Castles in the Sand

When the waters rise, will our castles remain?

Luke 14

Today’s chapter covers three stories: another healing on the Sabbath (as discussed in my last post), a parable about a great banquet, and warnings about the cost of following Jesus.

Much of the content reflects themes we’ve discussed already throughout our closer look at Luke. This makes perfect sense; Jesus places special emphasis on the things he values by highlighting them on numerous occasions. While our response should be to take it all the more serious and emphasize it within our own approach to faith, it is remarkable to see how many of these issues actually find the exact opposite experience among modern white American “Christianity.”

Jesus repeatedly warns people in this chapter against selfishness, excuses for not following through on commitments, and self-elevation. His words have tremendous practical application in our world for any relationship best practices, but they take on even greater importance when considering how they should inform our relationship with God.

One of the key comments he makes early on in the chapter is a warning that “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (11). This lesson comes at the conclusion of an explanation of what he sees around him at a banquet: people choosing places of honor at the table for themselves. His warning makes perfect sense. If you show up at a wedding reception and sit at the bridal party table despite not being a member of the bridal party, you will face public embarrassment when you’re asked to find a new seat. Further, at that point your options will be limited since everyone else will have already arrived.

Jesus goes on to instruct his followers to invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” (13) to banquets rather than exclusively focusing on friends. He points to this as an opportunity for us to serve others in a way that recognizes we will not be repaid. There is no quid pro quo in such an action, no expectation that you’ll be honored at the next banquet. Instead, it is generosity and goodness for the sake of love and service.

Unfortunately, this is rarely how we operate in our culture. And it is just as rare among “Christian” culture as others. The current “Christian” cultural focus is on forming connections with power and building up those relationships so as to engender benefits for ourselves. This cynical approach to life has gone so far as to abandon so many of the principles we claim to hold dear in an exchange for connection and proximity to power. As Jesus warned, the end result of this will be humiliation.

Later in the chapter, Jesus shares a parable about a great banquet prepared for a number of people who then find excuses not to come. They reveal their true hearts and lack of affection for the banquet host when they make such little effort to follow through on their prior acceptance of the invitation. But the banquet host does not dwell on such abandonment. Instead, he opens the doors wide and invites anyone and everyone who would normally be considered “outsiders” to participate. Further, he declares that none of the people who he initially invited “will get a taste of my banquet” (24).

This builds on the story of the narrow door from the last chapter and reveals just how wrong the current “Christian” mindset of salvation is. Our cultural approach claims that we’re the insiders and all the “others” don’t belong and will be cast out. Yet all the while we repeatedly show a default position of avoiding following through on our commitment to the banquet host. Jesus told us exactly what the end result of this will be: all of the “others” we look down upon will be the ones he welcomes, while the original invitees who couldn’t put forth the effort to actually follow through on their commitment will be left out. It’s pretty much the exact opposite of what we teach and believe while we continue to live in and promote a world that sees the vast majority of white “Christians” in our country supporting a president and policies that go against every single thing Jesus taught.

The final section of this chapter again reinforces just how much our current mindset in white American “Christianity” misses the mark. Jesus repeatedly emphasizes the cost of following him, noting that we must be willing to give up everything to be his disciple. I think our religiosity has caused us to lose track of what he really meant when he talked about discipleship and following. Disciples literally followed their teacher everywhere, every day, at all times. They did everything he did and sought to reflect his image to those around them through each thing they did. The goal was to become as much like the teacher as possible.

Our current mindset equates following Jesus with worshiping Jesus. Those are not the same thing. And note that throughout the gospels, the message Jesus repeatedly conveys is not “worship me.” It’s “follow me.” I believe that Jesus is God incarnate and absolutely worthy of any and all worship we can give. But we’ve focused so much on how worthy he is of worship that we only focus on that. And he didn’t ask us to do that. So by worshiping him and not following him, we’re actually going against everything he taught us to do. We’re actually mocking his teachings. He told us to follow him, to go and do likewise when he healed the sick, cared for the poor, welcomed the outsiders. Instead, we actively ignore those calls and bow down at his feet claiming to worship him while neglecting to actually do what he told us to.

White American “Christianity” does not follow Jesus. It claims to worship Jesus, but “worship” while refusing to acknowledge his commands and follow through on them is a tainted worship. It’s false. It’s worse than meaningless. It’s more like mockery. It is taking the Lord’s name in vain.

The chapter ends with Jesus offering what we often take as a warning, but it’s really not. It’s just a statement of fact: “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out” (35). An approach of “worshiping” Jesus without actually following him is as useless as salt that has lost its saltiness. Jesus doesn’t threaten to throw out bad salt. He simply says that’s what people do with it. It has not use, so it’s discarded.

As if to further drive the point home to the group who claims to worship but does not follow, the chapter ends with these words: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (34).

Let us hear today.

Luke 13

It’s been a few months as some significant events in our culture and a focus on school work took priority for me, but I’m back to diving into a closer look at Luke. We’ll see how consistently I’m able to go through the second half of the Gospel according to Luke since we’re due to welcome a baby any day now (quite literally, the due date is tomorrow). However, I will strive to return to a more consistent post schedule going forward.

The stories in this chapter continue the theme of Jesus showing love and grace to those in need and being criticized by the religious elites. It’s difficult not to see some striking analogies with our current cultural context. Starting in verse 10, Luke tells of Jesus healing a woman who had suffered from a painful disability for 18 years. However, he healed her on the Sabbath, which prompted outrage from the Synagogue ruler. Jesus’ response is to point to the hypocrisy of criticizing healing on the Sabbath as “work” while those same people tend to their animals to ensure they survive.

Over the past several months we’ve seen some horrifying actions carried out by representatives of the state against citizens. The primary message of these citizens’ protests has been the simple statement that Black lives matter. Three words, one sentence of affirmation. This should not be controversial, especially to those who profess to follow Christ. If we truly believe that we are the image bearers of God, then we must believe that every single life matters. There are no exceptions. So when someone sees the pain, inequality, and injustice in our society through the images and videos of police executing unarmed Black people in the streets (or in their homes), we must cry out in pain. We must seek justice. Because Black lives matter.

How does this connect to the story above? The religious elites were not opposed to Jesus healing people and ending their suffering. At least, publicly they weren’t opposed to it. I hope they weren’t opposed in their hearts, because that would expose yet another level of evil and heartlessness. However, they complained about the process and timing of the healing. The woman had been suffering for 18 years. But the response from the synagogue ruler was this: “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath” (14).

The synagogue ruler sees 18 years of suffering and anguish in front of his very eyes but does not empathize with that. Instead, he prioritizes a religious ritual done in the name of a God who loves, heals, and created humanity in God’s own image. In his mind, the healing is not a great good, but a crime against God. Further, his words show that he places the blame on the woman for this act. The story does not suggest that she asked Jesus to be healed. Instead, it shares that she was in the synagogue hearing him teach on the Sabbath. She was simply there to learn more about God and respect the Sabbath as she had been taught. Jesus saw her in a way no one else had for 18 years and felt compassion for her. He healed her. It was his choice and his act. And while the synagogue ruler is angry at Jesus, his words are pointed at the woman, placing the blame on her as if she’d done wrong.

We saw (and continue to see) the exact same treatment as people protested the injustice and disregard for Black lives in our country. We heard the familiar refrain, “I support protesting injustice, but you have to do it the right way.” In this situation, it was being critical of a minority of protestors (who in many cases may have actually been people opposed to the protests seeking to promote dissension and blame to undermine the protests themselves) who caused property damage. Or, it was being critical of protestors interrupting the daily experience of people in the cities. With Colin Kaepernick several years ago, it was respectfully kneeling during the National Anthem. In Washington, D.C., it was simply peacefully protesting in the road the President wanted to parade down for a partisan photo op using the Bible and a church building as a prop.

It is amazing that in all of these cases (and so many more), the complaint is always that the protestors are going about things the “wrong” way. If we’re honest, the common thread is not the method, but the protest itself. We see the same thing with immigration, as people claim they support immigration when people do it “the right way,” through the legal process. Yet the “legal” process has intentionally been made so convoluted so as to render it virtually impossible for the people who desperately need it to seek sanctuary from violence and oppression to follow that path. And, statistically, the same group of people who get on their high horse to talk about doing it “the right way” is the group that supports making policies that make the “right” way even more difficult and more restrictive. Again, if we’re honest, we’ll see that it’s not really about the “right” or “wrong” way; it’s about keeping people in their place.

It fascinates me to see which side Christians take when reading the Bible and which side they take when living their daily lives. Because I guarantee every Christian reading this passage either scoffs or is heartbroken (we’re called to be the latter, but human nature means most of us – including myself – are far more often the former) at the synagogue ruler who “doesn’t get it,” who cares more about religious structure than the meaning and purpose behind them. But then we see people protesting because their very lives are put in danger every day they go about their lives by the people sworn to serve and protect us. And our pinpoint focus goes to the graffiti. Or the “criminal background” of the one whose death is being protested. We say things like, “well, there’s more to the story; this guy had a rough background!” or even worse, “If you don’t do something wrong, police will leave you alone,” despite the evidence in front of our eyes. We see innocent blood spilled on the ground and instead of crying out for what was lost, we hedge and suggest they somehow deserved it. Or, even worse, we somehow equate minor property damage with the taking of human life. No, scratch that. We prioritize and place a higher value on property damage than the taking of human life.

Jesus saw a woman suffering from 18 years of disability. His heart broke, and he healed her. Immediately. He did not hesitate to state with his actions that her life mattered. He did not hedge or hem and haw because he doesn’t agree with everything she’s said or done in her life or because acting in this case might technically violate the Sabbath practices of the community.

Related to this, Jesus goes on to share the parables of the mustard seed and yeast. Both of these parables show how the Kingdom of God starts as something small but works its way through everything and transforms all it touches. Yeast cannot be partitioned into only a piece of the dough. You cannot experience a Kingdom of God transformation and yet ignore the focus on justice, generosity, and love when it’s convenient for you either politically or to not upset your personal narrative. You can only do that if you haven’t actually put the yeast in the dough. Choosing to put the yeast in the dough or the mustard seed in the ground is acknowledging that, moving forward, nothing will be the same.

Finally, Jesus warns about the narrow door. I’ve heard this teaching throughout my life and heard it used to explain how so many who claim to be Christians aren’t “real” Christians. It’s always been used as a point of excluding outsiders, because the people preaching that message are never considering themselves as not the “real” Christians. It’s used as a message of segregation and rejection, inflating our own self-image as the “real” followers of Christ who “get it” compared to those heathens outside who think they do but so obviously don’t.

Here’s the thing, though. If we actually read the words of Jesus, that’s not the picture he paints. Here’s the second half of the passage, verses 26-30:

Then you will say, “We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.” But he will reply, “I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!” There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.

Notice how the people who will not make it through the door are those who actually did eat and drink with Jesus. Further, they recognize the presence of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the prophets when they see them in the house. These are people who know the scriptures and engaged with Jesus, and yet they are being left out. Instead, people will be coming from all directions to take their place at the feast. While that might not sound like much for our modern travel-heavy culture, such a suggestion indicates Jesus is including outsiders from long distances who never encountered him in life. These could be people from thousands of miles away who never even heard about him. He does not explicitly say that, but the contrast is severe between people from every direction who are welcomed and those physically next to Jesus who are rejected.

This message goes to another level with the conclusion of the chapter when Jesus laments Jerusalem’s treatment of the prophets. Again, he is showing that those who know better, those who actively engaged with him and the prophets before him, were likely the ones to reject him and be left out while so many others are welcomed in.

As “followers of Christ,” we are called to, well, follow Christ’s example. Unfortunately, far too often, “Christians” in our society showcase attitudes and actions that bear a striking resemblance to those of the people who actively opposed Christ in these stories. Instead of fighting for the cause of justice, mercy, and healing wherever there is a need, we ignore the pain and suffering and complain about the methods and timing. Instead of acknowledging something as simple as the three-word statement that Black lives matter, we feign concern that we might be endorsing an organization that we don’t wholeheartedly agree with. Somehow that concern doesn’t come up with Christians endorsing Donald Trump and the Republican party, and I can only hope and pray that those two examples endorse ideas that Christians don’t wholeheartedly agree with (although the evidence strongly suggests the opposite).

When we look at protests, do we see the pain of centuries of injustice, or do we see graffiti? When we hear about yet another unarmed Black person killed by police officers, do we see the shedding of innocent blood, or do we seek to find an excuse (such as a misdemeanor on their record that means they were a “criminal,” and, by extension, deserved to die) to justify it? When we see healing on the Sabbath, do we see 18 years of disability come to a loving end, or do we see a violation of religious ritual?

We must see the world as Jesus did, recognize humanity and human need takes precedence over religious structure. We must invite the yeast to work its way through us and transform everything about our priorities and mindset, and we must acknowledge the simple truth that far too often it’s those who cling to religion the most that miss everything and end up on the outside of the causes for justice and the kingdom of God. We must do better.

Twenty-one years ago, the Columbine massacre gave Christians in America a symbol of standing up for God.

Cassie Bernall became famous in death after stories came out that one of the killers asked her if she believed in God. As the story went, she replied, “Yes,” and was promptly killed. While questions have come up as to whether that story is true, she became an example for Christians around the world of boldly standing up when everything is at stake. Books and songs were written about Cassie and her decision, including “This is Your Time,” by Michael W. Smith.

In Luke 12:9, Jesus warns that “whoever denies me before others will be denied before the angels of God” (NRSV). This warning is echoed in Luke 9:26, as well as across the other two Synoptic Gospels (Matthew and Mark). These words and Cassie’s story served to inspire confidence that when the time inevitably came – and soon, as this was during the peak Left Behind years – we would have the faith and courage to take the same stand she did.

This was particularly impressionable for me as a 12-year-old kid terrified that I might someday actually face such a choice between life and death. Thankfully, to this point that has not come to pass. But I believe Christians face a far more demanding choice today.

While the thought of dying for my faith sounds terrifying, that was actually a core part of the evangelical obsessions with persecution I grew up with. Combine that with a disproportionate focus on heaven that completely neglects legitimate caring for this world and this current life, and you actually have a choice that many Christians weirdly hope for. After all, what better way to prove my faith than to die for it?

I’m not in any way suggesting it would be easy to stand in that moment and know you are choosing to give up your life. But I am saying that when you believe the next step is far more wonderful than this one, it actually makes the choice easier than taking such a stand in the world while continuing to live.

We’ve reached that point. We actually reached that point a long time ago, but I believe Donald Trump’s actions yesterday take this to an entirely new level. I believe we stand at a point in history where we must make the choice, and choosing not to publicly stand is the same as offering the negative response.

Another thing that was drilled into me as a child was never “taking the Lord’s name in vain.” I mean, it’s one of the 10 Commandments (Number 3!), so you know it’s a big deal. The problem is, we’ve made a joke of that commandment in our culture. You see, I was taught that it meant I couldn’t literally say the name of the Lord in a non-respectful way. So, that meant “Oh, my God” was basically the worst thing that could ever be said. Really.

Somehow, today I think the reality of that commandment goes just a bit deeper. Taking someone’s name in vain is to attach their name to something that undermines their character. It’s blasphemy, or character assassination. Spreading rumors about someone you don’t like in middle school to try to destroy their reputation is taking their name in vain.

For God, it’s a bit bigger. And it’s probably the biggest problem we have in American “Christian” culture. You see, any time someone does something that contradicts the nature or heart of God and does so while appealing to God’s name, that is taking the Lord’s name in vain. This is really challenging when you realize that many of the key political stances supported by the majority of “Christians” in America actually go against the words and actions of Jesus. Each time a “Christian” uses the Bible or appeals to God as a reason for mistreating, oppressing, persecuting, neglecting, refusing service to, or offering anything less than Jesus’ sacrificial love to their neighbor – which, according to Jesus and the story of the Good Samaritan, includes refugees, illegal immigrants, members of the LGBTQ+ community, Muslims, and even democrats – we are taking the Lord’s name in vain.

Yesterday, in the midst of the worst pandemic in 100 years, the worst unemployment in 90 years, and the biggest racial protests in 50 years, Donald Trump took the Lord’s name in vain. And he did it in about the biggest way you can.

It was by no means the first time he’s done such a thing. However, this has to be the biggest.

After publicly declaring war on his own citizens – literally threatening to “[mobilize] all available federal resources, civilian and military” – he prompted the National Guard and US Park Police to use force (including tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash bombs) to clear away a group of peaceful protestors near the White House. First, that’s a violation of the First Amendment rights American “Christians” claim to hold so dear.

He used military force to injure his own citizens in order to push them out of the way so he could lead his own mini-parade down the street to historic St. John’s Church. Did he do this to pray for God’s leadership through one of the most difficult times in our nation’s history?

No.

He did this so that he could hold up a Bible in front of the church for a photo. He violated everything God stands for – love, mercy, justice, peace, support for the oppressed and vulnerable – so that he could make a mockery of God by posing with a Bible in front of the church.

I remember back when the Left Behind books were popular, reading about the antichrist parading into the temple and declaring himself God. Trump didn’t exactly declare himself God yesterday, although he has referred to himself as “the chosen one” and promoted comments that compare him to the second coming and the messiah in the past.

But while the country he pretends to lead burns around him, he dialed up some old-fashioned police brutality – exactly what the protests are all about – so he could make a nice show for his base of white evangelical “Christians” who put him in office in 2016.

This is your time.

Trump – along with his “Christian” supporters – has long mocked the name of God with his words, actions, and policies. All the while, he’s maintained seemingly impossibly high polling numbers from among American “Christians,” who claim to support him because of their faith in Jesus. Yet another example of taking the Lord’s name in vain.

His actions yesterday reach a whole new level of blasphemy. Jesus warns of the consequences of his followers denying him before others, but how much worse will it be for his followers to actively take his name in vain by proclaiming to stand for him with their lips while they very publicly deny him by their lives, actions, and political stances?

If any prior president – republican or democrat – had done what Trump did yesterday in a similar situation, the backlash from American “Christians” would have been swift and unforgiving. But that same group has shown an endless capacity to accept anything and everything Trump says and does, all the while praising Jesus for the mighty Donald Trump. Once again, taking the Lord’s name in vain.

This is your time. No more excuses. Jesus warned that we cannot serve both God and man, and yesterday Trump shockingly found a way to make what had already been crystal clear even more obvious that he and God could not be more diametrically opposed in every way.

You either stand with Trump or you stand with Jesus. Staying silent is standing with Trump. It is simply unacceptable for anyone who follows Jesus to not cry out with the full force of faith to decry the blasphemy of the words and actions of Trump yesterday (really, every day, but especially yesterday).

This is your time. No one is holding a gun to your head, which means you have to live with your answer. But the whole world is watching to see our response. It’s only reached this point because Trump’s base of American “Christians” has remained silent (or even openly supported) his long list of prior words and actions that violate everything Jesus lived (and died) for. He’s the one more than 80 percent of white evangelicals chose to be their president, and he’s the man that the majority of American “Christians” still support as of recent polling.

For me, there is no choice. I have no interest in standing with Donald Trump. I follow a God who promises so much more. But for those who’ve stuck with him with all their “but…” arguments to try to justify it, we’ve reached this point. You brought this on yourself. And now you’re faced with a choice.

Who are you standing with? Who are you denying? This is your time.

Boy kneels with American flag in front of rows of tombstones

Memorial Day is designated as a holiday in order for us to remember those who died in the service of our country. Over the course of our nearly 250-year history, millions of people have given their lives to protect our nation and what it stands for.

I am ever grateful to those who gave everything so that we could have hope for a land where all “are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Each one chose to give up their own rights to prioritize the rights of their neighbors. Today, along with a solemn, “Thank you,” I have another two-word confession to offer them:

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Luke 12

Today’s closer look at Luke examines another section of lengthy discourse. So many of the things Jesus says tie back to many of the topics we’ve already touched on in previous posts, with the core of the message being a radical faith that is lived out through selfless sacrifice to provide for everyone else. Basically, every step of the way, Jesus’ call contradicts what we naturally choose to pursue and the values of a materialistic world.

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Luke 11

Jesus’ interactions with the religious leaders of the day was often antagonistic, and that is a key component of the stories in today’s section of Luke. One thing to keep in mind as we read about Jesus’ often bitter interactions with these leaders is the contrast between his tone and message toward them and his compassion for all others. This exposes a key component to his heart and mission: an extreme openness to all who might be considered outsiders, or in some cases, followers, compared to the aggressive rebukes of the leaders who had guided them away from the heart of God.

I think this is something we should always maintain at the front of our thoughts about Jesus: it wasn’t the people we would expect that he rebuked, and it wasn’t the people we would expect that he invited openly. Our current culture is perhaps as divided as it has ever been, creating an extreme mentality of “us vs. them,” and this absolutely holds true among people who profess to follow Christ. Perhaps we should take a step back and consider humbly whether our exclusive message and harsh judgments towards the words and actions of certain groups really align with the way Jesus interacted with people. I find it incredibly telling that the only people Jesus consistently rebukes are religious leaders who, as he maintained, should know better.

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Case full of cash stacks

With the decline of honest conversation, we’ve reached a point where the political right basically decries any amount of government as socialism, equates it with the Soviet Union, and decries it as evil.

Unfortunately, doing so just feeds the flames of incivility and creates this bogeyman that can be used to incite fear and anger and turn people against anything. Honestly, it’s not any different from what Senator Joseph McCarthy did in the 1950s, except it’s focused on turning the mob against specific political ideas rather than individuals (although it is often used on people as well).

By creating this extreme “other” of socialism and moving the goalposts so it’s always encroaching on us, this political approach pushes us further and further in the opposite direction. In doing so, it doesn’t allow for a real conversation as to whether or not what we’re doing is right or if we should slow down and maybe actually consider the results of our structure.

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Luke 10

Today’s closer look at Luke will be shorter than most (though still not particularly short, because I’m incapable of being concise), but in no way does that diminish the importance of the content. In fact, the primary reason it will be shorter is because I’ve already two posts examining the parable of the Good Samaritan, which covers almost half of chapter 10.

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Luke 9

Part of my closer look at Luke project has been seeking out snippets and sections that I have overlooked previously and/or that I feel like have been overlooked by “Christian” culture at large in our country. Another part, one that will be the driving force behind today’s post, is taking seriously some of the things that have been repeated so much as to become cliché and to have lost their meaning within that same “Christian” culture.

The key message at the heart of this chapter is one that has been commonly repeated, but I believe it has been robbed of its meaning:

If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? (23-25)

The last piece of that is something I’ve clung to over the last several years and, to be honest, something that helped spark a transformation in my own thinking and faith. But while it tidily sums up so much of Jesus’ heart, everything around it both in this short quote and in the rest of the chapter support and confirm this truth.

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Woman wearing a mask and holding lemon in a grocery store

*NOTE* I realize there are groups who either cannot wear masks for health reasons (such as breathing issues) or do not feel comfortable wearing masks in public due to the color of their skin and the threat of racism that is so endemic to our culture. This message is intended for people who do not have to consider such unfair challenges each time they go out in public (or in some cases, just sit in their homes).

While life is full of opportunities to learn, on occasion we face significant moments that can dramatically reshape how we think about something. Sometimes we even discover a simple test that serves a tremendous service in revealing a person’s character.

The Covid-19 pandemic has provided countless situations like these. But the one that fascinates me most right now is the purpose of masks.

I’ll start with the first half of my above statement: the opportunity to learn. While this seems like such an obvious thing (and I feel a little stupid for not realizing it before), it wasn’t until quite recently that I learned the true purpose of medical masks. In fact, I always had it backwards.

I always thought masks were about protecting the wearer.

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