Lonely in a Crowd

Have you ever found yourself filled with loneliness while you are in a group of people? You look around at those surrounding you, but you don’t connect. You may not have anything in common with others in the room. Or, there may be underlying tensions that keep you separated. This kind of loneliness is difficult at best and isolating at worst.

As I have been thinking about the Christmas story, I began to consider the journey that Mary and Joseph undertook to get to Bethlehem. Usually it is depicted as a solitary and lonely journey: just the two of them traveling on a deserted road. But, this year it occurred to me that they were probably not all alone on that road. The entire Roman Empire was traveling to ancestral hometowns.

About that time Caesar Augustus ordered a census to be taken throughout the Empire. This was the first census when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone had to travel to his own ancestral hometown to be accounted for. So Joseph went from the Galilean town of Nazareth up to Bethlehem in Judah, David’s town, for the census. As a descendant of David, he had to go there. He went with Mary, his fiancée, who was pregnant. Luke 2: 1-5 MSG

It’s quite possible that Mary and Joseph were traveling on a very busy road. There were very likely other relatives making the same trek. But unlike other journey’s that would be made as part of a large family caravan, Mary and Joseph were very alone on this journey. The reason is clear: Mary was Joseph’s pregnant fiancee, not his wife. Her pregnancy was an opportunity for gossip and judgement and maybe some shame and scorn from family members. We don’t really know details, but Joseph’s original reaction to Mary’s news gives us some insight into how this pregnancy was perceived.

The birth of Jesus took place like this. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. Before they came to the marriage bed, Joseph discovered she was pregnant. (It was by the Holy Spirit, but he didn’t know that.) Joseph, chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced. Matthew 1: 18-19 MSG

As I think about Christmas in 2018, I wonder, how many of us are surrounded by people but still feel totally isolated? There are many things that can contribute to the isolation. The normal tensions that exist within a family unit may result in a feeling of detachment. New family situations that result from death, divorce or a even new marriage may greatly influence the family temperament. A death in the family will make traditions either too precious to forget or too painful to observe. Each family member will react with different expectations or preferences. Melding or ignoring the new needs may create a strong resentment within the family. Divorce always stresses and changes the family dynamic and as a result the holiday season. When anyone within the family gets married, old traditions are stretched and strained. Now there are multiple family traditions and locations to be considered and blended. Seemingly small things like what food will be served, special church service attendance, multiple family gatherings as well the cost of gifts can become contentious. Hurt feelings and blame placing only contribute to feelings of isolation.

As I approached this 2018 holiday season, it was too easy to dread the upcoming holidays. This is just my fourth Christmas as part of a blended family that includes my husband, and our five adult children, two daughters-in-love and a precious grandson. We are still figuring out how to build our own family traditions. Trying to coordinate our blended family plans with their own extended family events can be overwhelming. I love looking for that perfect gift for each person in my family and it gets more and more difficult the older they get. And this year, I determined to enjoy this holiday time. This year, I will give full attention to my family and not be overtaken with self doubt and feelings of failure when I do not meet the expectations of others. I cannot keep everyone happy. That is a choice made by each individual.

This Year, I will focus on the celebration of the birth of my Savior.

“There were sheepherders camping in the neighborhood. They had set night watches over their sheep. Suddenly, God’s angel stood among them and God’s glory blazed around them. They were terrified.

The angel said, “Don’t be afraid. I’m here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide: A Savior has just been born in David’s town, a Savior who is Messiah and Master. This is what you’re to look for: a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger.”

At once the angel was joined by a huge angelic choir singing God’s praises:Glory to God in the heavenly heights,Peace to all men and women on earth who please him.

As the angel choir withdrew into heaven, the sheepherders talked it over. “Let’s get over to Bethlehem as fast as we can and see for ourselves what God has revealed to us.” They left, running, and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. Seeing was believing. They told everyone they met what the angels had said about this child. All who heard the sheepherders were impressed.

Mary kept all these things to herself, holding them dear, deep within herself. The sheepherders returned and let loose, glorifying and praising God for everything they had heard and seen. It turned out exactly the way they’d been told!     Luke 2:8-20 MSG


Where Is the Joy?

I admit it, I struggle during the holiday season.  There was at time when I loved getting ready for Thanksgiving.   Planning the perfect meal.  Visiting with family and friends. We even went to the big parade in downtown Houston.   I think I was more excited than my kids about Christmas.   I loved the excitement and the fun of the holidays.  It was a wonderful time.  There are many wonderful memories.

But grief changed all of that.  The idea of planning and cooking became a chore.  So, we started eating out.  It took a few years before I could face putting up a Christmas Tree and even then it was totally different from what had been our “norm”.  Instead of red & green, it was pink, purple and lime green.  We used feather boas instead of tinsel.  It was as far away as I could get from the memories of Christmas’ Past.  I couldn’t seem to entirely enjoy the holidays because I was haunted by what “might have been”.

Three years ago, our holidays changed once again.  We now have a blended family.  We now must consider all five of our kids and their spouses/significant others and their schedules.  They have other interests and families to consider.  It’s easy to get caught up in the frenzy of fighting for time.  And the holiday events become competitions instead of joyful celebrations.  Quality family time is lost in the quest to get to every house and every meal.

Honestly, my response can be much like the toys on the Island of Misfit Toys from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”:  feeling sorry for myself and expecting to miss the fun and excitement again this year.  It’s too easy to  feel that no one cares.  It’s very convenient to focus on “ME” instead of looking at the larger picture.

I’m really trying this year.  I want to be excited about the holidays.  I don’t want family quarrels to overshadow what should be a joyful time.  I don’t need to feel like I’m placing 2nd (or 3rd or 4th) in a competition that doesn’t even exist.  I’m trying to accept that perfection should not be my goal this year.  And, I’m focusing on building special memories wherever  and whenever I am able.  It may be a quiet meal with just my husband on Thanksgiving Day or a bigger, busier meal with most of the crew over the weekend.  Both, are times to create memories.

I know there will still be tender places.  Putting up the holiday village that belonged to my late husband or unwrapping his Santa collection will be bitter-sweet.  I’ve already got a new Santa Ornament to add.   Pulling out the old ornaments from the early days of our children will unlock some emotions, both good and bad.   I’m on the lookout for a 2018 snow globe to add to the collection I began in 2015 on our first Christmas as Mr. & Mrs.  Douglas. And, I’m prepared to accept the critique of “too much purple” on the tress.

This year, the big tree will go up early (at least for me!)  I’m working on handmade angel ornaments for a smaller tree.  I’ve already planned a Holiday dinner for my co-workers and I look forward to sharing our home and hospitality.  Christmas gifts won’t be flashy, but I hope that they meet a need for the recipients.  We will be baking goodies and sharing with the neighbors (and trying not to over indulge in the sweets.)  There will be carols and hot chocolate and I  will try to be present in the moments as they occur.

This year, I will strive to give thanks for the numerous blessing in my life: my family, my job, my home, my church and so many more that I tend to take for granted.  I will try to remember that the excitement of Christmas is not about the gifts we give, but about the love that was gifted to us through the birth of Christ.  I will remember that time spent with our friends and family is precious and not waste it wishing for something different.   This year, I will accept the emotions as they arrive, deal with them and move forward.

This year, I will find the Joy in MY holiday season.

 

Twice Blessed

Today is a day of remembrance for me. Thirty-one years ago, I married my first husband, Terry Benson. The memories of that day are happy if a little bittersweet. In sixteen days, we will note the 13th anniversary of Terry’s death.

Terry and I loved each other very much. We laughed, cried, fought and loved a lot over the 18 years we had together. We watched our kids grow into teens and enjoyed their activities both together and separately. I loved him so much that I struggled with how to let him go

If you have never experienced widowhood, it’s hard to explain the emotions that go with it. There’s the obvious loss of the person. But, there is also a loss of identity. I had been part of a couple for so long and it was hard to be “just me” again. I was not longer Terry’s wife. So, I took refuge in being Zac and Gracie’s mom. I missed all of the things that I had come to take for granted. No longer would Terry drive me to work and drop me off at the front door. He was no longer there to pack my lunch. When I got really irritated at work, I couldn’t call and hear him tell me it would be okay. When the kids activities conflicted, I had to choose which one would have to go it alone or figure out how to be two places at once. When the car broke down or had a flat, I now had to deal with it. I had to figure out what bills had to be paid and when. And, I had to figure out how to sleep at night without the sound of his breathing.

I managed the life of a widow for almost 10 years. I thought I was pretty well adjusted and capable as a single adult. I had even learned to enjoy life again. And then love came knocking. Love in my fifties was a bit different that in my twenties. We both had a history and the baggage that goes with that. We had different experiences from our previous marriages and quite honestly, different expectations because of that. And, we had five children who all had an opinion.

As I admitted my love for Tim, my new husband, I had to question how I could love both men so deeply. I struggled with feeling like I was cheating on Terry. Even though he had been dead for almost a decade, my heart still ached to hear his voice. I had promised to love him until “death do us part” and I had yet to release my heart from that promise. As well as I thought I had handled my grief, there were lots of things that I had never addressed. I had buried my depression with activity. I was so accustomed to “putting on a brave face” that I almost forgot what it was to be honest about my feelings. So, ten years later, I was in counseling trying to sift through all of these emotions.

I am still amazed at how deeply I love now. Tim is very gracious and we share many sweet memories of Terry together. I am so grateful that he is not threatened by my memories. God allowed me the double blessing of loving completely not once, but twice. I will never forget the life that Terry and I shared. I will tell our grandson, Joshua Terry about his Papa Terry when he’s older. And I will continue to be grateful for both of my husbands. God has truly blessed me in so many ways

 

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“But those who trust in the LORD will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.” Isaiah 40:31

And Now I See. . .

In 2005, my husband died. It was unexpected and it was devastating to me. Many well-meaning people shared scripture that were meant to be comforting. But, at the time, I didn’t find much comfort or even any semblance of truth in many of the verses shared.

“So I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten,” Joel 2:25a 

“then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you.” Deuteronomy 30:3 

“God blessed Job’s later life even more than his earlier life. He ended up with fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, one thousand teams of oxen, and one thousand donkeys.  He also had seven sons and three daughters.” Job 42:12-13 

I didn’t understand how some unknown thing in the future would ever replace what I had lost when my husband died. How could the years we lost together be restored? My husband was dead. Nothing could ever replace him in my heart. Nothing new would replace what I had lost. I couldn’t accept that any of these promises was meant for me, personally.  I was in pain. I grieved the loss of my life as I knew it and as I had dreamed that it would be.

But now, I see. I have a new marriage and with it a new extended family. My new husband is not a replacement for the one I lost. I will always grieve that death in some way. One doesn’t love completely and then forget that relationship. But, this new marriage has taught me that I can love again, that my life did not end. I have been given a chance to experience a deeply passionate love, once again.

This marriage is different from the one I began in my twenties. This marriage is founded on a long-standing friendship and maturity that I lacked 30 years ago. I can love more completely because I understand the fragility of life and relationships. I have learned to give all now, because I do not know what tomorrow holds in this life. I try not to miss a chance to say “I Love you” for I have determined to never again regret words not spoken. I cherish the quiet breaks, the silly moments, the busy times and even the heated, uncomfortable times; for they represent all the things that form a lasting and loving relationship. I vow to speak positively about my husband and to honor him in my words and actions. I am aware how important it is for my all of my children (both through birth and marriage) to have a model of stability to use as a pattern in their own lives.

This marriage of almost 3 years will never replace the 18 years of my first marriage. This marriage is new.  This marriage is a blessing of restoration and joy. I can truly say the God has blessed my later life even more than my earlier life. He has restored my joy.

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“You’ve kept track of my every toss and turn
through the sleepless nights,
Each tear entered in your ledger,
each ache written in your book.

God, you did everything you promised,
and I’m thanking you with all my heart.
You pulled me from the brink of death,
my feet from the cliff-edge of doom.
Now I stroll at leisure with God
in the sunlit fields of life.”

Psalm 56:8, 12-13 MSG

 

 

 

 

 

Commitment or Happiness: Do I Have to Choose?

Our pastor and his wife, Kenny and Valerie Dean, talked yesterday about marriage. Central in there discussion was how hard marriage can be. I don’t think it matters how “in love” you are with your spouse, there are times you just want to quit and walk away. All through the Bible, marriage is used to show how much God loves us.

“God spoke: “Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflecting our nature So they can be responsible for the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, the cattle, And, yes, Earth itself, and every animal that moves on the face of Earth.” God created human beings; he created them godlike, Reflecting God’s nature. He created them male and female. God blessed them: “Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge! Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air, for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth.”
‭‭Genesis‬ ‭1:26-28‬ ‭MSG‬‬

“No one abuses his own body, does he? No, he feeds and pampers it. That’s how Christ treats us, the church, since we are part of his body. And this is why a man leaves father and mother and cherishes his wife. No longer two, they become “one flesh.” This is a huge mystery, and I don’t pretend to understand it all. What is clearest to me is the way Christ treats the church. And this provides a good picture of how each husband is to treat his wife, loving himself in loving her, and how each wife is to honor her husband.”
‭‭Ephesians‬ ‭5:29-33‬ ‭MSG‬‬

As I considered yesterday’s message, i understood that people often treat their marriage the same way they treat God. We expect our marriages (and God) to be exactly what we want: all fun and happiness with no rough spots. Life is a beautiful rose garden with a fairy-God granting our every wish. However, it doesn’t take long to learn that the roses have thorns. God loves us, but He loves us through the trials. It’s only through the struggles that we learn trust and commitment. When marriage is all about what makes ME happy, the rough spots are inevitable. By loving my spouse IN SPITE of my feelings, I learn what true love is.

In our fast food, microwave culture, we have forgotten how to wait. If things don’t turn out the way we want, we find another option. We don’t have the patience to wait on God, so we stick around just long enough to glimpse the truth and then jump to something else. When I’m not happy in my marriage, I find other ways to get pleasure. The divorce rate in our country is indicative of this. If I hear one more person say “I deserve to be happy” I will scream! That’s a lie. Happiness is a decision not a right.

Time and time again we see evidence of the messes we make trying to “help God”. The unrest in the Middle East has its origins in such a debacle. Sarah helped God by giving her servant to Abraham. Ishmael was born the result. Sarah was mad when Hagar became pregnant and abused her. Hagar ran away to die.

“The angel of GOD said, “Go back to your mistress. Put up with her abuse.” He continued, “I’m going to give you a big family, children past counting. From this pregnancy, you’ll get a son: Name him Ishmael; for GOD heard you, GOD answered you. He’ll be a bucking bronco of a man, a real fighter, fighting and being fought, Always stirring up trouble, always at odds with his family.””
‭‭Genesis‬ ‭16:9-12‬ ‭MSG

How many times do we cause issues because we aren’t willing to wait? We jump from one partner to another trying to find love and happiness. We cheat and take what we want and then wonder why there is suspicion and heartache in our relationships. Sexual promiscuity is acceptable and dangerous. You have no idea what you will be exposed to in a single moment of pleasure. When you have convinced yourself that variety in partners helps you to grow into a better lover, you rob yourself of a truly intimate relationship.

“There’s more to sex than mere skin on skin. Sex is as much spiritual mystery as physical fact. As written in Scripture, “The two become one.” Since we want to become spiritually one with the Master, we must not pursue the kind of sex that avoids commitment and intimacy, leaving us more lonely than ever—the kind of sex that can never “become one.” There is a sense in which sexual sins are different from all others. In sexual sin we violate the sacredness of our own bodies, these bodies that were made for God-given and God-modeled love, for “becoming one” with another. Or didn’t you realize that your body is a sacred place, the place of the Holy Spirit? Don’t you see that you can’t live however you please, squandering what God paid such a high price for? The physical part of you is not some piece of property belonging to the spiritual part of you. God owns the whole works. So let people see God in and through your body.”
‭‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭6:16-20‬ ‭MSG‬‬

I serve a jealous God.

“You must worship no other gods, for the Lord, whose very name is Jealous, is a God who is jealous about his relationship with you.”
‭‭Exodus‬ ‭34:14‬ ‭NLT‬‬

If my marriage is to be a picture of a my relationship with God, then I cannot venture outside of my marriage to find happiness. My joy and my happiness will be realized through serving God and loving my husband regardless of what’s going on in our lives. Through the good times and the bad, through the fun and the sadness, I will honor my marriage vows. I will honor my God.

. . . “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”
‭‭Ruth‬ ‭1:16-17‬ ‭NIV‬‬

So, that was Christmas. . .

It’s December 26th,  the day after Christmas.  Some of us have already gone back to the office.  Others are still enjoying time off.  There are ski trips to take, family to visit, and malls to invade with after Christmas sales and gift cards.  What was the holiday for you?

Because Christmas eve was on Sunday this year, many churches in our area held  Christmas Eve services instead of the normal Sunday morning services.  I was quite happy to attend the service in the morning, but I heard more than a few people grumble about not having an evening service.  I was amazed to hear the grumbling and grousing about it all.  After all, what would it take to do just one little service that evening?  Having been married to a minister for many years and also being an active volunteer for more years than that, let me tell you what that would entail.

For a regular Sunday morning service, the worship team arrives at least an hour earlier than the scheduled service.  And any setup, has to be done even earlier than that.   For the church I attend, the worship team is asked to be on stage by 7:45am and the setup crew starts at arrives begins to unload before 7:00am.  Even in churches that are not “mobile”, the worship leader (or music minister, jack-of-all trades) has to arrive early enough to get the sound system and stage areas setup and to solve any issues that may arise due to damage to said equipment during the previous days.  If there are multiple services, you may have multiple setups to do depending on the location and style of each service.  At my former church, on a normal Sunday, the praise team & band will lead  3 services that cover 2 different styles of music.  By the time you get there at 11:00, they’ve already been going 2 1/2 hours at least.  And there’s always someone ready to complain about the type of music, the speed of the music, the volume of the band or even how involved any of the members seemed to be during the service(s).

So, let’s consider this past Sunday.  There were 3 Christmas Eve services at my church.  Everything was ready to go by 9:00 am.  The videos were ready.  The prelude music was playing.  The donuts and coffee were in place.  All of the lighting was working and every seat in the theater where we meet had a special bracelet that was synced to the music that would be played/sung that morning.  There was a full band, a worship team, a sound & lighting crew.  There was also a kid’s praise team that was choreographed for a Christmas song.  We had a great time and were done by 9:55 am.  The people attending at 10:00 were lined up as we walked out.  There were volunteers busily making last-minute adjustments for the next service and then it began all over again.  And that happened once more at 11:00am.  By the time all three packed services were done and everything put away, the crew and worship team had spent 5 hours preparing and leading.  And that doesn’t count any rehearsal time outside of that Sunday.   They were ready to crash and enjoy their own families after that.

Having been married to a minister for several years and a volunteer for many more years, the holidays add a whole different level of stress.  Families often suffer as Mom and/or Dad are involved in  numerous rehearsals and planning sessions.  Family Christmas celebrations take 2nd place to providing the perfect Christmas Eve  or Christmas Day service(s) for everyone else.   Trying to figure out how to feed grumpy kids on Christmas Eve when you have to be getting everything prepped in the late afternoon and then won’t be done for several hours makes the holidays a bit irksome at times.  And, if you know a minister that has extended family living in another town (or state), you know a minister and family that been forced to drive on Christmas Day to get to celebrate the holidays with family.

I’m not complaining about the years I spent as a volunteer.  Some of the best worship times for me happened during rehearsal and setup before the “real” service.  I just wish people would consider how much work it takes to make it look so easy.  Let your worship team members and leaders know how much you appreciate them.  Maybe you don’t care for the music or the volume, but at least you have the opportunity to worship (and not like it) every week.  Your worship leaders very seldom hear the compliments, but they ALWAYS hear the complaints.

Wishing you a wonderful 2018!  Let’s make it a great year full of joy, laughter and love for our church family.

 

 

Counterfeit Living

When I was a teenager, I was told that I should never watch soap operas.  The reason was simple:  they portrayed lives that were not realistic.  The women were always perfectly coiffed and dressed.  The men loved to talk about EVERYTHING.  Life was not that exciting or interesting.  This was reinforced when I was touring Europe with the United States Collegiate Wind Band the summer of 1978.  When the family I was staying with in Buitenpost, the Netherlands found out I was from Texas, they immediately asked how many oil wells were in my back yard.  They watched “Dallas” on television and  believed it to be the ‘real’ Texas.

 

Fast forward to today.  We still have the fantasies created by television shows.   And,  we have added reality TV & social media to shape the way we view life.  All of these work together to create an unrealistic view of what life SHOULD be and how we SHOULD be living.  As a result, there are many, many individuals living counterfeit lives.  They are busy making things appear as they “should” and avoiding the reality that is life.

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Have you talked to anyone that is of dating age recently?  Most of them talk of getting married, buying a home and starting a family.  But prevailing wisdom of today is to live together.   The reasoning is that you can be sure it will last without the “big” commitment.   But the reality is “I just don’t think it’s worth waiting until I’m married”.  I remember being asked about waiting for marriage as a 20-something.  The question was “What if the sex isn’t good?”  My response, “If I don’t have anything to compare to, how will I know the sex isn’t good?”  I was also raised to value myself  and to know that marriage is more that sex.  It’s commitment and building a life & family together.  I’m not saying that waiting is easy.  It is definitely not! And, the further down the path you go the more difficult it is to stop.  What I am saying is that anything you value is worth the wait.  You save money for a house, instead of buying a tent because “all my friends are”.

Counterfeit living is grabbing for all the advantages of life without any of the real commitment.  Counterfeit living is pretending you are married when you are just “shacking up”.  Counterfeit living is escaping into something (alcohol, drugs, shopping, games, television, etc.) to avoid facing a reality you don’t want to see.  Counterfeit living is pretending you value yourself, but willingly give yourself away for the illusion of “living the life”.

Reality can be hard.  Reality may mean walking away from something you really want in order to grow into a better person.  Reality may mean saying “No” to pleasures that you don’t want to miss, but realizing you are worth more than the momentary pleasure.  Reality may mean giving up control for just a moment and allowing others to  follow their own path.  Reality may mean manning up and facing the life you have chosen without whining or  tattling about the person you “love” so much.

When my husband and I were dating, I told him I just wanted to make him happy.  His response was “You are not responsible nor capable of making me happy.  I choose to be happy or not.  You can only provide opportunities for me to choose happiness.”  Not very romantic, but entirely true.  If I’m looking for circumstances or people to make me happy, I will never get there.  I must choose to be happy in the circumstances I am presented with at the time.  Real life doesn’t always provide opportunities for happiness.  But, when the opportunities do arise, they are marvelous.  Because,  I can  know the opportunites are real and solid and I can trust them.  I can choose to be happy.  I can choose JOY!  Counterfeit living will never provide that.  Counterfeit living will only cause questions to arise:  “Is this real?  Will this last?”

And for me, the only way to cope with reality is to turn to my faith.

Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”  Psalm 37:4 

“Whoever gives heed to instruction prospers,and blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD.”  Proverbs 16:20

There are many people who have successful marriages after living in premarital relationships.  And, I know many of them also live with years of guilt because they didn’t stand up for their own convictions.  They will always have that small question “Would we still be together if we had waited?  Was I worth it?”

I challenge you to look at your own life.  Are you living in the reality of life with all of its struggles and joys?  Are your walls stripped bare for all the world to see?  Or, are you living in a counterfeit reality with facades that need constant attention and repair?  Facades that provide for more stress and less happiness?  When I was able to allow the facades to fall, I found an entirely new reality.  I found a reality where I didn’t have to the strongest or the smartest or the best.  I found there is contentment in just doing the best that I can in this moment.  I still struggle and at times try to hide behind the old walls, but I’m no longer trapped and afraid to be honest.

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