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1 and 2 ThessaloniansStand Firm in Faith
By Paul Thigpen
Loyola PressCopyright © 2004 Paul Thigpen
All right reserved.
How to Use This Guide
You might compare the Bible to a national park. The park is so large that you could spend months, even years, getting to know it. But a brief visit, if carefully planned, can be enjoyable and worthwhile. In a few hours you can drive through the park and pull over at a handful of sites. At each stop you can get out of the car, take a short trail through the woods, listen to the wind blowing through the trees, get a feel for the place.
In this booklet, we will read Paul’s two letters to the Christian community of Thessalonica. Because the excerpts are short, we will be able to take a leisurely walk through them, thinking carefully about what we are reading and what Paul’s words mean for our lives.
This guide provides everything you need to explore 1 and 2 Thessalonians in six discussions—or to do a six-part exploration on your own. The introduction on page 6 will prepare you to get the most out of your reading. The weekly sections provide explanations that will help illuminate the significance of Paul’s words for today. Equally important, each section supplies questions that will launch your group into fruitful discussion, helping you to both investigate the letters for yourself and learn from one another. If you’re using the booklet by yourself, the questions will spur your personal reflection.
Each discussion is meant to be a guided discovery.
Guided. None of us is equipped to read the Bible without help. We read the Bible for ourselves but not by ourselves. Scripture was written to be understood and applied in the community of faith. So each week “A Guide to the Reading,” drawing on the work of both modern biblical scholars and Christian writers of the past, supplies background and explanations. The guide will help you grasp the meanings of 1 and 2 Thessalonians. Think of it as a friendly park ranger who points out noteworthy details and explains what you’re looking at so you can appreciate things for yourself.
Discovery. The purpose is for you to interact with these New Testament letters. “Questions for Careful Reading” is a tool to help you dig into the text and examine it carefully. “Questions for Application” will help you consider what these words mean for your life here and now. Each week concludes with an “Approach to Prayer” section that helps you respond to God’s word. Supplementary “Living Tradition” and “Saints in the Making” sections offer the thoughts and experiences of Christians past and present. By showing what these letters have meant to others, these sections will help you consider what they mean for you.
How long are the discussion sessions? We’ve assumed you will have about an hour and a half when you get together. If you have less time, you’ll find that most of the elements can be shortened somewhat.
Is homework necessary? You will get the most out of your discussions if you read the weekly material and prepare your answers to the questions in advance of each meeting. If participants are not able to prepare, have someone read the “Guide to the Reading” sections aloud to the group at the points where they appear.
What about leadership? If you happen to have a world-class biblical scholar in your group, by all means ask him or her to lead the discussions. In the absence of any professional Scripture scholars, or even accomplished amateur biblical scholars, you can still have a first-class Bible discussion. Choose two or three people to take turns as facilitators, and have everyone read “Suggestions for Bible Discussion Groups” (page 76) before beginning.
Does everyone need a guide? a Bible? Everyone in the group will need his or her own copy of this booklet. It contains the complete text of 1 and 2 Thessalonians, so a Bible is not absolutely necessary for everyone—but each participant will find it useful to have one. Some of the questions call for reading passages of Scripture that are not included in this booklet. You should have at least one Bible on hand for your discussions. (See page 80 for recommendations.)
How do we get started? Before you begin, take a look at the suggestions for Bible discussion groups (page 76) or individuals (page 79).
Words of Wisdom, Words of Hope
In the Second Gulf War, several of my Catholic friends serving in the U.S. Army fought on the front lines in Iraq. One day I received some distressing news that one of them was suffering from low morale, his mind and heart deeply troubled by the relentless stresses of warfare and its aftermath. So I wrote him a long letter to offer encouragement, advice, and assurances of my prayers and support.
A few days later I learned that a former student in one of the university classes I once taught had embraced the Catholic faith, turning to God from a life of occult spiritual practices, alcohol abuse, and sexual promiscuity. But her convictions were still in their infancy, her moral thinking was confused, and her old friends—feeling betrayed by her transformation—were pressuring her to resume her old way of life. Since she lived in another city, I decided to write another long letter. I asked God to speak to her, through me, his words of comfort and hope, along with some practical wisdom for Christian living.
The situations that prompted me to write these Christian friends in need call to mind the circumstances that moved Paul to write his two letters to the Thessalonians. The ancient Christians of Thessalonica were not at war as my soldier friend was, yet they were nevertheless facing interior battles—spiritual, mental, and emotional—much like his. Hostile circumstances attacked their faith, captured their thoughts, exploded their peace of heart. They needed, as Paul put it, spiritual armor to defend themselves (1 Thessalonians 5:8).
The Thessalonians were also in some ways like my former student who had just converted to the Catholic faith. Apparently, many of them had only recently become Christians and had left behind a way of life common among their neighbors, a life given to worship in pagan cults, sexual license, and alcohol abuse. Their new faith was fragile, their spiritual understanding limited. They, too, faced powerful pressures and temptations to give up their convictions through the influence of old acquaintances and the surrounding culture. They needed, as Paul recognized, encouragement to stand firm in their conversion from idolatry, sexual immorality, and drunkenness (1 Thessalonians 1:9; 4:3; 5:6–8).
Yet another parallel appears here as well. The letters I wrote to my two friends were motivated not only by my love for them but also by a sense of responsibility. The soldier had taken part in a course on Scripture that I had taught, so I was eager to continue helping him cultivate his spiritual growth. A conversation I’d had years before with my former student had helped to plant the seeds of conversion in her life. So I was equally interested in nurturing her newly sprouting faith.
In a similar way, Paul loved the Thessalonians as dear friends, and he, too, felt a responsibility for their spiritual welfare. He had come to Thessalonica as a missionary pastor, calling people to faith in Jesus and establishing a local church there. The conversion of these new Christians was rooted in his preaching, and their growth in Christ afterward had been nourished by his teaching and example as he lived and worked among them.
Not surprisingly, then, Paul assumed a role as their spiritual father, and he was deeply concerned with pressing them toward spiritual maturity and warning them against dangers in their new life with God. When circumstances took him away from them to another city, he could no longer teach, counsel, and oversee the young church’s affairs in person. So he quite naturally began a correspondence with them. Letters had to take the place of his personal presence in the community.
At least some of the challenges encountered by the church in Thessalonica are faced by all Christians from time to time, today as in Paul’s day. Those who are new converts struggle to establish their faith firmly despite puzzling questions and the temptations of their former life. Those who have always been Christians face occasional doubts and powerful temptations as well. Social pressures squeeze us toward spiritual and moral compromises, or toward giving up our faith altogether.
At the same time, no Christian is completely free from the kinds of adversity that are common to all people: illness and bereavement, financial struggles, broken family ties, troubled personal relationships. Such difficulties often leave us under a weight of anxiety, doubt, discouragement, confusion, or even despair.
For all these reasons, the letters of Paul to the Thessalonians have much to say to us all. Whether two thousand years ago or today, God speaks to Christians through these words to bring wisdom and hope. At the same time, understanding something of the community life of those ancient believers and their relationship to their spiritual leader, Paul, can help us better understand ourselves as contemporary Christians who also seek to live together a life pleasing to God.
Before we delve more deeply into these letters, however, we need a little background.
Thessalonica (today known as Thessaloníki) is a large seaport in northern Greece. In Paul’s day it lay at the crossroads of major highways running north, south, east, and west across the vast Roman Empire, making it an important and prosperous city. Thessalonica teemed with people of diverse ethnic backgrounds from Europe, Asia, and Africa. The city also displayed a wide variety of religious traditions: worship of traditional Greek, Roman, and Egyptian gods; the civil religion of the empire, which considered the emperor divine; cults whose frenzied rituals centered on alcohol and sex; and a Jewish community.
Into this complex, bustling urban setting Paul arrived as a Christian missionary pastor sometime around AD 50. The apostle (from a Greek word that means literally “someone sent out”) was himself a convert. Before his missionary journeys, he had been a devout Jewish religious leader who had viewed the new Christian movement—made up mostly of fellow Jews—as a spiritual and social threat to the established traditions of his people. For that reason, Paul had actually persecuted the Christians in Jerusalem and other towns.
One day, however, a powerful encounter with the risen Christ in a vision convinced him that this Jesus whom he had opposed was in fact savior and lord, not only of the Jews but of the whole world (Acts 9:1–19; 22:1–21). After that sudden and startling conversion, Paul dedicated himself to preaching the Good News, or “gospel,” about Jesus, traveling from city to city, calling everyone to repentance and faith, whether Jews or gentiles (non-Jews). In each city where he preached, he organized a church community.
Since the apostle felt compelled by God to take the gospel throughout the empire, he couldn’t settle down permanently in any one city. So he continued to care for his new converts as he traveled by writing them letters of inspiration, encouragement, and doctrinal and moral instruction. Several of these letters have survived—1 Thessalonians is the earliest of them—and they now form part of the New Testament in our Bible.
Biblical scholars have long debated where Paul was staying when he wrote to the Thessalonian church, how much time elapsed between the writing of the two letters to Thessalonica, and exactly what happened in the meantime. Using clues from other biblical texts, some have concluded that he wrote from the Greek city of Corinth, whose young church the apostle had also founded (later the Corinthian Christians received from him the letters we now know as the biblical books of 1 and 2 Corinthians). Other scholars speculate that he was staying in the Greek city of Athens. One estimate would place Paul in Thessalonica for three or four months in the first part of the year 50. He would have written the first letter about four or five months after he left the city, toward the end of the year, and would have written the second letter several months later, in the early part of 51.
For various reasons, some modern scholars have challenged the idea that these letters were produced by Paul, suggesting instead that other early Christians wrote them using his name. Nearly all biblical scholars today, however, are agreed that the first letter was indeed composed by the apostle. A number of them agree as well that the second letter was also genuinely his. The Church Fathers insisted even in the early centuries of the Christian era—much closer to Paul’s own time—that both these letters are authentic writings of the apostle, and this traditional view will be the basis of our discussion in this book.
To provide some additional scriptural background for Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, an account of his first visit to their city is included in our reading for Week 2. It comes from the Acts of the Apostles, the second portion of a longer work whose first part is the Gospel of Luke. According to ancient tradition, this Gospel writer was the physician named Luke who sometimes accompanied Paul on his journeys (Colossians 4:14). Though Luke did not go with Paul to Thessalonica, he nevertheless included in his history some events of that particular mission.
The apostle spent his time in Thessalonica pouring himself into the task of building a Christian community. He instructed the new believers in the basics of the faith with compelling preaching about the life, death, resurrection, and second coming of Christ. He drew insights from Jewish moral teachings and the life of Jesus to help them understand how to please God in their daily living. He likely followed the typical pattern of his ministry described in other New Testament books, which included providing the sacraments of baptism (Acts 16:14–15; 1 Corinthians 1:14–16) and the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 10:15–18), establishing liturgical worship (1 Corinthians 11:23–26; Colossians 3:16; 1 Timothy 2:1–2; 4:13), and ordaining leadership (1 Timothy 3:1–13).
During his months in Thessalonica, the apostle offered a moving personal example for the community that motivated them to sacrificial love and service. No wonder, then, that the Thessalonian Christians loved their spiritual father intensely, felt orphaned when he was forced to leave the city, and longed to see him again (1 Thessalonians 3:6). For his part, Paul also grieved deeply over the separation and grew desperately anxious over the well-being of his spiritual children, given that they were still so young in their new faith.
His concern was sharpened by the knowledge that the Christians in Thessalonica were surrounded by hostility from their neighbors. A mob had forced Paul to flee the city; had the mob attacked his little flock again? Had the local authorities continued to harass them? Were the believers being ostracized in the workplace or denounced and rejected by friends and family members? Would they be able to stand firm against such opposition, or would they despair, lose faith, and return to their old way of life?
Paul’s anxiety intensified. At last he sent his colleague Timothy back to Thessalonica to encourage the church and inquire about its welfare (1 Thessalonians 2:17–3:5). Here is an outline of the situation Timothy apparently reported when he returned:
As a whole, the new community was standing firm and even growing. Despite continuing opposition, the Thessalonian Christians remained faithful and were zealous in evangelizing many of their neighbors. This good news brought Paul considerable joy and relief (1 Thessalonians 1:2–10; 3:6–8).
Nevertheless, questions had arisen over the implications of the apostle’s teaching. Several issues needed his clarification (1 Thessalonians 3:10; 4:13).
Tensions had emerged within the community because of misunderstood prophetic utterances and church members who were idle busybodies (1 Thessalonians 4:11–12; 5:19–21). They needed some gentle but firm correction, as well as warnings to respect their spiritual leaders and maintain peace among themselves (1 Thessalonians 5:12–13).
Temptations were strong to return to old behavior patterns. The new converts had to be reminded that God was calling them to higher standards of conduct than those held by the culture surrounding them (1 Thessalonians 4:2–8; 5:4–11, 15, 22).
The apostle’s letter no doubt improved the situation in Thessalonica considerably. Even so, some time later he apparently learned that a few of the problems had continued or even grown worse. So a second letter was called for, dealing with many of the same themes but approaching them from a different angle.
Because the two letters overlap in content and have a similar structure, we will study them alongside each other in stereo rather than one at a time. Doing so will allow us to make some useful comparisons between them and also to recognize the recurring nature of many challenges to living the Christian life.
Meanwhile, throughout our study, we should keep in mind Paul’s exhortation to “stand firm in the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 3:8). Sooner or later, doubt, confusion, temptation, opposition, and other adversities will come our way. When that happens, we can turn to the enduring message in these letters, for they are written to us as well. The apostle’s words echo down the centuries to strengthen us: “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word” (2 Thessalonians 2:16–17).
The Messengers Are the Message
Questions to Begin
Use a question or two to get warmed up for the reading.
1 Have you ever received good news in a phone call, letter, or e-mail that changed your life? If so, what was the news, and how did it arrive?
2 What is the most memorable welcome you have ever received?
Opening the Bible
Read the passage aloud. Let individuals take turns reading sections.
The Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:1–10; 2 Thessalonians 1:1–12
Paul Writes His Friends in Thessalonica: “Thank God for You!”
1 Thessalonians 1:1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace.
2 We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4 For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. 6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. 9 For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.
Several Months Later Paul Writes Again: “We’re Praying for You!”
2 Thessalonians 1:1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
3 We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing. 4 Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.
5 This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, and is intended to make you worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering. 6 For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels 8 in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10 when he comes to be glorified by his saints and to be marveled at on that day among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. 11 To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, 12 so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Questions for Careful Reading
Choose questions according to your interest and time.
1 Which key words and ideas appearing in the introductions of these two letters do you suspect might turn out to be prominent themes in the letters?
2 What do these passages indicate about the quality of the relationship between Paul and the Thessalonian Christians? (Cite specific verses.)
3 Is Paul pleased with the Thessalonians?
4 What does Paul tell us about Jesus in these passages: 1 Thessalonians 1:1, 3, 10; 2 Thessalonians 1:1–2, 7–12?
5 What is Paul talking about when he speaks of “the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thessalonians 1:9)?
A Guide to the Reading
If participants have not read this section already, read it aloud. Otherwise go on to “Questions for Application.”
1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1–2. The greetings in both letters remind us that Paul rarely ministers alone, recognizing the essential strength found in Christian fellowship. Timothy has traveled to a number of cities as a missionary colleague with Paul and has become his close friend. The two men worked together to establish the church in Thessalonica.
“Silvanus” is the Latin form of the name “Silas.” The Silvanus mentioned here is most likely the Silas described in Acts, another companion of Paul on his missionary journeys who escaped with him by night from Thessalonica (Acts 17:10) and shared his beatings and imprisonment in the city of Philippi (Acts 16:19–40).
The apostle calls God “Father,” right away reminding his readers both of God’s loving care for them and of their spiritual kinship as brothers and sisters in God’s family. In these two brief letters, when Paul refers to God, to the Thessalonian Christians, and to himself, he uses family relationship terms a remarkable fifty-two times. Having become a community only recently, drawn from various social classes and religious backgrounds, the Thessalonian Christians must build a new identity as “the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19). This identity is especially important for converts who are being rejected and denounced by members of their natural families for abandoning the traditional ways of their ancestors.
The phrase “grace to you and peace” (1 Thessalonians 1:1) is the blessing that Paul characteristically offers to fellow Christians and may have come from an early Christian liturgy. These words go straight to the heart of the gospel: by the grace of God—his extravagant, merciful goodness extended to us in Jesus as a free gift—we are offered peace with God, a healing of our broken relationship with him. Because we are now united to God in Christ, this grace is the very life of God within us, giving us the power to overcome sin so we can become like him and live with him forever.
1 Thessalonians 1:2–9; 2 Thessalonians 1:3–4. Paul expresses his delight in the new Christians at Thessalonica by thanking God for them in a number of specific ways. He rejoices that they endured and bore spiritual fruit despite persecution (1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2 Thessalonians 1:4). Through Paul’s words of appreciation, God their Father is himself commending them, assuring them that they are “beloved” and “chosen” (1 Thessalonians 1:4).
Paul describes here an important pattern: as he, Timothy, and Silvanus worked and preached in Thessalonica, the people there found that these men’s lives modeled the reality of their message. That model had “power”; it brought “full conviction” that their words were true (1 Thessalonians 1:5). As a result, the Thessalonians “turned to God from idols,” becoming “imitators” of the missionaries (1 Thessalonians 1:6, 9).
Then the process repeated itself: the converts themselves became the kind of people who offer a compelling example to others, not only in their city but throughout the surrounding region. Faith gave birth to faith as the Thessalonians evangelized their neighbors (1 Thessalonians 1:5–9).
1 Thessalonians 1:10; 2 Thessalonians 1:5–12. To inspire even more “steadfastness of hope” (1 Thessalonians 1:3), Paul makes his first reference to a major topic in both letters: the second coming of Christ. These and other biblical passages indicate that God’s “vengeance” when Jesus returns does not mean the kind of malicious retaliation for injury that human beings often seek. Instead, it refers to God’s decisive and final response to the universal cry of the human heart for justice. Christ will come to stop the work of evildoers, pass “righteous judgment” (2 Thessalonians 1:5) on them, rescue their victims, and vindicate the innocent. He will set the world aright.
Paul speaks of those who reject God in the end as suffering “the punishment of eternal destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). Whatever else the notion of eternal damnation might imply, the apostle zeros in on its most terrifying aspect: those who remain God’s enemies will be “separated from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). What could be worse than cutting yourself off forever from the very source of all life, goodness, beauty, and truth?
There are things in all of us, Paul says, that must be set aright; we must become just as God is just. So in light of Jesus’ return as judge, he prays that God’s grace will make them “worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith” (2 Thessalonians 1:11).
Questions for Application
Choose questions according to your interest and time.
1 Paul speaks of believers’ “work of faith” (1 Thessalonians 1:3), implying that faith and works cannot be separated (compare James 2:14–26). How has your own experience illustrated that faith is inseparable from the way you live?
2 Can you recall a specific occasion when some particular truth of the gospel “came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thessalonians 1:5)? Was it during Mass? in a conversation? during prayer or Scripture study? through the example of another person? What was it about the way the truth was presented that you found so compelling? What can you learn from that experience?
3 Which Christians have you known or read about who inspire you to become “imitators of [them] and of the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 1:6)? Why do they inspire you? What specifically about their example could you imitate this week?
4 Paul rejoices that “the word of the Lord has sounded forth” (1 Thessalonians 1:8) from the Thessalonians to others, suggesting that these new believers weren’t shy about sharing the gospel. Do you talk openly with non-Christians about your faith? If not, what would make it easier for you to do so?
5 Even Paul, an extraordinarily gifted apostle, recognized his need for Christian fellowship and cooperation in service to the Christian community. In what concrete ways are you working with other Catholics to serve the Church?
The Emperor of heaven, the Lord of men and angels, has sent you his letters for your life’s advantage. . . . Study them, I beg you, and meditate daily on the words of your Creator. Learn the heart of God in the words of God.
Pope St. Gregory the Great, Letters
Approach to Prayer
Use this approach—or create your own!
♦ Sometimes we tend to spend all our time with God making requests. In these letters, Paul shows how thanksgiving should also be a regular part of our conversations with the Lord.
The ancient Hebrews included among their psalms many beautiful hymns of thanksgiving and praise to God for his goodness. Have someone read aloud (or have everyone read aloud together) Psalm 100, a psalm of thanksgiving that has been a favorite of God’s people for many centuries. Afterward, spend a few minutes in silent praise for the Lord’s goodness to you. Then end with a Glory Be.
A Living Tradition
Genuine Love Means Loving Everyone
This section is a supplement for individual reading.
St. John Chrysostom, who lived about 347–407, was the patriarch (the equivalent of an archbishop) of the great city of Constantinople, the eastern capital of the ancient Roman Empire. He became famous for his preaching (Chrysostom is a title meaning “golden-mouthed” in Greek), gaining both enthusiastic admirers and deadly enemies through his straight-shooting critique of the culture and society of his day. Christians and pagans, rich and poor, commoners and even the empress herself were publicly corrected from his pulpit. The following thoughts come from his First Homily on the Second Letter of St. Paul to the Thessalonians.
The apostle says to the Thessalonians: “The love of everyone of you for one another is increasing” (2 Thessalonians 1:3). Observe closely this love among the Thessalonians. They did not love one person rather than another, but their love was equal toward all. . . .
Sometimes we find a certain kind of love among the people of a community, but it is a kind of love that leads to division. We knit ourselves together in parties of two or three, and these cliques are closely bound to one another but keep themselves apart from the rest, because they support and confide in no one outside their own little group. But this is not really love—it is the tearing apart of love. . . . If we confine to one or two people the love that ought to be extended to the whole Church of God, we injure both ourselves and them, and the whole community. . . .
What advantage is it if you love a certain person extravagantly? It is only a human love. But if you want a love that is not merely human—if you want to love for God’s sake—then love everyone. For God has commanded us to love even our enemies. And if he has commanded us to love our enemies, how much more those who have never injured us?
Well, you may say, I love, but not in that way. In that case, you are not really loving at all.
Excerpted from 1 and 2 Thessalonians by Paul Thigpen Copyright © 2004 by Paul Thigpen. Excerpted by permission.
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