I went to the doctor for a physical the other day. To be clear, I like my doctor and think that we finally understand each other reasonably well. But as part of the preliminaries, a nurse came into the room and started asking questions.

Nurse: Are you feeling depressed?

Me: No, but if I were, I wouldn't tell YOU.

NurseHave you lost anything important to you in the past year?

Me: Well, I mislaid my cell phone for a few minutes, but I found it again.

NurseHave you....

Me (interrupting): Look, just take my vitals and let me see the doctorI came here for a physical, not a mental.

No, that's not what I said. I was meek and compliant, if somewhat confused by her sudden concern for my mental health. I make a point of not antagonizing someone who will later be jabbing a needle into my arm. But it's what I wish I could have said.

I like to think of the doctor-patient relationship as one in which I pay the doctor—with or without an insurance company proxy—to do for me what I cannot do for myself, because of his knowledge (medical school and experience), and his ability to access certain services which I cannot (medical tests, prescription drugs). More and more, however, I find the medical establishment taking on a paternal, authoritarian role, as well as poking and prodding into areas not part of the unspoken contract. For example:

  • Psychological questions such as the above. A simple, "Do you have any other concerns?" should cover anything he thinks a physical exam might miss.
  • Insisting that adolescent children be examined without a parent present. The only reason they want to do that is to ask the children questions they may not feel comfortable answering, and given the doctor's position of authority and respect, to my mind this borders on abuse. Schools do the same; I'll get to that later.
  • Asking a young child if anyone smokes in his house, as happened to my nephew. If the child has any breathing issues, this is a right and proper question to ask, but of the parent. Not of the child.

Doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel: I appreciate your knowledge, your experience, your respectful and friendly manner, and your willingness to work with me for the improvement of my family's health. I hope you appreciate my cooperation, respect, and knowledgeable concern about health matters. But I need a partner in health, not a nosy nanny.

That incident with the medical profession reminded me of my greater concern: education. I won't go into all my experiences with the educational system—as student, parent, aunt, friend, and volunteer—but I long ago came to the conclusion that the school system, especially but not exclusively the public schools, is an even greater nosy nanny than the medical establishment.

Teachers, principals, school psychologists, and others from the educational system: I appreciate your skills, your experience, and your often genuine concern for my children. I hope you appreciate my respect, volunteerism, and knowledgeable concern for my children's education. But my family needs a partner in education, not a nanny.

  • Teach my child important academic subjects. (This includes the arts, in case you think I mean only the 3R's.)
  • Do not ask about his private life or the lives of his family members.
  • Do not give him psychological or medical exams.
  • Do not try to teach him ethics or moral behavior. Teach the rules of proper classroom behavior, by all means, but leave questions like, "When do you think it's okay to lie?" to the family—and to philosophy classes. Demonstrate ethical behavior by your own example, please—but not as part of the curriculum.
  • Leave my child's feelings, emotions, and beliefs alone. They are his, and pressure on the part of an authority figure to reveal them is abusive.
  • Don't feed my child. I will feed him breakfast and dinner, and send a bag lunch to school with him. It's none of your business whether the bag contains sprouted wheat bread with organic carrots and hummus, or McDonald's drive-thru fare, or a fluffernutter sandwich and Doritos.
  • Don't be a babysitter. If my child is not actively learning, send him home. Contrary to what you apparently expect, I do not rejoice when the big yellow bus swallows him up in the morning, nor is my first thought when school vacation approaches, "What am I going to do with him under foot all day?"

If you've made it this far without giving up on me as hopelessly out of sync with modern society, let me assure you that I realize there are many families who welcome the school services I despise, and I can see why the public schools are considered a reasonable venue for providing them. But if we're going to do that, they really need to be provided on an opt-in, not an opt-out basis, just as you should be able to choose to receive special offers (known to many of us as junk mail) when you sign up for something, but the default situation avoids them.

By all means, offer before-school breakfast to students who need it, but don't make my child sit on the bus while waiting for the classroom doors to open. Stop using incentives and pressure to try to attain 100% participation in your school lunch program. Let an optometrist come in to the school and offer free eye exams, but get parental permission first. (I mean real, specific, informed permission, not a general release signed at the beginning of the year and without which the child can't attend school!) Make it very clear to the children that they do not have to answer questions that make them feel uncomfortable (math problems excepted); better yet, don't ask such questions in the first place. Provide counselling for individuals or groups if the parents assent, but stop the practice of sending whole classrooms to such sessions, especially without parental knowledge and informed consent.

I make it sound as if we had a terrible school experience, and that was not the case. Most teachers and administrators were helpful and respectful, even if they did consider us weird. But it took much knowledge, time, and attention than most parents are able to give, to craft a school experience remotely serving our family's needs. Even so, a lot slipped through our hands, either because we didn't know what was going on, or because we had to choose our battles.

All too often, "partnership in education/medicine" means that we are supposed to endorse and enforce whatever the teachers/doctors decree. That is no partnership, and it is unacceptable. As long as the medical and educational establishments expect such to be the case, they should not be surprised to find people—and mostly bright, thoughtful folks they should want to be part of the mainstream—turning more and more to alternatives.

Since money changes hands in the transaction, it's tempting to consider doctors and teachers as our servants, and I'm sure their specialized training tempts them to view themselves as our masters. In the long run, however, a good, working partnership can achieve much more.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, May 26, 2017 at 11:20 am | Edit
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altCry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton (Scribner, 2003, originally published 1948)

I resisted reading this classic book for a long time; it's doubtful I would have read it this month were it not for the looming deadline for 95 by 65 goal #63. I knew nothing against Cry, the Beloved Country other than that it was something people read in schools, and that's enough to condemn it in my eyes. But the greatest reason is that it was just one out of hundreds of books in my life crying out to be read.

Cry, the Beloved Country is well worth reading and far, far better than anything school ever offered me. In truth, however, I'm not sure I was ready for it, even in high school. I didn't have enough experience, and certainly didn't have enough knowledge. In my classes, the history of South Africa hardly got beyond "Isn't apartheid terrible?"

Even more significant, however, is that it would be horrible to sit in a classroom and have this beautiful book picked apart. It is a book to be experienced, not analyzed, at least not on the first reading. It is a book to be pondered, to be savored, to be thought about with the heart. It is a beautiful book filled with grief and suffering and despair and hope and redemption.

It may even be a book my 13-year-old grandson could benefit from, despite my thoughts that I wasn't ready for it in high school. I don't know. It might be a gateway to further interest in Africa, a book to come back to again later. It talks about bad things, but in the way of books written in the 1940's, they are treated sensitively and are not at all "adult" meaning prurient or "graphic" meaning lurid.

Beyond his clear love of his native land, his sense of justice, and his fear for South Africa's future, Paton's style is a delight to read. It's different, but gives the feel of a foreign language and culture while remaining completely intelligible.

No quotations this time. Read the whole book. :)

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, May 24, 2017 at 12:15 pm | Edit
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I'm working on documentation for our recent cruise to Mexico and Cuba with our neighbors and two of our grandchildren, but it won't be available for a while. In the meantime, you can get everything except our own personal angle by visiting David July's article, The Grateful Talk about the Light at the Mount Sutro website. David's photography and writing are both superlative. I particularly appreciate how well documented his work is, and how observant he is of detail.

Both David and his mom—our neighbor—are excellent photographers who willingly pay the penalty of lugging bulky cameras and equipment while touring. It takes much more than a good camera to make a good photographer, but nonetheless, what a difference the camera makes! Porter, Noah, and I all tried to get a photo of a toucan in a tree. Below is our best effort (Noah's photo) compared with David's. (His photo is from the Mount Sutro Gallery. License agreement here.)

altalt

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, May 22, 2017 at 8:28 am | Edit
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altThe Whimsical Christian: 18 Essays by Dorothy Sayers (Collier Books, 1987, previously published as Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World; the original essay dates are from the 1940's through the 1960's)

I set myself a challenge to read all of the Dorothy Sayers books in our house, including all the Lord Peter Wimsey stories in chronological order. (This does not include the stories written after Sayers' death by Jill Paton Walsh. I just couldn't, even though some of them are based on Sayers' own unfinished work.)  So far I've read 16 of the 19, but I still have a long way to go. That's because the three remaining books are her translations of Dante's Divine Comedy. I had thought I was almost done until this morning, when I remembered those, which are in a separate section of our bookshelves.

Be that as it may, I'm not going to review them all, but I will take a pause now and talk about this collection of essays. It's the only book we own of her nonfiction, and it has made me want to find more, and also to explore her plays. Reading Sayers—even her detective stores, but especially her essays—makes me feel as if I have been ordering from the children's menu and was given a glimpse of the feast that's available if I could appreciate it. What a mind she had! How deeply and logically she thought! How well she could put words together! My multilingual family and friends will be interested to note that when she quotes (or has her characters speak) in another tongue, she rarely translates, on the grounds, I suppose, that all educated people should know enough Latin, French, German, and Italian to get the point. Fortunately, one can usually get the point even so.

The essays range from easily accessible to literary and deep, but even "Dante and Charles Williams," which I initially did not expect much from, I found to be fascinating. There, for example, is this amazing paragraph:

The image of woman is, of course, asserted in Beatrice, about whose person the theology of romantic love is assembled and displayed. I am not sure that Williams, in calling it "the image of woman," was doing full justice to himself or Dante. The image is not of femaleness as such—the ewig Weibliches about which Goethe and D. H. Lawrence and others have made so much to-do. It is a personal relationship of adoration, and Williams himself was the first to insist that the adoration need not be (though in literature it most frequently is) that of a man for a woman. It might, in the exchange of hierarchies, be that of a woman for a man; if, he would say, Beatrice had written her version of the Commedia, Dante himself might have figured in it as the "God-bearing image." Or the element of sex might not enter it at all. But in one way or another, the Image is that of the God-bearing person, whose earthly archetype is Mary, and whose heavenly archetype is Christ.

It's impossible to do justice to her thinking even with long quotations, but I hope these will give you taste of her ideas. If you'd like the full-course meal, most of the essays from The Whimsical Christian can be found online at this Google Books link.  The bold highlights are my own.

From "What Do We Believe?"

I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of all things. That is the thundering assertion with which we start; that the great fundamental quality that makes God, and us with him, what we are is creative activity. ... Man is most god-like and most himself when he is occupied in creation. ... Our worst trouble today is our feeble hold on creation. To sit down and let ourselves be spoon-fed with the ready-made is to lose our grip on our only true life and our only real selves.

From "Creed or Chaos?"

This is the Church's opportunity, if she chooses to take it. So far as the people's readiness to listen goes, she has not been in so strong a position for at least two centuries. The rival philosophies of humanism, enlightened self-interest, and mechanical progress have broken down badly; the antagonism of science has proved to be far more apparent than real;  and the happy-go-lucky doctrine of Laissez-faire is completely discredited. But no good whatever will be done by a retreat into personal piety or by mere exhortation to a recall to prayer. The thing that is in danger is the whole structure of society, and it is necessary to persuade thinking men and women of the vital and intimate connection between the structure of society and the theological doctrines of Christianity.

The task is not made easier by the obstinate refusal of a great body of nominal Christians, both lay and clerical, to face the theological question. "Take away theology and give us some nice religion" has been a popular slogan for so long that we are likely to accept it, without inquiring whether religion without theology has any meaning.

The modern tendency seems to be to identify work with gainful employment; and this is, I maintain, the essential heresy at the back of the great economic fallacy that allows wheat and coffee to be burned and fish to be used for manure while whole populations stand in need of food. The fallacy is that work is not the expression of man's creative energy in the service of society, but only something he does in order to obtain money and leisure.

From "Toward a Christian Esthetic"

It may be well to remember Plato's warning: "If you receive the pleasure-seasoned muse, pleasure and pain will be kings in your city instead of law and agreed principles."

Let us distinguish between and event and an experience. An event is something that happens to one, but one does not necessarily experience it. To take an extreme instance: suppose you are hit on the head and get a concussion and, as often happens, when you come to, you cannot remember the blow. The blow on the head certainly happened to you, but you did not experience it; all you experience is the aftereffects. You only experience a thing when you can express it—however haltingly—to your own mind. ...

When it is a case of mental or spiritual experience—sin, grief, joy, sorrow, worshop—the thing reveals itself to him in words and so becomes fully experienced for the first time. By thus recognizing it in its expression, he makes it his own—integrates it into himself.

The act of the poet in creation is seen to be threefold—a trinity—experience, expression, and recognition: the unknowable reality in the experience; the image of that reality known in its expression; and power in the recognition; the whole making up the single and indivisible act of a creative mind.

From "Creative Mind"  This is a long quotation, but necessary to get the idea of one example of Sayers' own creative mind. I'd long since heard the theory, from Creationists, that fossils exist because God created them at the same time he created everything else, although for what reason it was unclear. Of course that line of thinking was thoroughly mocked, but hear Sayers out: as a writer, such an idea was not at all strange to her. Here she reveals that a mind that can work out elaborate train timetables for a murder mystery can also grapple with a science fiction writer's view of time.

It was during the last century that the great war was fought between churchmen and men of science over the theory of Evolution.... The scientists won their victory chiefly, or at any rate largely, with the help of the paleontologists and the biologists.... It was scarcely possible to suppose any longer that God had created each species—to quote the text of Paradise Lost—‘perfect forms, limb’d, and full grown,’ except on what seemed the extravagant assumption that, when creating the universe, he had at the same time provided it with evidence of a purely imaginary past that had never had any actual existence. Now, the first thing to be said about this famous quarrel is that the churchmen need never have been perturbed at all about the method of creation, if they had remembered that the Book of Genesis was a book of poetical truth, and not intended as a scientific handbook of geology. They got into their difficulty, to a large extent, through having unwittingly slipped into accepting the scientist’s concept of the use of language, and supposing that a thing could not be true unless it was amenable to quantitative methods of proof. Eventually, and with many slips by the way, they contrived to clamber out of this false position; and today no reasonable theologian is at all perturbed by the idea that creation was effected by evolutionary methods. But, if the theologians had not lost touch with the nature of language; if they had not insensibly fallen into the eighteenth-century conception of the universe as a mechanism and God as the great engineer; if, instead they had chosen to think of God as a great, imaginative artist—then they might have offered a quite different kind of interpretation of the facts, with rather entertaining consequences. They might, in fact, have seriously put forward the explanation I mentioned just now: that God had at some moment or other created the universe complete with all the vestiges of an imaginary past.

I have said that this seemed an extravagant assumption; so it does, if one thinks of God as a mechanician. But if one thinks of him as working in the same sort of way as a creative artist, then it no longer seems extravagant, but the most natural thing in the world. It is the way every novel in the world is written.

Every serious novelist starts with some or all of his characters ‘in perfect form and fully grown,’ complete with their pasts. Their present is conditioned by a past that exists, not fully on paper, but fully or partially in the creator’s imagination. And as he goes on writing the book, he will—especially if it is a long work, like The Forsyte Saga or the "Peter Wimsey" series—plant from time to time in the text of the book allusions to that unwritten past. If his imagination is consistent, then all those allusions, all those, so to speak, planted fossils, will tell a story consistent with one another and consistent with the present and future actions of the characters. That is to say, that past, existing only in the mind of the maker, produces a true and measurable effect upon the written part of the book, precisely as though it had, in fact, "taken place" within the work of art itself. ...

I think that if the churchmen had chosen to take up that position, the result would have been entertaining. It would have been a very strong position because it is one that cannot be upset by scientific proof. Probably, theologians would have been deterred by a vague sense that a God who made his universe like this was not being quite truthful. But that would be because of a too limited notion of truth. In what sense is the unwritten past of the characters in a book less true than their behavior in it? Or if a prehistory that never happened exercises on history an effect indistinguishable from the effect it would have made by happening, what real difference is there between happening and not happening? If it is deducible from the evidence, self-consistent, and recognizable in its effects, it is quite real, whether or not it ever was actual.

I am not, of course, giving it as my opinion that the world was made yesterday all of a piece, or even that it first came into being at the point where prehistory stops and history begins. I am only saying that if it had, then, provided the imagination were consistent, no difference of any kind would have been made to anything whatever in the universe. Though, of course, if we were willing to accept such a theory, we might find it easier to deal with some of our problems about time. ... All I have tried to do in this piece of fantasy is to show that where you have a consistent imagination at work, the line between scientific and poetic truth may become very hard to draw.

If you find this playing with time and reality rather strange, you should try quantum physics.

At the present time, we have a population that is literate, in the sense that everybody is able to read and write; but, owing to the emphasis placed on scientific and technical training at the expense of the humanities, very few of our people have been taught to understand and handle language as an instrument of power. This means that, in this country [1940's England] alone, forty million innocents or thereabouts are wandering inquisitively about the laboratory, enthusiastically pulling handles and pushing buttons, thereby releasing uncontrollable currents of electric speech, with results that astonish themselves and the world. Nothing is more intoxicating than a sense of power: the demagogue who can sway crowds, the journalist who can push up the sales of his paper to the two-million mark, the playwright who can plunge an audience into an orgy of facile emotion, the parliamentary candidate who is carried to the top of the poll on a flood of meaningless rhetoric, the ranting preacher, the advertising salesman of material or spiritual commodities, are all playing perilously and irresponsibly with the power of words, and are equally dangerous whether they are cynically unscrupulous or (as frequently happens) have fallen under the spell of their own eloquence and become the victims of their own propaganda. For the great majority of those whom they are addressing have no skill in assessing the value of words and are as helpless under verbal attack as were the citizens of Rotterdam against assault from the air. When we first began to realize the way in which the common sense of Europe had been undermined and battered down by Nazi propaganda, we were astonished as well as horrified; yet there was nothing astonishing about it. It was simply another exhibition of ruthless force: the employment of a very powerful weapon by experts who understood it perfectly against people who were not armed to resist it and had never really understood that it was a weapon at all. And the defense against the misuse of words is not flight, nor yet the random setting off of verbal fireworks, but the wary determination to understand the potentialities of language and to use it with resolution and skill.

Written in England in the late 1940's, this absolutely is spot-on for here and now, except for the low numbers—from the emphasis on STEM subjects in schools to our powerlessness in the face of propaganda. To be clear: Left, Right, it makes no difference, and I'm not singling out any person or party.  It just is.

From "The Image of God"

In the beginning God created. ... And he created man in his own image; in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

This far the author of Genesis. The expression "in his own image" has occasioned a good deal of controversy. Only the most simple-minded people of any age or nation have supposed the image to be a physical one. The innumerable pictures that display the Creator as a hirsute, old gentleman in flowing robes seated on a bank of cloud are recognized to be purely symbolic. The image, whatever the author may have meant by it, is something shared by male and female alike; the aggressive masculinity of the pictorial Jehovah represents power, rationality or what you will; it has no relation to the text I have quoted. Christian doctrine and tradition, indeed, by language and picture, set its face against all sexual symbolism for the divine fertility. Its Trinity is wholly masculine, as all language relating to man as a species is masculine.

The Jews, keenly alive to the perils of pictorial metaphor, forbade the representation of the Person of God in graven images. Nevertheless, human nature and the nature of human language defeated them. No legislation could prevent the making of verbal pictures.... To forbid the making of pictures about God would be to forbid thinking about God at all, for man is so made that he has no way to think except in pictures. But continually, throughout the history of the Jewish-Christian Church, the voice of warning has been raised against the power of the picture-makers: "God is a spirit," "without body, parts or passions"; He is pure being. "I am that I am."

Man, very obviously, is not a being of this kind: this body, parts, and passions are only too conspicuous in his makeup. How then can he be said to resemble God? Is it his immortal soul, his rationality, his self-consciousness, his free will, or what, that gives him a claim to this rather startling distinction? A case may be argued for all these elements in the complex nature of man. But had the author of Genesis anything particular in his mind when he wrote? It is observable that in the passage leading up to the statement about man, he has given no detailed information about God. Looking at man, he sees in him something essentially divine, but when we turn back to see what he says about the original upon which the "image" of God was modeled, we find only the single assertion, "God created." The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and ability to make things.

From "Problem Picture"

It has become abundantly clear of late years that something has gone seriously wrong with our conception of humanity and of humanity's proper attitude to the universe. We have begun to suspect that the purely analytical approach to phenomena is leading us only further and further into the abyss of disintegration and randomness, and that it is becoming urgently necessary to construct a synthesis of life. It is dimly apprehended that the creative artist does, somehow or other, specialize in construction, and also that the Christian religion does, in some way that is not altogether clear to us, claim to bring us into a right relation with a God whose attribute is creativeness. Accordingly, exhorted on all sides to become creative and constructive, the common man may reasonably turn to these two authorities in the hope that they may shed some light, first, on what creativeness is, and, secondly, on its significance for the common man and his affairs.

If we conclude that creative mind is in fact the very grain of the spiritual universe ... we cannot arbitrarily stop our investigations with the man who happens to work in stone, or paint, or music, or letters. We shall have to ask ourselves whether the same pattern is not also exhibited in the spiritual structure of every man and woman. And, if it is, whether, by confining the average man and woman to uncreative activities and an uncreative outlook, we are not doing violence to the very structure of our being.

To the average man, life presents itself, not as material malleable to his hand, but as a series of problems of extreme difficulty, which he has to solve with the means at his disposal. And he is distressed to find that the more means he [has at his disposal] such as machine power, rapid transport, and general civilized amenities, the more his problems grow in hardness and complexity. This is particularly disconcerting to him, because he has been frequently told that hte increase of scientific knowledge would give him the mastery over nature—which ought, surely to imply mastery over life.

Perhaps the first thing that he can learn from the artist is that the only way of mastering one's material is to abandon the whole conception of mastery and to co-operate with it in love: whosoever will be a lord of life, let him be its servant. If he tries to wrest life out of its true nature, it will revenge itself in judgment, as the work revenges itself upon the domineering artist.

From our brief study of the human maker's way of creation, it should be fairly clear that the creator does not set out from a set of data, and proceed, like a crossword solver or a student of elementary algebra, to deduce from them a result that shall be final, predictable, complete, and the only one possible. The concept of problem and solution is as meaningless, applied to the act of creation, as it is when applied to the act of procreation. To add John to Mary in a procreative process does not produce a solution of John and Mary's combined problem; it produces George or Susan, who (in addition to being a complicating factor in the life of his or her parents) possesses an independent personality with an entirely new set of problems. Even if ... we allow the touch of baby hands to loosen some of the knots into which John and Mary had tied themselves, the solution (meaning George or Susan) is not the only one possible, nor is it final, predictable, or complete.

From "Christian Morality"

I do not suggest that the Church does wrong to pay attention to the regulation of bodily appetites and the proper observance of holiday. What I do suggest is that by overemphasizing this side of morality, to the comparative neglect of others, she has not only betrayed her mission but, incidentally, also defeated her own aims even about morality. She has, in fact, made an alliance with Caesar, and Caesar, having used her for his own purposes, has now withdrawn his support—for that is Caesar's pleasant way of behaving. For the last three hundred years or so, Caesar has been concerned to maintain a public order based upon the rights of private property; consequently, he has had a vested interest in morality. Strict morals made for the stability of family life and the orderly devolution of property, and Caesar (namely, the opinion of highly placed and influential people) has been delighted that the Church should do the work of persuading the citizen to behave accordingly. Further, a drunken worker is a bad worker, and thriftless extravagance is bad for business; therefore, Caesar has welcomed the encouragement of the Church....

Unhappily, however, this alliance for mutual benefit between Church and Caesar has not lasted. The transfer of property from the private owner to the public trust or limited company enables Caesar to get on very well without personal morals and domestic stability; the conception that the consumer exists for the sake of production has made extravagance and thriftless consumption a commercial necessity; consequently, Caesar no longer sees eye to eye with the Church about these matters.... The Church, shocked and horrified, is left feebly protesting against Caesar's desertion, and denouncing a relaxation of moral codes, in which the heedless world is heartily aided and abetted by the state....

Perhaps if the Churches had had the courage to lay their emphasis where Christ laid it, we might not have come to this present frame of mind in which it is assumed that the value of all work and the value of all people are to be assessed in terms of economics. We might not so readily take for granted that the production of anything (no matter how useless or dangerous) is justified so long as it issues in increased profits and wages; that so long as a worker is well paid, it does not matter whether his work is worthwhile in itself or good for his soul; that so long as a business deal keeps on the windy side of the law, we need not bother about its ruinous consequences to society or the individual....

The best Christian minds are making very strenuous efforts to readjust the emphasis and to break the alliance with Caesar. The chief danger is lest the churches, having for so long acquiesced in the exploiting of the many by the few, should now think to adjust the balance by helping on the exploitation of the few by the many, instead of attacking the false standards by which everybody, rich and poor alike, has not come to assess the value of life and work. If the churches make this mistake, they will again be merely following the shift of power from one class of the community to the other and deserting the dying Caesar to enlist the support of his successor. A more equal distribution of wealth is a good and desirable things, but it can scarcely be attained, and cannot certainly be maintained, unless we get rid of the superstition that acquisitiveness is a virtue and that the value of anything is represented in terms of profit and cost.

The churches are justifiably shocked when the glamour of a film actress is assessed by the number of her love affairs and divorces; they are less shocked when the glamour of a man, or of a work of art, is headlined in dollars. They are shocked when unfortunates are reduced to selling their bodies; they are less shocked when journalists are reduced to selling their souls. They are shocked when good food is wasted by riotous living; they are less shocked when good crops are wasted and destroyed because of overproduction and underconsumption. Something has gone wrong with the emphasis....

From "The Other Six Deadly Sins"

We all know pretty well the man—or, perhaps still more frequently, the woman—who says that anybody who tortures a helpless animal should be flogged till he shrieks for mercy. The harsh, grating tone and the squinting, vicious countenance accompanying the declaration are enough to warn us that this righteous anger is devilborn and trembling on the verge of mania....It is very well known to the more unscrupulous part of the press that nothing pays so well in the newspaper world as the manufacture of schisms and the exploitation of wrath. Turn over the pages of the more popular papers if you want to see how avarice thrives on hatred and the passion of violence. To foment grievance and to set men at variance is the trade by which agitators thrive and journalists make money. A dogfight, a brawl, or a war is always news; if news of that kind is lacking, it pays well to contrive it.... You may know the mischief-maker by the warped malignancy of his language as easily as by the warped malignancy of his face and voice. His fury is without restraint and without magnanimity—and it is aimed, not at checking the offense, but at starting a pogrom against the offender.

Ungovernable rage is the sin of the warm heart and the quick spirit; in such men it is usually very quickly repented of—though before that happens it may have wrought irreparable destruction.

An odd change has come over us since the arrival of the machine age. Whereas formerly it was considered a virtue to be thrifty and content with one's lot, it is now considered to be the mark of a progressive nation that it is filled with hustling, go-getting citizens, intent on raising their standard of living. And this is not interpreted to mean merely that a decent sufficiency of food, clothes, and shelter is attainable by all citizens. I means much more and much less than this. It means that every citizen is encouraged to consider more, and more complicated, luxuries necessary to his well-being. The gluttonous consumption of manufactured goods had become, before the war, the prime civic virtue. And why? Because the machines can produce cheaply only if they produce in vast quantities; because unless the machines can produce cheaply nobody can afford to keep them running; and because, unless they are kept running, millions of citizens will be thrown out of employment, and the community will starve.

Hand in hand with covetousness goes its close companion—invidia or envy—which hates to see other men happy. The names by which it offers itself to the world's applause are right and justice, and it makes a great parade of these austere virtues. It begins by asking, plausibly, "Why should not I enjoy what others enjoy?" and it ends by demanding, "Why should others enjoy what I may not?"  Envy is the great leveler. If it cannot level things up, it will level them down; and the words constantly in its mouth are "my rights" and "my wrongs." At its best, envy is a climber and a snob; at its worst, it is a destroyer; rather than have anybody happier than itself, it will see us all miserable together.

The difficulty about dealing with envy is precisely that it is the sin of the have-nots, and that, on that account, it can always find support among those who are just and generous minded. Its demands for a place in the sun are highly plausible, and those who detect any egotism in the demand can readily be silenced by accusing them of oppression, inertia, and a readiness to grind the face of the poor.

The years between the wars saw the most ruthless campaign of debunking ever undertaken by nominally civilized nations. Great artists were debunked by disclosures of their private weaknesses; great statesmen, by attributing to them mercenary and petty motives, or by alleging that all their work was meaningless, or done for them by other people. Religion was debunked and shown to consist of a mixture of craven superstition and greed. Courage was debunked, patriotism was debunked, learning and art were debunked, love was debunked, and with it family affection and the virtues of obedience, veneration, and solidarity. Age was debunked by youth, and youth by age. Psychologists stripped bare the pretensions of reason and conscience and self-control, saying that these were only the respectable disguises of unmentionable unconscious impulses. Honor was debunked with peculiar virulence, and good faith, and unselfishness. Everything that could possibly be held to constitute an essential superiority had the garments of honor torn from its back and was cast out into the darkness of derision. ... It is well that the hypocrisies that breed like mushrooms in the shadow of great virtues should be discovered and removed, but envy is not the right instrument for that purpose, for it tears down the whole fabric to get at the parasitic growths.... Envy cannot bear to admire or respect; it cannot bear to be grateful. But it is very plausible; it always announces that it works in the name of truth and equity.

Here is a phrase that we have heard a good deal of late: "These services ... ought not to be made a matter of charity. We have a right to demand that they should be borne by the state."  Now that sounds splendid, but what does it mean?

Now, you and I are the state, and where the bearing of financial burdens is concerned, the taxpayer is the state. ... If the burden hitherto borne by charity is transferred to the shoulders of the taxpayer, it will inevitably continue to be carried by exactly the same class of people. The only difference is this: that people will no longer pay because they want to—eagerly and for love—but because they must, reluctantly and under pain of fine or imprisonment. The result, roughly speaking, is financially the same; the only difference is the elimination of the two detested virtues of love and gratitude.

I do not say for a moment that certain things should not be the responsibility of the state—that is, of everybody.... But what I see very clearly is the hatred of the gracious act and the determination that nobody shall be allowed any kind of spontaneous pleasure in well-doing if envy can prevent it. "This ointment might have been sold for much and given to the poor." Then our nostrils would not be offended by any odor of sanctity—the house would not be "Filled with the smell of the ointment." It is characteristic that it should have been Judas who debunked that act of charity.

From "Dante and Charles Williams"

[Charles Williams'] judgments were as free as any modern man's judgments could be from what we call a "sense of period." ... Period-sense is a thing of very recent origin—it scarcely begins to exist before the closing years of the eighteenth century. We may see this very vividly illustrated in the history of theatrical costume. Right down to Garrick's time, nobody thought it odd to play Coriolanus or Macbeth in a periwig, and all the classical heroines in panniers and powdered hair, any more than Shakespeare had boggled about making his Roman conspirators pull their hats about their brows, or giving Brutus a pocket in his gown. No doubt everybody knew that the custom worn in past ages was different from their own—they knew, but the did not feel that it mattered. They felt that the play was dealing with human beings in a human situation—not with historical personages conditioned by a historical environment. And this was a reflection of their whole attitude to the writers of the past—they judged them as though they were contemporaries, bringing their opinions to the bar of absolute, rather than of relative, truth.

From "The Writing and Reading of Allegory"

We are so much accustomed nowadays to take it for granted that romantic love between the sexes is one of the most important and sacred things in life, that it is hard to believe that, before  the twelfth century, such an idea never entered anybody's head—and, if it had, it would have been considered not only immoral but also ridiculous. That human beings did in fact fall in love, with very disturbing effects, was of course a fact that nobody in any age could possibly overlook; but it had never been customary to admire them for it. On the contrary, passion, as distinct from a decent conjugal affection, had always been held to be a bad thing, both in men and in women.... On this point, pagan and Christian were agreed. The passionate adoration of woman was a weakness, and worse....

And then, almost unimaginably, starting among the troubadours of Provence, and singing its way across Europe in all the Romance languages, came the new cult of courtly love. We cannot now stop to inquire what brought it into being; it is enough that it came, that it spread like wildfire, and established itself, changing the whole aspect of men's lives, and effecting one of the very few genuine social revolutions in history.

From "The Faust Legend and the Idea of the Devil"

The corruption of the will saps the intellect, and the Devil is ultimately a fool as well as a villain.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, May 20, 2017 at 3:21 pm | Edit
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Goal #12 of my 95 by 65 project was to design five Life Playground Stations, inspired by Stephen Jepson and his Never Leave the Playground program. Five easily-accessible places and/or pieces of equipment that would combine exercise and fun. Others may prefer sports for that purpose—but this is my playground. It has to work for me. It has to be something I want to do.

The Pool Track  This is by far the most used of all my Stations, and I'm surprised it took me this long to discover it. I've been walking for exercise for a long time—walking, and sometimes running. Occasionally I would walk in our neighborhood, but mostly my habit had been to join Porter and his running buddy at a nearby park. The park is pleasant enough, but the whole process was enough of an effort, and took so much time, that I only went three times a week.

Enter the Pool Track. I had started walking around the edge of our pool as a break for body and mind after a long session at the computer, and it grew from there. It really took off during a Personal Retreat when Porter was out of town, when I had determined to isolate myself at home for better focus.

Walking around and around the pool may sound boring, but it's not at all. I'm never just exercising. I've always been able to think, write (mentally), pray, or listen to lectures/audio books while walking (though not while running), but with the Pool Track I can do so much more. I can read books, I can do DuoLingo lessons, I can watch videos, I can talk on the phone. I can even play Word Chums games, though most Peak exercises require too much coordination. In short, I can do much of the work that I would otherwise be doing sitting down, but I'm not sitting, I'm walking. And most of the activities I do while walking can be done day or night.

Suddenly I found myself eager to take breaks from the computer. Because the Pool Track is right there, just a step out of my back door, there's no travel time, and best of all no prep time or recovery time. Even on the hottest Florida days, because I can exercise in short bursts, and go from air conditioning to air conditioning, I don't need to get miserably hot. And because I don't get miserable, and don't feel I'm wasting time, and find it easy to start and stop, I do it. A lot. Several times a day, every day. If it's not an especially busy day, my usual total is at least five miles, every day of the week. That's far, far more weekly exercise, and with more consistency, than I've done in years. For next year, Porter's going to make me a ramp/step combination for part of the track.

There's just one aspect of the pool track that makes me nervous:  there's always the risk of a misstep plunging me into the water. I don't mind for myself, but I'd hate to test out my phone's water resistance. Perhaps the tiny thrill of risk adds to the fun, however.

The Pool/Brachiation Ladder  This is a seasonal station, but a longish workout around the pool on hot days (half the year or more) makes it easy to jump in and do a few laps. At the end of our pool a horizontal ladder set up on cinder blocks serves as a brachiation ladder (monkey bars to the uninitiated), and between the two I manage to get in some regular upper body work.

The Balance Board  This was a gift from Swiss friends, and I love it. It not only improves my balance, but gives my legs and core a workout, and it's easy to do while conversing or watching television. Whenever the challenge becomes too easy, I simply close my eyes for a whole new level of workout. I also view as an extension of this station my habit of balancing on one foot at random times, particularly if I'm waiting somewhere or standing around in conversation. This, too, becomes much more of a challenge with my eyes closed, though that exercise won't do in conversation—people think they're boring you.

The Juggling Balls  I'm a bit reluctant to mention this because even though I purchased juggling balls two years ago, I still can't juggle. Acquiring skills requires practice, and even though I enjoy playing with the balls, it's been too easy to get out of the habit. But when I do remember, it's great fun. I still don't work much on the actual skills of juggling, but just tossing and catching them gives an all-round body workout, especially since I stoop and pick up much more than I catch.

The Mini Trampoline  This is another station I don't make as much use of as I wish, but I have good hopes for it. We picked up the trampoline at a garage sale, and it's big enough for good exercise yet portable enough to fit in my office (barely) if I want to bring it in to the air conditioning.

The Fitness Ball  Janet had a version of this ball, which she used as a desk chair. It is the latest addition to my Life Playground, and even though the instructions specifically insist it's NOT a chair, that's what I use it for. Not all the time; often I just want to relax in my comfortable swivel chair. But when I do use the ball, I keep moving, even while sitting, which exercise my core and keeps me from being so stiff when I get up again. They say that sitting for long periods of time is very bad for your health ("sitting is the new smoking") but let me tell you, an ageing body makes that point abundantly clear.

Am I completely satisfied with my Life Playground progress?  No. It's far, far from what Stephan Jepson does. And as with most forms of exercise, I need to use them more frequently. But the setup is there, I enjoy them, and some have made a significant difference in my life. That's a very good start.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, May 19, 2017 at 5:18 am | Edit
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altThe Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown (Hazelden Publishing, 2010)

I'm reading Brené Brown's books in the wrong order, perhaps. I found The Gifts of Imperfection more accessible than Daring Greatly, though maybe that's because I'm more accustomed to her ideas and style now. I still say that it's good to see Brown on video first, and you can find some on my review of Daring Greatly. Even more, however, I appreciate Brown's ideas as they are filtered and expanded on the Blue Ocean Families blog.

It's easy to look at Brown's words and take your mind to all sorts of places not supported by her ideas. The title, for example, suggests to my mind the cry, from toddler to teenager to street thug to tyrant:  I don't have to follow the stupid rules; I gotta be ME!

But that's not what Brown means, and I believe she has tapped into a hidden problem that is the opposite of what we're always hearing as "what's wrong with the world today."

We're too selfish, too self-focussedWe love ourselves too much and others not enoughWe are takers, not giversWe drank too much of the self-esteem movement's Kool-Aid and think we're God's gift to the world.

Wait. We are God's gift to the world.

Given that the negative message has been proclaimed in loud voices from many eras and all over the world, I'm sure there's a lot of truth to it. Where I'm struggling is that the above description simply doesn't apply to so many of the people I know. They're humble, they are doing amazing work, and in the rare moments they take time for themselves it is always with an eye for preparing to serve others better. The work of their lives is for other people, and yet they are convinced that, deep down, they are lazy, selfish, incompetent, and unable to live up to their own expectations, let alone those of anyone else.

Ask these folks where they want to go to lunch, and they'll starve while trying to discern where the others would like to go.

For such people, the repeated message—from peers, from society, from churches, from self-help books, from their own hearts—is that they are selfish, miserable sinners, or as Brené Brown puts it, not good enough: not smart enough, not pretty enough, not thin enough, not strong enough, not spouse or parent enough, not [fill in your favorite inadequacy] enough. This pours gasoline on lives that already feel as if they are in flames. Like the Pharisees of old, the promoters of such thoughts "tie up heavy, burdensome loads and lay them on men's shoulders" and have "disregarded the commandment of God to keep the tradition of men."

When I was a teen, I took a AAA-sponsored driver's education course. The instructor, having dealt primarily with cocky, over-confident teenaged boys, felt it his duty to knock out my confidence and give me a healthy fear of the massive weapon I was driving. He succeeded all too well, and left me with a phobia that handicaps me to this day. We do great harm when we use an axe to approach a job that requires an X-acto knife.

Enter Brené Brown. Her messages of self-care, of loving ourselves, and that we are "enough" to be deserving of love and belonging ring falsely at first to someone who all her life has bought into the message of failure. But it's worth getting over that. She doesn't mean there's no room for improvement!

We are God's gift to the world, but many of us have wrapped that gift up in so many layers of what we think we ought to be, that we no longer have any idea what's inside the box. That unique, authentic I—currently flawed and broken but no less worthy—is the person God created each of us to be. God creates individuals, not clones. If we bury ourselves and our abilities, are we not in danger of becoming the unfaithful servant who was condemned by his master for hiding what he was given to invest? I don't want to carry that image too far; no doubt God's view of a sound investment does not look exactly like our own.  But there's something there, and Brené Brown may be giving us tools for removing the wrapping without damaging the contents.

 


 

Some of the quotations make better sense in their context, but I present them anyway. Most are from earlier in the book, before I ran up against the due-date deadline. Bold type is my own emphasis.

How much we know and understand ourselves is critically important, but there is something that is even more essential to living a Wholehearted life: loving ourselves.

It was clear from the data that we cannot give our children what we don’t have. Where we are on our journey of living and loving with our whole hearts is a much stronger indicator of parenting success than anything we can learn from how-to books.

I’ve learned that playing down the exciting stuff doesn’t take the pain away when it doesn’t happenIt does, however, minimize the joy when it does happen.

If we really want to practice compassion, we have to start by setting boundaries and holding people accountable for their behavior. ... When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. This is why we sometimes attack who they are, which is far more hurtful than addressing a behavior or a choice. For our own sake, we need to understand that it’s dangerous to our relationships and our well-being to get mired in shame and blame, or to be full of self-righteous anger. It’s also impossible to practice compassion from a place of resentment. If we’re going to practice acceptance and compassion, we need boundaries and accountability.

True, at the core. But I've found it's certainly possible to do the acts of compassion from a place of resentment.  It's not healthy, but sometimes necessary.

Until we can receive with an open heart, we are never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help.

As I conducted my interviews, I realized that only one thing separated the men and women who felt a deep sense of love and belonging from the people who seem to be struggling for it. That one thing is the belief in their worthiness. it’s as simple and complicated as this:  If we want to fully experience love and belonging, we must believe that we are worthy of love and belonging.

In a society that says, “Put yourself last,” self-love and self-acceptance are almost revolutionary.

Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.

I was shocked to discover that hope is not an emotion; it’s a way of thinking or a cognitive process. … Hope is a combination of setting goals, having the tenacity and perseverance to pursue them, and believing in our own abilities.

Herein is one of my frustrations with Brown: In her attempts to nail down certain concepts, she simply defines words the way she wants to. They may ultimately be useful definitions, but it's a bit disorienting at first.

I found in my research that men and women who self-report as hopeful put considerable value on persistence and hard work. The new cultural belief that everything should be fun, fast, and easy is inconsistent with hopeful thinking. It also sets us up for hopelessness. When we experience something that is difficult and requires significant time and effort, we are quick to think, This is supposed to be easy; it’s not worth the effort, or, This should be easier; it’s only hard and slow because I’m not good at it. Hopeful self-talk sounds more like, This is tough, but I can do it.

I’ve also learned that never fun, fast, and easy is as detrimental to hope as always fun, fast, and easy. … Before this research I believed that unless blood, sweat, and tears were involved, it must not be that important. I was wrong. … Hope also requires us to understand that just because the process of reaching a goal happens to be fun, fast, and easy doesn’t mean that it has less value than a difficult goal.

Over the past two years I’ve become increasingly concerned that we’re raising children who have little tolerance for disappointment and have a strong sense of entitlement, which is very different than [sic] agency. Entitlement is “I deserve this just because I want it” and agency is “I know I can do this.”  The combination of fear of disappointment, entitlement, and performance pressure is a recipe for hopelessness and self-doubt.

A critical component of Wholehearted living is play! ... [Dr. Stuart Brown] explains that play shapes our brain, helps us foster empathy, helps us navigate complex social groups, and is at the core of creativity and innovation. ... Brown proposes seven properties of play, the first of which is that play is apparently purposeless. Basically this means that we play for the sake of play.  We do it because it's fun and we want to. ... Brown argues that play is not an option. In fact he writes, "The opposite of play is not work—the opposite of play is depression."

We've got so much to do and so little time that the idea of spending time doing anything unrelated to the to-do list actually creates stress. We convince ourselves that playing is a waste of precious time. We even convince ourselves that sleep is a terrible use of our time.

There's no such thing as selective emotional numbing. There is a full spectrum of human emotions and when we numb the dark, we numb the light. While I was "taking the edge off" of the pain and vulnerability, I was also unintentionally dulling my experiences of good feelings, like joy. Joy is as thorny and sharp as any of the dark emotions. To love someone fiercely, to believe in something with your whole heart, to celebrate a fleeting moment in time, to fully engage in a life that doesn't come with guarantees—these are risks that involve vulnerability and often pain. When we lose our tolerance for discomfort, we lose joy.

All of Brown's references to pop music are lost on me, because she is of a far different musical generation, but if she were of mine, she would surely have quoted Simon and Garfunkel's "I am a Rock."

(For the record, Brown makes it clear that she loves the happiness writings of Gretchen Rubin and appreciates happiness even though she distinguishes it from joy.)

I was amazed at Brown's comments about joy because I was concurrently reading "Dante and Charles Williams," an essay by Dorothy Sayers. In it she says,

The capacity for joy and the capacity for something like despair tend to be found together.... Note that I say joy and not happiness—they are by no means the same thing. Indeed it would scarcely be untrue to say that people of a happy temperament are seldom capable of joy—they are insufficiently sensitive.

Leaving aside the problems of defining joy and happiness and whether or not the different authors mean the same things by those words, these two writers, from different eras, different countries, and greatly different backgrounds, one writing on social issues and the other on literary criticism, have come independently to similar conclusions.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, May 17, 2017 at 7:59 am | Edit
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I highly recommend Jack Barsky's essay on a great danger facing America today:  The Biggest Insider Threat. It's a short piece and worth reading in its entirely.

Given my background as an undercover agent, I often warn about the insider threat when talking about cyber securityI believe that we are currently witnessing the biggest insider threat this country has seen in a long time – and this threat is us.

I am distraught at the internal bickering that has grown to a cacophonous ear-splitting crescendo loud enough to echo around the worldNot only is US credibility and leadership damaged by this, it also takes our focus away from extremely important issues of national securityThis feels like watching a cartoon, except this cartoon is not funny. Are there any responsible adults around?

This selfish political theater must stop – it endangers our very foundation. 

Barsky is short on answers, but the problem needs to be stated and restated until we come up with some.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, May 16, 2017 at 9:56 pm | Edit
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Today's Frazz says it well.  I enjoy a little competition in my games, but it can't be the main point.

alt

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, May 15, 2017 at 6:20 am | Edit
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Our yard is a wildlife sanctuary. By American standards it's a pretty small yard, but it abounds in nature, especially considering how developed the area is. We lack only a consistent water supply (and the $20 processing fee) to be a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat. We're working on that; the water source needs to be accessible to wildlife (so the pool doesn't count) without being a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

Lizards and frogs abound, because we dispensed with dangerous pest control services a few months after we moved here over 30 years ago. Snakes are not as plentiful as they once were, because too many people in the neighborhood think the only good snake is a dead snake. :(  We have all sorts of birds, from mockingbirds and Carolina wrens to woodpeckers of several varieties to flocks of ibises to hawks, owls, and recently a swallow-tailed kite.

There have been reports of bears in the neighborhood, but actually I'd just as soon they give our yard a pass. It's really too small to accommodate a bear comfortably, and bears have been known to rip down pool screens without a second thought.

The middle-sized animals are more fun. Our current little raccoon is too shy (read: too nocturnal) for me to have caught him on film yet, though I enjoy his company in the darker hours. Here is a pair of friends who allowed me to photograph them this morning.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, May 9, 2017 at 9:14 pm | Edit
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Who would have thought it possible?

It's May the 6th, I have my office windows open, and I'm chilly in my shorts!  It's 63 degrees out, the humitity is low, the sky is blue, and both the sun and the breeze are friendly.  In fact, it's the same temperature here as in Granby, Connecticut!

I want to wrap up this day and bring it out periodically, say from now through October.  Starting with this coming Thursday, when the high is supposed to be 97.

Instead, I'll give myself over to gratitude and take a walk in the beauty of Creation.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, May 6, 2017 at 9:46 am | Edit
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altDeep Undercover: My Secret Life and Tangled Allegiances as a KGB Spy in America by Jack Barsky (Tyndale Momentum, 2017)

Back in March, I wrote a bit about the story of former KGB spy Jack Barsky. (See The Spy Who Stayed.) At the time I was eagerly awaiting his soon-to-be-published book. Rather than wait for the library to get a copy (which it now has)—and also to support the first book of a "friend of a friend"—I purchased the Kindle version to take with me on our recent cruise. I know, I haven't written about that yet, but it will come. Believe me, the irony of reading the story of a KGB spy while in Cuban waters was not lost on me.

Deep Undercover is well worth reading. It's 352 pages but reads very quickly. It is competently, though not excellently written. I hate to admit it, but I've been sorely disappointed by the quality of writing coming out of many Christian publishing houses; I'm happy to say that Barsky and Tyndale have done far better than average on that score. Besides, the imperfections give me more of an impression that I'm hearing the voice of Barsky, not of some ghostwriter. After all, chemistry, espionage, and information technology don't teach you all the nuances of storytelling. 

The story itself is riveting. First, because it is true. This is the real story of a brilliant young East German, born just three years before I was, who was recruited as a KGB spy, infiltrated American society, and ended up sending his daughter to the small, Christian school in upstate New York where my life-long friend had been principal for decades. I wanted to know how he got from Point A to Point B.

Because we are nearly the same age, it was especially interesting to see the contrasts between Barsky's childhood and my own, and to know, more or less, what was happening to and around me during the times he describes. There's a reason the Communists thought of Americans as lazy, undisciplined, and soft. It's a pity that self-discipline is so much harder to acquire when we're not under duress.

It's also sobering to realize how vulnerable the United States is to infiltration and attack. With money, skill, discipline, and smart young people who believe they are fighting for a great cause, it's apparently pretty easy to take on a country primarily committed to liberty and what it considers humanitarian virtues—especially if its people are also soft, materialistic, and somewhat lazy.  The KGB had all of that—and, I may point out, so does ISIS, among other scary entities. Barsky's activities were pre-9/11, but I'm far from convinced that infiltration and more dangerous nefarious activities would be that much more difficult now.

Be that as it may, it was their failure to understand American culture that undid most of the Soviet Union's efforts in America—just as America has been undone by our cultural misunderstandings in Vietnam and in the Middle East. Barsky found an America that did not fit what he had been told all his life.

It didn’t take long for me to see a wide gap between the Communist saga of the exploited worker in a capitalist society and the reality as I experienced it. For some reason, insurance companies were always near the top of the list of capitalist villains in Communist propaganda. But I never felt I was being exploited. Instead, I was quite comfortable in my job, everyone treated me well, and the paternalistic culture of the traditional mutual insurance company was very appealing to my statist roots. The chinks in my ideological armor began to grow into wide-open cracks.

I'm no pacifist, and acknowledge the need for governments to use all legal and ethical means to protect their people. Just being nice won't do. "Be wise as serpents" was uttered in the same breath as "[Be] harmless as doves."  Nevertheless, as far as what ordinary Americans can do, I really think kindness is our best defense. Barsky didn't abandon his mission for political or philosophical reasons. And while I'm not denying the importance of his religious conversion, that came much later. Barsky's heart was turned by the ordinary people he met while living an apparently ordinary American life, and it was the innocent vulnerability of his little daughter that broke through both his harsh upbringing and his hard-hearted training.

So if you fear your next-door neighbor might be a Russian agent, or a potential ISIS terrorist, be smart. Don't give him your housekeys. But genuine kindness might change someone's path for the better—even if he's just an ordinary American neighbor.

I didn't pick out many quotes from Deep Undercover, but here are a few random ones that caught my eye. (The bold emphasis is mine.)

Every evening, without fail, I spent an additional half hour listening to words on a phonetics tape and repeating them— listening and repeating, listening and repeating—ad nauseam. When it comes to basic life skills, repetition is the midwife of excellence.

The Moscow Metro is an example of the greatness that can be achieved if a dictator spares no expense to build a monument to himself.

“This is the final step in your preparation. We think that three months in Canada would be an excellent opportunity for you to practice your English and familiarize yourself with the culture and the way of life over there. After all, Canada is a lot like the US, only colder and with fewer people.” 

While walking between classes one day in early 1982, I saw a bulletin board notice for a current affairs group meeting, and I signed up immediately.

Led by history professor Selma Berrol, the group of about twenty students met on Wednesdays at lunchtime to discuss current world affairs and American politics. For purposes of these discussions, I positioned myself on the left of the political spectrum, with some sympathy for the Western European brand of socialism, but firmly anti-Communist.

Over the next couple of years, this group provided great insight for my reports to the Center about the mood of the country—particularly in 1983, when President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and the downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 by a Soviet fighter jet reignited tensions between the US and the Soviet Union that had largely diminished during the period of détente in the 1970s. There was widespread concern in our group that Reagan might push the world to the brink of nuclear war with his aggressive approach to international diplomacy.

Only one person in the group, a guy named Fred, sided with Reagan. Fred was ultraconservative, and the rest of us would chuckle or roll our eyes when he started on one of his rants. “I’m telling you, the Russians are deathly afraid of Ronald Reagan. We need to show them that we are serious. Historically, appeasement has never worked, and it will not work today. And if the Russians try to keep up with us in this race, they will simply go bankrupt.

In his own way, Fred actually expressed historical truth before it became evident.

It is my personal belief that the Russians’ irrational fear of President Reagan contributed significantly to the eventual fall of the Soviet Union—an event that was not yet foreseeable in 1984.

Here's a short video (8 minutes) in which Barsky is asked about Russia's influence on the past election; what strikes me as most important is his take on the clear and present danger of cyber warfare.

And here's an interesting interview that covers some of the stories in the book.  It's long (nearly an hour) but worthwhile, at least if like me you can listen while doing something else.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, May 4, 2017 at 8:29 am | Edit
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It all depends on whose ox is being gored....

I first became aware of how much a U.S. president can do by executive order when Barack Obama made such lavish use of that power. Mr. Obama's supporters were quick to point out that he was hardly the first president to do so.

President Trump is doing the same, and the complaints are now on the other side.

Me?  I don't want anyone's ox to be gored. The fact that one president's executive orders can be undone by the next president only shows why legislation ought to be done by ... the Legislature. You want change to happen, make it work through Congress. Is that too difficult? Maybe there's a reason—maybe it should be hard. If you're trying to accomplish something that half the country is against, maybe you need to rethink and rework and renegotiate.

There's a reason some religious denominations wait for full agreement before making major decisions. There's a reason a jury's verdict must be unanimous.

I'll grant that agreement on anything by everyone is impossible in a country as diverse and cantankerous as ours, but moving forward on important policies without the support of a healthy majority—and without provision for the protection of the minority—is death for a democracy.

"It's my ball now, and we'll play by my rules" isn't working very well, and it's making a lot of people unhappy.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, April 28, 2017 at 6:00 am | Edit
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altDaring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown (Gotham Books, 2012)

It's possible that Brené Brown's message is as important as that of Gordon Neufeld in Hold On to Your Kids. I'm not ready to say that yet, but I can tell that her work is too important to be missed. I can also say that I would love to see Neufeld and Brown in the same room, discussing their theories. Although they come from different fields and perspectives, when it comes to the problem of peer-orientation (though Brown never mentions the subject) and what children need from their families, I'm sure they'd be substantially in agreement.

Normally I prefer my information in written form, preferably in a book with all its potential for logical organization and corroborating detail, but aside from some tantalizing hints on the Blue Ocean Families blog (from the home page, search for "Brené" to find some references to her work), my best introduction to Brené Brown came from some videos. Here are several to choose from.

The Power of Vulnerability (20 minutes)  The TED talk that put Brené Brown on the map.

Listening to Shame (20 minutes)

Daring Greatly to Unlock Your Creativity with Brené Brown at Chase Jarvis LIVE (90 minutes). Yes, the interview is an hour and a half long. But it's worth it, it's really worth it. Including the questions-from-the-audience part at the end.

There's more, including at least two more Chase Jarvis LIVE interviews that I haven't listened to yet because, well, because they're 90 minutes long. Start with the TED talks.

The only warning I have to give is that Brown's language is not exactly SFG (safe for grandchildren), either in the talks or in her books. It's not all that bad, by modern standards; such language is so common I've gotten used to it somewhat. I do wonder why people feel they have to talk that way, but that's another issue. I definitely recommend that you not let it make you avoid Brené Brown's work.

Now to the book. Daring Greatly is only one of Brown's books, not the oldest and not the most recent—merely the first that was easily available at our library. I had my struggles with it, but that won't stop me from reading the others as I can. I believe a good deal of my struggle was similar to one I had with Hold On to Your Kids. Maybe it's generational, maybe it's because I avoided social sciences and humanities as much as possible when I was in school. Whatever the cause, these people keep using words that I think I know, but which they endow with specialized meanings. It's confusing. It reminds me of the old creeping vs. crawling problem:

Everyone knows that babies first start creeping along the floor, then crawl on their hands and knees, then walk. That's the normal progression. But not to people in the child development and physical therapy fields, for whom "crawling" is on the belly, and "creeping" on hands and knees. In their professions, they know exactly what they are talking about, but it sure confuses the rest of us.

So here. She has specific interpretations of "shame," "guilt," "vulnerability" and more terms that are essential to her discoveries. I'm glad I watched the videos first.

I also struggled with integrating her ideas with my Christian beliefs. Brown makes no apology for being an Episcopalian, but her work is entirely secular. That's not a bad thing: most of the discoveries in this world have universal application, and a secular approach makes them available to far more people. Again, it's a matter of language. Cognate words can help one understand a foreign language, but there are also false cognates, and it all must be sorted through. Her descriptions of love, acceptance and belonging due to our position rather than to our deserving is a very Christian message, but for someone as steeped as I am in the horrors of the sin of pride and in the need to put others before ourselves, her points about self-care, self-worthiness, and treating ourselves well require some wrestling. I totally get the airlines' message to put on one's own oxygen mask before assisting others, and I'm properly horrified that I frequently (read: all the time) say cruel things to myself that I hope never to say to someone I love—but it still requires working through.

There's a lot that requires working through in Brené Brown's ideas. I'm sure I could benefit much from her books, a blank notebook, and a long stretch of solitude. But this is a review, not a confession, and the book goes back to the library soon. I'm not even clear enough to summarize her points, but with the videos above, and the quotes below, you can begin your own journey. (The bolded emphasis in the quotations is mine.)

Brown quotes Lynne Twist’s The Soul of Money, on scarcity.

“For me, and for many of us, our first waking thought of the day is ‘I didn’t get enough sleep.’ The next is ‘I don’t have enough time.‘ Whether true or not, that thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough of…. Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor we’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something. And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds are racing with a litany of what we didn’t get, or didn’t get done, that day….” 

In a culture of deep scarcity—of never feeling safe, certain, and sure enough—joy can feel like a setup. We wake up in the morning and think, Work is going well. Everyone in the family is healthy. No major crises are happening. The house is still standing. I’m working out and feeling good. … This is bad. This is really bad. Disaster must be lurking right around the corner.

Over the past decade, I’ve witnessed major shifts in the zeitgeist of our country. … The world has never been an easy place, but the past decade has been traumatic for so many people that it’s made changes in our culture. From 9/11, multiple wars, and the recession, to catastrophic natural disasters and the increase in random violence and school shootings, we’ve survived and are surviving events that have torn at our sense of safety with such force that we’ve experienced them as trauma even if we weren’t directly involved.

My reaction, when I read this, is that this is crazy. We are so much better off than most of the world, for most of history. However, as I wrote in my Good Friday post, if our personal suffering is overall less, our vicarious suffering is off-the-charts worse. Brown acknowledges this later on:

Most of us have a stockpile of terrible images that we can pull from at the instant we’re grappling with vulnerability. I often ask audience members to raise their hands if they’ve seen a graphically violent image in the past week. About twenty percent of the audience normally raises their hands. Then I reframe the question: “Raise your hand if you’ve watched the news, CSI, NCIS, Law & Order, Bones, or any other crime show on TV.” At this point about eighty to ninety percent of the audience hands go up.

I define vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.

Among some folks it’s almost as if enthusiasm and engagement have become a sign of gullibility. Being too excited or invested makes you lame.

Vulnerability is based on mutuality and requires boundaries and trust. ... We can’t always have guarantees in place before we risk sharing; however, we don’t bare our souls the first time we meet someone. We don’t lead with “Hi, my name is Brené, and here’s my darkest struggle.” … [S]haring appropriately, with boundaries, means sharing with people with whom we’ve developed relationships .... The result of this mutually respectful vulnerability is increased connection, trust, and engagement. 

Churches make this mistake a lot, trying to force community like a hothouse bloom, rushing the process through unearned intimacy.

You can’t use vulnerability … to fast-forward a relationship.... When it comes to vulnerability, connectivity means sharing our stories with people who have earned the right to hear them—people with whom we’ve cultivated relationships that can bear the weight of our story. Is there trust? Is there mutual empathy? Is there reciprocal sharing? Can we ask for what we need? These are the crucial connection questions.

Here’s one strategy Brown uses for coming out of what she calls a shame attack:

[I talk] to myself the way I would talk to someone I really love and whom I’m trying to comfort in the midst of a meltdown: You’re okay. You’re human—we all make mistakes. I’ve got your back. Normally during a shame attack we talk to ourselves in ways we would NEVER talk to people we love and respect.

[W]e have to be willing to give ourselves a break and appreciate the beauty of our cracks or imperfections. To be kinder and gentler with ourselves and each other. To talk to ourselves the same way we’d talk to someone we care about.

Shaming someone we love around vulnerability is the most serious of all security breaches. Even if we apologize, we’ve done serious damage because we’ve demonstrated our willingness to use sacred information as a weapon.

Feeling disconnected can be a normal part of life and relationships, but when coupled with the shame of believing that we’re disconnected because we’re not worthy of connection, it creates a pain that we want to numb. 

When the people we love or with whom we have a deep connection stop caring, stop paying attention, stop investing, and stop fighting for the relationship, trust begins to slip away and hurt starts seeping in.

The two most powerful forms of connection are love and belonging—they are both irreducible needs of men, women, and children. As I conducted my interviews, I realized that only one thing separated the men and women who felt a deep sense of love and belonging from the people who seemed to be struggling for it. That one thing was the belief in their worthiness. It’s as simple and complicated as this: If we want to fully experience love and belonging, we must believe that we are worthy of love and belonging.

Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.

[As parents we] don’t have to be perfect, just engaged and committed to aligning values with action.

What’s ironic (or perhaps natural) is that research tells us that we judge people in areas where we’re vulnerable to shame, especially picking folks who are doing worse than we’re doing. If I feel good about my parenting, I have no interest in judging other people’s choices. If I feel good about my body, I don’t go around making fun of other people’s weight or appearance.

When we obsess over our parenting choices to the extent that most of us do, and then see someone else making different choices, we often perceive that difference as direct criticism of how we are parenting.

Wholehearted parenting is not having it all figured out and passing it down—it’s learning and exploring together. And trust me, there are times when my children are way ahead of me on the journey, either waiting for me or reaching back to pull me along.

It’s easy to put up a straw man … and say, “So we’re just supposed to ignore parents who are abusing their children?” Fact: That someone is making different choices from us doesn’t in itself constitute abuse. If there’s real abuse happening, by all means, call the police. If not, we shouldn’t call it abuse. As a social worker who spent a year interning at Child Protective Services, I have little tolerance for debates that casually use the terms abuse and neglect to scare or belittle parents who are simply doing things that we judge as wrong, different, or bad.

Worthiness is about love and belonging, and one of the best ways to show our children that our love for them is unconditional is to make sure they know they belong in our families. I know that sounds strange, but it’s a very powerful and at times heart-wrenching issue for children.

Engagement means investing time and energy. It means sitting down with our children and understanding their worlds, their interests, and their stories. Engaged parents can be found on both sides of all of the controversial parenting debates. They come from different values, traditions, and cultures. What they share is practicing the values. What they seem to share is a philosophy of “I’m not perfect and I’m not always right, but I’m here, open, paying attention, loving you, and fully engaged.”

What do parents experience as the most vulnerable and bravest thing that they do in their efforts to raise Wholehearted children? I thought it would take days to figure it out, but as I looked over the field notes, the answer was obvious: letting their children struggle and experience adversity.

I used to struggle with letting go and allowing my children to find their own way, but something that I learned in the research dramatically changed my perspective and I no longer see rescuing and intervening as unhelpful, I now think about it as dangerous. … Here’s why: Hope is a function of struggle.

Hope is learned! …[C]hildren most often learn hope from their parents. To learn hopefulness, children need relationships that are characterized by boundaries, consistency, and support. Children with high levels of hopefulness have experience with adversity. They’ve been given the opportunity to struggle and in doing that they learn how to believe in themselves.

If we’re always following our children into the arena, hushing the critics, and assuring their victory, they’ll never learn that they have the ability to dare greatly on their own.

I explained [to my daughter] that I had spent many years never trying anything that I wasn’t already good at doing, and how those choices almost made me forget what it feels like to be brave. I said, “Sometimes the bravest and most important thing you can do is just show up.”

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, April 25, 2017 at 7:35 am | Edit
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Real bloggers include guest posts now and then, right? It's time I moved up in the world. Not, however, by acquiescing to those who e-mail me at the blog address requesting to be invited as a guest poster on my "great blog"—by which they mean they want to use my platform to advertise whatever they're selling. Instead, this post fell into my lap in the form of an e-mail from my friend SW. In response to a recent post, in which I brought back my Good Friday post from a few years ago, All the Sorrows of the World, she shared something she had written in her own journal several months ago. It was not a reply to my post, being written completely independently, but it was such a perfect and sane response to the problem I asked if I might publish here writings here. She graciously consented.


I was trying to self-analyze why going online makes me feel anxious and overwhelmed. It didn't take long to come to the conclusion that it's because, for me, being connected to the whole world feels like a weight I'm incapable of bearing. I read all the hurts, the reasons to fear, the foolishness, the hate, etc., and I think, "It's too much!" My desire to retreat from it actually proves to me that I am a sane person, because of two facts:

  1. I am taking it seriously. I know that every story—even if it's laced with half-truths and some misinformation—involves real, living people. People not as unlike myself as we'd all like to think. And so, naturally, my heart goes out to them. Sometimes I pray for them. But I still feel pretty helpless, because out of the half-dozen stories I read, I may be able to donate help to one, but there will be a new batch tomorrow morning, tomorrow evening, the next day, and the next...which leads into,
  2. If any of us would stop and be honest for just one cotton-pickin' moment, we'd admit that it really IS ALL TOO MUCH. It's insanely too much hurt, too much heartache, too much innocence lost, too much cruelty, too much evil, and, frankly, just too much to wade through if we are actually reading thoughtfully and giving a damn about every human being represented in those stories.

Well, the truth is, God didn't make me able to handle the weight of the world. And in my case personally, when I try, I fail to "handle with care" the FEW burdens He DID give me to carry: my husband, my kids, my close family, my actual (not virtual) friends...actually, I have my hands FULL when I think about all the dear souls whom God has gifted to my care, who are authentically in my circle of influence. If I decide to try to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders, the ones I actually owe my attention to will get dropped. I mean, I don't know about you, but my time, my emotional energy, and my financial resources are all finite. I start jumping on the Internet bandwagons and there is less of my time, my emotional energy, and my limited material resources to go around (not saying we shouldn't donate, but seriously, my kids wear shoes so tattered Goodwill couldn't sell them—we're not exactly out of balance in how we spend our money). Mostly, mentally, I get caught up in the "out there" and am far less present in the "here and now" where the needs around me are.

I think the world actually would go around better if more people could give most of their attention to the small but very real, very vital, circle of people (not things) God has given them the privilege of caring for. For me, in this season, it's my husband and kids. But it could be aging parents. Mentally challenged siblings. The refugee family next door. Co-workers. A new widow. Count up about a dozen—or even only a half-dozen—and if I, we, were to really invest our all into THEM, we'd have our hands, heads, and hearts full.

I wish I could solve the problems of the world, but very, very rarely am I a part of any solution simply by informing myself of them. It's a weight I am not equipped nor designed to carry. In other words, God doesn't expect me to have the capacity to "love the whole world." (Only He has that capacity, and He did, and He does. John 3:16.) But my own little circle? I can handle that...I can love them. I can love them well. God told us to "love one another." He gave me that much. So that much I ought to do. Why fail Him in the small area of faithfulness He's given me by claiming "The world is so big, and has so many problems!" I can love well the few I HAVE, and teach them to love well the few they have, who may in turn love well the few they have. I guess that's just me, but I'd rather die knowing I was faithful to the ones God gave ME, rather than attempting (and failing!) to love every person spread across the face of the earth, including the ones who needed me most.


Thank you, SW. Please stop by with another guest post sometime.  :)

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, April 21, 2017 at 5:41 am | Edit
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Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

This is the time of year when Christians make special recognition of Jesus' suffering, death, and resurrection. I love Holy Week services, from Palm Sunday to Easter and everything in between. Due to extraordinary (but good) circumstances, we missed our Taizé (Monday), Stations of the Cross (Tuesday), Tennebrae (Wednesday), and Easter Vigil (Saturday) services this year. Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday services were nonetheless a good preparation for Easter.

Somewhere in the middle of it all, I began to ask myself, What does Jesus think of the events leading up to Easter? Not our church services, but the actual events, from his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, through his agonizing in the Garden of Gesthemene, his last Passover with his disciples, his betrayal, trial, and crucifixion, and that mysterious time between death and resurrection. What does he think of it all? I don't mean then, while he was going through it, but now. Looking back, if that has any meaning in his case.

I asked myself this question because I was thinking about childbirth. Yes, I realize how ridiculous it is to compare the pains of childbirth to those of crucifixion, let alone the mental, emotional, and spiritual agony of all the sins and sorrows of the world, but bear with me here.

Setting aside the great difference in scale, I think there are important parallels. In each case, there is pain, anguish, fear, physical and mental exhaustion, and reaching the point where you just know you can't go on any longer, followed by the unimaginable, unsurpassable thrill of victory, of success, of achievement—and the birth of something new, wondrous, and beautiful.

Most mothers I know like to exchange birth stories, in all their glorious and grisly detail. Those are "then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars" moments. But the toil and pain are remembered, not relived. We tell these "war stories" because we are justifiably taking credit for our part in the miracle. The pain has been crowned and glorified by its accomplishment.

Nor do we regale our children with the horrors of what it cost us for them to exist, at least not if we're psychologically healthy ourselves. If our child were to start to focus on the pain of childbirth, we would quickly tell him, "You're missing the whole point. Sure, it was a difficult process, but it was worth it. What matters is not the suffering, not the effort. What matters is that you were born! The pain is in the past, and our family is immeasurably greater because of it. The whole world is greater because you are here. That is the point. Be thankful for what I did for you, but don't dwell on it. Focus on using your uniqueness to be the best person you can be, to bless the family—and the world—you were born into. That, not your grief at my sufferings, nor even your gratitude for them, is what makes me happy and overwhelmingly glad to have endured them. Go—live with joy the life I have given you!"

So I wonder. Is it possible that Jesus has similar thoughts?

It's good to be reminded of the events that birthed our post-Easter world, and not to take lightly the suffering that made it possible. However, some people, many preachers, and even a few filmmakers appear to take delight in portraying Christ's agony in the most excruciating (consider the etymology of that word!) detail possible, even, like the medieval flagellants, attempting to participate in it. Even less extreme evangelists and theologians spend more ink and energy on Jesus' death than on his resurrection.

Could it be that Jesus looks back at that time with joy, knowing that he accomplished something difficult, important, and wonderful? Is it possible that he sometimes looks at us and thinks, You're missing the whole point? That it would rejoice his heart if we thought less about his death and more about how to use the new life he has given us?

Go—rejoice—live!

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, April 18, 2017 at 5:29 am | Edit
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