When Women Are Also Human Beings: Preaching the Inclusive Sermon

I was in conversation with one of my female colleagues and as usual, I, as a man, always learn something. This time we discussed the gender sensitive sermon. This colleague recounts how one very famous biblical scholar came to her seminary and addressed the students on sexual ethics. In his presentation, he talked about how men could be tempted in the ministry and the best way to prevent falling into temptation. Certainly, there was some good advice along the way FOR THE MEN. But what about for women?

The way many of us men in ministry often deal with the topics has two hidden assumptions. These assumptions need to be exposed not because we’re trying to be PC. That’s really besides the point. The reason why we expose the assumptions is simple. There’re also women sitting in our congregation when they had to bear with our MANLY sermons.

First, by talking about temptation this way, we can sometimes make the woman the temptress. While sexual misconduct receives much attention among clergies, the woman should not bear the blame. Her role in the body of Christ is not the temptress. Sure, there are women like that but by and large, we simply can’t assume that. Even if we don’t assume that, we must be careful in our articulation because as the Chinese often say, it takes two coins to make noise. We simply can’t put the blame square on the woman as if every woman congregation member is trying to sleep with us. We aren’t that sexy.

Second, by talking exclusively about the male minister, we can assume that no woman is qualified to minister. This is simply not true. In this day and age, if you want to be inclusive of ALL believers of the Body of Christ, female ministers are a fact and not some kind of politically correct fiction. If we want to address ministry as a whole, we must assume that female ministers also have to deal with the problem of sexual ethics. I wonder if the said speaker had ever researched the female side of the equation and see things from a woman’s point of view. It is a necessary step because we have female listeners.

I’m sure you can tell me more about other gender-biased assumptions. I’m pretty sure I have my own blind spots and biases. The most important thing is not that we go with a PC language. The most important issue pastorally is to find out how the women in our faith community think and receive our messages. We must listen more with our two ears and speak less with our one mouth. The art of listening is the way to broader influence.

One Word Study Per Sermon

It is ironic that in an age where electronic tools are so readily available that word study occupies such a small place on the pulpit. Instead, we have sermon after sermon of storytelling from beginning to end. Some sermons are so full of stories that we can hardly figure out what their main point is.

I have made it my discipline to share at least one word study per sermon so that I can educate the audience. This is a great discipline to keep me in the word and keep me disciplined in the original languages. Furthermore, the pastor should never neglect his duty to educate. When it comes to storytelling, I’m a bit of a contrarian to the current trend. I much prefer to find one word study that needs an illustration and illustrate the heck out of it so that people can get the right impression about the message.

What should I do to look for such words to illustrate? I would look for any theologically significant word that contributes to the overall sermon text. If I were to preach on the Lord’s Prayer from Matthew 6, I would illustrate what it means to have a “hallowed name”. The name of YHWH means is related to the Hebrew “He will be”. I would talk about how a great person is so far removed from us that when his name is mentioned, people would just go “wow.” So, I’ll have to look for a story that conveys that idea.

Let me qualify by saying what I’m not proposing. I’m not proposing that we share the word study straight from our study to the pulpit by pronouncing the Greek and Hebrew word, followed by a quick and dirty translation exercise right at the sermon with a discussion of what scholars think about the translation possibilities. Of course, you can do that if you want to use the pulpit to perform insomnia therapy.

What I’m saying is that we can very well work on some stories that illustrate. The stories are the means to helping people grasp the concept of such words. We shouldn’t tell stories just to tell stories. We should see stories are vehicle for rhetorical effect and education.

Try finding one word to illustrate and see how it works out. Let me know if you have any question about how to do this via my Facebook page.  I’m sure the audience will appreciate the effort. Remember, word studies are not merely for passing your Greek and Hebrew classes. They’re part of “God’s word”.

“Why don’t YOU say something?” — a Question for the Perpetual Foreigner

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When ISIS started killing all the religious group, one of the favorite questions people ask is, “Why don’t the Muslims here and abroad say something?” I can’t answer for all of them, but I’ve seen some Muslims answering here and abroad. For me, most people who ask that question are Christians. So, I wish to devote this blog to such a question because after all, people of the Christian faith needs to understand exactly what they’re asking when they say stuff like this and the implications of such a question in broader global politics and Christian faith.

To start with, the deeper part of that question is that somehow someone is obligated to speak up. Says who? I’m going to discuss in this blog that silence does not necessarily equal to complicity. In fact, sometimes, there’re many legitimate reasons for silence. We do need to examine this question, “Why don’t YOU speak up?” and we need to put the questioner to critical inquisition because the issues run very deep within such a question that many of my fellow Americans are simply not aware of.

When asking such questions, questioners do not realize that many immigrants have their own unimaginably and unspeakable tragic narratives. Many are victims of political circumstances. After all, we can’t choose where we’re born. For some reason, people don’t tell a rape victim that it is an obligation to say something about rape, but they force political victims to do what rape victims aren’t obligated to do. So, why do people somehow expect Middle Eastern immigrants to the West to say something? I think I know the reason. Most Americans have no idea what it means to escape to another country only with their lives and not much else. Most Americans have never experienced having their families raped and slaughtered and their properties razed. And most of all, America has never been occupied by a hostile force. Sure, some of us who are more progressive have READ, watched the nightly news or a movie about it, but reading or the big screen doesn’t make it part of our realistic experience. Our lack of experience allows us to sit on our high horses and our soapboxes to address the rest who have the misfortunate of having the above experiences. As one of my buddies observed, most Arab-American just want to carry on with their lives without having to think about what happened to their homeland or their families. They don’t want to see the rerun of their trauma, whether on big screen or in public announcement. Perhaps, that’s why they don’t want to say anything. Perhaps, we can learn empathy to overcome our warped judgment.

This brings us to a deeper problem. Who says the time for “YOU” to speak is NOW? Who gets to dictate to the “YOU” when the right time is? Let’s face it, bad timing has plagued not just recent political history, but also a lot of missionary history. When one group decides that it’s the RIGHT TIME, it does not automatically mean that it is the right time. Even if the group is the majority, historical timing is not democratic. I wonder if it ever occurred to those questioners that being so ignorant of the culture they’re criticizing (for the most part) that somehow they think that they’ve got the timing down, thus giving them the right to tell American Muslims WHEN to say something. The very same can apply to any activism. Silence is not necessarily non-participation. Sometimes, people just need to take the time to think. In most cases I’ve seen, those who are most ignorant of the things they criticize tend to speak the quickest and loudest. Ignorance creates simplistic interpretation. Reality is NEVER simple.

This brings us to a deeper problem. Who says “YOU” represents the entire group? I will talk more about the “YOU” as a group later, but I’m speaking of the individual “YOU” here. People often assume that an individual within a group has this obligation to speak just because that individual is part of the group. This is funny because as a society of rugged individualism, we often push that aside in favor of group think when we think about OTHERS who are different from us. “Oh the Chinese all think like … You know them Japanese, they think like … Oh, the darn Muslims, they are all like … Why don’t YOU speak up?” Who says an individual represents a whole group? This is the burden of every foreigner who immigrated here. S/he is somehow obligated to speak for the whole group for some strange reason. This obligation never lands on REAL Americans because you know, we REAL Americans are so ruggedly individualistic. This is stupid! When someone says to me, “YOU are Asian (or Muslim or Hindu or Martian). Say something.” Says who? My opinion does NOT represent all Asians or Asian Americans, even though I might occupy a certain position in the public sphere. No Asian American would automatically assume that my opinion is representative of the group, no matter how many books I write. It is precisely at this stage when things go badly wrong. Due to our silence on whatever issue at the moment, the questioner would choose to speak for us by saying with authoritative pronouncement, “Oh, the X group is silent.” Sorry, no one gets to speak for me or for us or for another group. This god-like complex has to go.

This brings us to another deeper problem. Who says “YOU” aren’t speaking? A lot of times, many such questioners are not in on the right conversations. The assumption that no one is speaking just because mainstream media selectively report opinions and voices is completely misinformed. The real issue is, why are people who dominate the voices not hearing the conversation? The reason is simple. Many such people don’t bother to understand the group they’re questioning. I often ask people this same question, “How many Muslims do you know?” A lot of times, I get blank stares. So, how many? Let me get this straight then. We can draw conclusion from never having to make personal contact with a group we’re criticizing. If I criticize any group like that without even making contact with numerous members, I’d be called a bigot. The questioner is often a bigot.

This brings us to another deeper problem. The “YOU” in such a question often means “YOU the foreigner” versus “we the TRUE Americans.” The very fact “YOU” have to speak up says that YOU really are part of THEM (i.e. the Muslims or Chinese or Koreans or whatever group) and not part of “US”. This line of logic is very deeply ingrained in both our society and our faith communities. In a more subtle Christian form, it goes something like this, “Hey, look! There’re some Chinese visiting our (primarily white) church. Why don’t YOU talk to them?” The YOU can take on so many different meanings with so much rhetorical force. Most of us who immigrated would certainly wish to be JUST American. We’re also reminded by our well-meaning (but much misguided friends) that we should not be the “hyphenated American,” but how can we not be when the collective YOU (or the racist “YOU PEOPLE”) is so often used to put us together as a group? YOUR PEOPLE should sort this out! So, we’re only allowed to be the hyphenated American not of our choice but out of the prejudicial convenience of our racist inquisitors? Where’s the freedom that people speak so fondly of? Next time someone put that guilty “Look, there’re some Chinese visiting our church. Why don’t you talk to them?” question to me again, I’m going to ask a different (but probably MORE Christian and definitely MORE missional) question, “Why don’t YOU talk to them? You don’t care about visitors to our church?” I would say more times than not, generally Americans and specifically Christians should make friends with someone who speaks a different language and come from a different culture instead of hanging about our uniform holy huddle. It’d be a growing experience.

So, before you ask that question, “Why didn’t YOU say something?” next time, think of the reason and impact of that question. Most of us are unaware of the harmful impact from our silly and careless questions. In the complex world of questions, there’re many answers. The above is just a list for some of those answers. Freedom of choice also includes silence.

 

Enhancing Memory for Public Speaking

Have you had that awkward moment where you lost your place on the manuscript and had to make a decision to look it up, tell a joke or a combination of both? I suppose the very worst thing you can say is, “I found it. There you are!” Handling a lengthy manuscript is no joke. It can cause unexpected and unnecessary elements of surprise. This goes for any carefully crafted public speech. We spend hours crafting words and coming up with clever phrases only to mess it all up in a moment of madness. How do we solve the problem?

  • Use different size fonts. Often speakers make the mistake of using the same size and style of fonts. The eyes then are attracted to all the words without understanding which ones are most important.
  • Using at least double space between lines. Speakers should use at least double space in between lines. This is important because when all the words are jumbled together into one big mess, it is impossible to read them, let alone deliver them in an effective manner.
  • Use color-coding. Many sermons can use color codes. This takes getting used to. For example, you can use yellow as transition points to highlight transitional sentences. You can use red for emphasis and so on. You however have to figure out in your mind what each color is supposed to represent first before you color code, but that should go without saying.
  • Use outline form and key words. A more personal style of delivery has to happen when we memorize the outline of our sermons. If we stick with the outline form, we can very much make eye contact with the audience and talk to them instead of reading AT them.
  • Use a plot line. Every illustration should have a plot. In order to tell a story well, you do not have to deliver it word for word, but you do have to place various elements in their places: beginning of the story, character development, climax. Some switch the elements around by having climax first and then retelling the story to get to its origin.

So, these are my tips this week for enhancing your preaching memory. I hope this works out well. If you have other questions regarding this topic, feel free to follow my Facebook page by hitting “like” and you can contact me there with your questions or suggestions.

Being Mindful of Your Audience

Any reasonable pastor should have some kind of idea about the kind of audience he’s preaching to. This is not some mystery. Yet, I think I need to write this blog post to remind my fellow preachers of the importance of this task.

Someone once remarked that the pulpit was built for the listener and not the listener for the pulpit. Whether we agree or not, that’s reality. I heard recently from a young person that complains about the preaching of his pastor. The problem was not the content; the problem was delivery. The generational gap is too large.

Some of the factors we need to consider are as follows.

We should consider the age of the audience. Older audiences come from a different era. Some of them can relate to stories about the Korean War or even World War II, but the younger audience might expect other things. Age is important. While the older audience is used to a modernistic (aka linear) way of seeing reality, many younger people look at things differently. They may see truths as having many different aspects rather than something overly black and white. We need to keep in mind of both kinds of audiences.

We should also consider the gender. Women do not necessarily find men’s interest relevant. This is a tough nut to crack. For many men, sport stories are very interesting but it may not be for many women. These days, we have to be very sensitive about using gender-neutral language on the pulpit. Many women might feel offended if we use overly masculine pronouns. For many, this may not be an issue, but for some, it is. Since the gospel is for all people, we have to careful to use inclusive language and illustrations to enhance instead of hinder our message.

These are some of the ideas we must consider when surveying our preaching. Of course, if you’re a visiting speaker, you can never tell what the expectations are.  Quite often, the delivery does not fit expectation and causes people to get upset, but that’s a blog post for another day. 

 

The Nature of Preaching: a reflection on the three-day lectures by Professor Thomas Long

The original Chinese article here.

 

A while back, I was talking about the character of the preacher. This installment, I’ll talk about the nature of preaching. Prof. Thomas Long, in his book, considers preaching as “witness.” Furthermore, besides witnessing, he also states in his seminar that preaching is confession. These are good starting points in looking at the nature of preaching.

What would cause us to think about preaching as confession and witness? Certainly, both ideas are not as prominent as others in biblical descriptions of preaching. There’s better vocabulary from the NT to describe the nature of preaching than those two words. I think our point of departure should surely come out of a church history and spirituality grid. What exactly does that mean?

Confession answers the question “What is my belief?” Witnessing answers the question “What experience do you have?” The former is an important recognition because my belief is quite different than what God actually revealed in the text. In saying “this is my belief,” we recognize the gap between the human interpretation and the actually divine revelation. The sermon is not divine revelation. Rather, it is an interpretation of the divine revelation. So, what are the measuring sticks when we look at the concept of “confession”?

I think one place to check my confession of belief is the broadest historical confessions of the church. The more we study the church fathers, the less we’re likely to think that we have the corner on truth. When we confess our belief, I think it is important to make sure our range of truth is wide enough to see the many possible facets of truths that had already existed in church history. Our individual confession is part of the greater confession of the church. This fact ought to keep the preacher humble to know that he has not possessed the corner on truth within the greater history of the church.

Another nature of preaching is witnessing. As I said before witnessing is about experience. In order to understand witnessing, we should contrast it against confession. Confession is about what I know and witnessing is about what I do with what I know. Witnessing links belief to praxis. Confession shouts, “I believe this is truth.” Witnessing shouts, “I’ve tried out my belief, and it works.” Witnessing is about practicing what one preaches. The practice of one’s belief does not merely touch on church tradition, but also touches on spirituality of the practitioner. Faith is translated into practicable form when the preacher sees preaching as witness. A witnessing preacher proclaims that a certain truth is indeed true and that this truth is practicable as well as relevant.

Confession and witnessing then become the expression of the church’s belief through the pulpit and through the words of the preacher. After doing all righteousness, confession and witnessing give the gift of the sermon to the church. The preacher himself does not own the sermon. He then builds it as part of the greater tradition through the ages in order to remind the church of what she ought to believe and do. In other words, preaching has a unifying effect on the congregation with the larger universal church.

What are some of the tools that will bring the confession and witnessing nature of the sermon back into the church? Long suggests usage of lectionary and series. The modern church mostly enjoys series because they are flexible and practical. The trouble is that the practicality of the series can take the church away from difficult passages. Lectionary has its lessons along with many resources to refer to. While the wider church can also refer to the lectionary, the preacher can feel insecure if he uses the resources, but he is missing the point of the lectionary because the resources are not exclusively his. Besides, reading the resources is one thing; using them wisely in the sermon is quite another thing. Lectionary can also unify the entire church to study something similar that is according to the church tradition without individualizing the sermon to the preacher’s own theological tastes. Certainly, it is better than making all the church pastors preach from the Purpose Driven Life and making the congregation do Sunday school on it. The lectionary is much safer and will enable the preacher to confess and witness for the faith of the church as well as his own faith.

Lessons about Church Growth from Other Cultures

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My recent visit to New Zealand and Singapore has been tiring but fruitful.  I’ve finally gotten over my jet lag.  I want to share one lesson I’ve learned from this visit.  This lesson is about church growth.

In the popular imagination (even among many pastors) here, a growing church seems to exhibit certain traits such as a younger demographic, cool lighting, strong sound system, loud and hip rock band, a pastor who doesn’t wear a tie when he preaches and so on.  If we look at all the mega churches in the US, almost all of them fit this profile. In fact this uniformity is yet another kind of culture, and it works marvelously so much so that it has turned into a formula.  Gone are the days when we go to church in our Sunday best, sitting attentively in our pews and listening to a well-dressed preacher talk about the Bible.  These days, we have some who act like pseudo comedians, whose jokes aren’t as funny as the comedy club but are funny enough to hold our forever shortening attention span.  Relevant issues range from how to raise children, how to live a fulfilling life, how to get the maximum return to your investment (no, I’m not joking) and how to have a white-hot sex life.

To be sure, like all American products, such a formula also has its exported versions.   In Singapore, we have City Harvest, Faith Community Baptist, and New Creation, just to name a few.  Having followed the news on these churches, they’ve landed on tough times.  Although on the outside they look fantastic as usual, whispers and charges of corruption are ever present.

One pleasant surprise in visiting Singapore was my meeting with the faculty of Trinity Theological College of Singapore, the oldest seminary created by the mainline denominations there.  One thing I’ve learned from our conversation, besides the problem of Singapore mega churches, is the growth that is happening in Asia.  In case we think that growth came out of the American formula, we would be far off base.  In our sharing, many colleagues laid out the form of church growth in some of the Asian countries.  I was surprised to find that there’s a resurgence of high church worship.  In fact, some areas experience extraordinary growth in high church worship (i.e. worship filled smells and bells).  This is contrary to our image of a relevant church growth in the West.

Although many attribute church growth to God’s Spirit working, the uniformity of our mega churches only shows that perhaps it’s  more of a social phenomenon than something uniquely supernatural. Although many attribute our church growth to our western formula, the same formula has created nothing but problems in Asia.  Church growth has many factors then.  A simplistic attribution to either supernatural forces or to a formula should have no place in any open mind.  What have I learned from our conversation?

I’ve learned that observation of growth only yields more questions than answers.  I’ve learned that equating the work of the Spirit with a formula based on a social phenomenon is dubious.  I’ve learned that statistics do not tell the whole story.  Church growth depends on too many factors to have any black and white answer.

 

A Short Preaching Lesson from the Rt. Reverend Paul Kwong

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The recent comments of the Rt. Reverend Paul Kwong, archbishop of the Hong Kong Anglican Church have inflamed the news media.  The comments came from one sermon he preached on the Occupy movement in Hong Kong.  The movement seeks to bring more freedom of speech, democracy and equality to the Hong Kong society.  This and other forms of civil disobedience have been at the center of the last few months.  The summer, after all, is the marching season in Hong Kong where people publicly demonstrate their frustration over the intrusion and hegemony of the mainland Chinese government.

Some of the comments that had incensed the local people include a call to not voice out an opinion about democracy.  Kwong is clearly frustrated with the question, “What does the church have to say about …?”  His remarks were extensive about not participating in “illegal” activities especially of the civil disobedience nature. He further remarks that the silence of Jesus should become the example to all.  I’m not going to address his exegetical fallacy or his theological errors or even his own integrity as bishop because many have already.  What I want to discuss is our tactic in speaking about social issues on the pulpit.  My simple advice is this. Put your exegesis first and social issues second.

Although in the Chinese circle I’m considered a fairly progressive homiletician, I’ll be the first to say that I’m still fundamentally quite traditional in my approach.  My sermon presentation or exegetical method may be progressive, but my basis is quite traditional.  No matter how we present the material, I advocate a strong expository element in the overall shape of the sermon.

My ultimate aim in this blog is not to disparage Kwong.  He’s accountable for his own words and has been raked over the coals by the media already.  I propose that we need to make sure that our aim of preaching a text should be governed by the text.  We should not make the text fit our agenda, no matter how admirable or updated our agenda is.  As preachers, we’re tempted to be relevant.  When we give into the temptation of ONLY preaching relevance, our pulpit presentation becomes a spiritualized report of current event.  This is why I advocate that we should only comment on current issues if our text clearly addresses them and our comment would be the best illustration of the issues from the text. I believe there’re many places in the Bible that can address such issues, but we must be so careful or our sermon time would be filled with such commentaries.

These days, many preachers are under the pressure to “say something … anything” about the current world situation.  I think it is important to have something from the gospel that connects to the world. At the same time, we’re in grave danger of hijacking the gospel for our causes.  I say this not only for Kwong but for both sides of the debate (between the Left and the Right).  Our biblical basis should be quite strong when we preach out of the text, but our logic should also be quite connected to the text.  When it comes to choosing between our admirable agenda or the text, we should always choose the text.  Do we really know what the text is saying? Are we doing what the text is doing?  These are the better questions to ask when we write up our sermons instead of “What does the church have to say about this or that?”  At the end, it is not our intention that counts.  It is our impact that gets us into hot water.

The Rhetorical Question in Preaching

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This is a short blog on the rhetorical question. In my observation of many sermons, preachers like to use rhetorical questions. A rhetorical question is a question that does not really want answer. Sometimes, its purpose is to cause the listeners to think. Other times, its purpose is to exhort the listeners to action. Whatever the purpose behind such a question (I’m sure my readers can name quite a few more), here are the observations on its usage.

The rhetorical question is like dessert. Eating too much of it will overwhelm your system. Some preachers get very excited in throwing in all sorts of emotive rhetorical questions to call the audience to action. No matter what the question is, every question is there to seek an answer, even if the answer is painfully obvious. By this bombardment of rhetorical questions, the preacher might cause the listener to feel frazzled. Thinking is great. Being badgered is not.

My suggestion on rhetorical questions is the same as for accessorizing men’s clothing or cologne. Less is more. If one rhetorical question, followed by a strategic pause, is good enough for the embellishment of the sermon, don’t use two. The audience will get the point of a well-placed question.

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Self-Analysis of a Sermon on Matthew 20.1-16

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I preached this sermon in Jan. 2013 at Kowloon International Baptist Church. I’ve done a different presentation in Cantonese here (it’s so good to be bilingual and bicultural).  This passage challenges out notion of God. Its narrative makes strange sense. Even though many might try to say that the landowner’s action was justified in the ancient Palestinian context, the hirelings in the story thought otherwise. This story then is open to the question of whether the landowner was fair or not.

The danger of reading this passage in a straightforward manner comes from the fact that the payment was unfair. The resulting conclusion would be to see the kingdom as being unfair.

My close reading brings me to Matt. 20.1 where the word “for” directs our attention to the story of the rich man and Peter’s boast of having given up all for Jesus’ call. In light of the discussion about fairness, Jesus already told Peter that reward would far outweigh the cost (19.28-30). The question of fairness only comes after Jesus talked about reward.

In light of such a situation, Jesus wanted Peter to know that Peter would receive his due reward, but that the call was originally more in the favor of all those who were called. Grace was never fair because the call could not be earned. Without the call, every hireling would still stand on the street corner waiting for work.

Overall, I think most make too much of the theological meaning of 19.30 and 20.16.  I think if we understand and resolve the tension of Jesus’ sayings, the meaning of those two verses as plain as day.  They merely mean that Jesus came and turned the world upside down, much like his parable.  His parable then illustrates his mission.

There’re risks involved with this sermon besides the obvious popular misreading of Matthew 20. My presentation took big risks simply because my serious questioning of God’s character in most of the sermon. At the same time, I think most Christians avoid the awkward moment when we begin to ask hard questions the text raises.  Although the risk is great, I feel obligated to challenge people to track with the text to experience the tension.  Most Christians want an easy life by resolving any tension the text may bring.  In its format, this sermon’s proportion is also not even in that I devoted most of the time questioning God. I did this because my audience is already familiar with me, having both attended and preached in this church for more than two years.

The top heavy inquiry about God’s character is true to the text though because the entire text without the Peter context amounts of God being a cosmic bully. I think Jesus wanted the audience to think about fairness, the call and free grace. The thinking process is full of tension and mystery. I tried to re-create both.

When I teach preaching, I always tell my students to leave the tension without resolving it until the end. My reading of the “for” in 20.1 gives me adequate firepower to answer the question. I sincerely hope that my risk does not outweigh the reward, no more than Peter’s risk outweighs his reward.

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