…just like everybody else

This was originally posted in February 2013. There have been a number of great articles written recently about similar topics (Julie Rodgers wrote one today), so I figured I’d repost this. So much could be said against this kind of stigma that was and still is so pervasive in more conservative churches – how it tears into young people’s hearts and promotes a brand of poisonous neo-gnosticism – and if you’re interested Spiritual Friendship’s “Identity” tag has some further exploration.

***

I shifted my legs around to restore pin-prick circulation as the conversation stretched into its second hour. Coming-out was rarely a quick ordeal during those early stages of growth and he was only confidante number eleven, I believe. Equal parts disarming sincerity and riotous impulsivity, he had been a dear friend from the first month of college. And then, two years after he first learned my name, he learned my Deepest Secret™.*

As the conversation began to lull, he decided to change the topic a bit. Looking me in the eye he asked, in his typical here-is-a-thought-I-am-literally-having-right-now directness, “So, are you attracted to me?”

Uh. I diverted my gaze and threw out my honest answer with a less-than-natural laugh, “Ha, no, you’re safe, you don’t have anything to worry about.”

“Worry about? Dude, I don’t care if you’re attracted to me. It’s not like it’d be a bad thing. I’m attracted to, like, lots of my close friends who are girls. I just wanted to know.”

Leave it to this guy to turn such an ill-advised question into one of the most profound offerings of grace I’ve ever experienced.

You see, at that point in my life I lived in terror of being attracted to anybody, especially friends. I mean, this can be a common anxiety of coming out, right? That not only will those closest to you distance themselves because they’re afraid that you might fall for them, but also that, well, you might seriously fall for them.

But more than that, I was still in the midst of a painful war with my body. While the rest of my hormonal peers were frolicking in their dopamine-addled pairing endeavors,** I was beginning to despair of ever feeling at peace because attraction, that bewildering spatial distortion that would sweep over me when I saw him, whoever he was, made me feel abusive and criminal.

It was, I think, the inevitable result of being told, and believing, the toxic lie that this particular uncontrollable, biological response was a willful act of sin. Like most underexposed evangelicals, I equated homosexual attractions with lust; they were one and the same – dire failures of holiness to be avoided at all cost.

I remember ranting to my accountability partner (poor soul greatly to be pitied) time after time about my crush(es), “I have no right to even look at him, much less tell you his name! It’s disgusting. I just feel like such a monster.”

This was during the “stable” phase of my college career. Good times.

But this is why that friend’s comment lingered so forcefully in my mind. By saying that it wouldn’t bother him if I was attracted to him because, duh, attraction happens to almost everybody and is totally not a big deal, he offered a distinct manifestation of grace that I had refused myself:

The grace of a common experience. 

The grace of not being a monster. 

The grace of being human, just like everybody else.

In the years since we sat together in that light-filled prayer chapel, tears in our eyes, rejoicing in the goodness of it all, I’ve found profound healing as I daily live into my humanity – a lifetime of aching otherness slowly finding its place in the humbly unfolding narrative of becoming whole.

And lust? I’ve finally begun to understand what it really is. By binding that willful vice up with the inescapable neurological occurrence of attraction, I not only turned my body into an enemy of holiness but I also crippled my ability to effectively fight against lust.

I used to conceive of it as little more than excessively strong attractions, something beyond my control, something that was ultimately about me and my “purity.”*** Wrong. Lust is about ignoring the dignity and inviolable humanity of another and turning them into an object for my own personal pleasure. Lust isn’t so terrible just because it makes it harder for me not to type Google searches of questionable character, though that’s a part of it; it’s so terrible because it makes it harder for me to treat every person as the absurdly beloved-by-God people that they are, because it turns them into a “thing” and turns me into a hypocrite.

But what is more, I’m no longer hopeless in this struggle. Back when I thought it was lustful to even notice another guy, the overwhelming impossibility of “purity” haunted me. I think I knew then, even if I couldn’t articulate it at the time, that to be free from lust as I defined it – as others had defined it for me – would require me to eviscerate a part of my humanity, to deaden myself to the very real desirability of others.

But now, rather than fear I will lose my humanity in the good fight against lust, I am thrilled to see it come more vibrantly into focus and fullness as I reclaim the true purposes of the struggle and realize what is actually at stake:

that I might see each person, whether or not they possess that indefinable breath-sapping spark, as beautiful, worthy of love, full of dignity, and to be served with joy.

I’ll be the first to say that this is easier said than done, but at least now I know that I’m not a lost cause, that I’m not some exceptionally broken screw-up with an entirely different set of rules. At least now I know, and at least usually believe, that my body is good and that there are much worse things I could do than realize someone has incredible eyes and great hair.

______________________________________________________

* Y’all, being closeted was just so unhealthy. If you ever doubt that, read my journals from college. (But actually no don’t you dare read those.)

** … or something like that. I might have been a little bitter at the time.

*** I don’t really like how we use the word “purity” to almost exclusively reference sexuality, especially as it has historically contributed to the social marginalization of women. Biblically speaking, greed and gossip and whatever else are also fraught with “impurity.”

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Tense

(This post is a slightly edited version of something I wrote on December 7, 2012.)*

***

Real talk, everyone: I can’t see into the future.

I know, it’s embarrassing, but I’ve got to be honest with myself, and the truth is that, for all my effort, all my reading, all my thinking, all my praying, I simply don’t know what my life will look like five, ten, or fifty years from now. Heck, I can’t even guarantee that in the next three seconds a mystical vortex isn’t going to open up and transport me to a land of magic and adventure in need of a hero.

Sigh. Anyway…

Whenever I see friends and family after spending time away, it’s not uncommon to touch on topics such as who I am nowhow I’ve changed, and how I am still growing. That’s all fine and good, and I appreciate being able to process through things with people and share what God has been doing in my life. But since I began the ever-ongoing process of “coming out” a new question has started to dominate certain conversations: who will I be in the future?

People who love and care about me (and sometimes people who don’t know me at all but have been given The Unassailable Right To Say Things by the internet) want assurance that I will always be staunchly conservative and celibate. I mean, I guess that would be nice. It would make life so simple to be able to say, “I will always and forever believe all the things I think to be true right now. I will never doubt, never question, never reconsider, never ‘switch sides.’ So don’t worry.”

Simple and, I think, totally miserable. It would be miserable because I know I’m not right about everything. In fact, I count it as one of God’s greatest gifts that we can learn and grow and be challenged and changed. I am thrilled I am not now who I was five years ago, and I suspect, five years from now,** I will be similarly amazed at what God has done to draw me closer to him in, I’m sure, surprising and unforeseen ways.

So I can’t promise I’ll always be convinced that celibacy is my requisite (though not unhappy) path. I just can’t. I know myself too well, and I don’t know the future well enough.

What I can promise, though, is that I will live each day pursuing the glory of God, seeking to rest in his love and display it relentlessly to others. I can promise that I will place myself under the authority of scripture and Christian community, and that I will ask hard questions and, I hope, obey hard answers.

As it is, if I continue to live that kind of life, I feel confident the convictions toward sexuality that I have now will remain, though enriched, nuanced, and deepened. I hope they do.

I hope they do, because there are moments I’m scared they won’t.

I hope they do, because, when I lay in bed some nights, I hope they don’t.

I’m not some invincible dogmatic war-machine, impervious to any and all pain or insecurity. There are enough people telling me exactly who I need to be right now because of my sexuality that I’ve found the added demand to simultaneously guarantee and justify who I will be in the future both beyond my capacity and deeply, deeply exhausting.

For so long I felt the need to put up some kind of iron-clad front to earn people’s approval, to dispel any doubt that I will always believe what I believe now. That I will be strong enough. That I will be wise enough.

Ridiculous. I’m a Christian. I should be the first to admit that I am both weak and hilariously limited on my own. I am, as all humans are, an ever-changing work in progress.

No, I need God desperately, and trying to come across as sufficiently immutable was just smoke and mirrors to deter people from piercing me with that uncertain stare that says, You aren’t going to make it past forty, little more than a small rebellion against my utter dependence on Christ and the Church.

Because I am weak, I need to cling to the God whose strong embrace surrounds me and lifts me up. Because I can be frighteningly inconsistent, I need to draw near to the God who will lead me in righteousness all the days of my life. Because I can’t rely on my own feeble promises, I need to trust solely in the God whose promises never fail, who will guide me and teach me and nurture me and place before me a joyful path of discipleship that will lead me ever further into his marvelous light. Because I don’t know who exactly I will be as I grow, I need a church community to continually remind me who I am and who I serve.

Precisely because the future is hidden from me, I need to seek God in the present. I can’t win an argument against The Future; fear-fueled visions of what may be can easily overwhelm me because I don’t yet have the experiences necessary to combat them. And, of course, I won’t until that future becomes the present and God, as he always does, meets me in a way that is more astounding, more good than I could conceive of right now.

I’m 24. I still struggle with child-proof Advil bottles and sometimes daydream about being a Pokémon master. I have a lot of maturing to do. As I have recently engaged in the conversation surrounding faith and sexuality, I have realized that no matter how much research I may do, no matter how many blog posts I may write, I simply cannot change the fact that there is much I am unable to learn about myself and my sexuality except through the passing of time. There are fears and trials I cannot fully address until they actually materialize. Now, I’m in no rush – the future can hold on to its crow’s feet and baldness*** – but, well, patience doesn’t come naturally.

So, I’d rather not have to pretend that I have all or even most of the answers right now. What I do have is Jesus, transcendently imminent, and his assurance that he will be with me as the seconds pass like gravel or grass beneath my uncalloused feet. And, as I’ve learned in the past, I shouldn’t worry so much about the future because it distracts me from the present moment in which he is working miracles.

My goal in life is to glorify God in all that I do, not to merely be successfully chaste. Just because I’m confident the former leads to the latter in my life, and just because I am committed to working hard to develop as someone who flourishes in singleness, doesn’t make the distinction any less important.

As Eve Tushnet recently noted, an obsession with “safety first,” with expending all of one’s energy just to “not mess up,” is actually not safe at all: it misses the heart of the gospel and can ultimately undermine the very goals toward which one is striving.****

This strikes me as profoundly true. Ascesis is a risky path sometimes, and I am grateful for the reminder of where my priorities must stand, where my eyes must be fixed, in order to move forward with purpose and joy even as the future continues to stubbornly resist the desired clarity.

_______________

* It is worth noting that when I first wrote this two years ago I was primarily dealing with suspicion and anger from more conservative Christians who thought my refusal to try and become straight spelled doom for my future (eternity counted as part of said future, of course). Over the last year, however, burning condescension from more progressive types has definitely entered itself into the “things-that make-me-most-tired” competition, even as I understand where it’s coming from and am less upset by it than the utterly damaging beliefs of some conservative Christians.

** Assuming the mystical vortex doesn’t show up and I die while gloriously sacrificing myself to save the world from the sinister Arch-Mage.

*** The future is coming way too quickly, guys.

**** Pre-order her book! It’s going to be AMAZING.

[The block print at the top is by Yoshida Hiroshi]

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I Guest-Wrote For Registered Runaway…

…and you can check it out here.

RR was kind enough to ask me to share a bit of my story on his blog as well as give some advice to those who may still be closeted/wrestling with what it means to be something other than straight.

Spoilers: Coming out is primarily about committing to integrity and honesty in community with others, and Godzilla would make a terrible avatar for sanity and equilibrium.

If you haven’t read RR’s stuff before, brace yourself for some hard-hitting storytelling. One of my favorite things he’s ever written was also one of the first: “Forgive Them, Father.”

Once again in case you’re just playing hard to get (you coy devil, you), here’s the link.

I should hopefully have some new stuff up here next week. Until then, peace.

Matt

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Going Public, Part 2

The first post in this series briefly explained some of the potential dangers and pitfalls of writing openly about that bewildering intersection of my faith and homosexuality. I’m here again, so apparently I did a terrible job of dissuading myself.

This post will focus on a few of the reasons why I believe the good that can come from being fully “out” overwhelms any fears or negative responses, and compels me toward a life of openness.

So.

Pros: On a personal level, not having to cover up my sexuality is a blessing. Or, stated more profoundly, not having to hide the full breadth of the grace of God in my life is tremendously freeing. If my testimony is the story of how I have come to know God more intimately and powerfully, then integral to that witness is his process of bringing an intensely confused and hurting son of his from the depths of denial about his sexuality to a place where he feels increasingly reconciled to himself, where he is surrounded by friends and mentors who form a rich community of laughter and rest, and where he can say – and this is no small thing – that he knows he is loved and that he knows he is worthy of love.

Having to omit the agonizingly slow (and still continuing) journey toward understanding what it means to be attracted to men diminishes the gospel of my life because I have fallen more in love with God in the crazy, messy midst of it all. And it leaves me with the chore of trying to convince listeners that the cause of my (now-mostly-resolved) perpetual anxiety, crippling fear of rejection, general lack of trust, self-loathing, and throwing-journals-at-pictures-of-Jesus-hugging-people tendencies was just “daddy problems” or playing too much Pokémon as a kid (like such a thing is even possible).

So, for myself, it’s a healthy move. But I think the more important reason is that coming out can contribute to the well-being and mission of the Church.

A major weakness of American (conservative) Christianity has been the tendency to respond to LGBTQ people and their stories with bloodless dogma. LGBTQ people are often kept at a distance, which I guess is what makes it so easy for some Christians to fire away with their sniper rifles of “truth-telling.” So long as there is distance, beliefs can remain undisturbed and comfortable.

But I want those Christians to know that I brush legs with them as I slide into the row. I shake their hand or hug them as we pass the peace of Christ. I share the communion cup and broken bread. We are one body.

There is no distance.

Contrary to common pulpit rhetoric, there is no LGBTQ “they.” If I want the American Church to come to its senses and realize that this isn’t something that is “out there,” I should stand up. And if I want the American Church to understand that if it focuses primarily on espousing ideologies and abstract generalizations it will damage and drive away the very real and very vulnerable people sitting in its pews, I should speak up. The fear that kept me rooted to my seat and tight-lipped prevented me from fully caring for my brothers and sisters. I simply cannot be passive anymore.

Churches move slowly, but my physical presence makes it harder for them to drag their feet or speak brashly. At my own church the fallout from my testimony, which wasn’t pretty, ultimately resulted in the elder board getting together and hashing out what they actually believed about sexuality and how they should respond to gay people in their congregationa very good thing. That experience, as painful as it was, is when I became convinced that I needed to stop being closeted.

Because this isn’t just about me. There are still countless men and women whose knuckles turn white when the pastor mentions homosexuality because, suddenly, he’s talking about them, who feel like they are walking this path alone and are haunted by anxiety that someone may discover their secret. I know they are there because I’ve been one of them.

I remember the incredible relief I felt when I found books or blogs written by people who shared that piece of my story, and it is a privilege to be a part of someone else’s journey toward wholeness.

I want them to know peace. And the only way they will know that peace is if their church body becomes a community of grace dedicated to loving them and listening to them, understanding that the life ahead of them will certainly not always be easy, and committing to be there for them each step of the way.

This is what the Church should always be for everyone – and I’ve found being out gives me the blessed opportunity to remind it of this calling.

And, lastly, living out of the closet as a celibate, gay Christian gives me the opportunity to speak to a world that has lost its mind when it comes to sex and relationships. The culture at large (including the Church) has drunk deep the lie that sexual activity is essential to being human and that true joy or flourishing are impossible to find outside of a romantic relationship. My existence, the fact that I’m more passionate and excited about life than I’ve ever been without being “gifted” for celibacy (just… just trust me on that), stands as a modest counterpoint to an off-balance world.

Now, I’m young – young enough to barely remember those dark years when shoulder-pads were “fashionable” – so I have plenty of time to fulfill the expectations of many and dissolve into a prudish heap of ash because of my sad and sexless life; but I don’t think that will happen.

Because as I stand up and speak out, reminding the Church what it is called to and how it could love more fully those in and outside itself, the Church will do the same for me. I’m choosing to live openly because I love the Church too much to let it love LGBTQ people so poorly, and because I know that as I press into it I, too, will learn to love better.

And so we will all become a little bit more like Christ, together.

Matt

P.S. I do recognize that many people, due to contextual circumstances, simply cannot afford to be so open. I get that, and wish you the best – that you would be strengthened by some form of community and covered in love. This post was not meant to be an indictment of your experience in any way.

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Going Public, Part 1

If you would have asked me four years ago whether or not I’d consider writing publicly about my experience as an evangelical Christian guy who is attracted to other guys, I’m not sure what I would have done – except maybe stare at you awkwardly for ten seconds then leap into the nearest hedge and try to escape.

I had just begun to acknowledge and wrestle with the fact that I really wasn’t anywhere close to being straight, that the feelings I experienced in the pit of my stomach whenever I saw him (which felt nothing like butterflies and everything like an explosion of spastic badgers) actually meant something that I should have understood long, long before, but didn’t. But couldn’t. I was afraid and deeply ashamed.

Now, however, if you would ask me the same question I’d be all “I can’t talk to you right now, I’m busy writing publicly about my experience as an evangelical Christian guy who is attracted to other guys.”

So things have changed.

But is it for the better? Has this decision to move into the open been the right one? And, perhaps most importantly, why? Why does the internet need to be witness to my existence and growth as a gay (celibate, side-B) Christian? Is it dangerous narcissism, an exercise in humble vulnerability, or a little bit of both and a whole lot else? The point of this two-part series is to work through, briefly, the pros and cons of, well, this, of offering up a generally misunderstood part of my life to the scrutiny of the generally misunderstanding world.

Today, let’s take a look at the downside of “going public.”

Cons: Have you ever read the comments section of a widely shared article, from any perspective, about faith and homosexuality? I did once, and I was blind for a week. People can be mean, you guys, and the internet seems to encourage otherwise kind men and women to exercise their powers of self-righteous proclamation, sarcastic name-calling, and ignorant assumption-making.

What is more, writing under my real name (I’ve previously done some pseudonymous stuff) invites such attitudes to creep out of my computer screen and confront me in the flesh. Now, I’ve had people say hurtful things about my sexuality before, but usually in the context of intentionally trying to work through theological differences. Writing publicly about this has the feeling of climbing onto the Sacrificial Altar of Unsolicited Opinions. I expect to lose some friendships. I expect to be stared at. This scares me. It’s hard to describe the unique ache of making eye contact with someone you know who finds you, ideologically and ontologically, wrong.

I know some amazing people who have been denied ministry positions or lost jobs because their sexual orientation came to light. I was once restricted from helping lead a high school Bible-study because of mine. I chose to wait until now to come out so publicly because, well, I love working with teenagers, especially orphans and street kids, and I was afraid I’d be barred from an opportunity I desperately wanted because of somebody’s baffling, entirely unfounded, and distressingly hurtful fear that because I’m gay I’m also likely to be a child molester. The first time someone implied that connection, it did something horrendous to my soul.

But perhaps the greatest danger is found within me (sort of like Alien, you know?). There’s a kind of mania that comes with writing something and putting it on the internet, and it directly threatens to undermine the very reason I came out in the first place. A central part of my decision to be honest about my sexuality is the desire to foster authenticity. To be closeted usually requires a constant and exhausting self-awareness, a meticulous and intense image-management that can only be maintained through various forms of manipulation, half-truths, and, at times, outright deception.

I found such an existence to be increasingly antithetical to my faith and thus I “stopped lying.” But the internet poses a similar problem. Suddenly, that dimming impulse to assess everything I say and how it might affect my image begins to flare up again, and “authenticity” is infected with sensationalism to increase reader interest. Writing becomes less about sharing my story so that others may be encouraged and more about others listening to my story so that I can feel affirmed. It is a rather magnificent perversion that what should be an important step toward healing and wholeness can just as quickly plunge me back into the very sins I’m running from.

Being human is crazy.

Simply acknowledging these drawbacks to coming out doesn’t really do much to minimize them. They’re just a part of my life now, and that makes this whole process a little bit scary. And yet, as I’ll talk about in part two, I think the pros outweigh the cons, the reality of redemption overwhelms the fear of rejection, and that something truly good can come from this small step into the open.

Blessings.

Matt

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A Step into the Open

The first time I came out to anybody, my hands were shaking.

I was sitting in a dark room, accompanied only by the sound of my increasingly panicked breathing, typing out the e-novella of pain and triumph, confession and terror that would change my world the instant I hit “Send.” I doubt if I have ever experienced, simultaneously, such fear or such boldness since that night.

That was four years ago.

Things are a bit different now. I am writing this in a gently sunlit room to the swirling melodies of an electronic indiepop playlist I’ve had on repeat for a few days, and I’m at rest. And the only reason my hands are unstable is that I haven’t had coffee in a while and my body would like to kindly inform me that I’m about to shrivel up and die from withdrawal. I didn’t even like coffee four years ago.

For those of you who don’t know me, I should probably introduce myself; for those of you who do know me, a little reintroduction may be helpful:

Hey. I’m Matt Jones, 23, from Portland, Oregon, which means that rain simultaneously depresses and excites me and that I’m so pale I could die naked in a snow-drift and nobody would find me until Spring. This is why I avoid Canada. Anyway. I am a Wheaton College graduate, a Fuller Seminary student, and if Hogwarts were real I’d be in Ravenclaw. I love poetry and magical realism, I’m addicted to tennis/ping-pong/badminton/soccer (Real Madrid and Manchester City), and I slightly prefer staring up from the shadows of a mountain to hiking it, but both are great ways to spend a Saturday. (For those of you from the Midwest, read this.) I’ve spent some time traveling and volunteering and would consider a Guatemalan orphanage to be my second home. I am passionate about social justice, can hardly sing, try to live out a grounded ethic of nonviolence and peacemaking, generally struggle to embody any of my own ideals of faith and life in Christ (by, in, and for whom I exist and find joy), and I’m attracted to men.

For some people, only four of those words really matter. Usually it’s not the Ravenclaw part.

The instant myopia that can result from the statement “I’m attracted to men” is one of the reasons I considered not writing this post. Wiser people than I advised me against making myself captive to the chains of people’s preconceived notions of what it means to be a guy attracted to other guys. It goes without saying that the current social climate regarding homosexuality is a little bit volatile – so why throw myself into it? Why put myself out there?

Why can’t I just be content to keep this between close friends and family? Certainly strangers don’t need to be involved, and certainly there doesn’t need to be another blog. What is, ultimately, the point?

I hope to address those questions more specifically in a separate post, but I figured it was probably a good idea to, you know, “come out” first and then discuss the pros and cons of the process, otherwise everybody would be all freaking out in suspense over how the series would end.

But before I wrap this up I guess I should probably give a brief sketch of how I understand and interact with my sexuality. So:

I’m trying in my own imperfect way to live with integrity, wisdom, and nuance. For me, this means first and foremost processing what I know to be true about myself in light of what I believe has authority over me – in my case my relationship with Christ and the Church. However, I don’t think such a hermeneutic is as one-track as some people make it out to be. Thus, although I have chosen to pursue a life of full and dynamic celibacy, I spend about as much time explaining why I think my brothers and sisters who possess and even practice an affirming theology can still be Christians as I do explaining why I’m not a self-hating homophobe. Thanks to the cultural furor, I am generally unsuccessful in both endeavors.

This isn’t something shameful for me – I don’t think my homosexuality compromises my humanity, masculinity, close relationships, or faith-witness (in fact I think it brings something beautiful to all of them), and thus I see no reason to hide it or lie about it. I can’t ignore the testimonies of a few people who claim to have made some sort of shift in their sexual orientation through “therapy,” and I don’t want to silence them or disparage their stories, but I find the practice of trying to make someone switch from “gay” to “straight” (via reparative therapy or some forms of “biblical counseling”) to be misguided and harmful in almost every conceivable way, damaging to the gospel and those involved. Therefore, I generally condemn it. If the only hope the church thinks it can offer non-straight people is the possibility of heterosexuality, then it offers no hope at all.

That said, I’m also not particularly interested in trying to construct a personality or “identity” around my sexuality. It’s an important part of my human experience and I am who I am because of it, but it’s just one strand in the web of my existence and it’s not even the most interesting one.

So, yea, that’s that. It’s a lot to process, and I realize some of you may be confused, concerned, upset, or various combinations of those (upfused, for instance), and that’s fine. I am more than happy to dialogue or whatever via email or Facebook. But it may be helpful to wait a bit, as I will continue to blog about various things that may answer some of the more common questions. Or, if you just can’t wait, you can check out a blog I wrote pseudonymously throughout the last year. I grew a lot over the months, so maybe start with the most recent material. My name was Jordan.

I hope you all are well.

Peace,

Matt

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