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Message from the Heart

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All day last Wednesday, I felt a tightness and an ache in my chest every time I inhaled. It took about eight hours of chest pains for me to text my doctor friend and ask her if needed to do something. Her answer was yes, which led to a few hours in the ER and a battery of tests. In the meantime, I typed and planned and did my thing with my MacBook:

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Then they gave me a prescription dose of Tylenol and diagnosed me with muscle pain and sent me home. 

All this brings me to Jesus Calling: Devotions for Every Day of the Year by Sarah Young. 

I have a hard time with prayer. And getting myself to church, to be honest. Last fall, I recently joined the choir at our new church in St. Louis in large part because I needed to sing and be part of the service to show up. Sometimes I still don’t show up. At the same time, I’m an emotional, spiritual person for whom there are moments when I feel God’s presence so closely that I tear up and I can’t explain why. I tend to believe that it’s grace, and not weakness, that moves me to tears at random moments of my life. We think by feeling, my favorite poem reads. 

With all my feelings, I have mixed feelings about the Catholic liturgy through which I worship every week. The repetition and the deep traditions are affirming, grounding, comforting… But they can have the effect of dulling the senses, for me. 

The unique quality of this devotional is that it mixes scripture with the firm, loving, generous voice of Jesus as author Sarah Young imagines Jesus would speak to us. This approach goes a long way to strengthen my prayer life, helping me to break through the silence that I sometimes feel on the opposite end of my petitions. 

It seems to be a universal experience that has something to do with free will: the reality that God — the least controlling, nagging teacher — chooses to speak to us through the quiet, persistent voice of our own conscience and inner moral compass. Right now my husband Padraic is reading Silence (recently turned into a movie), about how Spanish priests grappled with their perceived silence of God in an inhospitable, persecutory Japan. 

So the silence is universal, and perhaps, meaningful; but it’s also worthwhile, as Jesus Calling does for me, to imagine the voice on the other side. I especially connected to this reading from April 1st about “not making an idol of your to-do list.” This is something I consistently do, separating me in some, gradual, corrosive way, from the people I love and the God who loves me so much more than I can imagine: 

I am calling you to a life of constant communion with me. Basic training includes learning to live above your circumstances, even while interacting on that cluttered plane of life. You yearn for a simplified lifestyle, so that your communication with Me can be uninterrupted. But I challenge you to relinquish the fantasy of an uncluttered world. Accept each day just as it comes, and find Me in the midst of it all.

Talk with Me about every aspect of your day, including your feelings. Remember that your ultimate goal is not to control or fix everything around you; it is to keep communing with Me. A successful day is one in which you have stayed in touch with Me, even if many things remain undone at the end of the day. Do not let your to-do list (written or mental) become an idol directing your life. Instead, ask My Spirit to guide you moment by moment. He will keep you close to me.

— 1 Thessalonians 5:17; Proverbs 3:6

How do you break the silence?

New Dance Horizons

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I snagged a ticket to “New Dance Horizons” at The Touhill a few weeks ago through my friend, Saundra. (Thanks, Saundra!) 

It was a pleasant surprise that several of my students were dancing before the show and during intermission, performing a piece called “The Bus” (or “On The Bus?”) which commented on racism and resilience. I have an image in my mind of the end of the piece, in which my student, Chastity leaned into the standing audience, doing repetitive hip rolls (?) in a clump of young dancers, with a determined, calm gaze in her eyes that made her stand out to me. Or when Tobias jumped confidently and eloquently in bare feet, coaxing a younger, little girl member of the dance troupe to perform for him. Or when Eleanor, a compassionate and sophisticated young white teen, vigorously danced the part of the driver of the segregated bus… They were all costumed in white collared button down t-shirts and navy skirts and pants, (excepting Eleanor’s driver’s cap) which to me, conjured the daily grind, the working class, the to and fro jostle of showing up ready and on-time in a world that wears a harsh and hostile face. 

This intimate, full-force performance was an inspiring prelude to three world premiere dances organized around the theme, “Women Who Inspire.” 

The first piece, by Saint Louis Ballet, was a painterly, spiritual, at once visually calming and stunning tribute to the music of Hildegard of Bingen, a “12th-Century German Benedictine abbess and mystic… who composed an entire corpus of sacred music…” The dancers wore variously saturated flesh tones that felt like the gradations of light in a Renaissance painting.

The image that sticks with me is a line of three (?) male/female partners, with the delicate and emotive ballerina balanced by her male partner as she pirouetted, developéd, and contracted in a syncopated rhythm that felt reverent and prayerful. (Hmm… I wonder how a non-religious person would interpret this piece…)

The second piece by Madco, “Art Is a Guarantee of Sanity,” was inspired by Susannah Cahalan, the author of “Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness,” who suffered psychotic episodes, among other things, as a result of the disease, Anti-NMDA-Receptor Autoimmune Encephalitis. 

The piece was incredible, and very painful for me to watch. It was so riveting, though, I couldn’t look away — in large part, out of plain admiration for the dancers’ athleticism and emotional commitment in the midst of something so physically demanding.

As a drone-like, bluish light buzzed over a dancer hinging, un-hinged-like, to the rhythm of her own loud, anguished exhales, I was struck by a dancer’s ability to express the inner turmoil of a brain so eloquently through the body, through the timing of a breath, the tilt of a walk, and most hauntingly, through intervals of graceful, almost balletic, zombie-esque seated arm movements that convey the numbing effect of high-wattage medication. 

The last piece, by The Big Muddy Dance Company, was called Destino, Roto. Choreographer Stephanie Martinez writes that she was inspired by “many people,” including “the Latino cultural influence my family brings to my life” and texts by poet Gabriela Mistral. It seemed to be the most narrative of the three pieces, and it leaned on a lot of theatrical elements: fire engine red high heels, the Mistral recordings, costume changes… I honestly found it a little confusing, but I’m eager to see more of The Big Muddy.

Just yesterday, one of my creative writing students, Ana, who is also taking dance composition, was exploding with enthusiasm over her ability to create precise formations using Google Slide. Cracks me up — the day before spring break. She’s a kick-ass dancer with blue hair and curves who happens to be a an awesome writer as well.

I was showing my class the movie Dancemaker, about Paul Taylor (she had already seen it) with a list of reflection questions about the creative process for dance/the performing arts versus the creative process for writing. I noticed she was engrossed in her chromebook during the final scene, when Taylor’s company performs a world premiere of a new piece about the transient, exploitative nature of many adult romantic relationships. “Ana!” I called out. “I never get sick of watching this… Can you?” “Eh,” she replied, “It’s kind of formulaic. You know, Mrs. O’Donnell, every dance has a formula.”

I nodded and smiled… What should I have said?? 

Handmaid’s Tale Project

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Last year my students read The Handmaid’s Tale in American Lit. I’m reworking my unit this year to really emphasize the relationship between Atwood’s dystopian world and real-word political, religious, and human rights issues throughout history and in contemporary societies. It’s easy to get caught up in the strangeness of the story itself — but Atwood is directing her story toward real issues we face. We read The Handmaid’s Tale following The Crucible, so it makes for an interesting transition regarding themes of women and power and the impact of religion on politics. With increased access to chromebooks in my classroom this year, I’m hoping that this final project — a PowerPoint (or Google Slide) presentation will give my students a chance to practice real-world skills and conduct meaningful research.

Final Project, The Handmaid’s Tale

  • Goal: Connect the surreal, dystopian world of Gilead to real issues faced by individuals and societies today or in the past.
  • Role: American Lit teacher.
  • Audience: Members of your American Lit class.
  • Situation: An opportunity to share the world of The Handmaid’s Taleand more importantly, its emphasis on satire and social commentary, with your class
  • Product: An interactive PowerPoint (or Google Slide) presentation that you will present in a five minute presentation

Process

Pick one of “Atwood’s Targets” (satire & social commentary points) to focus on:

  • “Rapid change into extraordinary brutality from an apparently civilized society”
  • A superficial and misleading focus on “family values” in oppressive societies
  • A focus on indoctrinating the young in repressive regimes
  • To oppress groups, oppressive leaders first dehumanize them
  • Books and literacy were seen as threats in oppressive societies
  • Oppression of women — e.g., requirements to be fully covered, limitations on their education
  • Objectification of women, women = their bodies, women’s bodies are their most important asset
  • Government through fear — brutal punishments to intimidate the population
  • Rigid gender roles — each gender serves a specific, prescribed function in society
  • The evils of slavery

Review your copy of The Handmaid’s Tale and find two instances of this “target” being examined, explored, satirized 

Research governments or religions that contain elements of oppression or face human rights challenges (either historical or contemporary) and take notes on how this government or religion exhibits your chosen “target.” Check out these resources to get a feel for the types of sources you should be consulting:

 Review these resources for how to create a high quality, interactive PowerPoint. 

Review PowerPoint or Google Slide software so you know what you’re doing, tech-wise. 

Create your PowerPoint (or Google Slide) presentation connecting your research to The Handmaid’s Tale. Cite your sources. 

Script the verbal part of your presentation and rehearse. 

RUBRIC
Total Possible Points =160

Criteria A – 36-40 pts B – 32-35 pts C – 28-31 pts D – 24-27 pts F – 23 pts or below

Explanation of Ideas & Information

Regularly builds in audience interaction

Presents information, findings, arguments, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically, audience can easily follow the line of reasoning

 

Does not read off the slide and is well-rehearsed but not scripted in delivery

 

Conveys passion for ideas and show

Builds in audience interaction at some points

Mostly presents information, findings, arguments, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically, audience can follow the line of reasoning

 

Does not read off the slide and is rehearsed in delivery

 

Conveys passion for ideas and show

 

Rarely builds in audience interaction

May not present information, findings, arguments, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically, but audience can generally follow the line of reasoning

Mostly does not read off the slide and is mostly rehearsed in delivery

 

Conveys some passion for ideas and show

Does not build in audience interaction

 

Presents information, findings, arguments, and supporting evidence in a way that is confusing and/or incoherent; audience struggles to follow the line of reasoning

May read off the slide frequently; delivery is unrehearsed or overly scripted

 

Conveys minimal passion for ideas and show

Builds in no audience interaction

 

Sloppily presents information, findings, arguments, and supporting evidence; audience can’t follow the line of reasoning

 

Reads off the slide frequently; delivery is unrehearsed or overly scripted

 

Does not convey passion for ideas and show

Organization

Meets all requirements for what should be included in the presentation

Has a clear and interesting introduction and conclusion

 

Organizes time well; no part of the presentation is too short or too long

Meets all requirements for what should be included in the presentation

Has a clear introduction and conclusion

 

Mostly organizes time well; for the most part, no part of the presentation is too short or long

Meets most requirements for what should be included in the presentation and has an introduction and conclusion

 

Some parts of the presentation may be too short or too long

Meets some requirements for what should be included in the presentation but many elements are missing

 

Parts of the presentation are too long or too short

Does not meet requirements for what should be included in the presentation

 

The presentation is disorganized; time is not used effectively

Eyes, Body, & Voice

Keeps eye contact with audience most of the time; only glances at notes or aides

 

Uses natural gestures and movements

 

Looks poised and confident

 

Speaks clearly, not too quickly or slowly

 

Speaks loudly enough for everyone to hear; changes tone and pace to maintain interest

 

Rarely uses filler words

 

Adapts speech for the context and task, demonstrating command of formal English when appropriate

Keeps eye contact with audience most of the time; only glances at notes or aides

 

Mostly uses natural gestures and movements

 

Mostly looks poised and confident

 

Mostly speaks clearly, not too quickly or slowly

 

Mostly speaks loudly enough for everyone to hear; may change tone and pace to maintain interest

 

Uses filler words occasionally

 

Demonstrates some command of formal English when appropriate

Keeps eye contact with audience some of the time; may look too closely at notes or aides

 

May use unnatural gestures and movements

 

May not look poised or confident

 

May speak too quickly or too slowly at points

 

May not speak loudly enough for everyone to hear; may not change tone and pace to maintain interest

 

May use filler words often

 

Demonstrates some command of formal English when appropriate

May struggle to keep eye contact; may look too closely at notes or aides

 

Uses unnatural gestures and movements

 

May not look poised or confident

 

Speaks too quickly or too slowly at points

 

Does not speak loudly enough for everyone to hear; does not change tone and pace to maintain interest

 

Uses filler words often

 

Doesn’t demonstrate command of formal English when appropriate

Does not make eye contact; looks too closely at notes or aides

 

Uses unnatural gestures and movements

 

Is not poised or confident

 

Speaks too quickly or too slowly at points

 

Does not speak loudly enough for everyone to hear; does not change tone and pace to maintain interest

Use filler words

 

Doesn’t demonstrate command of formal English when appropriate

PowerPoint

PowerPoint follows all guidelines in assignment instructions – simple, readable, incorporates pictures or video — and effectively contributes to audience engagement and understanding

 

Demonstrates thorough research; sources are cited

PowerPoint mostly follows all guidelines in assignment instructions – simple, readable, incorporates pictures or video – and contributes to audience engagement and understanding

Demonstrates some thorough resources; sources are cited

PowerPoint follows some guidelines in assignment instructions – simple, readable, incorporates pictures or video – and somewhat contributes to audience engagement and understanding

Demonstrates research; not all sources may be cited

PowerPoint is missing several important guidelines in assignment instructions – struggles to contribute to audience engagement and understanding

Demonstrates minimal research; not all sources may be cited

PowerPoint is missing most guidelines in assignment instructions – does not contribute to audience engagement and understanding

Lacking in research quality and citation of sources

Scene and Heard: Midrashing Saint Paul at Silk Road Rising

Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 7.43.39 AMMidrash: a method of interpreting biblical stories that goes beyond simple distillation of religious, legal, or moral teachings. It fills in the gaps left in the biblical narrative regarding events and personalities that are only hinted at.

In November, I had the opportunity to see Paulus, a world premiere by Chicago’s Silk Road Rising theatre. The play explores the last few years of Saint Paul’s life, as well as the historic drama between ancient Jews, Romans and the earliest Christians. Written in Hebrew by Israeli playwright Motti Lerner, translated into English by Hillel Halkin, and directed by Jimmy McDermott, Paulus embodies what Silk Road Rising is all about: promoting intercultural and interfaith understanding.

The company was founded by playwright Jamil Khoury and arts innovator Malik Gillani as a creative response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, an effort to counter anti-Muslim sentiment with authentic, critical dialogue through theatre. Their project soon expanded to feature perspectives and playwrights across the historic Silk Road, from Japan to Italy. Now over a decade old, the company occupies the basement of The Historic Chicago Temple Building, a neo-Gothic skyscraper housing a Methodist congregation over 175 years old.

The playwright, Motti Lerner, identifies as both atheist and Jewish. He became interested in the Christian figure of Saint Paul because of Paul’s passionate belief in universalism, the belief that a shared faith in God can unite disparate cultures. In an interview with Jamil Khoury, Lerner explains that Paul’s concept of universalism has a unique degree of credibility in a place like the Middle East, where tribalism and nationalism have caused such widespread devastation. With this as a starting point, the play digs deep into related theological ideas, at once cerebral and politically charged. The dialogue almost moves like a debate, immersing the audience in first century questions that feel overwhelmingly familiar.

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The Historic Chicago Temple Building

Set on a thrust stage sparsely furnished with wooden planks, ramps and coarse brown fabric, Act I opens with Paulus’s capture by the Romans, immediately flashing back to his final trip to Judea. Paulus, by Daniel Cantor, is scrutinized from all sides. His bold, idealistic expansion of Jesus’s more literal message, his virtues and excesses as a religious zealot, the implications of his beliefs on the religious establishment — all of these are fundamental, unresolved questions that in some way or another, we grapple with in the 21st century. In many ways, the drama of early Christianity resembles the modern drama of the Middle East, or at least it is shaped by similar forces: colliding religions, histories, and world views, cultural richness tempered by violent power struggles.

Act II opens with a more emotionally accessible scene: we witness the alluring effect of Paulus’s message on Drusilla, the Jewish wife of a Roman procurator, Felix. Designer Dan Stratton uses bright, clear lighting and a piece of teal, backlit fabric to suggest the calm, sunlit beauty of the Mediterranean, a welcome respite from the chaos depicted in Act I, both inside Paulus’s mind and between religious factions. Drusilla greets Paulus by promenading down a ramp in heels and noble attire, curtseying reverently, inviting him to dinner somewhat seductively. At this point, Felix stumbles drunkenly onstage, demanding Paulus’s execution, attributing the deterioration of his marriage to Paulus’s teachings, raving about his wife’s disobedient, disinterested behavior as she listens silently downstage. Drusilla finally intervenes when Felix lunges toward Paulus as if to kill him, justifying her actions in conciliatory terms, saying that it was Paulus who validated their marriage — a mixed union between Roman and Jew — by preaching that religion transcends tribe. She then picks up the theological debate, confronting the Pharisee Hananiah about the rigidity of Jewish marital laws.

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Drusilla’s moving defense of universalism has the adamant, personal tone of many modern-day religious debates. It is one of many moments where the playwright suggests his admiration for Saint Paul, suggesting the virtues of Paul’s expansive, progressive religious view. In the same interview, Lerner states that Paul’s spirituality is eye-opening for Jewish audiences “not only because he was born Jewish and died Jewish, but because his ideas present an important theological and existential option which is as valid today as it as in the first century.” He gives the example of how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might benefit from Paul’s radically open, pluralistic stance.

For Christian audiences, the story of Paul is less revelatory. His emphasis on heartfelt faith over adherence to specific commandments is built into Christianity, as is a secondary cast of corrupt Pharisees. However, the play also challenges this perspective, taking a scalpel to the oft-repeated, bluntly shaped narrative of the Temple Police and illuminating the humanness of their dilemma. Dramatizing a familiar story shows how Paulus’s preachings posed a tangible threat to the survival of Judaism, and how the Pharisees simply fulfilled the expectations of any religious establishment, fearful of change, trying to survive.

The fear of the Pharisees is made palpable by the character Hananiah, a former ally of Paulus, whose slow-building panic is skillfully depicted by actor Bill McGough. At first, he is exhausted by Paulus’s restless ways, wearily reprimanding him, saying that he loves him like a brother, much to his own annoyance. When Paulus is tried before the Pharisees — actors shrouded in cloth on either side of the stage, beating drums and sighing into microphones to suggest the roar of the crowd — Paulus manages to win, perhaps with his old friend’s help. But Paulus’s relentless preaching reveals the strength of his will, leading Hananiah to rebut him in an increasingly shrill, panicky voice: “But what will happen to our people without the commandments?” In the end, it is Hananiah who procures his arrest, wincing and shielding his eyes when Paulus’s Jewish servant Trophimos becomes collateral damage.

Screen Shot 2014-01-22 at 2.31.45 PMThen there is the battle within Paulus himself. His unresolved questions are explored through conversations with the resurrected Jesus and an imaginary Nero, the Roman emperor. Jesus is played by Torrey Hanson as a concerned, restrained observer who comes and goes at pivotal moments. He mostly chastises Paulus for devaluing the Jewish commandments in his impatience to spread the gospel, countering Paulus’s zeal with cool, reasoned theological arguments. It catches your attention, watching Jesus pause and witness the liberalization of his own message, and on a different note, you wonder why he is wearing sunglasses — do the sunglasses cast Paulus out of his field of vision, or are they meant to more generally assert Jesus’s elevated, divine status? Meanwhile, Glenn Stanton as Nero wanders blithely in and out of Paulus’s head at vulnerable moments, strumming a ukelele and singing catchy, ironic tunes like “it’s no easy job to be God.”

Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 8.21.54 AMAs a piece of theatre, I found Paulus to be somewhat stilted, although the actors gave convincing, at times moving performances, and the music and sound effects were used cleverly in an intimate space (go Chicago storefront theatre). It’s easy to label the cerebral nature of Paulus a flaw, but perhaps it is a stylistic and cultural difference that risks getting lost in translation. Lerner’s framework for Paulus is the Hebrew spiritual practice of midrash: meditating on scripture by entering into it and filling in unspoken perspectives. To fully appreciate this play, one has to appreciate that the vision of the playwright extends beyond theatre, as does the mission of Silk Road Rising. Both the play and its theatrical home affirm theatre’s central role in the presentation of ideas, a call for unity and universalism that I’m pretty sure Saint Paul would identify with.

[Photos: “Gijs Van Vaerenbergh – Reading Between the Lines Church 03.jpg,” Forgemind Webuse 0008, CC BY 2.0, “Chicago Temple Building, Chicago,” Antoine Tavenaux, CC BY 3.0, “Mosque and Church,” Jonathan Gill’s photostream, CC BY-NC 2.0, “Saint-Paul,” Antiquité Tardive’s photostream, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, “Empty Stage,” Max Wolfe’s photostream, CC BY 2.0]

Terrorists In Love

Screen Shot 2013-04-10 at 7.39.58 AMTo borrow from Peter Bergen’s foreword, Terrorists in Love “reveals a universe of militancy that is so strange that at times it seems suffused with the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.” Author Ken Ballen profiles six jihadis and their conversion to militancy,  interviewing over one hundred former terrorists at a resort-style rehabilitation center in Saudia Arabia. Ballen was a federal prosecutor and now runs a non-profit organization called Terror Free Tomorrow, and in this book, he applies his access to high-level terrorists and his expertise with federal interrogations to a set of strange, haunting narratives about the process of radicalization. We get a unique picture of the strangeness of this process, the necessary convergence of many disparate forces, including but not limited to mental illness, repressive cultural norms, and ancient Islamic traditions, such as reverence for dreams. Of course these stories contain many political implications, but the stories in themselves are so fascinating that the more interesting, pressing questions have to do with our common humanity.

In the case of Ahmad al-Shayea, a listless, sensitive teenager with an abusive, hyper-conservative father, a dream about his father causes him to join the militants. It seems like a dignified alternative to joy riding through tribal regions in his friend’s convertible, something more worthy of his father’s respect. After a few weeks of training, Ahmad is unwittingly sent by his superiors on a suicide mission, only to survive the third degree burns. The end to his story is poetic, sweet — he develops a fiercely pro-American stance thanks to the kindness of a U.S. soldier who nurses him back to health.

Kamal is the youngest son of Saudia Arabia’s Sheikh, an elderly religious patriarch who is second to the king himself. A child of privilege who has always been an outsider, Kamal was born to the Sheikh’s “summer bride,” whom the other wives rejected. She left the compound and an Indonesian servant named Indah served as Kamal’s surrogate mother, passing on her native, more expansive brand of Islam, her smiling, Indonesian mannerisms, and her servant’s humility, subtly different traits that Kamal, too, adopted. In his twenties, this isolated heir to the sheikdom realizes that he is gay. Not only that, he is in love with his cousin.

Interestingly, the realization that he is gay doesn’t phase Kamal. It seems that his family’s religious authority and elite social standing strengthen the courage of his convictions. He justifies his feelings by adopting the view that equal love before God is more holy than the lack of equality he sees in his father’s relationships. The future Sheikh quietly disagrees with both conventional and radical Islam, leading a closeted romantic life. This lasts until his relationship is discovered and his cousin is sent to America. At university, he turns to jihad, is outed and beaten by jihadi radicals, then shipped off to a rehabilitation center by his father. At the rehabilitation center, Kamal’s faith is what saves him, as he chooses the “war of the pen” over the “war of the sword”:

“From the other jihadis, Kamal saw firsthand the easy path of Al Quaeda and its allies: how seductive it was to turn God’s demanding gift of mercy inside each human to simple anger; how glamorous and self-important to switch the painful continuing struggle to better yourself before God (the Greater Jihad) into black-and-white contempt for others. He’d learned too from his time at the Care Center that only those who love one another were on Jihad for God.”

It is a surprising ending to a book that defies expectations, that a potential leader of the Islamic religious establishment has reclaimed the traditional, sacred definition of Jihad — a struggle toward self-improvement — after engaging in terrorism and a romantic relationship with his male cousin.  In the introduction, Ballen writes that a successful interrogation “leaves everyone feeling vulnerable.”  Perhaps this same aspect of vulnerability, the “demanding” nature of God’s mercy, is what makes “the Greater Jihad” so difficult — while the battle against terrorism is ongoing.

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