Coram Deo ~

Looking at contemporary culture from a Christian worldview

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book reviews
alexander-hamiltonAlexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. The Penguin Press. 818 pages. 2004

This detailed and well-written biography of an important figure in the founding of our country inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda’s highly successful (11 Tony Awards, Grammy Award and Pulitzer Prize for Drama) musical Hamilton.  I read the book to find out more about Alexander Hamilton and to better understand the musical, which I will be seeing soon.
Hamilton was born in the West Indies, the exact date not known, with the author using the year 1755. Hamilton was around slavery growing up, and the theme of slavery comes up throughout the book. As his parents were not married, he would forever be referred to as a bastard by his enemies, such as second President John Adams. Hamilton’s experienced difficulties early on with his father abandoning the family, his Mom dying of a sudden illness and the first cousin he and his half-brother would go to live with committing suicide.
Hamilton was self-taught, and his Christian faith was strong early in his life, waning in the middle years, and becoming strong again late in his life. He wrote poems, the first of which was published in a newspaper in 1771. This would lead to being given the opportunity to go to America for an education, eventually landing at Kings College (now Columbia University).
Hamilton excelled in his speeches and writing. One of the things that impressed me about Hamilton was his voluminous writing.  He would also excel in military service, becoming a Captain the Battle of New York. George Washington would ask him to join his staff as his secretary, with a rank of Lt. Colonel, serving more as what we would know as a Chief of Staff.  The author states that it is difficult to conceive of their careers apart from each other. They would have a mutual respect which grew even stronger late in Washington’s life.    The author takes us through the events leading to the development of our nation, beginning with the Boston Tea Party.
Hamilton would leave Washington’s staff, frustrated that since he was so valuable to Washington, the president had blocked several possible other opportunities for him.  He would become an attorney, as did Aaron Burr, whose grandfather was the great theologian Jonathan Edwards. Several times the author will show how Hamilton’s and Burr’s lives intersect.
Hamilton would be instrumental in founding the Bank of New York, the oldest stock still being traded on the New York Stock Exchange, and later a new Federalist newspaper, the New York Evening Post, the oldest continuously active paper.
Hamilton would marry Elizabeth (Eliza) Schuyler, a Dutch Reformed Christian, and they would have eight children. By this time, Hamilton had drifted from the faith of his youth, and he would never have a church affiliation.
Women were attracted to Hamilton, and this would later lead to one of his major failures, a long-time affair with Mariah Reynolds, a married woman. This would lead to blackmail payments to her husband. Hamilton was suspected of financial collusion with Mariah Reynolds’ husband. James Monroe would later be involved in making the documents of Hamilton’s affair public, something Hamilton would never forgive him for, and would later lead to both threatening a duel.
The author shows Hamilton “warts and all”. He was against slavery, but may have owned a few household slaves. He made an ill-advised 6 ½ hour speech at the Constitutional Convention, wrote a long pamphlet about his affair and another long one against Adam’s presidency. He also had a long time association with William Dewars, a man of questionable character.
I enjoyed reading about how our government was put together (Congress, Supreme Court, Electoral College, Bill of Rights, Coast Guard, our financial system, etc.), so long ago and yet relatively unchanged in 2017. The controversial Alien and Sedition Act brings the current day issue of immigration into the story. Hamilton wrote the majority of the Federalist Papers, with help from Madison and a little from John Jay.
Hamilton would become Treasury Secretary and have conflict with Madison over the debt issue. He would also have ideological differences with Thomas Jefferson, who was Secretary of State under President George Washington.
The French Revolution plays prominently in this story. We read of the Jay Treaty protest in New York City, where Hamilton’s temper got the best of him and he threated to resort to violence.
Washington chose not to serve a third term as president, leading to the first contested presidential election. Adams was elected, but felt that Hamilton was disloyal to him. Adams would take many low blows at Hamilton, and would become another of his political enemies.
Hamilton would speak out against Vice President Burr’s quest to become the Governor of New York in 1804, leading to murderous rage in Burr, which eventually led to their duel and Hamilton’s death. Ironically, the author states that without their political rivalry, the two lawyers could have been good friends.
This fascinating book contains a number of recurring themes such as slavery, Aaron Burr’s role in Hamilton’s life, Hamilton’s political relationships – positive (Washington) and negative (Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Clinton and Burr), his affair with Mariah Reynolds, his poor judgment regarding William Dewars and the faith of Hamilton and wife Eliza.
Reading this book really helped me to be able to follow and understand the excellent Original Broadway Cast recording of the musical Hamilton. Recently, the Hamilton Mixtape was released, executive produced by Hamilton creator/composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, and featuring performances of some of the songs from the musical by popular artists such as Alicia Keys, Kelly Clarkson, Usher, John Legend, and the Roots. Both releases contain adult language, though a “clean” version of the Hamilton Mixtape is available. Continue reading

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My Devotional Books for 2017

voices-from-the-pastVoices from the Past: Puritan Devotional Readings. Edited by Richard Rushing. Banner of Truth. 428 pages. 2009

The author writes that over the past fifty years there has been a great resurgence of interest in the writings of the Puritans.  I was personally introduced to the Puritans about twenty years ago by my pastor through the wonderful Puritan reprints of Dr. Don Kistler and also via The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions. Richard Rushing has developed this book of daily readings extracted from some of his favorite Puritan authors (a second volume was recently published). His prayer is that these readings will stimulate the reader to explore further the writings of these spiritual giants.

Each of the short readings (approximately 350 words), begins with a Scripture verse. The author selected the verse according to the theme of the reading. While some of the devotions appear almost as written, others have been condensed by the author so that several pages form a single devotional reading. At the end of each reading is the Puritan author and a citation from where Richard Rushing pulled the reading.  I plan to use this wonderful resource as a part of my devotional reading for 2017.

60-days-of-happiness60 Days of Happiness: Discover God’s Promise of Relentless Joy by Randy Alcorn. Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. 304 pages. 2017

Respected author Randy Alcorn states that our problem isn’t that we want to be happy. Rather, our problem is that we keep looking for happiness in all of the wrong places. He writes that this new book, drawn from selected portions of his acclaimed 2016 book Happiness, will take you to God, the primary source of happiness in the universe. The book then connects the secondary sources of happiness back to the God who created them and graciously gives them to us.

The author has reworked the material from Happiness to present it here in a fresh and different way. I have not yet read Happiness, which is nearly 500 pages in length, though have read his small God’s Promise of Happiness, which encouraged me to read this medium sized book. For this book, the author and editor have selected subjects that most lend themselves to personal growth and worshipful meditation on God and his Word, which will be an excellent way to start 2017. Each of the 60 daily readings begin with a scripture verse and an inspirational quote (Tim Keller, Charles Spurgeon, Jonathan Edwards, etc.), and end with a prayer. I am using the book for daily devotional reading, though it can certainly be read straight through as you would a regular book. Whether you have read the larger Happiness and would like to return to the subject in a devotional format, or whether you haven’t read Happiness but want to learn what God and his people have said about the subject of happiness throughout the centuries, I think you will enjoy and be blessed by this new book. Continue reading

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book reviews

A Peculiar Glory by John PiperA Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness by John Piper. Crossway. 304 pages. 2016

This is Piper’s first major work since 2011’s Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian. His objective is to answer the questions of how are we to know that the Scriptures are the word of God, how can we trust the Bible, and what do the Scriptures claim for themselves. Piper’s main passion has been toward the non-scholarly. He asks how the common (non-seminary trained, non-scholar) Christian has a well-grounded trust in Scripture. How can they know for certain that the Bible is confirmed by the peculiar glory of God?

He begins with his own biographical story about the Bible. He asks the reader ‘on what do you stand?’ He writes that God was holding onto him by making the view compelling. Piper didn’t just hold a view of Scripture, he was held by His glory through His Word. He tells us that he went from being a teacher of the Bible in Bible College to a preacher of the Bible for 33 years at Bethlehem Baptist Church.

He then looks at what the Scriptures claim for themselves, and how we can know such claims are true. His concern is the Bible’s self-attestation, or the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. He then looks at what books make up the Scriptures. From there he looks at what the Scriptures claim for themselves through the Old Testament, Jesus and the Apostles. Piper writes that he believes in the inerrancy of the original manuscripts, though we do not have the original manuscripts at our disposal.

He then addresses the main questions that are listed above. He concludes the book with six chapters on how the Scriptures are confirmed by the peculiar glory of God.

Piper contends that God’s Glory and His Word are inseparable. He draws heavily from Jonathan Edwards, John Calvin, the Apostle Paul (specifically 2 Corinthians 4:3-6) and Westminster Larger Catechism question 4 to address the questions the book poses. He argues that the Bible exposes us to the glory of God and in that way gives us complete confidence that it is, indeed, God’s own word.

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book reviews
hillbilly-elegyHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance. Harper. 272 pages. 2016

The author admits at the start that it is a bit strange for a 31-year old who hasn’t really accomplished anything to be writing his memoir. But I respectfully beg to differ with him. He has accomplished something – a lot; J.D. Vance is a survivor.

He writes that he almost squandered all of the talents he had, until he was rescued, primarily by a few key members of his family. Admitting that he has a complicated relationship with his parents (his father gave him up for adoption, and his addict mother subjected him to living with man after man, many of them she would marry), he tells his and his people’s story of growing up in the Appalachian town of Jackson, Kentucky and then later in the Rust Belt town of Middletown, Ohio.  Because of the instability of his mother, he was primarily raised by his beloved (and foul-mouthed) grandmother (Mamaw), who claimed to be a Christian, but despised organized religion and didn’t go to church, and her husband Papaw, the most important man in his life. He would teach J.D. that the measure of a man is how he treats the women in his life. Papaw voted for Reagan, but after that, only for Democrats. His sister Lindsay, who once looked after both of them when she was just out of high school, is very dear to him as well, along with his Aunt Wee.

Vance, a political conservative, and professing Christian, writes of his people – Scotch-Irish (Hillbillies, Rednecks or Hill People), and their migration from Kentucky to Middleton along the “Hillbilly Highway”.  Poverty would follow them from Kentucky to Ohio.

As he grew up Vance would see Middleton and the neighborhood he grew up in deteriorate. As industry left town, shops closed. Armco, which he states pretty much built the town, was purchased by Kawasaki Steel Corporation in 1987.

Vance’s story reads like someone who has been in the foster care system. He had no overall stability, bounced from living with his mother (and various men), to his grandparents, and even his biological father, who was by then a devout Christian. But he never did go into the foster care system, writing that he once lied to a judge to save his mom from imprisonment, which allowed him to continue to live with her and his grandparents.

J.D. grew up amongst much irrational behavior (drinking, drug use, violence, etc.). His Mom tried to commit suicide and once threatened to kill J.D. At one time, she demanded that he provide a urine sample for her so that she wouldn’t lose her job.

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Book Reviews
a-life-well-playedA Life Well Played: My Stories by Arnold Palmer. St. Martin’s Press. 272 pages. 2016

This was Arnold Palmer’s 13th book, and the sequel to his 1999 autobiography A Golfer’s Life. The book, which was published shortly after his death on September 25 at age 87, features 75 short stories on a wide range of topics under the headings of Golf, Life and Business.  As a bonus on the audiobook version of the book Arnie reads the beginning section of the book, be it in a very weak voice.

Arnie writes that the biggest influence in golf and life was his father, “Paps”. He taught him to be a sportsman along with good sportsmanship. He rode him hard and rarely complimented him.  His parents taught him manners and respect. Other major influences on him were his first wife Winnie, agent Mark McCormack, and the game of golf.

Of the 75 stories Palmer includes here, I had many favorites. Among them were:

  • His love of Latrobe Country Club (he considered Latrobe, PA to be home), Bay Hill, and Pebble Beach
  • His thoughts about Jack Nicklaus
  • Playing boldly, charging and going for broke
  • Arnie’s Army
  • His thoughts on civility, trust (sealing some of his most important business deals with just a handshake), and listening well
  • Signing autographs (and doing a good job of it too)
  • His love and devotion to first wife Winnie
  • His love of flying. He wrote that had he not made a career of playing golf, he would have most likely been an airline pilot
  • His heroes (his father, Bryon Nelson, Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones)
  • His charity efforts, especially those related to children
  • His relationship to Ike (Dwight D. Eisenhower)
  • Golf course design. He still had plans to design the “ultimate course”
  • The Golf Channel, which he co-founded
  • The Arnold Palmer drink (iced tea and lemonade)

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book reviews

the-magnolia-storyThe Magnolia Story by Chip and Joanna Gaines with Mark Dagostino. Thomas Nelson. 208 pages. 2016

This book tells the fascinating story of Chip and Joanna Gaines, stars of HGTV’s popular Fixer Upper television series, now in its third season, and how God has worked in that story.  The book is written by both of them, with Joanna taking the lead. The audiobook version is well-read by the authors.

The book begins with the incredible story of how they got their television series to start with. We also hear how God worked in their lives to get the property for Joanna’s first store in Waco, Texas, an unexpected loan of $100,000 from a friend when they were literally broke, as well as how they got the 40-acre farm they live on with their four children as well as the old cotton mill where their new Magnolia Market is located.

Both Chip and Joanna go back and give us a glimpse of their lives growing up. Chip was an entrepreneur. He was known as the “Mayor of 3rd Street” in Waco, about a mile from the Baylor University campus. He was a star athlete in high school and would go on to play baseball in college. Joanna’s mother is Korean, and she writes of some difficult times she endured in high school because she looked different from the other girls. Chip and Joanna are opposites in many ways, but write of how they have used their individual strengths to be good together.

The authors write openly of their faith and how God has led them along their journeys, oftentimes referring to His still, small voice leading them.

Joanna writes about being inspired by visits to boutiques she visited in New York City, eventually leading to the opening of her own shop (The Magnolia Shop), which she closed in 2006 to concentrate on her family.  But other businesses would follow, a home furnishing brand and Magnolia Homes, which really took off after their first shop closed.

Life changed significantly for the Gaines when the pilot of Fixer Upper aired in 2013 and with the show’s first season in 2014. Joanna would later feel led by God to open Magnolia Market, bringing in her father to assist with the business.

We read that the Gaines have never had a television in their home in the thirteen years they’ve been married, and that they do better as a couple the more time they spend together.

Joanna shares some of her thoughts about design and decorating as well as philosophies about life, such as:

  • Thrive, don’t just survive
  • Focus on thankfulness and contentment
  • Don’t wait for things to be perfect before you are happy
  • Don’t worry about always keeping the house clean

This is a quick and enjoyable read, especially for those fans of the TV show Fixer Upper.

killing-the-rising-sunKilling the Rising Sun: How America Vanquished World War II Japan by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. Henry Holt and Co. 336 pages. 2016

This is the sixth book in Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s Killing series, with previous volumes on Lincoln, Kennedy, Jesus, Patton and Reagan. Next to the book on Lincoln, this book, which addresses the events leading up to the end of World War II, has had the most impact on me. As with the other books, this one provides day-by-day, and at times hour-by-hour accounts of the events leading up to the end of the war. The central character in the book, in my opinion, is not a person, but the atomic bomb.

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how-would-jesus-voteHow Would Jesus Vote? Do Your Political Positions Really Align with the Bible? By Darrell L. Bock. Howard Books. 272 pages. 2016

The title of this book is somewhat misleading, as the author admits himself that we don’t even know if Jesus would indeed vote. If you were expecting a book that would tell you clearly where Jesus himself would vote on some of the major issues in this year’s election, you might be disappointed. However, what the author does is look at a number of key issues and then looks at what Scripture says overall, and what Jesus in particular says about them. In most cases, he then offers a balanced view, not conservative or liberal, on the issue. The one issue that is the exception to this is abortion.

The book reminded me of Scott Sauls’ excellent book Jesus Outside the Lines in the way it takes a thoughtful, not either/or view on most of the issues discussed. The book is “an attempt to present the values of Jesus and Scripture in a way that challenges cherry-picking on complex issues of policy. It’s about biblical values, government, and our neighbors.” While we don’t know whether Jesus would vote, the author states that we can know the principles he taught that relate to how we are to interact with others.

The well-researched book begins with an introduction to the principles our country was founded on. The author than has two “Starting Points” chapters that lay the foundation needed before he begins talking about the issues that divide us. The remaining chapters examine some of the most contentious political topics of our time in the light of Scripture and the teachings of Jesus.  Those issues include the size of government, poverty and wealth, health care, immigration, gun control, foreign policy, war, race, education, sexuality and abortion.

I found this book to be helpful in looking at these issues that divide us. The author states that should Jesus vote, “his ballot would be cast for that which honors God and allows his creatures to flourish in life and to manage the creation well. His party would pursue the virtue that makes for a stable society and respects that we are all made in God’s image.”

book news

  • NIfaith-and-work-bibleV Faith and Work Bible. The new NIV Faith and Work Bible was recently released. A description of the book is “Combining doctrine, Scripture application and real-life experiences, the NIV Faith and Work Bible will help you answer the question “How does my faith relate to my work?” It doesn’t matter what job or career you have—part-time, third shift or freelance; from the shop floor, to the school hallways, to the corner office; this Bible will reveal how relevant God’s Word is to your daily work life.” Tim Keller writes the Foreword.
  • Why Tim Keller Wrote a Prequel to The Reason for God. Matt Smethurst interviews Tim Keller about new “apologetic” issues in the West, the faith of secularism, the ubiquitous harm principle, and more.

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Book Reviews

the-chief-exercise-of-prayer-by-john-calvinThe Chief Exercise of Faith: John Calvin on Prayer (From The Institutes) by John Calvin. 84 pages. 2016

This small book is an excerpt of Henry Beveridge’s 1845 translation of John Calvin’s classic work Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 20. The book is broken down into 52 individual sections. As an example, Section 2 is on prayer defined, its necessity and use.

Calvin covers many aspects of prayer in this short but exhaustive book on prayer. Here are ten of the topics or thoughts from Calvin that I highlighted as I read the book:

  1. The true object of prayer is to carry our thoughts directly to God, whether to celebrate his praise or implore his aid.
  2. God is to be invoked only in the name of Christ. We pray to God in the name of Christ alone.
  3. The Lord’s Prayer contains everything that we can or ought to ask of God.
  4. The rules of prayer. Let the first rule of right prayer then be, to have our heart and mind framed as becomes those who are entering into converse with God.
  5. One of the requisites of legitimate prayer is repentance.
  6. The suppression of all pride. He who comes into the presence of God to pray must divest himself of all vainglorious thoughts, lay aside all idea of worth; in short, discard all self- confidence, humbly giving God the whole glory, lest by arrogating anything, however little, to himself, vain pride cause him to turn away his face.
  7. The laws of prayer. It is also of importance to observe, that the four laws of prayer of which I have treated are not so rigorously enforced, as that God rejects the prayers in which he does not find perfect faith or repentance, accompanied with fervent zeal and wishes duly framed.
  8. Christ is the only Mediator between God and man. It is manifest sacrilege to offer prayer to others.
  9. The principle we must always hold is, that in all prayer, public and private, the tongue without the mind must be displeasing to God.
  10. An exposition of the Lord’s Prayer, which is divided into six petitions. Subdivision into two principal parts, the former referring to the glory of God, the latter to our salvation.

There is much wisdom from Calvin about the subject of prayer in these pages. Highly recommended. Continue reading

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This month marks 18 years since we started as a four-page monthly church newsletter in September, 1998. Much has remained the same – we aim to look at contemporary culture (movies, books, music, news) from a Christian worldview.  We transitioned to a non-church specific blog in late 2013.
Thanks for making us part of your life. Please let us know how we can we better serve you.

recommended-resourcesSermon on the Mount by Sinclair B. FergusonSermon on the Mount

I recently enjoyed listening (for the second time) to Sinclair Ferguson’s excellent 12-part teaching series Sermon on the Mount. Ligonier describes the series as follows:

“In the face of scorn and disbelief, Jesus Christ announced His kingdom. In the face of hatred and death, He demonstrated its power. In this twelve-lecture series, Dr. Sinclair Ferguson explains how the Sermon on the Mount equips us to live a kingdom life in a fallen world. Dr. Ferguson highlights Christ’s exhortations to live counter-culturally, to examine the deeper implications of God’s law, and to rest in the knowledge of God as Father for the cure of all our anxieties.”

You can watch the first message “Life in the Kingdom” and find out how to order the DVD or CD here.

book reviews

every-season-prayersEvery Season Prayers: Gospel-Centered Prayers for the Whole of Life by Scotty Smith. Baker Books. 336 pages. 2016.

With his first book, 2001’s Objects of His Affection, I was gripped by the honesty, transparency and Gospel-centeredness of Scotty Smith. I told my pastor that my desire was to take a class at Covenant Seminary with Scotty. Much later, I was blessed to have not one, but two wonderful classes with Scotty that I described as small tastes of Heaven, and have since read with joy each of his books. His daily Heavenward prayers come into my email inbox and often times speak directly to something that my wife and I have been dealing with at the time. He has told me that he receives similar feedback from friends all around the world.

His first book of prayers, Everyday Prayers, has been a daily companion of mine since it was published in 2011. I’m so excited about this new volume of prayers, which will be a treasured part of my morning devotional reading.

This new sequel to Everyday Prayers, which had a prayer for each day of the year, is arranged topically, so readers can, as Scotty tells us, find a prayer applicable to a particular need, mood or issue. He states that he wrote most of these new prayers in response to comments asking him for prayers for a particular topic. He also received many suggestion for prayers of different forms, lengths and voices, including many from pastors and worship leaders for prayers of confession and family worship.

Scotty’s intent with this new book, as it was with Everyday Prayers, is to equip God’s people to pray, not to do their praying for them.  To help with that, he has included exercises in the book that will enable the reader to develop their own voice in prayer as well as cultivate a listening heart.

It is with joy that I highly commend this new book of prayers to you. May it be a wonderful daily companion for years to come!

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Book Reviews

for_the_gloryFor the Glory: Eric Liddell’s Journey from Olympic Champion to Modern Martyr by Duncan Hamilton. Penguin Press. 400 pages. 2016

Award-winning British sportswriter Duncan Hamilton has given us a wonderful gift in this new biography of Olympic Gold Medal runner, missionary and evangelist Eric Liddell, known as the Flying Scotsman and Flying Parson. Many of us know Liddell from the 1981 Academy Award winning film Chariots of Fire, which depicted his rivalry with Harold Abrahams at the 1934 Olympic Games, and which I watched again while reading this book.  More than half of Hamilton’s book covers Liddell’s life after the period covered by the film.

Liddell was born in China to missionary parents. His father was a minister and his mother a nurse. They were missionaries with the London Missionary Society (LMS). Liddell told people that he decided to be a missionary to China himself at age 8 or 9.  Eric and his two brothers and sister would later move to Scotland. Eric would only see his parents once between 1908 and 1920.

Liddell’s athletic mentor was Tom McKerchar and spiritual mentor D.P. Thompson, who first asked him to speak in churches, which he would do often.  Hamilton writes of his unique way of running with his head thrown back.

If you have seen the film, you know that in the 1924 Olympics, held in Paris, Liddell, favored in the 100 meters, chose not to run because the race was going to take place on a Sunday. He was criticized for his decision, but held fast to what he believed the Bible taught. Instead, he ran the 400 meter race on another day, setting a world record, winning with his unique way of running with his head thrown back.

Hamilton writes that Liddell had many opportunities to financially capitalize on his win, but instead chose to return to Tientsin, China to serve the Lord with the LMS, the same missionary organization as his father, who was still well-known and respected there.

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