Archive for April, 2013

Called to Abundance

People with a scarcity mentality tend to see everything in terms of win/lose.  There is only so much, and if someone else has it, that means there will be less for me.  The more principle-centered we become, the more we develop an abundance mentality, the more we are genuinely happy for the successes, well-being, achievements, recognition and good fortune of other people.  We believe their success adds to — rather than detracts from — our lives.
— leadership consultant Stephen Covey

Long before I became a driver myself I noticed something curious about driving: red lights are far more memorable than green lights.  Trying to make an appointment at a particular time, every red light adds to the anxiety that we’ll be late.  As for green lights, well, they all ought to be green when we’re trying to get somewhere on time, shouldn’t they?

It’s easy to adopt a “scarcity mentality” when it comes to our time, as well as to finite goods such as food and material possessions, not to mention money that is, after all, a surrogate for every other commodity, tangible or not.  It’s easy to get into that competitive frame of mind, that if someone else has more — wealth, respect, power, friends, shiny stuff — then there must be less of it for the rest of us.

Churches can fall into that competitive way of thinking, too.  We can look at the local population and talk about increasing our “market share”, as if the complicated people looking for comfort, community and transformation are merely customers to be enticed by billboards and bumper stickers.  Once we embrace the perspective that churches serve many more people than their own members, however, then interfaith cooperation becomes possible regardless of theological differences, as is the case for many of our outreach efforts including the Living Interfaith Network (or LINK) of Hampton Roads and the meal programs at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

Now the Fellowship’s big news right now is that we’ve been growing!  The Sanctuary has often seemed filled to capacity on Sunday mornings, our children and youth are growing (and not just in faith!) before our eyes, and we have some great new programs going on during the week and on the weekends as well.  Our annual membership reports to the Unitarian Universalist Association over the last few years show that not only did we pass the 150-member mark, we burst through it!

Does this mean we’re in competition with our neighboring Unitarian Universalist congregations in Williamsburg and Norfolk?  A scarcity mentality might say yes, that there are only so many prospective UUs to go around.  An abundance mentality on the other hand would note that Unitarian Universalism in Virginia as a whole has been growing, and that growth here on the Peninsula helps our faith in other parts of the 757 area code, too.  Our efforts to change lives and to transform society will be multiplied in their effectiveness as our congregations grow together.  A scarcity mentality would hardly have permitted February’s Hampton Roads UU Revival!

Al Smith

William Alfred “Al” Smith
(1931-2011)

And we’ve only scratched the surface of our potential for transformation.  A couple of Decembers ago the Daily Press included an obituary for William Alfred Smith, who lived and for most of his life served as a lawyer in Hampton, often fighting for civil rights and racial equality.  Though you wouldn’t have known it from his obituary, this was the same Al Smith who was part of the newly chartered Fellowship in 1959 and who challenged society’s bigotry by bringing mostly white teenagers down the street to his law offices for religious education classes.  Al planted the seeds of love and justice for an abundant future, a future that still calls us to help bring to life today.

How are you answering that call?  How are you moved to help grow the Beloved Community that offers life abundant to everyone?  And how is our Fellowship changing your life?  I look forward to hearing your answers to these questions.

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A Place for All of Us

(I delivered this sermon for Hanukkah at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on December 9th 2012.)

This sermon began with a telling of Lemony Snicket’s The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: a Christmas Story.

Latkes are potato pancakes served at Hanukkah, and Lemony Snicket is an alleged children’s author.  For the first time in literary history, these two elements are combined in one book.  A particularly irate latke is the star of The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming, but many other holiday icons appear and even speak: flashing colored lights, cane-shaped candy, a pine tree.  Santa Claus is briefly discussed as well.  The ending is happy, at least for some.  People who are interested in any or all of these things will find this book so enjoyable it will feel as though Hanukkah were being celebrated for several years, rather than eight nights.

I’m pretty sure that most of us have felt misunderstood at some time or other in our lives.  Probably many of us have, somewhere along the way, wondered if there’s a place in the world for us, where we can be welcomed.  And quite a few of us, I’m prepared to bet, have gone through times of uncertainty about why we’re here or who we are or who we want to be that called any confidence we previously held into question.  I’ve certainly gone through those times when I felt misunderstood and uncertain about my place in the world.

Usually it’s pretty easy to look back at those times and figure out why I might have felt that way.  Maybe it was when I was about to have surgery, or when I was getting ready for an interview.  Maybe it was when I was putting together a budget when there didn’t seem to be quite enough money, or when I was going to meet someone to give them bad news.  I would hope everything would work out okay, of course, because what else could I do?  That didn’t stop me from being anxious or even afraid, but there I was anyway, anticipating what I was about to do because it was something I had to do.  In spite of any uncertainty I had about my place in the world, about who I was or what I was doing, I had to take what a leap of faith to move forward.

For example, about twenty-one years ago, which I am amazed to realize was nearly half my lifetime ago, I was in the process of applying to graduate schools in the United States.  I had gone to London to take the required standardized tests, I had completed the appropriate application forms, I had written my essays, and I had requested various letters of recommendation.  Over the next few months I received decision letters from the schools, and then I made my own decision about where I was going to go.

It was my last year as an undergraduate, so I was otherwise busy finishing up my studies and then taking exams, but there came a time when what I was about to do hit me.  I was making a commitment to begin a new set of studies, this time living much further away from home, from my parents than before.  And it wasn’t just far away from home!  I was going to be in a different country, where they had their own traditions and customs and strange ways of speaking!

I was pretty well committed at that point, though I don’t think anyone but me would have given me grief if I’d decided to back out and stay in the United Kingdom instead of moving to the United States.  I knew a little about where I was going to be, less about the people I was going to be around, and nothing about what my life would look like as a result of this transition.  But I also knew that this was something I was going to do, so I spent those last couple of months in England getting ready, preparing myself for a leap of faith across the Atlantic.

Arriving in New Jersey, I quickly discovered the truth of playwright George Bernard Shaw’s quip that “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.”  Thankfully most of the differences in vocabulary were pretty inconsequential, though there was the time when, turning to another physics student as we worked through some problem sets, I asked him if he had a rubber.  Fortunately he had some familiarity with British English, and he calmly told me that I should probably ask for an eraser from now on.

But no sooner had I settled into life in the United States, than I had to figure out what I was going to do with my life next.  Since high school I’d had a simply answer: I was going to become a scientist and do research somewhere.  Well, that’s a pretty fuzzy plan.  Finishing graduate school was a more clear goal, but trying to find a place where I could continue to do the research I’d been doing turned out to be much harder than I’d anticipated.

I ended up moving from New Jersey to California, another three time zones away from my family in England, another leap of faith that also took me from theoretical physics to applied laser science and biomedical imaging.  As it turned out I enjoyed the work and I liked my co-workers, though I’ll save for another time the story of how I ended up working for the physics professor who was the inspiration for the character of Beavis in Mike Judge’s cartoon, Beavis and Butt-head.  In any case, it seemed like some of the fuzziness in my life-plan was starting to resolve itself, but it was in San Diego that some of that plan started to change.  And a big part of that was being introduced to Unitarian Universalism.

Now from my early teenage years on, I had gone through school with a lack of interest in religion, and in fact with an active distaste for what I thought religion was.  It was in California, however, that I heard about this religion where my scientific view of the world, my environmental concerns and my love of choir music were all equally welcome.  After a decade and a half of spiritual homelessness, I found a place where it felt like I fit, a place where I didn’t always feel misunderstood when it came to what I believed.  I felt at home in this faith, discovering a beloved community that embraces us for who we already are, holding in creative tension all that unites us with all the ways in which we are different from one another, encouraging me on a spiritual journey for truth and meaning that is uniquely mine but where I am not alone.

A number of years later, and back on the East coast, another piece of life’s jigsaw puzzle fell into place.  Until then, whenever I had gone on a date and had said that I was a Unitarian Universalist,  the response ranged from “What’s that?” to a blank stare to concern that I was a Moonie.  So it was a breath of fresh air when I met someone who had heard of Unitarian Universalism!

As it turned out, Allison’s grandfather lived in a nursing home in Philadelphia called the UU House, so her whole family had not only heard of Unitarian Universalism, but had a good opinion of UUs, too.  They warmly welcomed me to the big family Passover seder, a couple of dozen people seated at every table in the house put end to end, and I felt right at home.

Thinking about it now, I’ve spent much of the last two decades, since coming to the the United States, figuring out who I am.  And that’s not to say that I’m done figuring it out, but my faith and my family are two pretty major pieces of that, pieces that were not part of my life, at least not remotely in their current form, when I arrived in New Jersey twenty years ago.  Not all of us — in fact, I’d venture that very few of us — are as lucky as the latke in Lemony Snicket’s story that we know so well what we are.  The latke was born knowing what it was, what it represented, what it needed in order to be understood, but none of us are so fortunate.  And not knowing who we are, what we want to be, we need to engage in individual work to figure that out.

Now even if we should be so lucky that we know who and what we are with the same amount of conviction that the latke had, that still doesn’t mean we have a place where we can be who and what we are.  Whether it’s a matter of finding that place or creating it because it doesn’t yet exist, that’s something that calls for collective work to figure out.

I hereby make the claim, then, that Unitarian Universalist congregations are places where both the individual work and the collective work may not only take place, but are actively encouraged.  It is part of the vision of this congregation, for instance, that “We offer a safe place for spiritual diversity and individual growth through lifelong religious education and service to the wider community.”  We do this when we strive to be a beloved community that embraces us for who we already are, when we remember to hold in creative tension all that unites us with all the ways in which we are different from one another, when we find ways to encourage one another on the spiritual journeys for truth and meaning that are uniquely ours but where none of us are alone.

For when we lift up the eternal verity put into words by Waldemar Argow, that “we are children of one great love, united in our one eternal family”, we remind one another that somewhere in the world there is a place for all of us, that everyone and everything should be welcomed somewhere.  And when we think of the promise written into song by Ehud Manor and Nurit Hirsch, the injunction to “wait and see what a world there can be, if we share, if we care”, we remind ourselves that this work of making a place for all of us, of welcoming one another, is something that we are called into together.  Whatever our struggles, big or small, private or public, whether it’s something that seems as momentous as the Maccabean Revolt or a frustration that just makes us want to scream, may we hold fast to the hope we can give one another, the faith we find in one another, in all the days of our living.

So may it be.

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Why do you seek the living among the dead?

(I delivered this sermon for Easter Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on March 31st 2013.)

Reading: “Easter Morning” from Mark 16

Most scholars think that the Gospel of Mark, the second book of the New Testament, was written thirty or forty years after Jesus’ death.  It’s the shortest of the gospels and was one of the sources used by both the authors of Matthew and Luke when those gospels were written some years later.

As I’ve said before, Mark can be quite cryptic if not downright mystifying in places.  Two of the many curious aspects of Mark’s gospel, though, are how it begins and ends: while it emphasizes Jesus’ miracles, which even his disciples repeatedly fail to understand, it says nothing about his birth and next-to-nothing about the resurrection.  Though some versions of the Bible have alternate endings that were apparently written in subsequent centuries, the oldest known versions of Mark simply end, in fact, with the following words, in the version that forms reading 623 in Singing the Living Tradition:

“On the first day of the week, at early dawn they came to the tomb, saying:  ‘Who will roll away the stone from the entrance to the tomb?’

“They looked up and saw that the stone had already been rolled back, and on the right they saw a young man.  They were alarmed.  But the man said to them:  ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead?’

“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them.  And they said nothing, for they were afraid.”

If you want to leave your audience hanging, and probably begging for a sequel, that’s a great way to end a book!

Anthem: “Sicut Cervus” by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

Sermon: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”

I knew I could no longer consider myself a newcomer to the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science when the memorial service we were going to conduct at the 2005 conference was to be for a friend.

I’d been attending those conferences since 2000.  They were held on Star Island, which basks in the Gulf of Maine about ten miles off-shore from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and is home to a conference center that is affiliated with both the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ.  All throughout the Summer, different groups have different weeks on the island for their conferences and retreats, on topics from art and music and natural history to world affairs and science and spirituality.

The conferences organized by the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science took place from the end of July to the beginning of August each year.  I first attended because I’d heard about one of their conferences a few years before on the topic of the Epic of Evolution, which is one name for the modern creation story of the Universe, the Solar System and Life on Earth.  The conferences I attend in the following years had titles like “Human Meaning in a Technological Culture”, “EcoMorality: Protecting the Earth as a Sacred Trust” and “Varieties of Spiritual Transformation: Scientific and Religious Perspectives”.  Influential theologians, scientists, philosophers and other scholars were invited as speakers, and the conferences were attended by a wide range of individuals and families, many of whom were Unitarian Universalists.

The conference not only included lectures and workshops, though, but also morning worship and more meditative evening “candle-light” services each day, as well as a Catholic Mass the first afternoon, a Jewish service for Shabbat the last afternoon and, toward the end of the week, a UU-style memorial service for former conference members who had died during the previous year.  I was always in the choir we put together during the week of the conference, and as well as learning pieces for the banquet and talent show on the last night of the conference, we prepared something for the memorial service, too.  The first few years I was there, I generally didn’t know the people whose lives we were celebrating.  They hadn’t often come to the conferences since I’d started attending, or if they had, I simply hadn’t had the opportunity to get to know them in amongst the hundred or more other attendees.  That changed in 2005 when I heard that Philemon had died, that the memorial service would be for him that year.

I’d become friends with Philemon at the second or third conference I attended.  He had been challenged to write a book about the Epic of Evolution — and not just another technical, scholarly book, but a book for children, and not just in ordinary prose, but in poetry.  He was a successful children’s book author and had become interested in the Epic of Evolution, probably at the same conference a few years before that I’d heard about, but he hadn’t quite realized how much he’d bitten off in accepting the challenge to write a children’s book — in rhyme, no less — about some pretty involved science.  I was doing biomedical imaging research at the time, with a background in physics but starting to take classes at Hartford Seminary, and so Philemon thought I could answer some of his questions about the science he was trying to convey through poetry.  As it turned out, we’d both been to Princeton, me for physics and him for architecture.  I found out he’d designed a number of private and public buildings in Rhode Island before he changed careers to become an author.

I was living in Connecticut, and Philemon was always happy for me to stop by whenever I was in Boston, to have dinner with him and his wife or to go for a walk with his beloved spinonis — which are big, shaggy, truffle-hunting dogs from Italy.  They lived in a brownstone in the Back Bay neighborhood, a row-house that was only one room wide on each of its four or five floors, within walking distance of the Prudential Center and easy to get to on the T.  Our dinner conversations would be wide-ranging, covering science and religion, architecture and politics, the places they liked to visit and the people they had known.  I always looked forward to visiting Philemon and Judy Sue.

One Spring I was in the area, visiting the Andover Newton Theological School as a possible place for completing my seminary studies.  I let Philemon know I was in town, and he immediately invited me to visit.  He was hosting a party with some friends, nothing too formal or even for a particular occasion, but just for the enjoyment.  In the course of chatting with him that evening, he off-handedly mentioned that he was being treated for some illness.  Well, full of life and with his usual big grin and plentiful laughs, he didn’t seem sick.  He wasn’t very specific about what was wrong, and he seemed pretty optimistic about his treatment.  I saw him again later that year, at the conference on Star Island, and he continued to seem fine, but less than a year later he was dead.  An obituary on the website of the Princeton University Class of 1952 said he died of a lung infection.  Looking back I think he probably had some sort of leukæmia, like that which killed my father-in-law five years ago.

So the memorial service at that Summer’s conference on Star Island was the first where we celebrated the life of somebody I’d really known, someone I considered a friend.  It was hard to get through the piece we’d picked to sing for that service, the same piece that our choir sang a few minutes ago, “Sicut Cervus” by Palestrina.  It was hard to say goodbye, as it always is, to someone who had been so full of joy in simply being alive.

And I realized something about what it means to be part of a community for any length of time.  When we held that memorial service for Philemon, I’d actually been part of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science for longer than I’d really been part of anything else, except for my own biological family.  Between graduate school and then post-doctoral positions, I’d moved around the country quite a bit.  I found myself an expert at moving, only not out of choice, as a friend once put it.  I hadn’t stayed in one place long enough to get to know enough people that I had become friends with one of them who had then died.  I realized, though, that that’s what inevitably happens when we become part of a real community.  It’s what we risk happening — and let’s just say “what we risk happening to us”, because that’s certainly how it feels — when we open ourselves to being part of a community.

And that’s true of this community, this faith community, as much as of any other.  I’m in the home stretch of my third year here at the Fellowship, and in that time I’ve led memorial services for, in chronological order: C—, who I had never met; D—, who I had visited a few times; L—, who I had gotten to know somewhat; and, most recently, J—, who I had gotten to know more and had worked with on our Sunday Services Committee.

Now it would be easy, in a more melancholy moment, to look back at those who have died and see not only the loss of those wonderful people themselves, but to see in them some loss of our sense of community, too, because they were parts of our community, even parts of our own identity.  Looking to reclaim what was, we are like those who went to the tomb that morning.  Like them, we find the tomb empty, because what was can never be again.  And whether or not there was a young man to the right of the entrance to the tomb, we are asked the same question:  Why do you seek the living among the dead?

Now in each and every one of those memorial services, I speak of our reasons for gathering to remember and celebrate the life we wish to honor.  One of those reasons I explain as follows:  We gather to remind ourselves that with our lives we continue to give life to the memory of our dear one.  We gather to remind ourselves that she or he lives on in us, challenging us to take what was best in her or his life into our own.

Mark doesn’t say what the female disciples did after fleeing the empty tomb in terror and amazement, other than noting that they were too afraid to talk about what they had seen.  The gospels of Matthew, Luke and John talk about Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and the commission he then gave the disciples to preach the good news to all the nations, but Mark’s gospel simply ends.  We’re left to grapple with that question by ourselves:  Why do you seek the living among the dead?

Taken at face value, most of us don’t seek the living among the dead — at last not very often.  Part of working through grief — whether or not that’s described by the model proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in terms of progressive stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — is coming to grips with the fact that life goes on, that dwelling in the empty tomb isn’t healthy and that we must return to the land of the living where there is joy to be found in simply being alive.  Being fixated on the past, going beyond nostalgia to obsession with what was but can never be again, means not living in the present, dismissing the possibilities for happiness now and the future.

And yet, forgetting our dear ones is generally not an option either.  To do so would be to deny ourselves, to dismiss who we are thanks to them, to pretend that we are something other than who they helped us to become.  Seeking the living while rejecting the dead is just as much as problem as seeking the living among the dead.  The better path is somewhere in between, a third way that balances what was but is no longer with what is and might yet be.

Kathleen McTigue, who until recently was minister to the Unitarian Society of New Haven, Connecticut and is now director of the Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice, wrote a liturgy of remembrance that takes that third way.  It’s one of the readings included in our grey hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition, and I’d like us to take the opportunity offered by Easter Sunday to read it together.  We’ll do it as a responsive reading — I’ll read the parts in roman type if you will read together the parts in italics — and at the very end, I invite you to call out the names of those we count among our beloved dead, both those who were part of this congregation and those we knew in our lives beyond these walls.  Together we shall name those who gave us and who continue to lend us strength in our lives.  So, please turn to reading number 721, “They Are with Us Still” by Kathleen McTigue.

“In the struggles we choose for ourselves, in the ways we move forward in our lives and bring our world forward with us,

“it is right to remember the names of those who gave us strength in this choice of living.  It is right to name the power of hard lives well-lived.

“We share a history with those lives.  We belong to the same motion.

“They too were strengthened by what had gone before.  They too were drawn on by the vision of what might come to be.

“Those who lived before us, who struggled for justice and who suffered injustice before us, have not melted into the dust, and have not disappeared.

“They are with us still.  The lives they lived hold us steady.

“Their words remind us and call us back to ourselves.  Their courage and love evoke our own.  We, the living, carry them with us: we are their voices, their hands and their hearts.

“We take them with us, and with them choose the deeeper path of living.”

May we keep the dear souls we have named — and those whose names remain in our hearts, unspoken — in blessed memory.  May their words and their deeds continue to strengthen us, not only in our individual lives and in the daily struggles we face, but in this beloved community, where we aspire to live up to the promise that they bequeathed to us.  For we, the living, are their voices, their hearts and their hands.  Their memory calls us to live in the present, open to the possibilities of the future, one in history with them, and one in hope.

So may it be.

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To Hunt with the Quorn

(I shared the following this time last year with the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula, a community that joins the individual in the collective search for truth and meaning and where we commit ourselves daily to honoring the inherent worth and dignity of all people.)

A number of years ago, Fly Fishing by J. R. Hartley became one of the most famous rare books in Great Britain.  Thanks to a single television advert, millions of Britons know of the book, though very few have actually read it.  So, what they don’t know is that the book is a travelogue of sorts, primarily intended to detail the author’s ramblings around the British countryside, taking note of good fishing spots along the way, but with extensive footnotes on other subjects — unrelated to fly fishing — that Hartley found of interest.  Indeed, while the book runs at about forty thousand words, well over thirty thousand of them are to be found in the footnotes.

For example, of the River Soar in Leicestershire, J. R. Hartley merely says this: “I found the shallower bends of the Soar between Quorndon to the west and Barrow-on-Soar to the east to be satisfactory.”  However, there’s a rather longer footnote that accompanies that sentence, as follows.

“Quorndon is, of course, most famous for the fox hunt known as the Quorn which goes out during the Autumn and Winter.  Stopping for lunch in the village, I happened to notice a rather old letter, framed under glass in one of the public houses.  I asked the barman what it was and, taking it off the wall, he showed it to me.  It appeared to be a letter of apology, returning some item to its owner after it had been stolen by someone else.  I didn’t know any of the names, but through conversation with the barman I was able to piece together the story.

“Many years before, the vicar of the church near Quorndon Hall was one Reverend Wirth.  His given name was Claude, but he rarely used it because, as a child, a school-teacher had mispronounced it ‘cloddy’ which led to teasing by the other children.  So, he chose to go by the initial ‘C’ and his middle name.  Now according to Wirth family tradition, middle names were chosen from Bible verses.  In Rev. Wirth’s case, the verse was Matthew 5:5 — ‘Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.’ — and his middle name was ‘Inherit’.  And so he was known to everyone in the parish as C. Inherit Wirth.

“On the other side of the village there was another church, and its vicar was the Reverend Joshua Digny.  Now the two vicars were amply cordial as colleagues, but there was one area where they simply could not make peace with one another.  For Rev. Digny believed that fox hunting was a cruel sport and should be banned, while Rev. Wirth enjoyed every chance he could to hunt with the Quorn.  Failing to sway anyone beyond his part of the parish, Rev. Digny took to playing tricks on the hunters in an effort to dissuade them from their pastime.  These practical jokes took many forms but most of them involved his late grandfather’s false teeth.

“For Digny senior had been a rather stern man, and often disapproved of his grandson’s seemingly foolish behavior, vocally and at length, so in his will he bequeathed his teeth to young Joshua.  Of course, this merely gave the now Rev. Digny a tool for his mischief.  For example, the hunters learnt to reach carefully into their saddlebags given the chance of being bitten by the spring-loaded teeth.  Still, they would always return Digny’s teeth, though some, such as Rev. Wirth, would grumble at the foolishness.

“One Winter, however, the late Digny senior’s false teeth disappeared.  Joshua asked everyone in the village if they had been seen, to no avail; come the Spring, he stopped asking.  Then, the next year, in the middle of a hunt, the Rev. Wirth was thrown from his horse and, striking his head, he died.  Soon after Claude Inherit Wirth had been laid to rest, his church sexton was clearing out the vicar’s desk, and there, at the back of one of the drawers, were Digny’s false teeth.  As the letter he wrote to accompany their return explained it, ‘Of all people, I would not have expected Rev. Wirth to have stolen your late grandfather’s teeth, but here they are, just as I found them.  I still cannot believe it: C. Inherit Wirth had Digny’s teeth, of all people!’”

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