Passed the Fork in the Road

Very nearly a year ago I wrote here that I was at a crossroads, that something was brewing, was on the edge. That has resulted in a change in me, which will come to change my life in general relatively soon. While this change is most noticeable in a few key life decisions, the breaking point hinged on a shift in my worldview.

I am no longer going to stick with things solely because they are hard and avoid things solely because they are easy.

That seems like the opposite of what most people come to learn, doesn’t it? Often people will run from what’s hard and take refuge in what’s easy. In a way, I am learning the other lesson too, because I found it easier to cope when things were harder and more difficult to face things being easy.

No, I’m not a sadist. Well, not intentionally. I was insisting on life being difficult in part because I felt I otherwise wasn’t earning what I had, didn’t deserve what happiness I got. When times were tough I felt less guilty, less like a waste of skin. Easy things were terrifying because I wasn’t allowed to simply have what I wanted. That would give me more than average happiness, and how could I get more than the next person? I needed to make others happier, not just in way that might lessen my own happiness, but in a way where I could be guaranteed to trade some of mine for theirs, as if happiness were a finite commodity. Learning about all the horrors that go on in this world, I had a sort of survivor’s guilt, of “why did I get it so easy?” even when it wasn’t really easy, which kept me from a lot of happiness and caused pain to myself and others.

The other part of this lay in the fact that easy seemed to equal fake. I think I perceived people with easy lives as having uncomplicated lives, as being shallow. They were “normal”, unconcerned about the world beyond themselves and unmoved by the plight of others. These people didn’t seem to have any real problems. Their biggest concerns were about their feelings, their plans, and their things. Which I utterly hated. (I realize now I may have misjudged the cause-effect relationship on that one…)

What I have come to realize is that the “easy” I was avoiding was just allowing myself to be myself, and the difficult I felt I needed was really just stuffing my personality into a box. No doubt it is easier to not be fighting oneself all the time, but it also now clearly seems quite detrimental to never win that fight. I thought that any good I did meant more if I sacrificed for it. Yet the good was much more when I could be good to myself at the same time.

So, I am changing. I am resolving myself (as it is still challenging, if also comforting) to letting myself simply be. As my wise friend Mike recently wrote, “overcoming and making a difference is about a few exceptional people being different, rather than about the formulation and efforts of human institutions and systems with plans to make a difference.” It’s a lesson it has taken me a long time to learn. I am moving beyond plans to make a difference towards just being different in the best way I can. In the only way I know how.

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Unintended Consequences

Today I want to tell you about a gift I received, from someone who didn’t mean to give it, and probably wouldn’t have, had they known precisely what it was. In fact, that gift was given to me by someone who was, and is, very special to me who would drift out of my life shortly after. The gift was given before either of us knew this would happen. But it was a gift that would help me indescribably through that transition, would help me leave behind this gift-giver, and the things he had actually hoped to achieve in the giving of this gift.

At the time, my wife and I were quite happily attending a church, the last one I have attended with any degree of commitment. We were just beginning a new book study. The book wasn’t of particular interest to me, but previous ones had been, and the discussions of the books had been interesting. On this particular evening it looked as though my wife and I would be the only ones showing up at the pastor’s house for the study. None of the other few regulars could make it. But then we were told that one other person was invited and should be arriving shortly, someone we hadn’t met.

His name was Mike. We were told by our friend, the pastor, in vague terms that Mike had attended a church, and didn’t now, that he had been hurt and was hesitant to start again somewhere new. (That was a very common story anywhere, so I didn’t think much of it.) He said that Mike “could use to meet people like you”, by which I took from the context of the conversation to mean people who had been hurt, were questioning, but were still finding a way to stay within the institutional church. I nodded, but wasn’t completely sure what to make of that. Our church wasn’t big on “recruitment” or having to attend anywhere, in my experience, so it didn’t seem a usual sort of thing to say.

We got to know Mike a little bit over the next little while. There were a few things I noticed fairly quickly. Mike was less scheduled and even less concerned about being punctual than I was, which was unusual, particularly for anyone older than me. I took from this at the time (paradoxically) that he likely had his priorities straight (see previous post), and that he wasn’t overly concerned about mildly annoying people (which I also saw positively).

Mike continually stated, even multiple times in the same evening, that he would not be joining our church and would not be becoming a member. I thought this was a bit excessive, as the church and its affiliated denomination had an official policy of not having official membership; people were simply as much or as little involved as they liked. And it seemed a bit off-putting that he said it quite so much, as it seemed clear after the first couple of times, sufficient to get the point across at least. No need to rub it in. Besides which, a number of the church attendees (myself and my wife included) were far from interested in an official association with the denomination either, were rather clear about that in my view, and no one seemed to mind. (I would come to discover that certain people, most notably our pastor friend, had for some time considered us all but card-carrying members of the denomination – which actually has terrible views on gay people – despite the anti-membership policy, despite the church’s up-until-then rather informal link to the denomination, and despite our obvious dislike of the denomination. We were even considered more than just members, but adherents, with an obligation to respect and defend the organization, particularly to outsiders, all without our knowledge, let alone consent. I came to understand Mike’s desire to insist continually on his non-membership status.)

Most striking, though, was Mike’s complete lack of self-sensorship. He said what he thought – no diplomacy, no sugar-coating. After years of navigating churches and their metaphorical landmines in the hopes of belonging, this bluntness was a remarkable breath of fresh air. Mike had insightful, new, bold things to say and said them directly without hesitation. I found myself agreeing, and becoming more bold and blunt myself. And I discovered something wonderful: I really liked it. I felt more like me, and more honest in presenting myself to others.

It didn’t go over well. Oh, everyone excused Mike, since he wasn’t (yet, despite his protests) a member. He still needed to be courted and had the right to criticize. I, apparently, was already in, and so was expected to toe the line. While there were other issues, it would be this double standard over which we would ultimately leave. We had belonged to this group for its acceptance of a variety a views, of criticisms, and of questions, which apparently ended right where the views of its leadership began.

But we kept Mike. I went through a bit of a rough patch, but both before and since Mike has been the closest to church that we had have, and all on his own, better than nearly all of our church experiences. A new, honest type of church. By his being the example, of us seeing church-less Christianity, we had the strength to not only leave, but to strive for something better.

That pastor friend gave us the gift of meeting Mike. Had we known, we would have said that no, it is we who “could use to meet people like” him.

Oh, and if you would like to have the benefit of Mike for yourself at home, try his blog and, particularly, his new book!

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I Have (Had) No Rituals

In my drafts for this blog from about six month ago, I had a few with just titles. This had been entitled “I Have No Rituals”. I had intended to continue an idea I introduced in an earlier post that I am not a scheduled person. I didn’t have the sort of daily rituals that come with a regular routine.

And it wasn’t just a matter of ritual and schedule and routine. Those things represented deeper things to me, none of which were positive. I associated that routine, and the appearance of having it all together – like ghastly things such as being on time – as being wildly superficial. Life has a lot of crazy shit happening in it and, unless your life is pretty uninteresting, punctuality should likely not be your top concern. This is not a perspective I generally shared with people, in part because I knew I’d be accusing at least a few of them of putting form before substance.

And yet it was still deeper than that. Being organized, tidy, scheduled to me seemed like all the wrong parts of growing up. A loss of real priorities and spontaneity. I didn’t want to be old, boring, predictable, and, ugh, responsible. And this was, I think, entirely a bias I developed in having all the people who seemed to care about those things in my life not seeming to care about anything else. I had been presented with this (false) dichotomy and I was afraid that if I got a schedule or routine I would lose my ability to prioritize the people I care about or simply throwing it all out the window to have fun. I thought I might get stuck in a rut I couldn’t shake. (I am also generally and all or nothing type person, so any leaks of routine or general seepage of adult normalcy might have, as far as I knew, gotten the better of me.)

Recently, though, two things happened: I (briefly, as it turned out) gave up caffeine altogether, and I bought a watch.

Now, these were both huge for me. For nearly a decade, I used coffee to keep my irregular schedule and was resolutely uninterested in always knowing exactly what time it was. Checking the time should take effort to ensure you aren’t being too ruled by the clock.

But, well, without the caffeine I did sleep better and felt more awake to enjoy my day. And when I did really need the boost later, the caffeine worked better than ever. I was on time. And the watch let me take advantage of being on time, for me to control the effect of time on me, rather than the other way around. I liked it.

And so, fear of getting old aside, I am thinking that a little routine, a daily ritual or two might not be a bad thing. It might let me prioritize my well-being over some silly bias, and give me the stamina to continue to drop everything and put the moment or a friend in need first when it counts.

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Letting More Go

*In returning to this blog after a fairly long absence, I’m going to post any old drafts I had been working on. This would have been likely from August 2012.*

the idea of letting go has been on my mind lately. Letting go of unreasonable or naive expectations. Letting go of other people’s misconceptions or expectations. Letting go of the filters that keep people from showing their true selves. I need to and am (still only half) letting go of many instances of these. It’s difficult. Those things become coping mechanisms, survival mechanism and don’t want to go away.

Today, and often lately, I’m pondering at what point do you let go of an injustice. I don’t mean holding grudges or seeking revenge. I mean, when is it worth it to seek justice or closure, and when is it better to just try to forget. While justice is important, seeking it can take it’s toll and in the end still fail. I have a few criteria which I feel should weigh in that decision, but finding the balance can be illusive.

Some of the criteria could include:
– the degree of harm done
– the nature of or motivation for the harm
– the likelihood of that harm being repeated on yourself
– the likelihood of that harm being repeated on others
– the effort involved in seeking resolution
– the potential emotional or psychological toll that may be involved in seeking a resolution
– the potential for damage done to others as a result of seeking a resolution
– the likelihood of succeeding in reaching a resolution

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Letting Go

I’ve been dealing with a lot lately. I don’t talk about it much – not just in my online life, but at all. When things, anything, is going bad for me there are maybe three people in my life, on average, who are likely going to hear anything about it.

There are likely a few reasons for that: Getting teased (harassed) in schools, having parents who fight, being in a cult-like spiritual environment teach you to be so selective about what you say to whom. Anything one might say, but especially complaints, concerns, problems, are taken as a sign of weakness or used against you. The people you want or feel you need to please expect everything to be going right with you always. Having problems isn’t seen as the norm, even though everyone faces challenges outside their control. Instead they are viewed as a personal failing. Sometimes I overestimated these reactions in my mind; other times I wildly underestimated. And there was a general insecurity, too. I was uncomfortable, dissatisfied with myself, so it took a lot more to open up.

I know this isn’t good. It makes my life more lonely by holding people at arms’ length, and makes them confused about my actions. But their reaction to that “confusion” only makes me want to share less.

I also think this is something that’s changing with me. I’m more direct, outspoken than I used to be. And I like it. As I’m coming out of my most recent difficulty (work-related this time) I feel like I’m coming into my own, more on the verge of displaying myself, if that makes sense.

I wonder, too, about how much we all keep inside. How many people do I meet, or even know well, who are leading double lives, trying not to give themselves away? Are polite confirmations that everything is fine most people’s default? How likely are you to share the deep portions of your life with more than just a few?

In any case: Here’s to letting go of the veneer.

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Money, Money, Money, Money… Money!

So, I’ve mentioned being back in a church. How we went, then just didn’t again, maybe “holding in reserve” a place we could go from time to time and just enjoy because we didn’t get too involved for it to go sideways.

Well, sideways can come pretty quickly.

To be fair, it’s not that I would never visit that church again. Would, and probably will. And I don’t feel put out by any particular person there. Not a trace of animosity toward any individual. But, the institution, the way the church functions seems to have worn me out. “Membership” is not an option.

What happened? Well, on one of the occasions we attended, I took a leap:

I filled out the visitor card.

I never do this on a first visit. To me, it’s a measure of trust. I’m giving you my personal information, formally registering my attendance and giving you permission to keep that data on file and contact me with unsolicited information. But they had earned that much, so I gave it a go.

It took awhile, but the inevitable letter finally came. I was expecting the standard
“welcome and thank you for visiting” form letter. At that point, I considered it might even be a “we haven’t seen you in awhile” form letter. But, no, alas, the first (and only) piece of mail we’ve gotten was a form letter aimed at long-time members soliciting them for greater pre-pledged annual contributions to the church.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, right there on the letter, signed by two committee members, was a bit about how the envelope secretary (entrusted with complete anonymity regarding donations and, presumably, lack thereof) had informed them that we were on the church list but hadn’t yet contributed any donations in 2012. We were asked to consider the great benefits we had likely already gotten out of their many committees and programs over the years (none of which are funded out of general coffers, in any case) and to consider increasing our donations.

The church list, eh? Apparently, that’s where visitor card information goes – straight to the list of “free-riders” in the congregation. The message was clear: we want you here, but be prepared to bring your checkbook.

Well. That was unpleasant.

I called said envelope secretary and expressed (unfortunately I could only leave a voicemail) my concern at the breech of anonymity, and my sense of the inappropriateness of soliciting for money visitors as if they were long-time members, and asked, politely but in no uncertain terms, to be removed from said list, whatever it was, even if that meant not receiving correspondence on any subject. I asked her to call me back, provided numerous ways to be reached and said I was happy to discuss my views. No response.

Before you say I’ve overreacted, I should say that I think I would have let it slide were it the first time we’d seen a solicitation in the half dozen Sundays or so we attended. Nearly every piece of information or pamphlet we came across was about money. We’d already put our hands on, quite accidentally, a pledge form complete with a “tithe” guilt trip (I’ll need a whole post just for that one – stay tuned). They have a few committees who seem to just handle money or ask for donations, which print plenty of hand-outs. We had also been approached once already in person by the aforementioned envelope secretary kindly informing us that she was the person to see about making regular donations. (Nice to meet you, too.)

In addition, our research into the church’s finances produced some unnerving results. For a church of only about 155 people, they have five (very well-paid) full-time staff and a budget of over $600,000. They do not collect $600,000 in revenues. It takes a large portion of their budget just to heat, light and generally maintain their massive building complex (in addition to the salary of a full-time maintenance person and not including major renovations…). None of that $600,000 goes to their work with the community, which is all fundraised separately and weighs in at about four digits for a few different funds. This is a church that should be reigning in its expenses, not shamelessly asking for more money to not manage.

I think this woman was probably surprised by my voicemail. Their committees are likely also convinced that bugging strangers for money to fund their building and salaries is an important part of the Lord’s work. They are used to dealing with only Anglicans (most assumed we were Anglican just because we visited) and an in-house understanding of what “stewardship” is – which seems to me the exact opposite of any common usage. That buys them some lee-way, but I’m going to respond like anyone who hasn’t drunk the kool-aid and hope that sharing an outsider’s perspective will help them do better.

In the meantime, we might look for a church with fewer committees and smaller budgets.

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Wow, I’ve Been Gone Awhile

I just realized it’s been like two whole weeks since I posted. (That May 10th think is just an app glitch. I’ll get around to deleting it… Actually, maybe that says more about my general neglect of the blog than anything…)

Not being sick is part of it. I’m just… busier.

But more than that, I think things here will happen in fits and starts, flood and drought. I’m not scheduled by nature. I hate routine. Things come and go for me in their own time. I don’t write everyday. I don’t write at the same time or in the same place when I do write. You’ll likely see a flood of posts, then nothing. Writing, then thinking in silence. Then writing again. Just thought I’d let you know.

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Just Visiting

I think I mentioned before that we started going to church again recently. We went a lot those first couple of weeks, checking everything out – expecting it to not pass inspection, really. It passed, though, and we kept going twice a week for a bit.

Then we both got the monstrous flu I had when I started this blog. We were out of commission for a few weeks and never went. In the meantime, the mid-week activity we liked ended. I wondered if people wondered if we had been put-off by something. I missed it… kind of. We went back last week when we were better. It was nice. We asked about some of the other groups.

This morning we just stayed home. We were… indifferent.

I kinda got why their demographic survey had “regular attendees” defined as those going every other week. With a traditional liturgy, each week is much like the next. You don’t feel like you’re missing much. We weren’t in the mood. We had pancakes instead.

But then I started wondering whether there might be more to it.

If we don’t show up this week and the next few weeks, like before, and then pop in, everyone’s still happy to see us. If we disappear now for a year and then reappear (we actually attended our first service there last year) we can just dive back in. It will always be there.

But once we have commitments there, formal or informal, once we know more then maybe we bargained for… well, then it can all go horribly wrong. Maybe, like playing hard to get, I’m staying aloof until I know what I really want, what they’re really like, so I don’t get my heart broken.

Maybe pancakes were just a cover.

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An Interesting Conversation

I posted this as a set of comments here. There is a series of threads that amount to an interesting discussion. You might want to check it out. I re-post here as it’s more than I’ve written for my own blog lately, and may feed into the bible re-read ideas at some point. Enjoy.


Between parts one and two, the response is rather long, and, between the obvious effort and thought put into it, and the esteem with which I hold the author (hi, Barry!) not less than a well-crafted, well thought-out response to the response will do. All of which it say, my response will also be rather lengthy and therefore posted in multiple parts. I will at least try to organize it in a way that makes sense.

1. The Bible as the “Word of God”

This seems to be the essence of the question raised in the original post. And I believe it needs to be separated from whether the bible is useful or even authoritative (however defined). The “Word of God” question is one of what the bible is and how it should be used, as either way one could still see it as valuable and even essential. And on this count, I feel that the response does not actually address why one would consider the bible “the Word of God” (unless we are using different meanings of the phrase).

To me, the term “Word of God” (“word” singular, often but not always with the capital “W”) denotes more than what God said (words of God), but, given that Christ is the “Word made flesh” inescapably bestows divinity on their entirety of the canonized scriptural text. Beyond the obvious issue of idolatry (which, as you marveled Barry, leads some Christians to preference ancient Judaic practices over the teachings of Jesus), this leads to a number of ontological problems (such as which manuscript versions or translations are, in fact, divine). I think this swiftly leads to the conclusion that that isn’t what was intended at all, but something else. We then want to ascribe living attributes to a inanimate text, to talk about the “Word among us”, but for which no clear definition is available and which becomes even more varied (among different church practices) and subjective (across varying interpretations), producing a very confused deity indeed.

But, perhaps “word of God” in this instance was intended to mean “words that God said (wrote/inspired)” or “words provided by God”, and therefore not Jesus Himself. However, this necessitates not viewing the bible as unique in holding this name. The phrase “word of God” is used in the bible itself to indicate individual prophecies or instructions for a particular time. Sections within the bible are ascribed directly to God and others aren’t, sometimes rather explicitly (like Paul indicating he is speaking in his own capacity, not God’s). From that, it appears the bible itself contradicts the idea that the entire bible is directly God’s words.

This is not necessarily to say the bible isn’t authoritative or even inspired, but it clearly calls into question the idea of inerrancy (as they are human, not divine words) or that it isn’t bound by time, place and culture (as the bible describes the word of God as being thus bound). Indeed, the biblical texts were canon long before the doctrine of inerrency even existed.

2. The Bible as “the” Foundational Document

Leaving aside for the moment the question of canon selection (it is hard to argue that we can know God placed importance on the correct selection of cannon when even the original manuscripts were not preserved, nor has any consistent translation or interpretation of the texts been achieved – if he could guide that he could also have guided these others but evidently did not… not to mention it is entirely circular: the books are viewed as inspired because they were canonized and don’t conflict on major points because cannon was chosen for consistency, but I digress…) I do believe a strong case can be made for the need for a guiding set of foundational texts. (Even then, the early churches existed without it, and with other competing documents as well… but again, I am drifting from the point at hand…) And what better selection, generically speaking, than the accounts about Jesus, the religious context in which Jesus lived and taught, and early church interpretations of Jesus’ teachings, death and resurrection. These need not be divine, nor inerrant to guide our beliefs and spiritual practice. Our faith is in Jesus and we are therefore guided by what he taught as best we can know and understand it.

I have to disagree, however, that this allows us to escape having a human-made religion, or saves us from deception (even cannon selection aside). Interpretations of translations of particular manuscript copies of the bible are still required. Nothing illustrates the humanness of these stages more than the extent to which they disagree with one another. The human element will be unavoidable. This is not to say we shouldn’t try – there is better and worse, and means of judging between them – but it should introduce a greater degree of humility, skepticism and accountability.

The point of using these texts as the foundation is therefore to add to our understanding of Jesus and are not elevated for their own sake. While they may contain, say, wise advice or beautiful description in their own right, it is not for that reason that we would consider them authoritative. The bible is simply then the means by which we come to understand the Word, not the Word itself.

3. The Separation of Testaments

From this proposed use of the bible, the Jewish scriptures would be approached in light of what Jesus said about them and what the new testament writers said Jesus’ teachings, death and resurrection meant in relation to them.

But this cannot be such a clean separation. If Jesus came to fulfill the law and not to erase it, if Jesus’ guiding teaching according to Paul was his summary of the law, then the law is still of significance. What Jesus asserted in his time was that the Jewish authorities had misinterpreted and misused the law and the prophets. What was abuse of the Jewish scriptures then was not just abuse in light of Jesus and the cross, but abuse even before that in its own right. We would be wise to recognize many long traditions of Jewish scholarship that do not believe in an “angry and hard-to-please God” and instead do see a “benevolent, loving God” without the new testament – a group of people that included Jesus Himself.

The standard seems clear from the teachings of Jesus and as further expounded by Paul – love. Here, I think we agree, Barry. If we teach love, of God and others (which Paul summarized further as simply loving others), then we have taught not only the law in it’s purest form, but how to properly interpret and apply it. This becomes a lens for the applicability of the old testament. In any apparent contradiction with love (and love alone), the interpretation of love trumps all others. Thus we see Jesus healing and the disciples picking grain both on the Sabbath, with Jesus essentially explaining, as Paul will later, that the law is for the benefit of people, not the other way around. (Paul’s teaching that Jewish purity laws do not apply to Christian converts is an entire conversation on its own. The purity laws forbid mixing of kinds – seeds in a field, fabric in clothes, pork, shellfish – which was adhorent until God did a new thing in including the Gentiles in the covenant. Ultimately, we see that the law is context-dependent. Which is the reason that Paul so strongly opposes Christians having a written law or applying principles indiscriminately – and yet we do that very thing with Paul’s own writings, even the ones expounding against such practices!).

But it doesn’t end there. Because this is the true timeless law written on our hearts, the essence of Jesus’ teachings and ministry, the same standard will continue into the new testament. In any apparent contradiction with love (and love alone), the interpretation of love still trumps all others. Paul goes as far as to say that all things are permissible – the standard is what is beneficial (loving). Without this, we are also likely to misinterpret the writings of new testament authors (in a foreign language for a foreign time, geography and culture) – just as we are old testament ones. I would even posit that the teachings of Jesus themselves can, to some extent, be put to this test, not allowing particular isolated phrases to contradict the overarching message. Indeed, Paul himself does this when going beyond Jesus in his instructions on divorce.

This unites both testaments into an over-arching theme, meaning, and approach (although this is not without its challenges – which I think Cindy is going to address and I will leave for now). Indeed, it means there is nothing new under the sun – even the bible.

4. The “Word of God” Revisited

The Word of God, then – both the sprit of the law (God’s decrees across the ages) and Jesus, the Word made flesh – is love itself, the Light that came into the world to save us from darkness.

Insofar as the bible calls us to love, it bears the Word, but only that far. The Holy Spirit will testify of Jesus-the Word-Love, and so people hear from God insofar as they love and call to love, and only that far. In obeying Jesus’ summation of the law – love – we love Jesus, but only if we love others. Insofar as we love others we minister to Jesus and are his disciples, and are otherwise unknown to Him. Love is the standard by which all things are judged, including the bible, and the bible testifies to this.

But that is the milk, not the meat, as Paul put it. How we love and know what is loving can be difficult. For this, the bible can provide some, but limited guidance. For those Paul is writing to, he is giving examples in their time, but is ultimately entrusting them with learning the difference for themselves, for renewing their minds. Jesus challenges those who question him and teaches in parables. In answering what love is, Jesus encourages his followers both to do as he did and to empathize with others, doing what we would want in their place. Both are teaching how to think, not what to think, when it comes to love. And self-sacrifice, thinking of others and their circumstances first, is at the heart of it. The bible helps to get us to that point, where love is clearly the standard, with some criteria for judging what love looks like, but it cannot answer our modern dilemmas for us – and warns against such static written laws. I believe we are being called instead to walk the difficult road of letting our minds and hearts and experiences show us the way.

5. The End… (at last)

This isn’t everything that struck me, but it is the general concepts I had in mind when reading your responses, Barry. There are more comments to come and I look forward to the discussion.

Of interest to you might be the bible re-read Cindy and I are doing. You can read and comment about it on my own blog, if you like ( – not that I haven’t said plenty already. I’ll likely put this up on my own blog, too, since it’s more than I’ve written for that all week. There might also be some other interested individuals who I’ll refer here who would also hate to pass up a good (especially civil) bible discussion.

Good to hear from you. Until next time.

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