The 10 Commandments of Marriage

Not sure how I found my way to Bridal Guide magazine, but I did, in searchman and woman of something suitable for this site now that my regular second job is on hiatus, leaving some time to work on marriage issues. The article from which these ideas are stolen is one of those multi-page things that most of us hate, but I encourage you to stick with it and read them all. Very sound secular advice.

1. Thou shalt be fun.
2. Thou shalt be sexy.
3. Thou shalt be financially honest.
4. Thou shalt be grateful.
5. Thou shalt keep confidences.
6. Thou shalt keep thine own lives.
7. Thou shalt be an extended family.
8. Thou shalt let bygones be bygones.
9. Thou shalt be faithful in every way.
10. Thou shalt live a healthy lifestyle.

Had this article been prepared with a more spiritual outlook, it probably would have dropped a couple of these in favor of, say, “practicing thine faith together” or “thou shalt respect the sanctity of the marital bed.” Actually, it’s not too hard to imagine a Catholic magazine publishing this same article and replacing items #1 and 2 with these two directives.

Cute-Romantic-Love-CoupleWhich, in my opinion, would be a mistake. The first two items on the list deserve their place of prominence not just because they apply to young brides and grooms, but moreover because they enable couples to navigate the waters from “newlywed” to “golden anniversary.” Being fun, or funny, is one of the failsafe techniques for keeping relationships blooming. I like to think that my wife of 40 years has laugh lines around her eyes partially due to me; lacking any number of social graces, I’ve always tried to at least keep her smiling, if not laughing out loud.

Item #2 is, likewise, important during the entire course of our marriages. old-couple in loveAs we age, our sexual abilities, wants and desires change.   However, these changes do nothing to our ability to be interesting, perhaps playful, to show interest, to initiate intimacy, to be clean, shaved and fresh, to put clean sheets on the bed, light a few candles, put on some music, etc. Sexual encounters, once a couple is empty nesters, are fairly simple to arrange, but sometimes difficult to execute in the conventional way, or ways. With young kids in the house, it takes real commitment to intimacy to find time—or even a place—to enjoy each other’s presence. There’s some frustration built into each scenario—having the ability and not the time, or having the time with diminished skills—but it remains important to keep fun and physical intimacy in your relationship, else couples risk ending up living together as brother and sister, polite and considerate with nothing resembling passion ar mutual engagement. This is NOT how to keep a marriage strong and healthy.

I think items #3-10 are pretty intuitive. Gratitude, forgiveness, faith, maintenance of self are all qualities that we easily maintain with our friends, but not always so easily with our spouses. The one commandment that is REALLY missing, the one that is more important than perhaps any of the others, goes something like this:

Thou shalt be friends first, foremost and forever.

holding handsAs we have remarked often in this space, couples have a much better chance to make it to their golden anniversary—roughly 2-3% of married couples accomplish this—if they are friends as well as lovers. Friends don’t cash in their relationship because of a fight or disagreement. Friends tend to usually fight fairly with their friends; spouses perhaps not so much. John Gottman, in his book we have virtually worn the cover off of in this blog, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, states unequivocally that friendship before and during marriage is one of the great predictors of a couple’s likelihood of staying together, happy and content.

God bless all married couples during this busy and exhausting season of joy.

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Pillow Talk

In 2008, when we were first discussing the creation of a ministry at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel dedicated to fostering a community that supports married couples in our parish, I recall commenting to Denise McGonigal that this could not simply be about “the theory of marriage.”  That, in order to be successful, grow, and attract married couples from every demographic in the parish, it needed to focus on real-life issues, and to include concrete examples of how happily married couples make marriage work.  This stance would be leavened with a strong dose of Catholic spirituality, keeping in mind our mission to celebrate the joy of sacramental marriage, as eloquently expressed in Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.

So, here we are on Valentine’s Day, preparing for our monthly Marriage on Tap event tonight at which over 60 couples will be receiving eucharist, renewing their marriage vows, enjoying a date night meal together, and sharing thoughts and ideas around Denise’s presentation about marriages made in Heaven.  An intimate, non-commercial celebration of what marriage CAN be when spouses allow the Holy Spirit to enter their relationship and commit to each other to be the best husbands, wives and parents they can be.

As one of the more secular voices on this blog, I’m always searching mainstream media online for articles and ideas I can steal borrow to share with our readers.  Today I discovered a cheat sheet useful for facilitating conversation in the marital bed.  Why many of us are more comfortable conducting these conversations in our living rooms than in our bedrooms is a mystery.  My own theory, what Nancy would call “the story I’m telling myself,” is that these conversations will either lead to sex or NOT lead to sex, depending on which spouse is more inclined in which direction, comprising one of the worst sentences ever to grace these pages.  She, I suspect, would say it has nothing to do with any of that, that it’s probably due to more practical considerations; in our case, I wear a CPAP mask, which makes it practically impossible to talk, and works, for her, like talking with an astronaut.

Enough.  Here is the Pillow Talk piece borrowed from TheDatingDivas.com:

PIllow Talk

 

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Looking Back at Marriage from the Finish Line

old-couple in loveOur most recent post was an unsettling look at marriage from the perspective of people in their 20’s, the so-called Millennials.  It talked about “beta testing” relationships, about seven-year options with the right of renewal, etc.  Worth reading, if you have the time. Today’s post examines marriage from the perspective of couples who have been married up to 76 years.  The original article, written by Nancy Hellmich, appeared in USA Today.

Based upon research gathered from interviews with 700 retired people, gerontologist Karl Pillemer has written a new book, 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage. Pillemer, the founder of the Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging, has been married for 36 years to his own high school honey, Clare McMillan.  Treading dangerously close to plagiarism, I want to share the highlights of the advice I gleaned from his research, as follows:

  • Follow your heart when choosing a spouse.  This was beautifully described as “the thunderbolt” in The Godfather, whose Michael Corleone experienced it while courting his future wife, Apollonia Vitelli, but I digress.  The point is, one shouldn’t get married simply because it seems like the right time.  He or she must make one’s heart “soar like a hawk.”  And although young love is no guarantee, perhaps we should describe it as necessary, but not sufficient. Wedding
  • Use your head, too.  If he or she has a gambling issue or drinks too much, is financially irresponsible or flirts incessantly, it raises the odds against a successful long term union.  Our future mate need not be perfect, but there are some definite dealbreakers out there that all of your love and care won’t overcome.
  • Seek shared values.  Sure, opposites attract, and spouses with different temperaments can enjoy very successful long term relationships.  My wife Nancy and I are different in many ways, but we share core beliefs in raising children, handling money, deferring immediate gratification to achieve long-term goals, etc.  In college, I thought of this a seeking a woman with a “coefficient of boredom” similar to mine, one who could enjoy life at a pace midway between frenetic and lethargic.
  • Find someone with whom you can communicate easily.  It is unrealistic to suppose that Chatty Kathy is going to be able to sustain a relationship with Strong Silent Ken. I’m big and loud and still recall how happy I was to have met a woman in Nancy whom I could not intimidate.  Back when I was in the insurance business I had a client with a basic high school education who operated a food truck and was married to a pediatrician.  I don’t know what became of them, but I remember thinking at the time that they didn’t seem to have much in common.  If you and your intended have trouble talking about important stuff now, it probably won’t get any easier as you age.Parents and kids
  • Choose the time and place to discuss difficult subjects.  My mom used to say that timing is everything, which may or may not be true, but tackling difficult subjects must be done with some forethought.  I may not welcome a conversation about disciplining the kids when I’m in the middle of painting a room.  She may not want to discuss my budget concerns while preparing dinner for eight.  You get the idea. There’s a time and a place for everything.  And while you can’t, and shouldn’t, avoid the hard talks, you can certainly approach them with some discernment.  “Listen, after the kids are in bed tonight, can we talk about that argument we had at breakfast?”
  • Put your relationship first.  Ahead of your family, your kids and your friends.  Ahead of your work, your hobbies, even your favorite NFL team.  If your spouse feels you care more about golf than you do about her–even assuming she’s wrong–there’s gonna be trouble in River City.  Just sayin’.  And, like it or not, your kids should have to fit in your lives; you should not have to build your lives around them.  Just because you would give your lives for them doesn’t mean you should, unless push comes to shove, which it rarely does.
  • Develop some ground rules around in-laws.  They can enrich your lives, they can become a burden, or some of each.  The important thing is to find common ground concerning when, where and how much time you spend with them.  My mom told me to check out a girl’s mom, because that was who she would someday become.  I could argue that perhaps Nancy should have taken a closer look at my father, since he’s who I have become.  And though these prescriptions are offered somewhat tongue-in-cheek, there is something to them.
  • Pillemer says that “marriage is made of thousands of micro-interactions” which John Gottman refers to as “bids” in his own research.  It is hard to give one’s wife too many compliments, indicating not that you are a fawning dolt, but rather that you notice and appreciate the small things she does for you.  If your love language is acts of service (as mine is), it’s nice when they are noticed and received graciously.
  • Cute-Romantic-Love-CoupleMaintain your physical relationship as you age.  Not doing so puts you at risk of developing a spiritual distance between yourselves.  As Toby Keith says, “I ain’t as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was.”  Even if you’re beyond Toby’s stage, it is important to maintain physical intimacy in your marriage.  Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” proclaims that marital intimacy is a gift from God, and we should treat it as such.
  • Finally, it is important to be friends first.  This doesn’t come from Pillemer, but from me, John Gottman, Art and Larriane Bennett and countless students of the game. Can you imagine an argument with your best friend that would cause the two of you to stop being friends?  Me neither.  So it stands to reason that if your spouse is your best friend, you can weather any number of storms in your relationship, knowing that you’ll make up and find a way to laugh off whatever it was.  If you’re just lovers, you might choose to walk away from each other when things get rough, as they will. Being friends first gives you a powerful motivation to solve problems, soothe feelings, and put things right.

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Theology of the Body: Practicum

happiness image #2 ChristineTo my immense surprise, I find that as I age I continue to see more of my feminine side emerging. That I have a feminine side at all is a bit of a revelation; that I’m willing to admit it another; and that I see more of it each day an actual wonder.  Yet, here I am, unable to deny the following set of facts:

  • I’m no longer the primary breadwinner in my family, and am okay with that.
  • I do virtually all of the grocery shopping, meal planning and cooking, and I’m okay with that, too.
  • I’ve lost most of my lifelong interest in sports.
  • My second favorite TV show is Project Runway (although Justified, a man’s show to be sure, is still #1.)
  • I’ve started to follow, and am greatly interested in, a number of blogs directed at women.

Is all of this simply a result of the massive amounts of estrogen in public water supplies, Theology of the Bodycourtesy of the almost universal use of oral contraceptives by modern women?  I think not. It is, I believe, a side effect of my blooming interest in the subject of marital intimacy, awakened in me by Joe and Denise McGonigal at a Love’s Sacred Embrace marriage retreat five years ago. There, they presented a series of talks on The Theology of the Body, one of the lasting gifts left to us by Pope John Paul II, which I, as a fairly recent convert to the faith, felt was uncharted territory worth exploring.

All of the preceding is but a long way of admitting that I follow a blog called Intimacy in Marriage by Julie Sibert, subtitled, “Encouraging Christian Women toward Healthy Sexuality.”  Her most recent post, “Three Things Sex Tells Us about the Lord” is worth your time, regardless of your gender.  I encourage you to follow the link to Julie’s post, in that the three headers about which she writes, by themselves, don’t shed much light on the subject:Cute-Romantic-Love-Couple

  1. He understands the power of pleasure.
  2. He trusts us.
  3. He knew marriage would be hard.

As Intimacy ranks #4 on most lists of the things married couples fight about (see the related post on All Pro Dad), if you’re married and following this blog (and why would you if you weren’t?) there are some useful insights in Julie’s post.  Regardless of whether you’re a woman or a man.

Intimacy may have a different meaning for women than it does for men, but the undeniable fact is that without it, regardless of how you define it, your marriage is going to be a long row to hoe.  Anything we as spouses can do to enhance intimacy in our most intimate relationship is good.  Seeking to better understand our partners, and God’s intentions for us, is a great place to start.

I’d like to continue with this, but instead am going to put on my flannel pajamas and woolly socks, grab my box of Godivas, and head to bed to watch Connecticut and Kentucky play for the national title.  One shining moment, etc.  🙂  God bless you.

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Pleasing God, if Only for a Moment

TOn Saturday, February 8, roughly 60 couples renewed their wedding vows at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel.  The event, organized by the Love’s Sacred Embrace ministry, was lightly publicized, yet the response was robust, and included a number of couples that had not previously attended Marriage on Tap or any of the annual retreats.  Those renewing their vows spanned a wide range, from friends married for five months to others married more than five decades.  Father Doerr and Father Arbuckle sounded a bit hoarse when the blessings were finally concluded.  God’s grace was present in great abundance last night.

After dinner, Denise McGonigal and I were chatting about the evening.  She and Joe are young-weddingfacilitating a day-long marriage prep day today at church, prompting us to marvel at the general lack of awareness with which most young couples approach the sacrament of marriage.  Although the demographics of couples getting married for the first time are changing (trending to older and more affluent, while the overall numbers shrink), it’s still true that the vast majority of couples entering into the sacrament have absolutely no idea what they are in for, no idea of the scope and depth of the promises they are making. Generally, they are far more aware of the atmospherics–planning, invitations, seating charts, cakes, rehearsals–than they are of the promises they are exchanging, ostensibly until one of them dies.  Even if they are exceptionally aware and alert, there is no practical way to describe how the entry of children into the equation changes things.  Add to all of this the weight of a popular culture that is generally scornful and corrosive toward the institution of marriage, and it’s no wonder so many marriages fail within the first ten years. In fact, it may be a wonder that so many survive.

The only possible explanation behind the marriages that actually make it until the death of a spouse is God’s grace.  Yet, as Catholics, we are taught that grace cannot be earned, that our only hope of receiving something approaching “our share” is to be open to His Spirit.  Active practice of our faith–attending Mass, prayer, studying scripture, serving the poor and those less fortunate than ourselves–may put us in a favorable position with God, but guarantee nothing insofar as gaining grace is concerned.  Is it, then, simply the luck of the draw?

Perhaps.  But there are things we can do to improve our chances.  As Anne and Pete Slamkowski shared with us last night, we can love our spouses intentionally.  We can read and learn from folks like John Gottman and Art and Laraine Bennettwho have written about the secrets of highly successful marriages.  We can commit to BEING the right person, rather than SEARCHING for the right person, when it comes to marriage.  We can focus on fixing our own flaws, rather than harping on the flaws of our mate.  We can approach the challenges of keeping a home and raising children in a spirit of equality, of shared duties, rather than the common practice (engaged in by many men) of relegating these functions to the wife, an anachronistic vestige of the “women’s work” mentality of the 19th century.  Finally, we can enlist God’s help, through prayers of adoration, contrition, thanksgiving and supplication, to see us through the difficult times, and help us appreciate the good.

WeddingLast night, 60 couples said, in effect, “I chose well when I married you the first time, and I am blessed and happy to be able to marry you again.”  In an age of rampant materialism, obscene popular culture, shameful income inequality, global strife and a planet seemingly dedicated to contravening God’s word, in a small, quiet snowy community in central Indiana, a few of us gave God reason to celebrate His creation.  It was an honor to be a part of it.

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If Momma Ain’t Happy, Ain’t Nobody Happy

One of the old jokes Nancy and I have woven into our relationship goes like this, as I tell it.Man-Laughing  “When we were first married, I decided that I would make all the big decisions and that Nancy could make all the small decisions.  Luckily for us, in over 38 years of marriage, there haven’t been any big decisions…”  At the heart of this laugher is the concept of influence, the extent to which spouses allow their mate to shape their thinking and actions.  And according to the Gottmans, couples who share influence with one another are more likely to have lasting, fruitful and rewarding marriages than those who don’t.
couple talkingIn the 21st century, it is amazing to me that we still see and hear vestiges of 19th century thinking on this subject, marriages in which the husband assumes the role of the dominant decision-maker, with the wife taking the inferior position of having to defer to his judgment (or lack thereof) and live with decisions he makes almost entirely on his own.  Less common, I suspect, are marriages in which the wife makes most of the decisions, and the husband meekly accepts orders and direction from her.  These types of relationships lack equilibrium and are, hence, less stable than relationships in which influence is mutually observed and decisions are shared.  Personally, I’m not sure I would be happy in either extreme, as I don’t like the feeling of being directed or pushed around, but also lack confidence in my ability to make important decisions on my own.  One of the qualities that attracted me to Nancy in the very beginning was her assertiveness, the clear understanding that I would not be piloting this relationship entirely by myself.

How does your own relationship stack up in this area?  The following 20 true/false questions were developed by The Gottman Institute in order to help couples assess the extent to which they allow their spouses to influence them.  Perhaps you and your spouse feel you liberally allow one another to influence the thinking and actions of the other.  If you’d like to test that theory, cut and paste the following questions into a Word document, print it twice, sit down together, answer the questions, and compare your answers.

1. I am really interested in my partner’s opinions on our basic issues. T    F 
2. I usually learn a lot from my partner even when we disagree. T    F 
3. I want my partner to feel that what he or she says really counts with me. T    F 
4. I generally want my partner to feel influential in this marriage. T    F
5. I can listen to my partner, but only up to a point. T    F
6. My partner has a lot of basic common sense. T    F
7. I try to communicate respect even during our disagreements. T    F
8. If I keep trying to convince my partner, I will eventually win out. T    F 
9. I don’t reject my partner’s opinions out of hand. T    F
10. My partner is not rational enough to take seriously when we discuss our issues. T    F
11. I believe in lots of give and take in our discussions. T    F
12. I am very persuasive and usually can win arguments with my partner. T    F
13. I feel I have an important say when we make decisions. T    F 
14. My partner usually has good ideas. T    F
15. My partner is basically a great help as a problem solver. T    F 
16. I try to listen respectfully, even when I disagree. T    F 
17. My ideas for solutions are usually much better than my partner’s. T    F
18 I can usually find something to agree with in my partner’s positions. T    F
19. My partner is usually too emotional. T    F
20. I am the one who needs to make the major decisions in this relationship. T    F

Cute-Romantic-Love-CoupleAn excellent metric for your ability to influence one another follows:  If answering these questions and discussing your responses leads to an argument, you may need to work on this aspect of your relationship.  If answering these questions and discussing your responses leads to sex, you’re probably doing okay.

Temperament and personality types will enter into this process.  For Nancy and me, in that we have significantly different preferences when it comes to Myers-Briggs typing, it is generally helpful when we sit down together to iron out disagreements.  As Gottman points out, the process of reaching external conflict resolution often relies on one’s ability to reach internal conflict resolution first, by learning to accept influence from one’s partner.  Early in relationships, this can be a challenge, as most of us enter marriage having relied almost exclusively on our own judgment for some period of time.  Overcoming disagreements requires us first to acknowledge that our partner’s point of view, though different from ours, may, in fact, be as valid, or even more valid, than our own.  Over time, and with practice, couples in successful relationships can learn how to navigate such differences with relative ease.

I suspect this is not always true with couples whose Myers-Briggs profiles are more similar.  In such marriages, it seems to me that significant disagreements may be more rare, but may be harder to resolve since each spouse approaches decision-making in a similar way.  In these instances, it may be that the best outcome the couple can hope for is to agree to disagree, a sub-optimal solution which, over time, may evolve into a “we just don’t seem to agree about anything” position that could require professional counseling.

One of the most mis-applied verses in scripture is found in Ephesians 5:22-24, which is often used to suggest that women must be submissive to their husbands.  But by reading through verse 33, it becomes clear that God expects equality in our marriages.  Husbands, if you wish to justify 19th century thinking by applying only the first three verses from this passage, you are likely to end up with an unhappy wife.  And, as the old saying goes, if momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

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“You’re So Predictable”

fighting_couplesMany of us have heard this charge leveled by one spouse toward another, whether in a movie, on TV, or perhaps in our own homes.  It reflects one of John Gottman’s Four Horsemen–contempt.  By being predictable, it is implied that we are also dull, boring, uninteresting and non-spontaneous.  It is generally not a compliment.  Scripture and The Catechism touch this issue over and over again.

Cat. 214. God, “He who is,” revealed himself to Israel as the one “abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”  These two terms express summarily the riches of the divine name. In all his works God displays not only his kindness, goodness, grace, and steadfast love, but also his trustworthiness, constancy, faithfulness, and truth.

My sense is that this particular flavor of contempt emanates from one of two likely spanner in the workdsources.  The first is what I think of as “children of chaos.”  Kids raised in an unstable family situation, where there is drama, abuse, violence or other negative environmental factors, often grow up to be adults who crave chaos.  If there is not drama in their family, they will seek opportunities to create it.  If things are peaceful and calm, they will find a reason to cause disruption.  If everything is running smoothly, they will throw a wrench into the works.  We all seek that to which we became accustomed as kids, and this is no exception.  Woe be to the woman married to one of these men.

Micah 7:18.  Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love.

dreaming-expensive-new-car-12810851Another source of such disdain, as I see it, is the ennui of the young and privileged.  Kids who grew up with money, who spent winter breaks skiing in Vail, or went on European cruises in the summer, often grow up to be adults with what I think of as a low “coefficient of boredom.” They often find themselves at loose ends, put off by routine, and constantly in search of something fun or expensive or unexpected to get their engines revving.  Predictability probably ranks just below “cheap” on their list of cardinal sins.  Woe be to the man married to one of these women.

Romans 2:4.  Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?

Having grown up in neither of these environments, and having sought and found a woman from a family similar to mine, I feel blessed to be exempt from this particular criticism.  Not that I’m immune from criticism, most of it richly deserved.  As mature adults, I think we have grown to equate predictable with dependable.  Just the other night Nancy and I were sitting together when, unprompted by anything, she said, “I love coming home to you in the evening.”  My work schedule allows me to get home in mid-afternoon, and she knows that by the time she rolls in at 6:30 or so I’ll have the kitchen squared away, dinner on the stove, and a cold glass of chardonnay awaiting her.  We generally sit together for half an hour and share what our days were like.  Having thus disposed of any negative residue from our workdays, we can sit down to dinner together, and then do whatever wants or needs doing in the evening.

happy older couple

Cat 1804Human virtues are firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith. They make possible ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life. The virtuous man is he who freely practices the good.

It strikes me as logical that boredom with one’s spouse can easily lead one to look for greener pastures, for the excitement and newness that can accompany marital infidelity. Though such adventures are generally short-lived, they may afford the stimulation  the pulse-pounding taste of forbidden fruit, what Eric Clapton once referred to as the “dull surprise” missing in some people’s lives.  Regrettably,  this newness probably wears off rather quickly, leading either to a series of such affairs or resignation to a life of perceived drudgery.

Cat 2365.    Fidelity expresses constancy in keeping one’s given word. God is faithful. The Sacrament of Matrimony enables man and woman to enter into Christ’s fidelity for his Church. Through conjugal chastity, they bear witness to this mystery before the world.

Once again, we are reminded that our efforts in this regard should not be to FIND the right person, but to BE the right person.  To be grateful for the truth in Nancy’s observation that “for every Jack there is a Jill.”  To count among our blessings the stability of our relationships, and the firm platform it provides our children as they are formed into adults. In sales, one of the most powerful statements we can make to a customer is, “You can depend on me to do what I say I’m going to do.”  In marriage, God’s grace is found in the spouse who is dependable, faithful, and happy to serve our needs  For those of us who ended up with that person, we should thank God every day.  For those of us who have not yet become that person, we should pray for the grace and fortitude to persist, to reach the point in our relationships where “You’re so predictable” is praise of the highest order.

Eph 4:32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

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