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Beginning of the End

11 “But after three and a half days, the breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet. Great fear came over those who saw them. 12 Then they heard a loud voice from heaven say to them, ‘Come up here.’ And they went up to heaven in a cloud, while their enemies watched them. 13 At that hour there was a great earthquake, and a tenth of the city fell. Seven thousand people were killed by the earthquake, and the rest were afraid and gave glory to the God of heaven.”
Read this week’s full text, Revelation 11:1-14

For those of us that regularly enjoy movies, books, television series—really, any form of entertainment in which some kind of narrative is involved—one element is always integral to how we remember and internalize the plot: the ending. But, good endings are not made in the conclusion; they are built from the beginnings and development of the story, a house that can only be as stable as the foundation upon it was built.

No doubt, the foundation of the biblical narrative is the story of creation and the medium of expression is God’s mouth: God speaks creation into existence, breathes life into humanity, declares covenant and promise, expresses love to us repeatedly through prophets, and ultimately fulfills this promise in God’s Word becoming flesh.

So, when we come upon the book of Revelation, the beginning of the end, we should not be surprised to see two witnesses: just as God created two of us to attest to the goodness of creation’s beginning, God has chosen to preserve two of us in the end to testify to the summation of God’s providence in creation. These two are neither described nor defined: we are not given their genders, their race, their social status, their nationality, their political identifiers. But, this should not be unexpected: summation of our narrative which brings Creation together with God must mean the annihilation of things that keep us apart.

God offers them the companionship of Eve and Adam, a promise like Abraham, authority like Deborah, the fire of Elijah, control of the plagues of Moses. They are a summation of many that have come before them. And like many before them—Eve, Adam, Abraham, David, Moses—they perish, in the face of “the beast that comes up from the bottomless pit.”

Although it has been known by other names and given other faces, we have seen this character in the narrative before: it is the slave drivers and pharaoh in Egypt, it is the army of Saul chasing and pursing the destruction of God’s chosen in David, it is the religious authority figures and adversaries that demanded the death of Jesus, the serpent from the Garden that has returned once again to destroy those who stand witness to God’s word.

And it succeeds. For three and a half days, death is victorious. Violence, suffering, pain, vengeance—they are given their day. The witnesses are silenced, and in their silence, their enemies speak: the inhabitants of the earth “gloat” over their deaths, happy to see their demise. But, once again, we have seen this scene before: the people of Israel under Moses, the kingdom of Israel under David, the struggle between Isaiah and God’s people. God speaks through messengers, we want them silenced, punished, and out of the picture. God’s words spoken through others are a mirror, and we rarely like what we see.

But, the ending is quite literally a breath of fresh air: God breathed the Spirit into humanity and breathed us into beginning and now God breathes life into the two witnesses in the face of death, to face the end. The witnesses are carried up to heaven, and “the second woe has passed. The third woe is coming soon.” God continually speaking for us, breathing life into us, taking the threads of our weakness and weaving a narrative of strength, taking our weapon of choice, death, and transforming it into life. This is the ending that God has built, one of things being made new.

And this ending is only a beginning.

Reflection written by Jarred White

Not the Whole Story

Then I saw another powerful angel coming down from heaven. He was robed with a cloud, with a rainbow over his head. His face was like the sun, and his feet were like fiery pillars. He held an open scroll in his hand. He put his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land. He called out with a loud voice like a lion roaring, and when he called out, the seven thunders raised their voices. When the seven thunders spoke, I was about to write, but I heard a voice from heaven say, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and don’t write it down.”

Read this week’s full text, Revelation 10:1-11. 
I don’t know about you, but Revelation still makes no sense to me. I was excited about this sermon series, hoping that I’d finally be able to explain the scrolls and the beasts and the plagues in a way where it all clicked in my head. I had happy images of us all laughing knowingly together at our June church potluck, thinking back fondly on our six-months-younger selves, who still thought Revelation was the crazy book we should ignore as much as possible.

We still have some more weeks, of course, but I have to admit that my hopes are dwindling. Revelation remains as perplexing and uncomfortable as ever. I guess it’s no surprise that the faithful have spent ages dissecting its symbols in the hopes of finally coming to a clear answer, while the cynics point to it as evidence of the outdated mythology of religion. I’m still not sure where I fall in all that, and some days the verses just seem like a trigger for all the doubts I’ve ever had about scripture and faith.

But we keep going, plodding faithfully along, trying to pull out meaning from the narrative that feels more like a young adult fantasy novel than a missive from God.

Like us, John seems to be dutifully recording the events he sees, with surprisingly little editorial comment. He describes vividly the characters and scenes before us, pointing out a few symbols as he goes. But in this week’s passage, he is stopped abruptly: “When the seven thunders spoke, I was about to write, but I heard a voice from heaven say, ‘Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and don’t write it down.'”

What did the seven thunders say, I wonder? Words more horrible even than what has already been said? Or maybe it’s the one time the words are not confusing, finally the quick and tidy explanation we’ve been hoping for? We don’t know.

But what we do know, thanks to John, is just that that: we don’t know. We get the descriptions, the actions, some of the language, but it’s still not the whole story. It’s not all the words, and it’s certainly not all the ideas behind them.

As helpful as it is to break this overwhelming book into little pieces, sometimes I think this can also be a distraction. Each week we get a little glimpse into John’s vision, but the parts do not equal the whole.

And that’s really the only comfort I can find in this week’s passage: it makes no sense to me, I can’t explain it to you or pretend to understand it myself. But I know it’s not the whole story. Just like I know Revelation isn’t the whole story, that suffering and death aren’t the whole story. Just like I know that even if the Bible tried to contain the whole story, “I imagine the world itself wouldn’t have enough room for the scrolls that would be written.”

We aren’t the authors of this story. Just because it makes no sense to us doesn’t mean it makes no sense to God. And I am grateful to John for that reminder.

 

Reflection written by Carynne McIver.

Something Stirs in the Darkness

Read this week’s text.
Sometimes our head and our soul disagree. In our scripture passage this week, our psalmist observes and speaks of the greatness of the Lord and calls out for God to be present, but his/her soul does not heed the words. The psalmist remains cast down, longing, and crying out.

We may call out. We may sing praise. We may read the words of Scripture.

And still our souls are cast down. We are disquieted. We are depressed.

The reality of our world is that loneliness and depression are rampant among us; we are not the first humans to feel a thirst for the living God.

The past few weeks for me have been filled with distress and sadness. The hormones of being a postpartum, nursing mother have only had a negative effect on my countenance. But when I read our psalm this week and spoke with Blaire about her song choice for our sermon series, one thing stood out to me:

I am not alone in my disquiet.

Scripture calls out to me with words that are not encouraging, per se, but they are comforting. They give me a voice to call my own.

I read the words I cannot form in my own logic-deprived brain. I hear a voice speaking this truth:

You are not alone in your disquiet.

There is one section of this psalm that is repeated, and I’ve learned to pay close attention to any instance of repetition in Scripture:

“Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”

Perhaps this section is repeated because one recitation of these words does not affect any change in our turbulent, distraught inner being.

I am sad, and then I get angry that I am sad; I scream at my soul “why are you disquieted?!”

It is in a much smaller, wavering whisper that I speak truth to my soul: “Hope in God.”

To read these words more than once and whisper them to my soul again is almost unbearable, but I know there is truth here. No one has opened any bright windows, but perhaps something stirs in the darkness.

“Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”

So I ask you today, where are you? Where do you experience disquiet? Where do you experience peace? Praise the Lord if you have peace.

Here’s the challenge in the Word today: Praise the Lord, even if you do not have peace. Our psalmist does. I’m trying to do so.

The waters rise all around us in our vast ocean of dark currents and swirling disquiet. But we call upon the name of the Lord, and our head speaks that which our soul does not always understand.

And I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
when oceans rise my soul will rest in Your embrace
for I am Yours and You are mine

Whose voice do you hear in your disquiet? Who speaks into your thoughts? Whose truth do you acknowledge?

For there is One who has named you, bled for you, and called you His own.

We cry out in disbelief:

I am Yours and You are mine.
–Eva

Reflection written by Eva DePue.

God Knows Me

Read this week’s text.
I like to think that I know myself pretty well. I have spent more time than I should admit reading about my Myers Briggs type (INFJ) and Enneagram number (1). I’ve learned many incredibly helpful things that allow me to better understanding my motives, fears, and challenges.

My mind and heart hold the most direct messages I have from God. He knit them together before I even opened my eyes, so making better sense of myself feels like reading a secret love letter sent straight to me—giving me clues about where God made me to fit in this world. And it helps me learn to love my neighbor better too; I’ve realized that the reason I get cranky after a lot of meetings isn’t because my coworkers are the worst people ever but because I need time alone to recharge after being with a lot of people. A couple hours of quiet time and I’m suddenly a nice person again!

But as much as I could possibly know about myself, this passage reminds me that I will never know it all. I wasn’t the one who designed the way I think and feel (I can name a few things I would have done differently if that were the case!), and I’ll probably never stop having days when I wonder, “WHY am I doing this?”

It’s easy to think I have the answers: I know what job is best for me, what church is best, what my true calling in life is. And it’s really easy to take those answers and replay them in God’s voice, just to confirm that I really am on the right track.

But that isn’t always the same thing as listening. Listening not to my own voice, but to someone who knows me so much better than I know myself—who knows what I will speak before I say anything, knows where I step, and what my plans are.

Sometimes I eat a delicious dish in a restaurant that I’d love to recreate. I try to savor each bite, wondering what ingredients I’d need. Is that cumin? Oregano? Maybe a little soy sauce? But no matter how hard I think about it or how many times I try, I never get it exactly the same. Working backwards from the end product is no match for reading the recipe from the beginning, or better yet, talking to the cook who made it to find out exactly what she did.
This beautiful psalm of God’s omniscient love ends with the writer begging the Lord to “see if there is any idolatrous way in me.” Sometimes I’d like to think that if I just work hard enough and read the right books, I’ll figure out exactly how I was made and who I am supposed to be. But I think that might just be another form of idolatry—a way of claiming to know more than God. This passage reminds me that my goal isn’t to get all the answers but to get closer to the One who has the answers. And that’s a huge difference.

–Carynne

Reflection written by Carynne McIver.

The Good Shepherd

Read this week’s text.
This week’s passage has one of the most memorable images of Jesus in the gospels: the good shepherd. The image is a bit more complicated than it may seem. Just before our passage for today, we hear that Jesus is the gatekeeper (10:3) and the gate (10:7) in addition to being the good shepherd (10:11).

Despite the mixed metaphors, the description of the good shepherd is one of comfort and the faithfulness of Jesus—even unto death. Perhaps that is why it is so memorable; it reminds us of God’s concern for us in Christ.

With this in mind, I would like to draw our attention to one verse in particular. In verse sixteen, Jesus says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” It is easy to miss this verse with all of the beautiful images of Jesus’ faithfulness to his flock.

For those of us who are not Jewish (and I suspect that is the majority) the ‘other sheep’ are us—Gentiles. We are the other sheep because we were not given the promises of God in the covenant with Abraham and his descendants.

This may seem like an outdated distinction. Aren’t we Christians, not Gentiles? Are not God’s promises for us?

It is, however, an important distinction to make because it reminds us non-Jewish believers of the fact that we first come to the gospel as watchers and witnesses to God’s activity in Israel. We were outsiders—strangers to the covenants of promise.

We are reminded that we need to be drawn into God’s promise. We are brought in by the good shepherd. We hear his voice, and his call reaches us across dividing lines.

We are reminded that we cannot assume God’s grace; it is not something we can lay claim to, tie down, and make secure. God’s grace is a free gift in Christ through the Spirit.

We hear this echoed in Paul’s words to the church in Ephesus:

“Remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Ephesians 2:12-14).

As strangers and outsiders who have been called by the good shepherd, we do well to remember the strangers and outsiders in our own community because this is the good news: those who were far off have been brought near in Christ.

Where have we heeded this call? Where have we lived out this truth? Where do we fall short?

Where and when do we fail to remember?

–Michael

Reflection written by Michael DePue. 

Christ is Risen! He is Risen, Indeed!

Read this week’s text.

If you read this week’s passage and understood it in the first go around, I’d venture a guess that you are Paul reincarnate. After my first go at this section of 1Corinthians, I was left thinking, “Ummmm, what?”

My second thought: “Well, okay then, Paul. There you go being all complicated and feisty.”
But let’s dive in to the complicated and feisty, because I’m feeling adventurous today.

The first half of this section reads like a debate transcript. If this, then that. Perhaps Christ was not raised from the dead. And if so, then all has been in vain and they have misrepresented God.

This idea exasperated Paul; he spends a long time exploring all of the terrible things this idea would mean for the church at Corinth if this idea were true. Specifically, he explicates the sad reality that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins.”
Then we get to the punch line in verse 20.

BUT, IN FACT, CHRIST HAS BEEN RAISED FROM THE DEAD…(emphasis added)

After all that back and forth of verses 12-19, Paul practically hits us in the face with the life shattering news of the resurrection—nay, the death shattering news of the resurrection.

Christ has conquered death with death, and it is a human death at that.

“For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”

We all die in Adam. Our human state is one plagued with sin. Life in Adam is broken. There are laws we will never live up to. There are structures that enslave and abuse. Life in Adam leaves us with a futile faith and still in our sins.

But, in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead, and all will be made alive in Christ. Christ has conquered death. There is resurrection for the dead.

Now, we are on to something strange and Paul gets a little apocalyptic. He talks about the end when Christ hands over the kingdom to God the Father. He talks about rulers, authorities, and powers that will be destroyed. He says Christ will put all his enemies under his feet. Then we come to a very memorable moment.

The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

You may be asking, “Didn’t Jesus already conquer death? Isn’t that what all that fuss was about in verses 12-20?”

YES!

Let’s read verses 24-26 again:
“Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

We read that the last enemy to be destroyed is death, and we know that Christ has already destroyed it; now we have to go back and read all the things Christ has destroyed even before death!

Christ has destroyed every ruler.
Christ has destroyed every authority.
Christ has destroyed every power.
Christ has conquered death by death.

So what power holds you today? What authority? What voice whispers in your ear and controls your thoughts and your actions?
Come awake and hear the good news:
Christ is risen from the dead. Trampling over death by death.

Come awake, come awake. Come and rise up from the grave.

Christ is risen from the dead. We are one with Him again.

–Eva

Reflection written by Eva DePue. 

Is this the Holy Spirit or my estrogen talking?

15 Jesus said to his disciples:

If you love me, you will do as I command. 16 Then I will ask the Father to send you the Holy Spirit who will help[a] you and always be with you. 17 The Spirit will show you what is true. The people of this world cannot accept the Spirit, because they don’t see or know him. But you know the Spirit, who is with you and will keep on living in you.

18 I won’t leave you like orphans. I will come back to you. 19 In a little while the people of this world won’t be able to see me, but you will see me. And because I live, you will live. 20 Then you will know that I am one with the Father. You will know that you are one with me, and I am one with you. 21 If you love me, you will do what I have said, and my Father will love you. I will also love you and show you what I am like.

Read this week’s text.

I regularly have trouble differentiating between the Holy Spirit and high estrogen levels.

Say, for instance, my heart is feeling strangely soft and receptive to grace; has the Spirit been sanding down my rough spots or have I just been watching too many Rom-Coms in bed?

I suppose this is addressed in Proverbs 31, and if I read my Bible more, I’d learn to differentiate between my hormones and a member of the holy Trinity, but as it is, I feel a little baffled regarding when this “Companion” or “Advocate” shows up.

You see, I grew up in a Mainline Protestant Church, so I didn’t really learn about the Holy Spirit until I went to a Christian College, and occasional kooks pointed out demons that were poking out of backpacks and dorm rooms.

I never could quite see them myself, and so I learned to be suspicious whenever anyone used the ‘s’ word.

Seminary managed to convince me that the Spirit is a viable member of the Trinity, but I’m still largely baffled.

In our Scripture this week, Jesus is giving one of those long, slightly mystifying speeches to the disciples, and he says this: “I will ask the Father, and he will send another Companion who will be with you forever.  This Companion is the Spirit of Truth, whom the world can’t receive because it neither sees him nor recognizes him.  You know him, because he lives with you and will be with you.”

This is something I can work with: “You know him, because he lives with you and will be with you.”

I can’t quite talk about the Spirit because I neither see him nor recognize her.  And yet, I can, because I feel the Spirit.

The Spirit gives me the grace to not be a hater.
The Spirit softens my hardened heart and chirps to me about mercy.
The Spirit speaks the words for me when I cannot pray.

What a companion—this one who will be with me forever!

I don’t care that I don’t understand.  I don’t care that I am skeptical.  I don’t care that sometimes I may be confusing the divine with my hormone levels.

I’ve got an Advocate who just won’t go away, and that Advocate is God.

–Sara

Reflection written by Sara Moser.

It’s Love, Not a Math Problem

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples…said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’…Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.

Read this week’s text.

It is probably not a good thing when we read a Gospel text and identify the most with Judas.

Let’s be honest. As you read through the passage from John’s Gospel, who makes the most sense? Who can you understand? Who speaks in a way that is familiar to you?

I would guess that for most of us the person we can understand in this passage is Judas. Three hundred denarii is roughly the equivalent of a year’s wages. Think of all the good that could do. Really; why wasn’t the perfume sold and the money given to the poor?

It seems that the gospel writer (John) was aware of how reasonable this sounds as he went out of his way to reminder the reader who Judas is.

I removed the two asides from the above paragraph of text because they are so blunt. John reminds us that Judas is “the one who would betray [Jesus]” and tells us that Judas “said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was in it.” John does everything he can to describe Judas as an unfaithful disciple.

Even if we accept that Judas’ motivations were wrong, doesn’t he still have a point? It seems wasteful. Mary must not know what she’s doing, or how much the perfume is worth. She doesn’t know what she has; she isn’t making use of her resources wisely.

If we follow this seductive line of thought out, we inevitably end up here:
Local News: Woman a Leading Authority on What Shouldn’t be in Poor People’s Grocery Carts

The article is, of course, meant as satire, but I would venture to guess that it hit a little too close to home for some of us. It’s not satire because it is obviously absurd. On the contrary, the genius of The Onion is that it pays attention to the mundane; it points out the absurdity of what we take as normal—as reasonable.

We should remember as we read that we hear throughout the gospels that Jesus is on the side of the poor and outcast (Matthew 25:31-46). We hear that Jesus is already on the side of the poor—the least of these. We are not given an either/or question. The question isn’t even about what we do. In Jesus, God is already at work, he has already sided with the poor. The question the text puts to us is this: “How are you (yourself + Durham Church) called to participate in God’s ongoing work? Where does the Spirit call you?”
In Mary, we get a picture of someone responding to God’s call and a glimpse of what serving the least of these might look like as she serves Jesus.

Mary exposes Judas’, and our, ‘reasonable’ concern for the poor as a concern for efficiency…not people. When we establish rules for how to use our resources properly based on efficiency and use those rules as a weapon to bring ‘the least of these’ in line with proper behavior, we treat others like machines and not as people. Mary’s extravagance towards Jesus is a sign of God’s extravagance towards us and an image of what it means to serve the poor and outcast as though they were Jesus in our midst. Mary does not treat Jesus as a machine that needs proper maintenance and a simple refueling of resources; she treats him as a person for whom this extravagant display can be a sign of God’s own love.

There is a sense in which no one deserves the treatment Mary gives to Jesus, and here we see one of the great scandals of Christianity: no one has made it to a place where they “deserve” love. But here it is in Christ. It is a love that in its very nature is extravagant. All of creation is extravagant in the sense that it is not necessary, but God gives creation to itself in freedom. But it does not stop with creation; God descended into humanity, in the person of Jesus, to reconcile to Godself the very people who would have him nailed to a cross. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5).

If all of creation and re-creation is a gift, if it really is grace all the way down, then our economic calculations are off from the beginning.

Whether or not we deserve it isn’t even part of the equation. And that ‘equation’ sounds a lot more like a love song than a math problem.

–Michael
Reflection written by Michael DePue.

Why Do I Go To Church?

I’ve been thinking lately about church. What is it? Why do I show up most Sunday mornings, even sometimes when I’m not in the mood? What do I get out of it? What do I give to it?

Our song this week is based on a scripture passage from Exodus. This passage is set at a time when the Israelites had been out of Egypt for three months. Though I am not well versed in the Old Testament, I am always surprised and moved by the beauty and love that fills so many of its passages. In this section, God reminds the Israelites that he has already protected them, and he will continue to uphold his commitment to love and care for them: “So now, if you faithfully obey me and stay true to my covenant, you will be my most precious possession out of all the peoples, since the whole early belongs to me. You will be a kingdom of priests for me and a holy nation.”

Somehow, the covenant God made with the Israelites, and that the Israelites made with God, makes this community holy. And it is not just holy because it has one imposing leader in Moses, but it is a whole kingdom full of priests! If a priest is traditionally the funnel through which a community can reach God, this seems like a leveling of the field: each person seeks God just as earnestly and steadfastly as Moses on the mountaintop.

I think I show up to church because I have so many memories of being moved, convicted, challenged, and loved there. I made a covenant, with God, with myself, and in front of all of you, to be a part of our own little kingdom of “priests.” Every time I am gathered with two or more of you, I do indeed feel Christ’s presence, and more often than not, Sunday mornings feel as if we are all being carried together on the wings of eagles. The covenant helps me remember all this and remember how to follow God even when I don’t have the words to explain why I do so.

 

–Carynne
Reflection written by Carynne McIver.

Sing Praise to the Lord

A few weeks ago, Franklin taught us that certain songs—songs we really love—lodge in a different part of our brain. When we meet them at a particular moment in our lives, they have the power to move us in ways nothing else can. Singing is a complex experience; it’s about hearing these powerful songs, feeling them move us, and then putting our own energy and breath into creating that powerful song again with our very own voices.

This Sunday, we begin our fall sermon series, “This is my story, This is my song,” which will be kicking off with the hymn, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.” This fall, we will hear stories from people in our church family about the songs that lead them to worship God. The preaching will grow from these worship songs as well; sermons will explore the scriptural foundation of the music that we love as a church.

The goal of “This is my story, This is my song” is to learn to listen to each other’s stories and sing each other’s songs. Every beloved song has a story. What makes something worshipful to one person or another is always about stories and experiences: it’s about how songs have moved and shaped our lives.

“Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” is a great place to start. This hymn is classic in many ways: it is based on the words of Psalm 150, was written by a German composer in the 1600’s, set to a popular folk tune, and then sung for many generations. This song demands that we sing it with nothing held back; booming sound, full voices, sure conviction.

As we prepare to step into this new season of listening, sharing, and singing, let’s use the words of this hymn as our opening prayer. We pray that this series will lead us to praise God with all our souls, that we will see our Creator and our King with fresh eyes, and that all who can hear will draw near to God’s Holy presence as we sing with glad adoration:

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation
O my soul, praise him, for he is thy health and salvation!
All ye who hear,
Now to his temple draw near,
Join me in glad adoration!

–Amanda
Reflection written by Amanda Diekman.