not touch them, but was vigorous about making a nice big waving motion with my arm. If it is appropriate, these circumstances make it all the more helpful to be able to give an embrace without touching.

The second thing I would say is that this advice is like whiffle balls: it doesn’t go very far. It touches a point of need, but there is much more to coping.

For that reason, I offer another shopping list to try to get what you can:

“Really coping” shopping list

Past Experience

Dorothy Sayers wrote in “The Other Six Deadly Sins,” “I am reminded of a young man who once said to me with perfect simplicity: ‘I did not know there were seven deadly sins: please tell me the names of the other six.'” Writing in World War II in England about gluttony broadly construed, Sayers wrote,

You will notice that, under a war economy, the contrast [between consumption by rich and poor] is being flattened out; we are being forced to reduce and regulate our personal consumption of commodities, and to revise our whole notion of what constitutes good citizenship in the financial sense. This is the judgment of this world: when we will not amend ourselves by Grace, we are compelled under the yoke of Law. You will notice also that we are learning certain things. There seems, for example, to be no noticeable diminution in our health and spirits due to the fact that we have only the choice of, say, half a dozen dishes in a restaurant instead of forty. In the matter of clothing, we are beginning to regain our respect for stuffs that will wear well; we can no longer be led away by the specious argument that it is smarter and more hygienic to wear underlinen and stockings once and then throw them away than to buy things that will serve us for years. We are having to learn, painfully, to save food and material and to salvage waste products; and in learning to do these things we have found a curious and stimulating sense of adventure.

And I believe that this coronavirus might not just be a restriction on civil liberties, or practical restrictions when others are being meticulous. The coronavirus and COVID-19 has declared war on humanity; we have declared war on it. By reining ourselves in we can and will reduce human casualties. And in this warfare we may touch something almost transcendent. We may, through difficult measures, save many, many, many human lives.

Digging deeper

There is something I wish to say, and I wish it so much that it is hard to think of how to say it. I wrote in God the Spiritual Father that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds, but we live in a world governed by the best of all possible Gods, and that makes all the difference.

Life is here and now, under the circumstances, and life is not about waiting for the rain to stop so you can dance, but dancing in the rain.

One koan has a cook monk, a position of high status, toiling over vegetables in the midday sun. A less mature monk asked him, “Why are you doing that work on the vegetables now?” The cook countered with a question: “When else can I do it?”

Zen and koans have a reputation for being enigmatic, but the point is sometimes a clue-by-four to help someone see the painfully obvious. The only time we can live is now, in the here and now that God has given us. Perhaps some of us are not Zen rigorists and are willing to schedule like the less mature monk expected. None the less, Orthodox hold to salvation being in the here and now, and recognizing that the here and now is under the guiding hand of Providence. It is fruitful for us to pray, with St. Philaret of Moscow,

My Lord, I know not what I ought to ask of Thee.
Thou and Thou alone knowest my needs.
Thou lovest me more than I am able to love Thee.
O Father, grant unto me, Thy servant, all which I cannot ask.
For a cross I dare not ask, nor for consolation;
I dare only to stand in Thy presence.
My heart is open to Thee.
Thou seest my needs of which I myself am unaware.
Behold and lift me up!
In Thy presence I stand,
awed and silenced by Thy will and Thy judgments,
into which my mind cannot penetrate.
To Thee I offer myself as a sacrifice.
No other desire is mine but to fulfill Thy will.
Teach me how to pray.
Do Thyself pray within me.
Amen.

And the Father may gently answer, in a poem of unknown attribution,

“Life’s Tapestry”

Behind those golden clouds up there
the Great One sews a priceless embroidery
and since down below we walk
we see, my child, the reverse view.
And consequently it is natural for the mind to see mistakes
there where one must give thanks and glorify.

Wait as a Christian for that day to come
where your soul a-wing will rip through the air
and you shall see the embroidery of God
from the good side
and then… everything will seem to you to be a system and order.

And with it, the prayer for acceptance of God’s will from St. Philaret of Moscow:
We are in God’s workshop, and God is working with us, if we will work with him, to create an eternal glory. The circumstances of our lives may be messy; God’s Providence is perfect in order, and it beckons to us.

Please experience present circumstances as a joy!
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The Emperor’s New Fantasy

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A Wind in the Door, by Madeleine l’Engle. Swirls of kything, Charles Wallace, and Blajeny. The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis. Swirls of Narnia and visits to that land. Arthurian legends. Swirls of knighthood, Merlin, and the Holy Grail. Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein. Swirls of grokking, Michael Valentine Smith, and Martian wisdom.

These are some of the “realer world” things I have found captivating over the years, and all of them, in different forms, offer a glimpse of transcendence—and heartache.

There is a scene, central to the plot, in The Silver Chair where a Witch has been weaving an enchantment to seduce the Narnian Marsh-Wiggle Puddleglum and the earthborn children into believing that there is no world outside the underground caverns, no sun, no Aslan and so on and so forth, and when the Witch has practically won, Puddleglum mostly stamps out the spice-laden, narcotic fire with his bare feet, and greatly weakens the enchantment, and tells the Witch,

“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one more thing to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is this, that in that case the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”

This heroic stance is, in a word, the marketing proposition offered by fantasy.

(Particularly if it is taken out of its context of defending the book’s real world, Narnia.)

People who find the world dismal can seek salvation in escape, where there is no true salvation to be found. But there is another option.

Realize that the greater world is not by escape, but by recognizing that the real world is not the dreary, mundane cave that it looks like when you are making Puddleglum’s stance.

The Orthodox Church is very much embracing the here and now, and insists that no, there is no other place than the here and now God has given us that we can be saved. Or that we can be happy. But something funny happens along the way.

If we give up Grail questing whether in Arthurian form or its pukeworthy successors, the world seems hollow when recognizing that we cannot ever find or reach the Holy Grail. But when we repent and turn our backs on escape, we discover that repentance is not something to fear but Heaven’s best-kept secret, and God the Spiritual Father has placed us in Paradise.

We may discover that after we have given up the hope of any illusion of the Holy Grail that the only game in town is to become the Holy Grail, to receive Christ’s body and blood in the Holy Mysteries ourselves, as the Blessed Augustine said, “Behold what you believe! Become what you behold!” and the purpose of being human is to become by grace what Christ is by nature.

If we give up reading fantasy and hoping we could live in that realer world, we may read the Saints’ lives, different each day, and find God the Spiritual Father call you to the true realer world.

There are lessons along the way. One is that happiness is not for sometime down the road when we get some new possession, but for here now. Possessions, no matter how badly we want them, do not mediate our really living human life. Another lesson is that the greatest treasures, all of them, we are invited to pursue. The God Who Transcends His Own Transcendence bids us grow in humility, love, and divinity. These eclipse Nobel Prizes, royal honors, and indeed all the honor in the world.

And really, it is an adventure, but it all hinges on repentance and virtue.

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How can I take my life back from my phone?

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Is there someplace in the world that does not have Internet?
-A prolific poster on Twitter

The ??????? Rule

In The ??????? Rule, I suggested that a good rule of thumb is to ask, “What do Silicon Valley technology executives choose for their children?” And Steve Jobs, for instance, did not have a nerd’s paradise for his kids. He had walls with big bookshelves and animated discussions. They hadn’t seen an iPad when it first entered the limelight. And employees of technology company chose what might seem some remarkably strict rules, because they didn’t buy into the mystique of hot gadgets. They knew better.

In Bridge to Terebithia, the author introduces Leslie as privileged with a capital P. The biggest cue is quite possibly not that money is not the issue, but that her family does not own a television. Today that character might also be introduced as not having a smartphone, for several reasons.

People know on several levels that Facebook and smartphones suck the life out of their users. That’s old news. This page is about an alternative.

How I tamed my iPhone

I have what might be called a Holy Grail of iPhone usage. I carry my iPhone but I rule it and it does not rule me. It is often at hand, but I have domineered it well enough that I don’t compulsively check it. I get almost all of the practical benefits with none of the hidden price tags.

How?

Prequel: How I tamed television

Before I became a strict iPhone user, I was a slightly relaxed television non-user. I grew up with limited television, one hour per day during the schoolyear and two hours during summer vacation, and I read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business and the more book-like Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, and also books like Stephen Covey’s First Things First. And I slowly checked out the rest of the way from television. And as an older child and later a young man, I had the vibrancy one associates with an unhindered imagination: the days before television, or something that as might as well be the days before television:

In the days before television

The irony of the Far Side cartoon is that time before television sucked the life out of everything was much more vibrant, not a family huddled around a vacant spot by a wall.

Prequel: Weston A. Price diet

I’m not specifically interested in converting people to Western A. Price or Paleo diets beyond saying that it is my opinion that your body’s engine merits pure premium fuel, but I wanted to comment on something very specific about Nourishing Traditions. As one friend pointed out, some of the ways food is produced are really gross; most vegetable oils besides olive, avocado, and coconut oils have to be extracted under conditions that goes rancid immediately, like popped popcorn, and are then made yellow and clear and not smelling bad by chemical wizardry, or the artificial phenomenon of getting four gallons of milk from a cow per day and then manipulations to make 2% milk (“No significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rbST-treated and non-rbST-treated cows except for the additional ingredients of blood and pus.“). It overall builds a sense of “This is really gross and unfit for human consumption,” and that’s good.

It is worth your while to read books about how, for instance, standard smartphone use is reprogramming our brains to be bowls of tapioca. I gave, and meant, five stars to Jean-Claude Larchet’s The New Media Epidemic: The Undermining of Society, Family, and Our Own Soul. My own title in the same vein is The Luddite’s Guide to Technology.

Now on to my iPhone

I check my iPhone at intervals: once per hour, or perhaps once per day. That breaks the spine of constant checking, at least eventually. My phone has three games, all of them for my little nephews, and I’ve come to dodge showing them games on my smartphone, because when I show them a real, physical toy, they can wait turns and share, while smartphone games are addictive enough that when I take out my phone and let them play with it, squabbles consistently follow. In good spirit, when they wanted to play pinball games on my phone, I deleted the pinball game and then made a crude pinball machine out of some leftover wood, nails, rubber bands, large ball bearings, and a plastic pipe. They were initially disappointed, but when they had some time to play with it, they began to be imaginative in a way I have never seen with a smartphone video game.

Returning to my smartphone, I use it for utilitarian purposes, including making bottom-liner use of Facebook and Twitter. Bottom-liner use of Facebook can be constructed, but having it fill the hours is depressing to anyone.

Specific suggestions for iPhone and Android smartphones

On this point I would say that there are few things you must do, but many things you might do. Probably the single best advice I know is to work with an Orthodox priest who is comfortable freeing you from your chains to technology. Good advice is to make a small change to start, and then slowly but steadily build up until what you have in place is working for you.

I would also underscore that these are suggestions, that some people have found helpful. I do not use all the rules others have found helpful, and I’ve found benefit in getting stricter with myself as time has passed. However, you don’t owe a duty to make all of these your own.

  1. Learn from Humane Tech. Humane Tech is a movement to mitigate some of turning people’s brains to tapioca, and it is well worth attending. I don’t believe they go far enough; I believe that Orthodox ascesis and fasting provide a good backbone, but knowing which apps make you happy and which apps make you sad is at very least a good start. Three Humane Tech pages you should know about include the following:

    • The homepage, for general orientation.

    • Take control. This gives many concrete suggestions. I’ve thought about all of them and implemented some of them.

    • Familiarize yourself with app ratings. All apps are not created equal in terms of their effect on how you feel. If you want to get your head out of your apps, this is another page I would at least recommend familiarizing yourself with.

  2. Make a conscious adult decision about what you carry. I would recommend choosing between three primary options:

    • Keep a smartphone, but be sure that you are the one in charge. This is the option I go with, but only after not carrying a cell phone when they were becoming common, and have less plugged in days of only checking email once per day. I do more frequent usage, and think that checking it once per hour is also a good baseline, but I only check things more frequently when I have a specific logistical reason. The strongest reason for this may be less the inner logic of dominating your technology, than smartphones being socially mandated.

    • Don’t carry a smartphone. Kings, Emperors, Popes and Patriarchs before the twentieth century lived in great luxury without having any kind of phone access, ever. They weren’t deprived. You most likely don’t need it.

    • Carry alternate gear. What about, instead of carrying a smartphone, you carry a standalone GPS, an old-school handset that only does talk and text with a numeric keypad, a paper planner or a small paper pad for your scheduling, todo, and scratchpad use, and maybe a book or Kindle? That sounds like a lot, but it fits nicely, with room to spare, in my favorite messenger bag. Admittedly these things are not the same convergence device, but it really may be possible to carry everything you want without difficulty. And by the way, their not including social media isn’t a defect; it’s a feature.

  3. Read The New Media Epidemic: The Undermining of Society, Family, and Our Own Soul, and The Luddite’s Guide to Technology. Pay close attention to the rules in The New Media Epidemic as taken from Silicon Valley tech Moms and Dads. Chapter 13 is rich in practical application, mentions a #1 rule of no phones in bedrooms ever, and “Alex Constantinople… said her youngest son, who is 5, is never allowed to use gadgets during the week, and her older children, 10 to 13, are only allowed 30 minutes a day on school nights.” Not an absolutely different rule from what my parents had for me. Other aspects covered include having the network’s router shut off outside of a certain window of time.

  4. Take an attitude of “Everything is permitted… maybe, but not everything is beneficial.” We are tempted to try to get the most use out of our investment, when a better use might be more sparing. As far as TV goes, I have sought out to see one Simpsons episode in the past five or so years. Somewhere along the way, I stopped seeing as much television as I was allowed. Don’t use as much as you will let yourself use, and recognize that the most beneficial uses are sometimes the ones with the lightest touch. A smartphone in “Do Not Disturb” mode is just as much capable of calling 911 in a bad situation as any other cell phone.

  5. Have an attitude of having a life outside of online activity. When I grew up, I was taught to cast a line with a fishing rod. I didn’t end up catching much of anything, but my father taught me the basics, face-to-face, with a genuine fishing rod. Young people today are far more likely to learn to cast a line with the accelerometer on a smartphone, and that was a deprivation. I did my studies through travelling to campuses face-to-face even if I used email as well. This is a human baseline that is a survival from the Middle Ages, for that matter a survival from the animal world where young wolves are not handed tools necessarily but are taught how to interact with their environment to hunt, face-to-face with other wolves. And I would suggest that traveling to a college campus and also using some email is a pretty good baseline for technology use. And in relation to this, we have:

  6. Take up a hobby and give smartphones some competition. It can be hard to just pull back from habitual technology use. It is somewhat easier, even if it is not really easy, to pull back from the draw of technology and engage in something else, such as candle making. Having a constructive hobby can be very helpful as something else to do instead.

    Meetup groups and other local organizations can be great.

  7. Use your phone for a purpose, and never to treat boredom. A practice of reaching for your phone when you need it to do something, and not much else, can be great. Your phone can be genuinely nice when you use it to contact an acquaintance by any means, or to order a pair of shoes. It’s a trap when you use it to just pass time or make boredom easier to deal with. The most miserable use of Facebook, for instance, is when you’re always on.

  8. Use older technologies and fast from technologies. Fasting from technologies is explored in The Luddite’s Guide to Technology, and while it may not be possible, there are times where you can make a phone call instead of sending an email, or drive to see someone face-to-face instead of making a phone call. In general, using older space-conquering technologies instead of newer space-conquering technologies can uncover a forgotten richness. Some have had days of no electricity. A Lead Pencil Society day here and there can produce just a little freedom, or even just write a single hand-written, lead-pencil letter to a loved one, or perhaps buy a single, paper book instead of an ebook.

  9. Treat porn as a real danger, and get help whenever you need it. Porn is the disenchantment of the entire universe; it is our day’s biggest attack on men; it is preparation for committing rape. Take things to a father confessor; use a support group; use xxxchurch.

  10. Don’t look at your phone as a treasure from a magic world. A phone can feel exotic until you’re already hooked, but I think of people in the second world where a smartphone may seem a relic from the wonderland of the first world. In fact the U.S. may have more seeking of escape than Uganda. In fact material treasure may be found much more easily in the U.S.—and with it spiritual poverty. I believe that smartphones have uses, but as an experience they are not really helpful if you’re an American, and not really helpful if you’re a Ugandan friend. There are uses, and you can read ebooks for instance, which is really sweet. However, being sucked into a phone is not really a helpful way of using it. On those grounds I would advise friends both in the U.S. and Uganda to use phones, maybe, but know that God has placed people around you, and a person is infinitely better than a smartphone. Enjoy the real treasures!

All of this may seem like a lot, but it is very simple at heart:

Start walking on the path and put one foot in front of the other.

That is all you need.

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A Canticle to Holy, Blessed Solipsism

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O Lord, help me reach poverty, that I may own treasures avarice could never fathom or imagine,
Obedience that I may know utter freedom, first of all of the shackles of my sin and vice,
Chastity, that I may be virile beyond reckoning,
A solipsist that I may embrace Heaven and Earth,
(For Earth can never fail to merit a capital E,
Not since our Saviour walked it.)
Let me be alone with You, through the bridge of a second holy Moses,
Let me love You with my whole being
(A holy Being, grant it might be),
That I may reach you through six billion prisms,
The royal race of men,
And made in Your Divine Image.
And may this love bubble over,
Cascading on animals because I love men,
Cascading onto plants that are also alive,
Cascading onto rocks that exist in some measure,
Cascading on nothingness, You Who have been called Everything and Nothing,
For even nothingness is in some way Your Image,
You Who are beyond existence and nonexistence alike.

Today is a day of interest in genes,
In mortals who want to know their roots,
And I am indeed among them,
Though I dig for a Deeper Root.
A kit and refined science,
Can tell me what lands my ancestors came from,
And had I the wealth, I could go on pilgrimage, To visit the places,
That gave me my greying red beard.
But my Root is Simple:
God Himself,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
The Triune Pattern after which each man is made,
And I reverence each man as God after God:
To do less is to fail to grasp the One God, Who transcends His Own Transcendence,
Immanent beyond all imagination,
Immanent beyond all measure,
Closer to you than you are to yourself;
The very breath you breathe is God’s Own.

My Motherland is Heaven,
And so I go and seek pilgrimage,
To the God who is everywhere and everywhere,
In Holy Russia,
In Holy Russia now though I be on American soil.
Holy Russia has come to me,
And God please, let me come to Holy Russia,
A monk to the end of my days as mortal man.

Who am I to worship You,
Whom Heaven and Earth cannot contain?
Who am I even to give You thanks?
I am unworthy to even give You thanks,
And I thank you anyway.
It is my burden: it is my joy.

“Only God and I exist,”
Or so the saying goes,
For there is only One Will to please:
All else follows suit,
All ducklings in a row.
Christians today do not know that they are pagans:
And not in the sense that Orthodoxy is pagan and neo-paganism isn’t.

Do you not understand the radical breach,
Of One God Almighty of sacred Israel?
One thing only could offend God,
A God Who stands besides all possibility of offense,
Except in the person of another:
Sin.
The pagans all around worshipped among the cacophonous din of a treacherous junior high:
There was no reckoning of sin,
Only appeasement of arbitrary, bickering gods,
Who were not much more than overclocked men,
And truth be told, sometimes far less.
And what appeased one god,
Might well offend anger another.
Are you a Christian?
Then why do you appease so many bickering gods,
And why do you worry with it?
Be thou a solipsist, please!

And the voyage to meet first my Root,
Is the simple repentance offered here and now.
“Awaken!” beckon God and the saints,
And rank upon rank of angel hosts!
Repent: for the Kingdom of God is nigh:
Indeed, it is already here.
Your room will teach you everything you need to know,
And the longest journey we will ever take,
Is rightly called the journey from our head to our heart.
Repent!

And lastly become truly a solipsist,
No longer know that you are you and God is God:
For the wall between created nature and Uncreated God only exists that we may rise above it;
The Son of God became a man that men might become the Sons of God!
God and the Son of God became Man and the Son of Man that men and the sons of men,
Might become gods and the sons of God!
Adam, trying to be God, failed to be god;
Christ became Man that he might make Adam god:
The whole purpose of human life is to become by Grace What Christ is by nature:
Be nothing before God and take down the curtain separating “You” and “me.”

Amen! Amen! Amen!

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