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The Church's Muddled Approach to Singles

July 23, 2014


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Single working women in the church face pressures, anxieties, and possibilities that are endless. They have important stories to share with the church about God’s grace in the midst of conflicting and disempowering messages about stereotypical measurements of women’s success: beauty, youthfulness, marital status, and bearing children.

Today we are joined by Brenda Bertrand, a speaker and life coach who has researched, studied, and coached many single women of faith to reach their dreams for their future while reinvigorating hope in the present. She wants to invite the church and its members to re-imagine and re-engage their role in the experience of single women sitting in church pews.

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4word: We often hear from single career women of faith that they feel alienated by the church. Can you elaborate on why that is?

Brenda: This is such an interesting question. As a 40+ (cough) year old single, I have heard about and experienced this “alienation.” It is such a bizarre tension between singles and the churches in which they attend and serve. First, I must say that there are many churches that understand, support, and empower their single parishioners. Kudos to them!

Yet, there are others that are challenged to graciously address the complexity of ministering to singles, especially career women. Successful on the outside, with deep, unmet longings on the inside, many single career women mourn what they never had- a partner and children. It may be difficult to lament with a woman who, on the surface, appears to “have it all” — a career, disposable income, and the freedom to travel, spend, and do whatever she wants. Churches may find it difficult to understand this sense of loss.

Since their issues do not fit neatly within traditional, women’s pastoral care issues, such as: barrenness, miscarriage, divorce, or widowhood, they are often difficult to understand and even more challenging to minister to. Unfortunately, church leadership is often composed of well-meaning people with hearts of gold who are disconnected from singleness and even more so from the experience of working outside the church walls. This disconnection causes ministers to be frustrated, as they don’t understand why the women complain about the sadness of this season in their lives.

4word: What can be done to change this perception?

Brenda: If we are honest, marriage and motherhood are often lifted as idyllic and the end prize of womanhood, while singleness is perceived as a thoroughfare, a place which one must begrudgingly pass through.

I want to challenge our church to be countercultural by presenting new images of women having it all. Being whom Christ calls us to be comes through surrender and grace, not human effort or marital status. I encourage churches to be places where we remind women of their worth, based on who God says they are and not on how fast they climb the corporate ladder, how much they give, how fast they sprint to the altar, or the number of babies they carry on their hip. The church should be a place where single women’s narratives are positively formed, not where negative stereotypes are reinforced.

I also want the church to be a place where we get honest. Some of our single women will remain that way — single. Others by default, exhaustion, or choice will marry non-Christian men. Some will decide to have children alone through alternative routes, while some will want to talk about their sex life, or lack thereof. The church has to be a place where these conversations are normal and not taboo. We may have to help women come to terms with the reality they did not expect: single and without a family of their own at 30 or 40, or single again at 50, or being a single parent in a traditional two-family church. These are hard realities that we cannot cover up or ignore. There is no reason why the body of Christ has to be silent on issues of prolonged and unexpected singleness.

4word: What are some of the unique issues that single career women of faith deal with on a daily basis?

Brenda: I have summarized the following challenges as constants amongst some of my most amazing single friends and my mentees. These are, in my opinion, some of the key areas that surface when I mentor and coach others (including myself).

God– Some single women live in the tension of being frustrated with God and depending on God. They have been told that God will provide a spouse, so they often think, talk, and pray about their singleness with God. Yet, some feel abandoned and ignored by the very God on whom they depend. They see their singleness, especially after much prayer, as God’s denial.

The stage of singleness impacts the relationship that single women have with God more than we are willing to admit. Singleness can enhance or deteriorate ones relationship with God – it varies from woman to woman and from moment to moment.

The All Consuming Career – Many Christian single women are highly accomplished. Due to their status as single, they have invested a lot of time in their careers. For some, their career trajectories were intentional; they would have been career driven whether single or not. Unfortunately, many in the church often see their choice to focus on careers as part of the explanation for their singleness.

For other women, they have pursued their careers by default. They started their education with a husband in mind but did not get married in college as they hoped. They continued into careers and have been climbing the ladder, hoping someone will call them down from their ascent. They fill the “extra time” they would have devoted to a spouse and children to their education and career. As a result, their career is the place where they experience the most emotional, spiritual, and mental frustration. Career choices are made with relationships (or the lack thereof) in mind.

Since relationally they feel “on hold,” their careers become the focus of their attention. They live in a frustrating tension of pursuing a career in lieu of the life they really want. They also spend a lot of time volunteering at the church. This is encouraged by the church leaders who equate singleness with having more time to serve God. Career and singleness is a topic that could have its very own series.

Self-Perception – Some singles struggle with “what is wrong with me” syndrome. Because they don’t often hear practical advice at church, they spend a lot of time trying to figure out what is wrong with them physically, emotionally, and spiritually. As they see it, singleness is not a gift; it is judgment for some wrongdoing or inadequacy. These women need safe spaces to practically discuss their issues and spirituality as they risk challenging their perceptions of God and their own self-worth.

Single Men– This is a huge issue. Single men in church are often disinterested with dating women in the church. Some single men hang out with the ladies with no romantic intentions, causing  women to be confused and frustrated with the perpetual “hanging out.” They want clear intentions and defined relationships. The issues of interpersonal relationships within and outside the church is a major issue.

With a broken narrative of an elusive God, an all-consuming career, and a deepening sense of inadequacy, some single women may need help reclaiming their authentic stories amidst this brokenness. Enter the church: If we stop dancing around these issues and instead discuss them head on, we will make progress in redefining singleness in the 21st century church. The experience of a single, Christian women is very complex, often comical, and highly courageous. God has some phenomenal women out there in the world and in the church – we should listen more closely to their stories.

4word: Where do we begin addressing these issues?

Brenda: What if we just followed Jesus’ model as he encountered women in his ministry? After each encounter with him, they had all that they needed. The grace Christ offered then is available to women now. He saw, listened, restored, healed, challenged, empowered, and advocated for every woman he met. Everyone was better because of their encounter with him. Jesus’ ministry model is a challenge to our church to be a place where women leave better than they came. What Jesus offers is greater that what our culture, work, and at times, even church offers.

My hope is that we minister to women as Jesus did: He saw them (Luke 13:12), heard them (John 4), protected them (John 8:1-11), healed them (Luke 13, Mark 5), used them as examples of exemplary faith, advocated for them, called them to lead (Matt 28:20), and called them to rest (Luke 10:32-48). Jesus’ encounters with women begin by hearing their stories and, with God’s Spirit and wisdom, conclude by sending them away having been heard, empowered with a new self perception, and valuing the potential of living a more empowering story.

4word: What advice do you have for those in the lives of single women?

Brenda: Let’s redefine singleness by treating it as a viable and constant season of life rather than a penalty. Singleness is a life stage that bookends the broader life cycle. People are born single, and most will spend a greater part of their adolescence and early adulthood single and most likely lose a spouse to old age. Singleness is not an in-between but rather a constant. Unfortunately, it has not been reflected as such in most pulpits.

With this in mind, we all wait, regardless of our marital status. We need to treat singles as equal citizens of the kingdom of God, not assuming that they are miserable and busily waiting for a wife swap or rescue team. We are not just waiting for a spouse- waiting is a part of the kingdom imperative to which they, and we all belong. There is possibly a reason why there are more scriptures on waiting than on singleness (Proverbs 13:12). I would encourage you to pray for your single sisters as you would your own soul: for strength, grace, and patience through every moment of every day.

In our waiting, there is an opportunity to be reminded of who we are and on whom our soul waits. Our words are powerful during this time, so let us all learn to wait on each other. And as we wait, let us mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice.

Let us say to them (and each other), “I stand with you in your waiting. I walk with you through your lonely and alone moments, days, and years.” Let’s work together as a community to get our minds and tongues aligned with the grace and love in our hearts. God is in both the waiting and the fulfilled longings.

4word: Any comments or thoughts you’d like to add?

Brenda: I hope churches will become communities of care for all people. I also pray that every single career woman will healthily mourn unfulfilled dreams in her life and career and courageously create new ones, because the greatest human challenge, single or not, is to be grateful for the life that you have in hopes of the one you want.

I am excited to hear from the single career women at 4word! Email me or leave a comment below. Let’s have a conversation.

Singleness is a complex subject — one that the church has not always addressed well. Brenda challenges our view of singleness to be the norm, rather than a season or exception. As we consider her words, may we create new, Christ-like communities where women in all stages of life and career are celebrated and uplifted.

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Do you need to reevaluate your attitude towards singleness and waiting? How can you develop a more godly, encouraging attitude?

Leave a comment on this blog post or on the Facebook post and be entered to win a complimentary Career Clarity coaching session with Brenda! Winner will be notified August 15.

Brenda Bertrand is a minister, speaker, and life coach. She recently completed a graduate degree at Princeton Seminary and is currently spending her summer as a beach bum in her native St. Croix, US Virgin Islands. During her working hours, she speaks, coaches, and ministers to people who are ready for what’s next in their lives and careers. She finds joy in doing her life work: journeying with others as they answer their soul’s calling. Connect with Brenda online at www.strikingly.com/brenda where you’ll find her upcoming online coaching groups and programs for working women of faith.

 


26 responses to “The Church's Muddled Approach to Singles”

  1. I’d love to hear from you. So here’s a question:
    What actions have you or your church adopted to celebrate the experiences of all life seasons, including singlehood?

    All are free to respond, single or not! 🙂
    Brenda B

    p.s. Prefer to listen to the interview, here’s a link:
    http://www.freeconferencecalling.com/recordings/Recording.aspx?fileid=IA9688_07232014083155114_1091013&bridge=446132&email=&accountid=446132

    p.s.s. I can’t wait to read your comments and pick one person for a complimentary coaching session.

  2. Dokie Walker says:

    Historically, women in the Church have been given two stereotypes to emulate: Mary Mother of Jesus or Mary Magdalene. Tow supposed polar opposites. Why was not Priscilla given more time in the New Testament? Or the “other women in the church”? As a 46 year old wife of 23 years and mom and working woman, I find it impossible to attain the saintliness of Mother Mary. Nor do I seem to be able to relate completely to Mary Magdalene( all though she is still more tangible). Men are given countless examples of leadership, courage, martyrs, etc. I want the Church to accept my Human gifts equally as well as it accepts a Man’s. And not just the traditional acceptable womanly traits.

    • Brenda B says:

      Dokie, I hear you!
      In SOME (not all) churches women express a pressure to fit into one of the two molds you so eloquently uplift in your post. Single women, in particular, may lose their stories in the midst of what the culture and church deem a normative ideal (pressure to be Mary or Martha).

      The churches that minister best to all women, honor the diversity of stories in the Bible and the nuanced particularities of contemporary women’s experiences. They are humble enough to assess the images of womanhood portrayed in their congregation, from the pulpit, in Christian Ed, in their pamphlets.

      Church leadership can ask themselves,
      “do we only portray happy homemakers (i.e. images and expectations and models like June Cleaver, Claire Huxtable, Proverbs 31 “Super” woman?) at our church?”

      “How can expand our preaching repertoire to focuses on lesser-preached working women such as: Lydia, Phoebe, Priscilla, Junia?”

      “Does our culture uplift an ideal woman?” How can we dismantle these pressures in our community for women(men, minorities, etc)?

      It takes courage to be honest, as churches and individuals. Thank you for setting the example.

  3. I LOVED your words, Brenda! When I started my post college career there were no voices like yours. Thank you for speaking up. Now I work FT and am a leader in a small church plant in Downtown Portland full of single women in their mid-twenties to fourties. Mostly what we do is try not to segregate based on current life status. We attempt to all live life together in an encouraging open space with freedom to share our struggles & triumphs.

    • Brenda B says:

      Alyssa, I LOVE what you are doing in Portland. It sounds like your community shares the burden with she who mourns. Her suffering is no longer in isolation; it is the place where Christ’s followers are, in prayer and in support. Unfortunately, eleven o’clock on Sunday morning still remains the most segregated hour of America (Martin Luther King).

      Thank you for engaging the hard work of ministering to the particularities of the single career woman without pushing her to the margins.
      This is great work!

  4. Maria Marquez says:

    Brenda, Thank you very much for this encouraging article. As a single woman in my early thirties I can relate to this article. I have felt the frustration of being single, I have asked the question “LORD what is wrong with me? ” I have volunteered often so many times because I felt that is what single people do right? You give your time hoping you have win some brownie points with the LORD and maybe He will answered that prayer of finally meeting someone. Brenda, I can honestly say I came to place where I shared the honest truth about my frustration of being single to other ladies from my church to my surprise there were many other girls who felt the same way and they began to opened up and together we were able to pray for each other and encourage one another. One of the things that the LORD is teaching me is to be honest not only with Him but with other ladies that can come along side me an encourage me and pray with me. And I have learned to do the same for my sisters in Christ, to call them, to send a text message, to go out for coffee, and spend time with them. Proverbs 17:17 says ” A Friend loves at all times ” I love this scriptures because it reminds me that we need to be there for one another single or not. We are all in this walk together, to bring glory to God with our lives. I pray and I hope that more churches will be more honest and will have the courage to help and encourage single women who are also part of God’s Kingdom to be all that they are called to be. Thank you once again Brenda for your honesty and for sharing your heart.

    • Brenda B says:

      Hi Maria,
      Thanks for your honesty. This is good stuff.

      As I prayerfully consider how to respond to your post, I am moved to simply say, “you are enough!” There is nothing wrong with you. I am thankful you are finding ways to articulate your experience and there are people who are validating that it is real for you, whether they believe or understand it.

      Churches that are successful with ministering directly to these issues are able to honestly admit that they cannot promise anyone that they will find a spouse or that a barren woman will get pregnant, even with the advancements in medicine. At the end of the day, we just don’t know…and this speaks to what I call the “ache of ambiguity” (not knowing for sure if what one wants is what one will ever receive). If we are honest with each other, we ALL experience this ache of wanting something we don’t currently possess.

      We find ways to convince ourselves of why we are deficient and often harm ourselves with blame, shame and guilt.

      I am thankful you are creating spaces where you can honestly share those thoughts, and pay it forward by caring enough to listen to the stories of other single men and women.

      At the end of the day, we are sharing the same human experience. If you get married, you will move on to a new desire. And the ache will reappear as you eagerly await the manifestation of your heart’s desire.

      You are enough. You have dreams that are within reach. I hope you healthily mourn the ones that are out of grasp. Hugs.

  5. Deborah says:

    Excellent article and perspective. I’m a 30+ single, ambitious career women and have seen the church struggle with how to address our demographic. I don’t expect my church to cater to me, just recognize that sometimes it’s an awkward experience and that I feel like I don’t quite fit in sometimes. I especially like this quote: “…to be grateful for the life that you have in hopes of the one you want.” That’s certainly been my experience. Thanks for the excellent article, Brenda!

    • Brenda B says:

      Hello Deborah!

      You raise such an important point, one that I want to further illumine.

      There are so many churches that minister effectively to their parishioners. And there are some singles that are downright needy and whiney. Even the most perfect church would struggle to serve whiney,needy people. Those folks are never satisfied.

      So I appreciate your statement about expectations. The church is not a catering business. NO church should be expected to cater to every single person’s needs and the complexities that come with it. #ain’t nobody got time for that. 🙂

      But what is important is what you said later about the “awkwardness,” and the challenges to explain this to others. I think it is important to open up conversation and give language to this “I don’t fit in here” feeling that singles (minorities, women, youth, people of non-faith) experience in some churches.

      Not fitting in is not always the fault of the institution, but it is the responsibility of all, institution and individuals, to discuss expectations and how we can mutually create spaces of welcome.

      This ministry of reconciliation is what Christ calls us to. Thank you for the reminder that we are not yet there, but it is still a worthy goal.

      Hugs,
      Brenda B

  6. Deb Swider says:

    Amen, sister! Can we please, please as a church let go of the “she focused on her career instead of having a family” stigma? Sometimes – as you eloquently explain here – God has a different plan and the career happens while you wait. This, too, bleeds into how we talk about women struggling with infertility.

    One of the hardest things a woman can do is wait with a patient heart for a dream she holds in her heart. I think you are exactly right in your assessment of frustration vs. dependence on God. It’s not easy. And having loving, Christian voices who lend a hand to help you up when you fall (toward frustration rather than dependence) is priceless. The world is full of critique. Let’s mirror Christ and share love and grace instead.

    • Brenda B says:

      Deb! Hello, hello!

      Thanks for picking up on my assessments of the top issues *some* single women face.

      Honestly, I have enjoyed my life as a single woman. But I have tons of friends who have not. I mourn with them. The most painful thing to see is how their pain impacts their trust in God. It is a real issue that
      we cannot over look. I am glad you zoned in on it.

      This is not just a single woman’s issue as you hint in your words – the single woman who longed for partnership will long for something more as a married woman — same woman learning to trust God for what she cannot always control. I think relationship with God is all about trust. It’s a tough lesson.

      I share your hope: Let’s share grace and love to each other, expelling the shame, guilt and blame that take up space in communities.

      Thanks much!
      Hugs to you and yours.

  7. Camryn says:

    This was great Brenda! Thank you so much for your honesty on this topic! It ministered to me even as a married woman who has seen some of my hopes unfulfilled in recent years. Thank you!

    • Brenda B says:

      Hi, Camryn. Thanks for the comment.

      I appreciate hearing from married women on this topic. I value your perspective and honesty. I think all singles should prayerful read the last line of your post over and over. Marriage is a beautttttiiiiiffulllllllll thing but getting married is not the cure to hopelessness.

      We are all longing for something. I look forward to more married and single women conversing about the realities and myths of their lived experiences.

      Thanks much!

      Hugs 😉

  8. Clara says:

    Thank you for this valuable perspective. I am married and often don’t know how to support, encourage, and even befriend women whose lives are very different than mine. I have tools now for those interactions.

    • Brenda B says:

      Yay Clara! You are keeping this conversation honest.

      You already possessed the best tools to interact with folks who are different from you: a warm heart, listening ears and humility to learn from others.

      You don’t need much more than that. Your single friends will tell you their stories. Let them tell you if they want or need advise and such. People just want to be heard.

      DISCLAIMER: The opinions shared in this interview do not represent the views of all single, Christian women. I wish it were that easy. Let your friends tell their own story, and don’t assume that their identity is wrapped up in their marital status. Share your life and let them share their own. Stay authentic and don’t feel you need to fix them.

      -A listening ear is hard to find. #brendaproverb 🙂

      Hugs to you!

  9. Meredith says:

    This is so great! I am married now, but I remember when I was single I felt so alone and like there was no place for me in the church. It’s a great word for so many women! Great words Brenda!

    • Brenda B says:

      Awww Meredith!!! Thanks for this comment.

      You know what I love about your post (and all the ones that preceded it)?

      YOU have a good memory!!!! Don’t get me started about
      people who became Christians and forgot what they were like before Christ; marrieds who forgot what it was like to be single; church employees who forgot what it was like to work in corporate America!

      Thank you for remembering and not succombing to marriage amnesia. hahaha.

      Now with that humility, simply tell a single friend who you know is struggling, “I haven’t always been married. If you ever want to talk about your life or hear about mine, I am available.”

      Authenticity 101 – own your stuff and share it with anyone who may benefit.

      I am sure there are women in your life who would value having a two-sided conversation about singleness. You have a story to share as well.

      Thanks for sharing it here.

      Hugs,
      Brenda B 🙂

  10. Kim Elliott says:

    Brenda,
    It’s like you are looking into my heart and articulating what I have not been able to explain. I have finally found a church were I don’t feel isolated and am valued for what I bring to the congregation as a single, professional female. We have some unusually brilliant and successful young women who struggle with every issue you described. I am older than most of them but still single. I forwarded your blog post to these women, as well as my pastor who thought it was very insightful. We will use it as a discussion tool to start a dialogue about ways to serve this special population in our church. I just wanted you to know that God is using you in an amazing way.

    Kim

    • Brenda says:

      Kim, I am humbed by this post.

      I am so thankful for all the churches that are ministering effectively — there are so
      many amazing churches out there and I am glad you found one.

      Wow. I can’t wait to hear what comes of your discussions about this issue.
      There are such diverse experiences of the single life
      (widowed, single again ,divorced, happily single by choice, single by default, engaged, etc).

      Get ready to hear courageous, comical, and conflicting stories.

      Your church is on to something. Dialogue is a healthy starting place! Love it~

      Hugs to all ya’ll. 🙂

  11. Maggie says:

    Hey Brenda,

    These awesome insights need to get out there to women AND the community. Struggles form within the single ladies as well as that comes from the influences from the outside. Just to tag long what you have said eloquently.

    – Being single or alone does not always equates to being lonely. And being married does not always equates to not feeling lonely anymore.
    – Marriage should not be regarded as a solution to loneliness. If marriage is thought to be the answer for frustrations, one is setting itself up to getting into frustrations of different kind. Not a single person (not even your mate) is capable of satisfying, or entitled to satisfy the hunger for companionship. That applies to cases whether you are the one who demands for it or the one who thought you could give.

    I am not living without struggling moments as a single lady. And that’s just why I need to go to the Lord for restoration and seek wholesomeness from God. As Brenda you have said, we have to wait on God. And it is a good reminder that Jesus is the ultimate and perfect one whom we have been waiting for.

    • You are preachin’, Maggie. You are so right — Marriage is not a cure -all to ailments of the single life. We all know women who have said, “When I get married, I will be happy; i will be loved; I won’t be alone!’ These same women awaken from that fantasy to a sad nightmare, worse than the first: loneliness in marriage, dashed expectations, and the same dull ache they felt in their hearts when they were single.

      We are all waiting on God. God alone can fill our deepest longings. It is a lesson we must all learn, each and every Single day. Thank you for the reminder.

      Hugs,
      Brenda B

  12. Joan says:

    Brenda, what a word in due season! Really Holy Spirit inspired and very timely. I pray that Church leaders get to read and get into action to implement those ideas, if they do not already have those ministries in place. May The Lord continue to direct your steps in His ways and give you the desires of your heart.
    I am so proud of you and your accomplishments. Blessings!

    • Brenda says:

      Thank you for this feedback. I hope Church leaders sees this interview as positive and not solely a critique. There are so many ways to read an article. One can be defensive and another can be proactive. I hope Church leaders choose the latter.
      Thanks, Joan.
      *** I think this is my aunt Joan? 🙂 If it is, I love you and am so thankful for your support over the years!***

  13. Paul says:

    Well the church could really care Less about many of us Single people since they really cater to the families out there more than anything else which really makes it very sad since many of us are really Not Single by choice.

  14. claimproclaim says:

    You may need to know of the following struggle, too, that married women face with single friends. And, yes, we who are married may be single again due to the death of a spouse or an unforeseen divorce. If you have felt abandoned by a good friend who has married, it is NOT “you” being dumped on purpose. It’s because God has taken this friend into a bond that not just calls her but draws her by the will of God into really new personhood and a new identity. Just as she leaves behind family of origin loyalties, so will she in terms of shifting full focus on her husband future with him, leave behind loyalties to you in terms of the way things “used to be” and which were good in that former season. The only way ANY of us understands feeling “left behind” is when we come to the moment of time when God calls us forward in our life’s path in a way that necessitates “plucking up” that which was.

    As a married woman, I struggle with single sisters from past stages of life who have not moved on experientially from being single and done the “leaving and cleaving” bit into their own family and been reshaped as married women . Some, though not all, tend to relate to me one-dimensionally and from what we had in common “back then” and have no real way of knowing that I really am NOT the same person anymore. Nor do they seem to “get” that the bonds of marriage are stronger than those of a sisterly friendship. It’s similar in some respects to the way many parents, even Christians, relate to their young adult child sill has a teenager even after that child has left home and is “becoming” a person whose life emanates from the parents but is now being enlarged into a bigger world and in a destiny that may not have been that of the parents and, by necessity, will take the child to places the parent may not be able to fathom or experience, even vicariously so.

    “Putting on” and “putting off” stages of life is “sticky”. I have even found single women friends now projecting onto me, a peer in age, as a mother-rescuer role because they don’t have husbands…even trying to move into my family dynamic as if an adult child. I don’t find this would-be attachment healthy for them, me, or my family.

    If a couple is dating in the church and decides, after a season, they are not being called to marriage, they break up and move on without recrimination from the Body of Christ.

    I’d like to hear some teaching about “moving on” on friendships from seasons of life and hence friends STILL in that earlier season or going into a unique one of their own(that may not include me).

    What’s going on is NOT a lack of reconciliation or hatred. There is a time, after all, to plant and a time to pluck up just is there is a time to be born and a time to die and to leave behind all earthly attachments. Sometimes when a physical move is involved, these matters take care of themselves. At other times they do not

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