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Remember the LORD — Deuteronomy 8

Last week I gave this sermon in my Preaching the Old Testament class. The audio and video did not turn out well, so here is the transcript. I pray that it encourages you in your walk with God today.

Introduction

“Remember, Remember, the 5th of November, the Gunpowder Treason and Plot. I know no reason why Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot.” So goes a poem from seventeenth century England about Guy Fawkes. Guy Fawkes was a Jesuit Catholic revolutionary from France who managed, I have no idea how, to sneak three dozen barrels of gunpowder into the basement of Parliament in 1605. He planned to blow up the building the next day, while Parliament was in session, overthrowing the English government in hopes of restoring Catholic rule to England. But he got caught. And now, to this day, people in England spend November 5th burning ragdolls of Guy Fawkes and chanting this poem: “Remember, Remember, the 5th of November.” This poem reminds the English about their history, and it tells a story about their enemy, which for the English at the time was Catholics, and the French. The poem and the annual celebration gave them a sense of national unity and reminded them that they remained Protestant because God intervened in history to thwart the Gunpowder Plot. “Remember, Remember, the 5th of November.”

The English Protestants who devised this chant and holiday stand in a long tradition, going back to the Exodus, of God’s people calling upon themselves to remember God’s action in history. To remember God’s faithfulness to them. Like the English remembering Guy Fawkes, Israel remembering the Exodus served to tell a story about the faithfulness of God, about what it means to be “one of us,” and about their national purpose. For our text in Deuteronomy 8, remembering the LORD is crucial. Moses stands before the people of Israel and exhorts them to Obey the LORD, and to Remember what the LORD has done for them. Our Big Idea is this: How can I obey the LORD? By remembering what he has done before. We will focus on that remembrance, and by the end see that Moses’s teaching in Deuteronomy 8 has not become an outdated, “Old” Testament teaching, destined to fade like dust in the wind. Rather, it has become only more relevant as time has gone by. As Christians, remembering God’s gift to us in Jesus Christ leads us to obey God in hope. In Christ we have received the most crucial gift to remember. We will get to Jesus, but it will take first dwelling on Moses’s message to Israel, his call to remember hard times past. Like Israel, we must tell our stories with attention to God’s faithfulness throughout. Then, we will learn to avoid a certain trap, of forgetting God when times of plenty come. When we remember God in hard times and in good times it sends a message about God and his faithfulness. Ultimately, as the passage both begins and ends, our remembrance should lead us to obedience. 

Transition: Before our First point, let us pray to ask for God’s presence and direction. <Pray>.

1. Remember God’s Provision in Hard Times

Our First point today is to Remember God’s provision in hard times. Our passage is from Deuteronomy, which takes place as a sermon from the plains of Moab. The people of Israel stand just outside the Promised Land, looking in. Moses exhorts them to decide: entering into this land, will you obey the LORD or forsake him? This setting in Moab is crucial to Deuteronomy. They are not already in the land, and they are not still far from the land, but they are perched right upon it. One commentator says that the plains of Moab are “not only salvation history, but an exposition of the way of salvation in the present and the future.” Sure, Moab was a moment in the past. But for the people of Israel who in generations later would hear Deuteronomy, Moab was also a position they always found themselves in. Perched on the cusp of blessing, will they remember God and obey? Or will they forget God and fall away? Moab is both a place — some random set of fields and hills and valleys, of course — but it also functions as a special place, a place of decision. Verse one is about this decision: “All the commands which I have commanded you today, be careful to observe, so that you will live and multiply and enter and possess the land which I the LORD swore to your forefathers.”

The people are about to finish their wilderness wandering. This wilderness journey was difficult. Desert heat scorched the land, burning away comfort and ease. As wandering nomads, they had no place to call home. And they were placed in this position precisely because the people needed to have their pride broken. The wilderness generation did not trust God, not really. During the Exodus they had witnessed the most amazing miracles, only to become convinced later that they could not enter the promised land because of the giants that dwelled there. We will not turn there now, but in Numbers 14 God curses this generation to die in the wilderness because they did not trust that God could clear away those giants. All along the way God was testing them: will they obey, despite impossible circumstances? Look at verse 2-3. “2 Remember the entirety of the way which the LORD your God caused you to walk these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, to test you, to know if your heart can keep the commands or not. 3 And he humbled you, by causing you to hunger and then feeding you manna which you did not know and your forefathers did not know, so that man does not live on bread alone, but by all that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”

Manna represents the unstorable provision of God. You get it, and you have to depend on it, because it fades away each night. The LORD provided for them day after day. The LORD also provides for us day after day. Jesus picks up this theme in the Sermon on the Mount. He says in Matthew 6,  “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” In his temptation, he also quoted verse 3 of our passage. “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus can pick up this point 1200 years later because our God never changes. His faithfulness to one generation is not based on their faithfulness, but his own eternal love and generosity. God teaches us, instructs us, guides us, as verse 5-6 says. “5 Know in your heart that just as a man instructs his son, the LORD your God instructs you. 6 Keep the commands of the LORD your God. Walk in his ways. Fear him.” In their wilderness wanderings Israel was instructed to depend on and trust in God. So, verse 6 says, obey. Standing in the plains of Moab, in the place of decision, Moses reminds his people to remember that God provided for them in difficult times. 

Quickly as I can, I will tell a personal story about God providing for me in a difficult time. Two years ago I lost a former youth ministry student to suicide. He was 17. Losing him was excruciating, and along with other events at the time — I do not have time for those stories now — I fell into a deep depression. Randomly and spontaneously, I had an idea that may redeem some of this pain. I would go to a training program in suicide intervention so that I could be better prepared should anything like this happen again. But the nearest training was seven hours away in Iowa City. Against any reasonable calculation I decided to go. Leaving Chicago in my Hyundai Sonata, my chariot of fire, I drove through city traffic and then corn, corn, corn, before arriving. The weekend was long and difficult. Two instructors trained us in the program’s suicide intervention model, and we role-played situations where we had to intervene. I was reminded every minute of my student’s death. After the weekend ended I drove home, feeling equipped to help someone when they needed it most. Little did I know that it would be me. A new crisis emerged in my life that same month which drove me to suicide. The practical safety skills I learned in the program saved my life. Later on I wondered why I survived. What prompted me to go to this far-flung suicide intervention program? Only in retrospect could I see that God by his providential hand had directed me to attend that program because I would later need it. When everything else continued to fall apart, I could not shake that thought. God had been faithful to me. At the exact time and in the exact way I needed help, God provided.

This, I think, is the kind of thinking Moses uses in Deuteronomy 8. Remember those days of hardship, wandering in the wilderness? Remember how God was faithful to our people then? Never forget God’s faithfulness. He cares for us in our darkest hour, and he provides for us out of his abundant love. We can and should use that same type of thinking about our own stories today. Always remember when God has met you in your time of need.

Transition: In our Second point, the situation has been reversed. No longer in times of want, we see that the advice remains the same! Remember God’s provision, even in plentiful times.

2. Remember God’s Provision in Plentiful Times

Israel is about to enter the promised land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Even having a stable land, a homeland rather than wandering around as nomads, would be good news. But God in his gracious provision is going to give them a land of abundance and excess. Our passage in Deuteronomy now bursts into poetry to describe these plentiful times. The poetic verse in 7-10 would have evoked beauty and hope for a people weary after decades wandering through the desert. “7 For the LORD your God is bringing you to a good land, a land of brooks, springs of water, deep springs flowing out into the valleys and hills. 8 A land of wheat and barley, vines, trees, pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey. 9 A land without scarcity, you can eat bread without lacking anything, a land whose stones are iron and whose mountains you can dig for copper. 10 And you will eat and be full, and bless the LORD your God for the good land he has given you.” Things will be good! But as Moses will soon teach us, these good times contain the seed of their own undoing. When God provides for his people, they grow confident in what they have, and then abandon God, which will lead to their destruction.

We are tempted in our lives in the late Modern West to do what Moses warns against. Many in our secularized society think that they don’t really need God, that God can be a nice add-on for some, but God is not necessary. We can go about our days and enjoy ordinary lives with our friends and families. What this ignores is that we can only do this because of the enormous material prosperity brought about by our social conditions, which God has orchestrated by his providential hand. Send famine and war, crushing labor and incurable disease, sectarian violence and natural disasters, and maybe we will see the truth. The “just enjoy our ordinary lives with friends and family” mindset is only possible because God has made it possible. Hear the Word of the LORD from Deuteronomy 8:11: “11 Be careful, lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I command you today.” In good times we must remember his provision. Our text uses an image of abundance to get this point across. Verse 12 and following. “12 Lest you eat and be full, and build and dwell in good houses, 13 And your cattle and flocks multiply, and your silver and gold multiply, and all which is yours multiplies, 14 and you puff up your hearts, and forget the LORD your God.” Multiply, multiply, multiply. Everything multiplies, and in the process you forget the true source and sustainer of this growth. This has applications in our personal lives, when we think about our finances and our households. Success in these areas should never lead us to view ourselves higher than others. Everything we have comes from God. It also has applications in our church. Being a healthy and stable church, and more to the point, one that remembers its dependence on the LORD, is more important than whether or not we grow into the biggest megachurch in the area. “Church Growth,” as important as spreading the gospel is, should never lead us to view ourselves as “successes” and others as “failures.” “Neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who makes things grow.”

Just as verses 7-8 burst into poetry to describe the beauty of the promised land, verses 14b-16 also burst into poetry when describing the LORD God of Israel. “Do not forget the LORD your God who brought you from the land of Egypt, the house of slavery. 15 who brought you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with venomous serpents and scorpions, a dry place without water. He made water come out of a flint rock, 16 and fed you manna in the wilderness, which your ancestors had never known, to humble you, to test you, and to do good to you in the end.” Here again, as before, Moses recites the story of God leading Israel during the Exodus. Before, Moses needed to remind them of God’s care in their difficult time. But now, he says, even though times are looking up, we still need to remember the LORD. We know from Israel’s history that this did not go according to plan. They would remember the LORD for a time. But every few decades a new generation would grow up, accustomed to the prosperity they had on account of their grandparents’ faithfulness to the LORD, and turn away. Rags to riches and back to rags in three generations, as an old saying puts it. Eventually they would go so far as to defile the Holy of Holies in the Temple with idols to foreign gods, and the LORD destroyed the nation and banished them from the promised land, sparing only a few to rebuild and restore. 

The poetic outburst in verses 14-16 is so long that verse 17 actually picks up where the sentence in 14a left off: “Do not forget the LORD… and say to yourself, by my might and power.” In this long outburst, as Moses retells the history of Israel, notice that the one responsible for every line is not Moses himself. Is not Israel herself. No, it is the LORD God in particular. God himself and God himself alone is the one to whom we give thanks and on whom we depend.

Transition: In our Third point, we see what this remembrance and dependence will achieve. If we will remember God and depend on him, it will confirm and exalt his faithfulness today.

3. Remember God to Confirm and Exalt His Faithfulness Today

Look back at the passage. Moses does an internal dialogue in verses 17-18. “17 Do not say to yourself, my power and the might of my hand have made this wealth for me. 18 Remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power for strength, so that this will confirm the covenant which he swore to your forefathers, even as today.” These two verses are like the psalmist in Psalm 42 who exhorts himself to put his trust in the LORD. “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” Moses gives a scenario where we say to ourselves, by our power and might we have done these things. We must dismiss this voice whenever it comes up. We must listen only to the voice inside that reminds us of God’s faithful provision.

We also see in this verse that Moses connects Remembering and depending on God, with God’s covenant faithfulness. God has freely decided to bind himself to one man, Abraham, and his offspring. God is not faithful to just anyone, but always to those whom he has given his Word. In Genesis, God swore to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to protect their descendants, multiply them, and save them from destruction. So God cannot allow Israel to die in the wilderness. He is faithful to his promises. Now, if Israel were to credit entering the promised land to their own strength, then the promises of God would appear to mean nothing. But because Israel must always attribute their possession of the promised land to God, they make it clear to all that God has been faithful and kept his Word.

Moses also included a small phrase here, “even as today.” This means that, yes, God’s covenant promises were confirmed originally to Abraham in his own life by the miraculous conception of Isaac. But also, as time goes on and God continues to be faithful, God confirms the covenant promises again and again. This is true for the Israelites about to enter the promised land, but Moses could not have imagined how much more true this would become in the future. The more that time marches on, the more God has acted in the world to confirm his covenant faithfulness. This has never been more true than in Jesus Christ, who is God’s greatest and definitive confirmation of his own faithfulness. Because God was faithful to send his own Son into the world, who suffered and died to redeem the world, we can trust God’s promises with even greater clarity and certainty. God then took Jesus, who is both true uncreated God and true created Human, and resurrected at once and together his Divine and Human natures. On that day the disciples received a foretaste of what remains to come. On the last day, we will all witness the grand marriage and reunion of God with All Creation. God will reconcile all things to himself. God had promised Abraham to show covenant faithfulness to his descendants, and through them, all other tribes. But in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus we see that God had a more ambitious plan. In Christ, God began to reconcile all things to himself, as 2 Corinthians 5:19 tells us.

He has also given us this ministry of reconciliation and empowered us by his Spirit to proclaim to all people God’s faithfulness, forgiveness, and power to restore. We then make God’s covenant faithfulness crystal clear to the world by proclaiming that God is good, that he provides in all things, that we can trust him, in good times and in bad times. As long as the day is called “Today,” to borrow the words of the author of Hebrews, we can trust him. Through him we already have the renewal and reconciliation that will come to all things one day. You can have that now. You can have him now. Believe him, trust him, remember him, proclaim him as supreme in your entire life. Jesus himself is the ultimate gift of God. He is the true and better Isaac, the one miraculously born to continue the covenant line. He is the true and better Moses, representing the people to God and leading them into salvation and abundance. He is the ultimate ground of any success we may have in this momentary and fleeting life. We forget him to our peril and to our shame. We must remember and depend on God. By doing so, we make his faithfulness clear and paramount in our lives. 

Transition: As we conclude, we need to circle back to the beginning and the end. 

Conclusion

You may have noticed earlier that we skimmed over verse 1. That is because verses 1 and 19-20 are like bookends for this passage. Moses has talked at length in verses 2-18 about remembering the LORD, never forgetting what he has done, who he is, and his covenant faithfulness. But the passage began, and now will end, with an exhortation to obedience. What’s the point of remembering? See verse 1: “All the commands which I have commanded you today, be careful to observe, so that you will live and multiply and enter and possess the land which I the LORD swore to your forefathers.” That’s the positive way to put it. Here at the end of our text, Moses gives us the same exhortation to obedience, but put negatively. “19 If you at all forget the LORD your God, and go after other gods and serve them, and bow down to them, I warn you today of your assured destruction. 20 As the nations which the LORD will destroy before you, so he will destroy you because you did not obey the voice of the LORD your God.” This is a warning to the future people of God who will receive this text. We must remember the LORD so that we are in a position of trust and dependency, and therefore, we can obey him. As people created by God, we cannot exceed the limits he has placed on us. As a church community devoted to God, we cannot ignore his difficult commands. As those who Christ is preparing to participate in the coming reconciliation of all things, we must obey the voice of our redeemer and Lord. How can I obey the LORD? We must Remember him in times of scarcity and times of plenty, telling of his faithfulness and care in our own lives, in the life of our community, and in the life of the world through the gift of Jesus Christ. Do this, and he will teach us to trust him. He will cause us to rejoice in his gifts. In so doing, he will train us to obey his commands. Let’s pray.

Discussion on Bostock

Here was my Facebook status on Bostock v. Clayton County, and some discussion from the comments.

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Good decision from Gorsuch. His legal argument is sound.

Keep in mind that none of the three cases claimed religious exemption. (One did in lower court, but later dropped that claim). So this decision does not impact religious organizations as the evangelical fearmongerers told us it would.

On the narrower religious exemption question, we desperately need new, clarifying legislation. Many orgs fall between “religious” and secular, like Christian colleges that are associated with, but not owned by, a denomination. Christian colleges receive billions of dollars annually from the federal government in student aid, but discriminate against a now-protected group. Colleges that discriminate on the basis of race are banned from federal funding, even if they have deeply held racist religious beliefs (see Bob Jones University). So the precedent is set to ban funding on the legally similar basis of sex. If exemptions are denied.

Additionally, many positions within orgs fall between “religious” and secular, like the math teacher at a Christian private high school, or the accountant at a church. These positions could be considered secular functions, but that does not matter. If the organization is religious, its hiring decisions are an extension of their 1A protected speech. (As Hosanna-Tabor (2012) and Presiding Bishop (1987) have already held).

I’m not sure the best path forward. Religious orgs cannot be forced to hire ministers or minister-adjacent staff who disagree with their deeply held religious beliefs. On the other hand, the bare fact of sexual orientation, apart from the decision to marry, is not a choice. Nobody should be able to discriminate on the basis of orientation alone. It seems as unchosen as race, and therefore discrimination on orientation seems as immoral as on race.

For example, I was discriminated against (denied employment) on the basis of orientation, even though I agreed with the religious org’s statement of faith on marriage and sexuality, and was not seeking same-sex marriage. That discrimination is clearly wrong. They broke their own rules. I did not choose my orientation, but to the extent that I can choose to follow the org’s rules, I did, yet they used my orientation to discriminate against me. I want that to be illegal, religious exemption or not. But what legal standard would outlaw that discrimination, without treading on religious freedom to discriminate on gay marriage? I don’t think there is a legally sound standard. My compromise position isn’t possible.

The only solution I can see would retain religious orgs’ right to discriminate on basis of sexual orientation, period. Then, we the people pressure them to adopt anti-discrimination standards internally which guarantee equal hiring on the basis of mere orientation. However, that would likely only work for a slim minority of religious orgs. I am not optimistic about widespread acceptance, or even recognition, of celibate gay people. But I don’t think the state, whether courts or Congress, has grounds to impose this. As expansively as Title VII is written, the First Amendment is more, and Constitutional.

Regardless of how the dust settles on the narrow question of religious exemptions, the main question of Title VII discrimination has been decided rightly by the court. The fight against discrimination “on the basis of sex” won a major battle today.

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A friend said, “Beautifully said. I don’t see a good legal path either, although I have not thought about this in as much detail as you have. One would hope that, as Plato said, in a good society we would need fewer laws. Can we expect those religious communities who discriminate now to become good without legal force? Sadly, it is part of the “no compromise” identity they have forged for themselves with respect to sex and gender. (Why the hell are Evangelicals so obsessed with sex, anyway?) I hope your efforts to bring change from within bear fruit.”

To which I replied, “”it is part of the “no compromise” identity they have forged for themselves with respect to sex and gender” Exactly. The evangelical impulse post-Obergefell has been reactionary over-correction driven by fear. Anything that resembles the out-group must be condemned. When you encounter slippery slope arguments at every turn, it is a feature, not a bug. Entire denominations are in cold war over using the word “gay” or over (this is a quote) “adopting a homosexual self-conception.” They are using these far lesser questions to acid test for evangelical purity, and as proxies for the real debate over same-sex marriage. This has led to considerable damage among gay Christians, as nobody likes to be used as a political football. These pastors and thought leaders are people who engage in what I call “competitive homophobia,” where the most egregious displays of anti-gay prejudice earn greater credibility and in-group purity. Dynamics like these make it impossible for institutions to do what I described. (If my university were to adopt anti-discrimination rules for celibate gay Christians, they would be flooded with press about “going left” and “abandoning evangelical faithfulness” even though they would have done neither.)”

To his other question, I said “”Why the hell are Evangelicals so obsessed with sex, anyway?” is a great question, one that I’ve asked since reading Samuel Perry’s book Addicted to Lust earlier this year. He calls it “Sexual Exceptionalism” but unfortunately I left the book in university storage for the summer, so I don’t have much more than that…”

To which that same friend said, “It’s an oversimplification, but generally speaking when an organization loses a positive sense of who it is and no longer trusts its own values, its best option is to scapegoat and find blame outside of itself. Instead of saying this is who we are and what we stand for because these values are good, they define themselves by who they reject.I have also lived through the dramatic politicization of evangelicals, beginning in the 80s. I don’t think that is always a bad thing, but they have been manipulated and co-opted by cynical politicians for decades. David Koh, GW Bush’s first director of the office for faith-based initiatives, I believe it was called, wrote a book before he died describing his chagrin at the way Karl Rove and others cynically used him and the office for their own political ends. Just one example, but a very prominent one. … Competitive homophobia. Captures a lot, sadly.”

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Another friend said, “Sorry Ross, but if you are willing to follow a religious organization’s statement of faith, and they still discriminate against you, maybe you should be looking at better organizations who know a good candidate when they see one. That’s just lousy. Dust your sandals off friend.”

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Someone asked my opinion on the Alito dissent, to which I said, “I don’t see how an employer can discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation without knowing their sex. Knowing that someone is gay requires knowing that they are attracted to a sex which is their own sex, and that requires knowing their sex. Similarly, to discriminate on transgender status requires the employer to first know the person’s sex assigned at birth. He also focuses heavily on the meaning of the word “sex” in 1964, even attaching 7 pages of dictionary definitions (55-62). But I don’t think it matters what “sex” means. Gorsuch says it doesn’t matter per se what the meaning of “sex” is, “but what Title VII says about it.” Since orientation discrimination requires sex discrimination, Title VII applies, without defining the meaning of the text…”

I continued, “Adam Winkler on twitter was less generous with Alito. He said, “Alito says that “sex” must be defined exactly the way that lawmakers understood that term in 1964. I’m skeptical he’ll apply that same rule to defining what counts as “arms” when reading the Second Amendment.” That is the issue, strict textualism applies when it helps conservative causes and doesn’t when it doesn’t. Usually they align, but in a case where the textualist approach conflicts with the conservative outcome, the justices have to choose method (Gorsuch, Roberts) or outcome (Alito, Thomas, Kavanaugh)… FWIW, I thought Kavanaugh’s dissent was much better than Alito’s in writing and in substance, but also missed the point. Gorsuch wasn’t disagreeing that the meaning of “sex” in 1964 meant biological sex itself. So while Kavanaugh’s hermentutics were nice (and would be great to see Christians use when interpreting Scripture…) it did not matter.”

To which my friend replied, “Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I do think both Alito and Kavanaugh raise one very strong point, in that Congress has been trying to pass bills that would prohibit employer discrimination on the basis of ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity’ many times in recent years. That would suggest that Congress doesn’t even think they are included in Title VII. That’s the main issue I have with the decision – not the outcome itself, but that it appears the court updated a law instead of Congress.” And in a second comment, “Also, I forgot to say earlier, thanks for raising those questions about religious and semi-religious organizations! I think there will be a lot of confusion in those areas over the next few years.” A few other friends said the same thing, they had not considered the ambiguity over who gets religious exemptions.

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A different friend said, “So I have a question that I feel I might as well shoot in your direction: do you think this kind of decision oversteps the judicial rights of the Supreme court? I just wonder if this is an ok precedent to set, even if it does benefit the lives of LGBTQ individuals.”

To which I responded, “I don’t think so. If “legislating from the bench” is the problem, SCOTUS has been doing that for decades. Nothing new to see here. Just a consistent application of that practice. But I don’t see this as legislating from the bench. Gorsuch went out of his way not to construe the definition of sexual orientation or transgender status as including sex, but instead to say that discrimination on that basis requires discrimination on sex. There is no scenario in which someone can discriminate on the basis of orientation/trans and not simultaneously also be discriminating on the basis of sex. If he made the redefining words argument, it would be legislating from the bench, but as he wrote the Opinion, he is just doing regular legal interpretation.”

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Finally, a friend asked me if I’m going to publish a book, on anything, to which I responded, “Tim Keller says not to publish until you turn 40…”

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My lead photo is a tree near chapel on campus last October.