Why THIS Millennial Left the Church

. . . and why he has no intention of going back anytime soon . . . 

 

Rachel Held Evans wrote a blog post at CNN recently that set off a miniature firestorm among those interested in spiritual things and the state of the Christian church in the United States. Her post, entitled, “Why millennials are leaving the church,” has elicited strong reactions. Most of the ones I’ve read have been largely negative.

Unfortunately, both Evans’ original article and every response to it that I’ve encountered, suffer from over-generalization. The assumption at work is that there is A Reason for millennials leaving the church. Detractors fill in terms like “narcissistic” or “consumerist” to try to explain the emotions that drive young people out of the walls of church buildings . . . as if everyone who leaves does so because the church isn’t catering specifically enough to their own individual whims. What has largely been lacking in the discussion – particularly from the “anti” side, but even from Evans’ perspective – is the stated viewpoint of an actual millennial who has actually “left the church.”

Having been what I like to call a “post-congregational Christian” for the past seven years, I thought I’d offer one. I don’t claim to speak for anyone but myself – like I said, there is no single reason for the phenomenon Evans observes. What follows are my reasons.

Continue reading Why THIS Millennial Left the Church

Loss

I’m enjoying, of late, the book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, the ex-wife of movie director James Cameron – of Titanic and Avatar fame. The book is an exercise in “unblocking your artist.” I’ve felt very “blocked” of late, which is why I haven’t written much here – or anywhere, for that matter. The steps Julia lays out are simple, yet very difficult at times. I’m going down this road with a community of fellow-travellers, including my wife, and my friend Anna, who writes about it here and here.

One of the assignments I chose for this week was to write out a “horror story” from my past. As my wife has begun to perform more, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own past as a violinist. I say my “past,” because I rarely even pick it up anymore, much less perform. This story, I’m starting to realize, was a major turning point in the life of my artist. It was twelve years ago this spring . . .

*********************************************

The young man waited in the wings with bated breath. He’d been on this stage before – many times in fact. This theater was like an old friend to him. He had quite literally grown up here. Singing, acting, and – as he was this time – playing his beloved violin.

The violin had not always been beloved – it was something with which he had struggled for 13 of his 17 years. Sometimes he had hated it, sometimes he had loved it. Many times he had been forced to choose how to spend the limited amount of time in his days . . . give up the violin, or give up something else. Baseball, piano, trumpet . . . each time he had chosen to give them up in order to keep that violin.

Now he was here, participating in a high school competition for the right to play a solo performance with the local symphony. The previous year, he had competed on this same stage, and had come up short.

In the intervening year, a lot had happened for the young artist. He had a new teacher, a new sound, a new love for his instrument. What had once been dogged determination to keep going had blossomed into a genuine love for the skill that he had allowed to define him.

And here he was at the end of the afternoon, waiting in the wings – waiting for the disembodied voice from the stage to announce the winner.

There were only two competing that year. His rival was another violinist, a boy a few years his junior, with whom he had played many times. Once they had studied with the same teacher, and often they had found themselves playing in the same orchestras, the same performances, the same competitions. Once the other boy had been his junior in skill as well, but no longer. Now, the younger boy had surpassed him – and they both knew that if the judges in today’s competition had much in the way of ability, it would be the younger boy who took home the top prize.

It was not that he hadn’t played well in the competition . . . in fact, he had never played better in his life, but the intervening year since he had last faced this stage had been a difficult one for our young man . . . a “rebuilding” year, as they say. While he felt better equipped this time around – a better musician, with a better understanding of his craft – he also felt less prepared, with a less difficult piece of music that he had nevertheless spent countless hours getting just right, relearning and rebuilding techniques that had been inadequately trained the first time around, while learning to love the piece as well. He just wasn’t sure it was enough.

Lately, he had been struggling with the idea of what his art meant for his future. He was planning to go to college soon . . . was already taking junior college courses while still in high school, in fact. His goal, at that point, was to pursue something related to service in government: law, perhaps . . . or politics.

But somewhere in the back of his mind, lately, had been the nagging voice that asked him periodically, “what about your music?” He always shut that voice down – it wasn’t what he wanted, after all. He loved playing his violin, but he wanted more out of life, he thought, than the struggling career of a starving artist.

None of this, though, flashed through his mind at that moment. What did was the disembodied voice calling his name.

Generally, there was an order to such things . . . they would call the third place finisher first, and work their way down to the winner. In this instance, though, there were only two, and nobody had outlined for them whether the winner would be called first, or not. The disembodied voice had been distorted by the curtains, cloths and ropes that hung off the side of the stage, and our young artist could not hear what had been said. He heard only his name.

As the waiting hands of the stage manager pushed him toward the stage to step out and meet the owner of the disembodied voice, he asked nervously, “did I win?”

Nobody answered his first inquiry, so he asked it again, both embarrassed and nervous now, as he approached the light that marked the portion where he could be seen by the audience.

“No,” the stage manager’s pity-filled whisper followed him out onto the stage, where, mortified, he walked over and accepted the ludicrously hollow award for taking second place among only two competitors.

Afterward, in the lobby, he encountered one of the judges – a musician from a local family of musicians, whose opinion he valued and respected – and, truth be told, agreed with in this case.

“Maybe next year,” she said sympathetically, trying to cheer him up as she walked toward the exit to leave.

Softly, he replied, “I’m not eligible next year – I’m graduating.”

She said nothing – could say nothing . . . she just left as he sat on the lobby steps, alone, trying not to dissolve into tears.

He would perform again – taking the stage in a sea of faces with an orchestra, jamming with a worship band for church and chapel ceremonies, or gathering with small groups of fellow artists to fill in the atmosphere by playing background music at weddings or other small venues. Nine months later, he would again join on that same stage with the one who had bested him there. As the younger boy claimed the right he had earned to play a solo performance with the orchestra, the older one would sit anonymously as a member of the orchestra’s violin section.

As he sat on those steps, holding back the tears, he had little inkling that he had just completed his last performance as a soloist.

A Reintroduction

I’m back, For now.

I’ve been away a long time. Too long. So many thoughts, blurry and half-formed, swirling around my brain. I haven’t been able to prompt them to come out through my fingers onto the keyboard. Sometimes I catch a glimpse. I’ve sat down – who knows how many times – and started to write a blog post that became a flood of words, pouring out onto the screen in a volume nobody could bear to wade through . . . including me.

I’ve been going back to basics. What does it all mean? What do I mean? Why am I here?

Who am I?

Am I?

It doesn’t get much more basic than that. And it is these questions that draw me toward some hope of actually finding an answer. I’ve chopped up what I can pull together of that answer into several blog posts, which I’ll plug in here over the next several days, one at a time, so as to be somewhat less . . . overwhelming – both to you and to me.

The purpose of this series is to outline – both for you, but more immediately for myself – my worldview. I hope that this will allow each of you reading to get to know me a little better. I hope it will allow me to get to know myself a little better. It has been a long time in the making, and has involved a lot of thinking – and more than a little re-thinking – of things I thought I believed . . things I thought I knew.

Tomorrow, I begin to share what has, for me, begun to answer some questions. Tomorrow I begin to share my Self with you.

Enjoy the ride, or don’t. That is your choice. I hope you do . . . I invite you to join me in this journey. But if you choose otherwise – if EVERYBODY chooses otherwise, I still have an audience of one. I must write, even if I write for myself, and myself alone.

It is enough.

When “Real” isn’t Good Enough

It was, for me, the best part of the Presidential inauguration two short weeks ago. The speech was decent, the poetry atrocious, but the music . . . oh, the music . . .

As a violinist myself, I have for most of my life looked up to Itzak Perlmann as the unmatched master of my craft. Yo Yo Ma enjoys similar status atop the world of the cellist. I’m not as familiar with Anthony McGill or Gabriella Montero, who joined them on clarinet and piano, respectively, for a rendition of John Williams’ “Air and Simple Gifts.”

I remember discussing the piece afterward with my wife – a professional violin teacher and freelance performer. We wondered if they were using special carbon fiber instruments that are better able to hold a pitch – or if not, how they managed to play in such bitter cold.

Well, as the world now knows, they didn’t. Or rather, they did, but that wasn’t what the rest of the world heard. We heard a prerecorded version created a week before, comfortably indoors.

To say that I was disappointed would be an understatement. I’ve performed in the bitter cold myself, when the wind was whipping around and trying to take the music off the stand in front of me, and when my fingers were so cold that they didn’t want to work properly. Their music, while gorgeous, wasn’t difficult at all to play – particularly for musicians who are undisputedly the best in the world at what they do.

But they faked it anyway.

Then yesterday, I watched the Super Bowl between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals – two teams I care very little about. Though it was a pretty exciting game, I was more interested in watching the commercials and sharing the time with my wife’s family. The one highlight, for me, was Jennifer Hudson’s national anthem. Her stirring rendition was made all the more moving given the fact that it was her first time back singing in the national spotlight since the tragedy she suffered back in October with the brutal triple-murder of her mother, brother and nephew.

Except that it wasn’t. Like Perlman, Ma and their colleagues, she had recorded the anthem in advance. It was beautiful, to be sure, but the fact that it wasn’t HER . . . or rather, that it was her voice at another place and time . . . stole something from the moment.

These instances were both accompanied by breathless exclamations of: “My goodness . . . we couldn’t have had them perform live! Can you imagine? . . . something might have gone wrong!”

“Why is this such a big deal?” you might ask. “It was their instruments! It was her voice!” And you’re right. It’s not like this is Milli Vanilli, whose 1990 Grammy Award for best new artist was revoked when it was discovered that their talent was for lip-synching, rather than actual singing.

It’s not the same thing, but it’s part of the same problem.

The Wikipedia entry for Milli Vanilli says:

[Milli Vanilli producer Frank] Farian chose to feature vocals by Charles Shaw, John Davis, Brad Howell, and twin sisters Jodie and Linda Rocco; however, he felt that those singers lacked a marketable image. Thus, Farian recruited [Fab] Morvan and [Rob] Pilatus, two younger and more photogenic model/dancers he found in a Berlin dance club, to front the act.

Farian’s mindset, and that of the folks who produced the inauguration and the national anthem, seems to be symptomatic of a larger ailment that plagues our culture in this era of technological and philosophical advancement.

I’m as geeky as the next guy when it comes to the technological conveniences of 21st century America. I have an iPhone, a Facebook account and (obviously) a blog. I use all three of them with gusto.

But the problem arises when we allow these technologies to serve as a substitute for reality . . . a surrogate for what IS.

This mentality has permeated every area of our world. Our entertainment industry has been overrun by those who insist on having one more plastic surgery . . . on losing five more pounds . . . on looking like concentration camp victims in real life, simply because “the camera adds ten pounds.”

Reality isn’t good enough.

In the world of medicine, the reality of how our bodies feel and behave is subjugated to “the labs” . . . the all-important diagnostic tests that may or may not be accurate, may or may not be reliable, may or may not yield any valuable information about what ails us.

Then these often questionable test results are used to justify pumping us full of made-up substances designed to treat made-up problems that are more often than not mere symptoms of the very real problems that plague us. These underlying problems are largely due to the choices we make in our lifestyles and our diets . . . but a pharmaceutical company can’t make money by pressuring doctors to prescribe organic vegetables or grass-fed meat. Sit-ups don’t come in pill form.

So they give us cholesterol and blood pressure meds instead.

Reality isn’t good enough.

Speaking of food, how about that breakfast you had this morning? I’m betting that for most people across the country, it went something like this:

  • Two eggs, bought from your local supermarket and produced by pen-raised hens who have lived on genetically-modified corn their entire lives, rather than the grass, grubs and other things their stomachs are actually capable of digesting.
  • Two strips of bacon, preserved and colored by nitrates and nitrites, which form nitrosamines (a carcinogen) once they get into your body.
  • A bowl of cereal comprised of what was - at one point, perhaps - fairly healthy wheat or oats, but has been processed and manipulated so much that all the good stuff has been cooked, pressed, ground, fried or leeched out of it. Then, of course, in order to make the stuff palatable, they have to add high fructose corn syrup, or at least (if you’re lucky) sugar, which has of course been similarly processed.
  • A glass of “fruit beverage” that roughly resembles grape juice, well-laced with high fructose corn syrup, of course, because our American palates have been conditioned to think that the fructose in actual fruit isn’t sweet enough.
  • If you’re the really conscientious type, you may have had an apple, which probably found its way to your table from an orchard that was covered in toxic chemicals to keep the bugs off. Because unlike those of us who actually EAT such things, insects are smart enough to realize that poisons are very specifically and efficiently designed to make things dead.
  • Perhaps you topped all this off with a pancake or two . . . which probably came from a box, doused in syrup that alleges to be “maple,” but is actually mostly high fructose corn syrup. You may have even added a dollop of “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter (TM).”

Because reality isn’t good enough.

Before you think that I’ve suddenly decided to go out and join my local chapter of the Sierra Club, those folks could use a healthy dose of reality too. They are, after all, the ones who have perpetuated the myth of man-made climate change (by a variety of different names) for decades now, based on climate models that even John Theon, a former NASA executive who was responsible for all weather and climate research in the agency, says are completely unreliable.

Reality, after all, isn’t good enough.

This is true even in the way we relate to each other. I think about my coworkers, for example. I spend a minimum of 40 hours a week cooped up in a small aisle of cubicles with about half a dozen other people, and to be perfectly honest, I don’t really know most of them. We talk, certainly, about the weather, about our mortgage and rent payments, about our pets and our phones, our weekends and sports teams – all the safe topics. But just watch what happens when anyone brings up something REAL . . . even something only superficially real like politics. Oh my gosh! We can’t have that! People might, well, take it personally, or get offended, or by golly, we might not agree!

Every once in a while I’ll get a glimpse of who the people I work with really ARE . . . like the time a coworker and I travelled to Japan together on business, or the time four of us went to give a presentation in Fort Hood, Texas. On such occasions, people tend to open up a bit more . . . to reveal a bit more of themselves.

And I have to tell you . . . as it turns out, I really like the folks I work with! I wish I could see more of that side of them, more often.

But I can’t, because reality isn’t good enough.

This is often true, even in our very closest relationships.

Phones, email, text messaging, instant messages and Facebook are all great tools for keeping in touch with one another . . . but too often we use them to substitute for actual relating. I enjoy reading the status updates my friends post on Facebook, but that’s not the same as going to dinner with them and sitting down for a good conversation. Unfortunately, I happen to live in an area, Washington D.C., where most folks place a lot more value on “doing” than they do on “relating” . . . and as a result people are more often than not too busy to have dinner, or coffee, or hang out for an evening or a weekend.

So we settle for checking up on each other on Facebook.

Because reality isn’t good enough.

Alas, this has even become true of our most important relationship . . . our relationship with Father.

I am reminded of an article I read early last year, by Darrin Hufford over at Free Believers. Hufford’s provocative article calls the average “relationship with God” a “spiritual porn addiction.”

Talk about reality not being good enough! As a former porn addict myself, I can attest quite vividly to the allure of the fake reality that pornography offers. Hufford goes further, though. He points out that the spiritual “high” we get from those “mountaintop experiences” at religious conferences, worship services, etc. are much the same thing. I’ve been to those conferences. I’ve had those experiences. I’ve loved every minute of them . . . they are, after all, exhilarating. The term “spirtual high” is fitting . . . it’s one of the most moving and uplifting things I’ve ever experienced.

The problem is that we idealize those experiences . . . and we condemn ourselves for the “low patches” that we feel between them. We come up with an endless stream of ideas for bottling up that feeling . . . you know, that feeling . . . the one you get when you’ve just finished a group conversation with God, and you know, beyond all doubt, that he was an active participant in the conversation?

But those experiences are not the same as the day to day work of living in the world He placed us in. Even Peter felt the allure of the “mountain top experience” of Christ’s transfiguration, and wanted to do something to permanentize it . . . to institutionalize it . . .

Hufford extends the analogy into the average church service, saying:

The majority of our Christian lives were spent watching the Christian play at church, we have grown accustomed to sitting through the show and demanding to be entertained. Every spiritual facet of the “personal relationship with God” has been caked with makeup, airbrushed, pumped with steroids, injected with botox, sprayed with perfume and stuffed with implants. In the end, we’re left with a “Glam Shot” perception of “relationship” that is about as real as a fifty dollar blow-up doll. It’s perfect for the theater, but when it comes to a real, one-on-one relationship, it’s just impossible.

There’s nothing wrong with mountain top experiences . . . nothing wrong with the incredible spiritual experiences that come with dedicating an entire day, or an entire weekend, to seeking God. The problem, as Hufford points out, is when we come to expect that those mountaintops define what a healthy relationship with God is. The problem, he very vividly says, is this:

The addiction to these spiritually accentuated concepts is almost identical to an addiction to pornography – some people can’t get aroused without it.

Why? Because reality – the reality of a God who is just as present in the depressing, or disappointing, or boring moments of life – just isn’t good enough.

How much freedom will we settle for?

It’s been a long time . . .

Those who have access to my facebook page will see that it says I have been writing again, but they wouldn’t know it from looking at this blog. That is largely due to the fact that my writing, of late, has not been for public consumption . . . at least not yet.

But today I read something and simply couldn’t stay silent any longer. It came from one of my favorite daily reads, someone who seems to be going through a journey very similar to mine – my virtual friend, David Hayward, also known as “Naked Pastor.”

He wrote a post called “Kinds of Choice,” that literally made me almost come out of my chair with joy that someone else gets it . . . truly gets what I feel each and every day. There are so few people with whom I get this feeling . . .

His article, though he may not realize it, takes on a growing notion that has been making the rounds in political circles of late – the notion of “libertarian paternalism.” In the words of eminent legal scholar Cass Sunstein, libertarian paternalism is the notion that “private and public institutions might nudge people in directions that will make their lives go better, without eliminating freedom of choice.” According to Sunstein, “The paternalism consists in the nudge; the libertarianism consists in the insistence on freedom, and on imposing little or no cost on those who seek to go their own way.” Sunstein’s principle paper on the topic, written with behavioral economist Richard H. Thaler, is entitled “Libertarian Paternalism Is Not An Oxymoron.”

With all due respect to Sunstein and Thaler, yes it is . . . and Hayward’s post does an admirable job of explaining why.

Libertarian Paternalism is predicated on the notion that any system or institution will, as a matter of course, “nudge” those within it – either intentionally or unintentionally – in a given direction. Sunstein argues that

because default rules and starting points often matter, institutions can’t avoid nudging people — and hence can’t avoid a kind of paternalism, or at least a nudge. If 0% of take-home pay goes to savings, it isn’t because nature so ordained it.

He uses this logic to argue that, since systems “nudge” people anyway, they might as well deliberately do so in a desirable direction. To wit, “[An] example is the automatic enrollment plan, by which workers are automatically enrolled in a savings plan, but can opt out with no trouble and at no expense if they choose to do so.”

Hayward’s thoughts center on the system of the modern, organized church. Whether he intends it or not, they form a very effective counter-argument to Sunstein and Thaler’s philosophy. Hayward says,

What is being offered to the church today is a multitude of choices . . . we are being told that when we select one of these choices, we are making a free choice. And we feel as though we are free when we make our selection from among the several choices.

This is not perfect freedom . . .

Hayward goes on to distinguish quote the philosopher Slavoj Zizek, in distinguishing between “formal freedom” and “actual freedom.” The former, he (Hayward) calls “Reinventing ourselves within the prescribed parameters.” This description perfectly captures what we are encouraged to do in so very many areas of life. Consider:

In education, we are encouraged to consider “school choice,” or even to (in an especially radical notion) homeschool our children [full disclosure: For those who don’t already know, I was homeschooled myself] . . . but only if we do so in a system where we literally turn our home into a school, complete with grades, class schedules, tests, and “approved” curricula.

In (American) politics, we are encouraged to “choose” our preferred candidate – from a pool of two nearly equally distasteful options.

In medicine, we are encouraged to consult a variety of medical experts and get a “second opinion” on what might be wrong with us in a given situation – but heaven forbid that we should do our own homework and self-diagnose a problem that can’t be discovered by an almighty Doctor with a lab coat and stethoscope who deigns to take ten minutes out of his busy day to read our lab charts and choose a diagnosis from a laundry list of possible maladies that roughly correspond to our symptoms.

In news, we are encouraged to read newspapers, listen to network news broadcasts, watch cable news shows, listen to news radio, or even be especially daring and get our news from our favorite network’s website. But far be it from us to bypass the gatekeepers at CNN, or the Associated Press, or the New York Times, and get our news from “alternative sources” . . . even when those alternative sources do a much better job of providing real news analysis (and in some cases, even original news reporting).

In religion, where Hayward concentrates, we are encouraged to seek out any one of an ever-increasing number of formal denominations with which to worship . . . but the one time that these institutions of religion will take a time-out from their interminable squabbles with each other and actually agree on something is when they hold the Bible over their heads and invent out of whole cloth a commandment nowhere found in its pages, demanding that we at least “go to church” somewhere.

These all fall under what Hayward calls “the illusion that this formal freedom is as good as it gets in life.”

And libertarian paternalists would love to convince you that such “formal freedom” is all you need. After all, if, like Hayward, you disdain to pick between equally undesirable choices . . . if you are not content with simply choosing from different options within a system, and would rather leave the system all together, then the likes of Sunstein and Thaler lose any ability whatsoever to control you short of the brute force they claim to wish to avoid.

Herein lies the problem. At the root of it all, a libertarian paternalist – or a teacher, a politician, a doctor, a news reporter, or a pastor – still believes in his or her heart of hearts that they know better than you do what is best for you. And because they know best, they should be allowed to compel you – either through brute force, or through subtle “choice control” – into doing what they already know is best for you. The systems and institutions in which they operate – schools, governments, hospitals, media outlets and yes, churches, are all designed with one all-encompassing principle on which their survival depends . . . the principle that they can continue in existence by doing you just enough good so that you don’t realize they’re expending all that effort in order to tell you what to think.

There is an infuriating arrogance to it all. At the root of all this, for the so-called “libertarian paternalist” is the very un-libertarian notion that he or she knows what is best for you and me, and that he or she will deign to look down, make the choice for us, and then guide us – ever so gently – toward that choice.

And it is in the realm of religion – Hayward’s forte – that we discover just how insidious this “soft paternalism” really is, for having laid down the weapon of brute force with which to accomplish their desired outcomes, they are left with the even more insidious weapon of shame. Educators, Politicians, Doctors, Newsmakers (a more accurate term these days than “News Reporters”), and Pastors are all – as a class – adept at using this weapon to demonize, marginalize or belittle those who are not content to pick from within their institutions one of a variety of bad options, and who opt to leave the system all together. My wife and I can personally attest to this in every single one of these five areas. Shame is a moral concept, but the amoral can use it just as effectively.

And it is all the worse for being so seductive. Those who wield shame as a weapon often do not realize they are wielding any weapon at all – witness Glenn Reynolds, an eminent libertarian blogger, saying that the solution to people who do not follow his desired course of action with regard to vaccinating their children ought to be “shamed” for it. Seemingly swayed by the same logic that persuades Sunstein and Thaler, Reynolds refers to this as the “libertarian solution” to what he sees as the problem of declining to vaccinate.

Just imagine . . . what if the solution to this or any other action that affects nobody but the person doing it was to simply do as you please, and let them do likewise??

This, to me, seems the essence of what Christ meant when he urged us to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

A Crisis of Fact

Five months.

It has been five months since I last posted anything here. Last fall, the last few times I posted, I apologized for the scarcity of posts. This time I won’t, because I’m not sorry at all. I quite simply had nothing to say.

You see, for most of the last five months I’ve been going through what I’ve referred to in conversations with my wife as a bout of “low grade depression.” What exactly that means, I’m not sure, but I had to give it a name in order to talk about it. Mostly it has manifested itself in an inability, much of the time, to access the deep places of my heart in any expressible way.

Much of this feeling I’ve been talking about relates to what God has been doing in my heart over the last few years – moving me away from convention and “normalcy,” out into the fringes of His body. Some would say I have left it all together, but that is not the case.

This is not, however, going to be another post where I talk of the disappointment and hurt I have felt at the hands of the “normal” church. This crisis has been of a related, but different nature.

In figuring out where I stand in my relationship with Christ, one thing that has come to consume my thoughts of late is the question of where I stand in relationship with Scripture.

I named this post long before I wrote it – long before, in fact, I had any idea what exactly it would say. You see, we often refer to these moments where we are questioning much of what we believe . . . much of what we have believed all our lives . . . as a “Crisis of Faith.”

My faith, though, is not something that is in crisis. This is a crisis of a different sort. It is a crisis of fact.

. . . as in, I am constantly wanting more of them. More facts, more knowledge, more information.

In this case, I want more information about this thing, this book – or collection of books, to be more accurate – that we call “The Bible.”

You see, there are some things about it that just have not made sense to me. I grew up believing something very close to the story that God planted the exact words in the heads of those who penned the original Scriptures, that they wrote them down infallibly, and that those words have been passed on to us completely untarnished.

I do not believe that anymore. My first step away from that belief came with the realization that Scripture itself may claim to be inspired, but its myriad of scribes, copyists and translators do not. Thus I came to believe that Scripture is infallible in its original form, but that minor errors have been introduced in its copying and translation.

Then I began to wonder about that word “inspired.” Scripture claims to be “inspired,” but what does that really mean? Does that truly mean that every word – even in its original form – was absolutely infallible? The word, in Greek, literally means, “God-breathed.” The meaning of that term, in turn, is somewhat of a mystery.

Then I began to study more about what has become one of my passions – one that I have written about here before, as well as on my wife’s blog – the historical context of Scripture. I began to realize that there are little things that just don’t seem to fit. One minor example is found in the story surrounding the birth of Christ. Luke relates that the census that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem was undertaken when Cyreneus was governor of the Roman province of Syria. Then, Luke says, after Jesus was born, King Herod – fearing for his throne – killed all children in Bethlehem below the age of two.

The only problem with this is that other contemporary historical sources reveal that Cyreneus did not become governor of Syria until after Herod’s death. Furthermore, the entire purpose of a census such as the one recorded here (and mentioned in those same historical writings) was to survey the population of a province like Judea as it transitioned from a semi-autonomous kingship to direct Roman rule . . . something that happened not only after, but because of Herod’s death. Furthermore, there is no chance that the mistake was in the other historical sources, for history has carried down to us exactly when Cyreneus was governor, as well as the names and dates of his predecessors and successors in that position.

In other words, Luke – writing roughly eighty years after the death of Christ, got some of his facts wrong.

In any other historical book, this would be no big deal . . . but discovering this about Scripture left me in somewhat of a quandry. After all, if mistakes exist in little things, why not in bigger ones? And if they exist in bigger ones, then how can we be sure that we have a true picture of what God wanted for us when He gave us the Scripture in the first place?

It makes perfect sense to me that Scripture might not mean everything we think it means. After all, my whole life I have had scriptures spouted at me to justify things like male headship, the duty of tithing, the primacy of the local church fellowship, even the biblical basis of the Republican party . . . all positions I no longer believe.

It is a big step, though, to realize that Scripture might not even necessarily mean everything it was meant to mean.

There has always, in my moving away from the various positions mentioned above, been a small kernel of doubt in my mind about certain things. After all, it says “Wives, submit to your husbands.” Taken completely separate from the surrounding historical context, and even the surrounding verses, that seems to be a pretty straight-forward command. However, it never sat well with what I know to be true of my Savior – the fact that He looks on all of His chosen equally . . . and that He promises, among other things, to be the sole mediator and spiritual authority in their lives.

Whenever I raised these issues to those who still believed as I once did, the question was always the same: “Don’t you think that God is capable of preserving in Scripture an accurate record of what He wants from us?”

This question has always presented a challenge to me. I felt trapped by it. On the one hand I could answer “yes,” and admit that my admittedly more “nuanced” reading of Scripture – together with the belief that God doesn’t necessarily have the same message for all people at all times – is wrong. On the other hand, I could say “no,” and deny the sovereignty of God to manipulate the laws of science and nature to miraculously preserve his written will.

I am willing to do neither. To do the latter would be to deny that God is who He is. To do the former would be to call Him a living contradiction.

This morning, I realized that there is a third option to this struggle I have been waging in my mind for the last several months.

You see, the question itself: “Don’t you think that God is capable of preserving in Scripture an accurate record of what He wants from us?” makes an incredibly deep-seated assumption . . . it assumes that’s what He intended for Scripture in the first place.

I have struggled for so long wondering how I can believe God incapable of miraculously preserving some sort of guideline for his people . . . I’ve never considered that the flawed, incomplete, sometimes incomprehensible story we have of God’s interaction with mankind may be exactly what He intended us to have.

After all, God’s language has been that of riddles for as long as He has interacted with humanity. From his claims on the life of Isaac to his curse of a fruitless fig tree, the simple fact is that God sometimes just does not do what is expected of him. We expect Him to give us a rulebook to live by, so when He gives us something else, we see it as a rulebook anyway. We expect Him to tell us what He wants us to do . . . so when He tells us how He wants us to love, we try to turn THAT into something we’re supposed to “do” as well . . .

He spoke in riddles, even to his closest friends and followers. They rarely made sense of what he meant – and he usually did his best to keep it that way.

What if that’s exactly what He continues to do, to this day?

What if the book we call “Bible” is another grand riddle? What if He’s being deliberately vague, and throwing in a couple seeming contradictions just to make us engage in some introspective head-scratching? Isn’t that just like him? Isn’t it just like a loving Father, when his child asks a question to which he might very easily give a straightforward answer, to instead say, “Why don’t you go do some reading, thinking, or research on that and figure that one out on your own?”

I know my own father did that many times – and I know that I’m better off for having learned how to think for myself.

Maybe Scripture is intended not to tell us what to do or think, but to teach us to think for ourselves, and to live in the shadow of our God as best we can. Maybe we are all suffering from a crisis of fact . . . and are trying to compensate by creating new “facts” – new religious commandments, traditions and “to-do lists” where none existed before.

But aren’t the folks who perverted the Jewish faith in the same way the very ones that He whipped out of the temple courtyard? Aren’t they the same ones he called “beautiful tombs, full of dead men’s bones?” Didn’t he roundly criticize and condemn the people who tried to turn the Scriptures into more than they were intended to be?

. . . and didn’t they kill Him for it?

I don’t want to follow in their footsteps. I don’t want to try to invent some new set of commandments because I can’t accept that the words He left us just aren’t enough to tell me what to do with myself at each and every fork in the road.

I want to think for myself . . . to take what He’s given me and use it to continue onward as I believe He would have me do.

And honestly, I don’t think He ever intended otherwise.

Technology, Trust and Transformation

I discovered a new blog yesterday – one that focuses on a topic near and dear to my heart. It’s called “When Religion Meets New Media.”

The author, Heidi Campbell, is involved with the Wikiklesia project I mentioned here about a month ago, and her blog concentrates on the religious response to, and use of, the ongoing communications revolution in which we find ourselves.

As a Public Affairs professional who has tried, with relatively little success, to move a decidedly “old media” Defense agency public affairs office towards an appreciation of new media tools and tactics over the last two years, this topic intrigues me.

As a blogger and writer on things philosophical and theological, the intersection of this phenomenon with religion – any religion – fascinates me.

If you are here, reading this blog, you probably don’t need me to tell you what constitutes “new media.” It used to shock me how little appreciation institutions of any sort had for powerful tools like blogs or social networking sites like YouTube and MySpace. The deeper I get into this issue, though, the more I am coming to think that this is precisely because they are institutions. New media, it seems to me, is innately anti-institutional. Already it is driving down the readership of virtually every major newspaper in the United States, changing the face of politics, bringing down corrupt governments, chipping away at attendance in local institutional churches, and threatening national security.

It is these last two applications that intrigue me the most, for it is in these areas that we see the intersection of new media with religion.

Those of you who have read much of my writing here are already aware what I think of the institutions and traditions that make up modern-day “Churchianity.” This being the case, I believe the online revolution and the advent of “Web 2.0” – the sprouting of social networking, wikis and other collaborative sites – to be perhaps the most exciting thing that has happened to the church since Martin Luther picked up a hammer in Wittenburg.

What you might not realize is that Christianity is not alone in this. I’ve talked before about the tremendous propaganda successes radical Islamists have achieved using websites, cell phones, and video cameras. Just last week, ABC News was handed a tape that was all over the Internet within hours, showing a Taliban “graduation ceremony” of suicide bombers preparing to enter and attack Western targets such as Germany, Canada, Britain and the U.S.

However, Islam is also suffering its own identity crisis in strikingly similar ways to that being endured by Christianity – and for largely the same reasons. Due almost entirely to the ease with which materials can now be published, ordinary Muslims all over the world are beginning to question the previously unassailable credibility of both the Ulama (Islamic scholars) and the Hadith (Islamic traditions).

I find all of this very exciting, because it forces each of us – no matter what we believe – to reexamine what, and who, we trust.

Going back to Islam, the importance of the Hadith has always stemmed from the assertion that it relates back to the practices and words of the prophet Muhammed and helps to explain the words of the Quran. Similarly, the Ulama are those most studied in Islam, and thus have been the arbiters of Islamic Law.

Similarly, the importance of Christian tradition has always been said to be its relation to scripture, and the importance of the “vicar class” has always been its members’ study and training in scripture and doctrine.

Prior to this time, those assumptions have been virtually unassailable – and those who make waves have found themselves cast out by the very arbiters whose authority they doubt, using the very traditions whose legitimacy they question. I’ve felt this myself, having been threatened with excommunication due to my decision to leave the Southern Baptist Church of which I was a member for two years. It’s not exactly as bad as a fatwa calling for one’s death, but it’s unpleasant enough.

Increasingly, though, technology is loosening the desperate hold of the so-called “religious experts.” No longer does a Muslim seeking to better understand his religion need an Alim to explain it. No longer do I need a pastor to tell me what He believes God wants from me.

So again, Who (or what) do we trust?

As Christians, who do we trust? Ask yourself this question. Do you trust Scripture?

Why?

And what do you mean by your answer?

Think about it for a moment. Do you believe Scripture to be infallible? Authoritative? Inspired?

What do each of these words mean to you?

If Scripture is truly infallible, then which version (or versions) are flawless? If your answer is “the original texts” then how do you feel about the fact that no person now living has ever seen one of these texts? If your answer is “copies of the originals in their initial languages” then does it disturb you at all to place your trust in human translators to “get it right”? Does it bother you that many well-meaning people have come up with different answers? Does it give you pause to realize that some of the most trusted versions were blatantly politically motivated at the time of their translation?

If Scripture is “merely” authoritative, what does that mean to you? Does it mean that every word must be followed? How then do you feel about the Old Testament demands to abstain from eating rabbits, stone rebellious children and engage in blood feuds with rival families? How do you feel about the fact that Christ himself advocated routinely breaking some of the ten commandments? How do you feel about the myriad interpretations of various New Testament issues like drinking alcohol, wearing headcoverings and speaking in tongues?

Who do you trust to tell you what to think?

If Scripture is “inspired” – the only one of these three terms it actually claims to be – what does that mean? What does “profitable” mean? How about “teaching” (doctrine in the KJV), “reproof,” “correction” or “training in righteousness”? How do you feel about the fact that the single passage in which scripture does claim to be inspired is a very specific reference . . . to the Old Testament?

How do you feel about the fact that the Old Testament canon was compiled based on material from books that didn’t make the cut? How do you feel about the fact that the New Testament canon originated as a sort of “pastor’s recommended reading list“?

Who do you trust? Historical church leaders like Martin Luther – who called the book of James “an epistle of straw,” yet quoted from it anyway? Even more distant church fathers like Athanasius, Origen and Augustine, who disagreed with one another?

Who do you trust?

My point is not to belittle Scripture. My point is that human authorities, no matter how respected or credible, are not perfect. It seems to me that the more conservative, “fundamental” sects of Christianity have ceased to be “Christians,” and have become “Biblists.” We (I include myself in this group because it is in this tradition that I grew up) have forgotten that Christ said that He, not the writings of His followers, was the way, the truth and the life. We have forgotten that a relationship with the living God is a personal relationship . . . not a matter of academics.

Who then do you trust? Your pastor? your church leaders? your Bible? . . . or your Father?

This is the glory found where technology intersects with religion – the glory of a personal relationship with our Creator, free of intermediaries, interventions and interpretations. Of course we are never free of our own interpretations, but as Samuel once had to be reminded, the Lord knows our hearts. Of course we . . . I . . . struggle daily with my own presuppositions and interpretations, but I trust God. I trust Him to draw me to Himself. My own filters are difficult enough to navigate. I am grateful that technology has negated the need for any others. It has transformed relationships of many kinds – only one of which is my relationship with Father.

Common Objections . . . Part 1

I promised in a previous post to address many of the objections I have seen (and felt) levelled against those of us who have chosen a life outside of the institution that calls itself “church.” There are enough of them that I cannot do so in one post, but I will cover a bunch of them here, and then address the largest ones in a second post. Please keep in mind that I am not condemning those who choose to attend a local assembly. This post is addressed towards those who believe that only by attending such a local assembly can I engage in relationship with God.

Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together

This command is not found in scripture. That might shock some, but it the simple truth. The words are a misquoting of Hebrews 10:25. In the context of the two previous verses, this passage reads, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.”

In that context, it is clear that this has nothing at all to do with the formalized, organized operation of an institutionalized gathering. It has to do with fellow-believers encouraging one another in our faith, our hope, and our love. It is a warning not to try to isolate oneself from all other human inputs to one’s spiritual state.

It is not a command to go to church on Sundays.

Honoring the Sabbath Day

If we are going to take this (strictly Old Testament) commandment literally in the 21st century, we are already in trouble, because the Sabbath was the seventh day of the week, and there is no New Testament support for special services on any other day. It is recorded a few times in the book of Acts that Paul and others went and spoke to groups of people on the Sabbath day (i.e., Saturday) simply because that was naturally when the Jews in each town they visited attended synagogue.

As far as support for doing anything at all on the first day of the week, the phrase itself is mentioned twice.

In Acts 20:7, it is mentioned that Paul and others were gathered on the first day of the week to “break bread.” While this may provide a scriptural basis for Sunday afternoon potlucks, it provides none for a scriptural mandate to sit through a church sermon on a Sunday morning.

In I Corinthians 16:2, Paul commands the church at Corinth, “On the first day of every week each one of you is to put aside and save, as he may prosper, so that no collections be made when I come.”

In other words, it looks like Paul doesn’t want to burden people by asking them for money to their faces, so he can continue his ministry . . . so he provides a way that they can save up in advance. We can’t derive anything in support of a regular weekly gathering from this, and if we use it as a mandate to take offerings on Sundays, then we’re also in trouble, because the biweekly and monthly pay cycles common in this country mean that most of us don’t really write our checks to the missions fund “on the first day of every week,” do we?

What about baptism?

I find it hard to support a scriptural mandate for churches based on the need to baptize people, given that Philip (Acts 8:38), Peter (Acts 10:48), Paul (Acts 16:15, 33) and others are all recorded as having done so outside of the context of any gathering at all, much less an organized, institutional church.

What about communion?

The only account of a ritualized communion in Scripture is found in I Corinthians 11. This verse says a great deal about the state of one’s heart as he or she takes the Lord’s Supper . . . but not so much about the venue or company in which he or she does so. The passage implies only that it is done, in this context, “when you meet together.” There are no commands issued, no particular instructions given over how the ritual is to be conducted. Paul only speaks to two issues in this passage. First, he decries the gluttony of some during the ritual, and second, he encourages those who partake to do so only after a deep and heartfelt self-examination.

Incidentally, if one is to take this account of the ritual as normative across all churches in all places for all time, then in order to be logically consistent, one must also insist that women wear headcoverings. It is mentioned, after all, in the same chapter as the Lord’s Supper, is referenced more often in the passage, is treated with much stronger language, and is characterized by a specific and overt command (I Cor 11:6), making it, according to some popular methods of hermaneutics, a more urgent matter.

On the other hand, if one doesn’t take to heart the specific command, “For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved , let her cover her head,” how can one logically assert that this passage commands anything binding at all vis a vis communion, much less a command to partake of it in an organized, weekly meeting that seems to have been nonexistent at the time?

What about your kids? Shouldn’t they be raised in church?

I have addressed this question in a comment.

In addition, my lovely wife has further addressed the issue in another comment, as well as in a post on her blog. She says it better than I can here. Finally, our dear friend Lynette, who actually has experience raising children outside of the institutional church, gives her input in this comment.

The “Mike-shaped hole”

One interesting take I have heard is the belief that, by failing to find a local church, I am leaving some church somewhere with a “Mike-shaped hole” in it, thereby depriving that local assembly of God’s blessings imparted through my service to the church.

To this, I would simply say that if God wants to bless a church, He hardly needs me to do it. Even if I mistake God’s desire for my life, when and if He chooses to bless a given assembly of believers, He will do so regardless of whether I attend or not. I cannot thwart God’s plan, even if I were to try . . . and I certainly cannot do so by seeking Him to the best of my ability.

Giving and ministering to others

I have also been told that by failing to attend church I am depriving anybody of my ability to minister and give to fellow believers. I am always astonished to hear this, given that my wife and I often give of our time, energy and financial resources to those in need – both those attending institutional churches, and those who don’t. In today’s extremely “connected” world, the church no longer has a monopoly on ministry opportunities . . . and hasn’t for a very long time.

What about good preaching?

In the age of the Internet, one hardly need sit in a Sunday morning service to hear preaching. When I have the urge to quit studying and writing on my own, and let someone else do the pontificating, I go here, but even more conventional churches are posting their materials online for anybody to access. Both of the conventional churches linked here are local assemblies in my area, which are adamantly in favor of active church membership to the point where one is considered spiritually deficient and where one’s salvation is questioned if one is not a member of a doctrinally solid local church . . . yet I can still access their sermons any time I choose. In the 21st Century, access to preaching – good, bad or indifferent – is no longer a logical argument for church attendance.

In my next post, I will examine the two biggest issues I have run into with regard to the institutionalization of church. They are:

What about spiritual authorities? and

Didn’t God institute the church?

stay tuned . . .

A Former Footsoldier of the “Christian Right”

My wife has posted quite capably on the “Formerly Known” series of essays sweeping across the websites and blogs of we the disenchanted with the institutions and traditions that have appropriated the name Christ gave to those dedicated to a life following Him: “The Church.” Her contributions have been posted both here and at her own blog. One thing however, I believe to be missing. Please find that missing element – my meager contribution to this discussion – below.

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A Former Footsoldier of the “Christian Right”

I am the one who, at age 13, began writing letters to the editor of his local paper, reminding readers of the need to remember the true meaning of Christmas, the original intent of the Constitution, and the importance of prayer in schools.

I am the one who made repeated calls to Capitol Hill when Congress tried to take away my right to an education as I and my parents saw fit.

I am the one who interned in my Congressman’s district office as a freshman in high school.

I am the one who, too young to vote myself, convinced my parents not to vote for Bob Dole in the Republican Primary of 1996 because he was not conservative enough.

I am the one who, in high school and college, engaged in public debate for pro-life and pro-marriage issues.

I am the one who participated in both the Young Republicans and the Campus Crusade on the grounds of my overwhelmingly liberal California community college.

I am a three-time attendee of the Conservative Political Action Conference

I missed the 2000 inauguration of President Bush only because I was away from my college campus near D.C., participating in a mock court debate over whether or not religious expression should be allowed on public property.

I am a former footsoldier of the Christian Right.

I watched as my parents and the rest of the voting-age population handed Congress to the Republicans in 1994, and I rejoiced. I watched as the Clinton administration was succeeded by President Bush, and I cheered. I believed both of these events to be signs of God working in the government of my country.

Along with my fellow students, fellow church members, and friends, I spoke out against government intervention in personal matters, and in favor of a constitutional ban on homosexual marriage.

Along with these same fellows, I argued against the war in Bosnia because it was a “foreign entanglement,” and in favor of invading Iraq because it was a “national security threat.”

I claimed that it was a crime for President Clinton to lie about sexual relations with an intern, but that President Bush needed the ability to authorize torturing captured prisoners.

I derided the government’s desire to track those who buy guns, while supporting the PATRIOT Act that allows them to track those who borrow books.

I am a recovering hypocrite.

By all appearances, it seems that those who desire to live from a logically consistent worldview tread a lonely path. Everywhere one turns, another church, politician or interest group is touting the right to free speech – while attempting to stifle an opposing point of view. Once upon a time I believed this activity to be strictly on the part of “the liberal left.” Those who saw the same tendency from the other side decried a “vast right wing conspiracy.”

We were both wrong.

Power corrupts, whether one is republican, democrat, conservative, liberal, Christian or athiest. Double-standards do not respect religious or partisan boundaries.

Politicians, pastors, and pundits, Christian school presidents and para-church organization leaders beware. The time in which you can isolate us, manipulate our thought processes and bend us to your will is coming to an end. We are learning that we are not alone.

We are learning, as well, that where once you may have hoped to further the cause of Christ, now you work to further the cause of your own ability to control us.

We are tired of hearing that abortion and homosexuality are “God’s topics,” while poverty and racism are not. We believe that God cares just as much about a family struggling to find its next meal as he does about an unborn baby.

We walk through the woods and see the same pile of strewn trash and abandoned beer cans that you see – but where you lament that people are partaking of alcohol, we grieve that they are despoiling God’s creation and denying us the ability to enjoy the same pristine environment that hosted their celebrations.

We are tired of hearing that it is our God-given duty to open our checkbooks to your building funds or election campaigns. Some of us call ourselves “emergent,” or “missional,” or “outchurched.” I call us “Christian Libertarians.”

We are discovering that we do not need you anymore.

We are learning that God does not tell us which party to vote for. We are learning that Scripture contains no “pastoral role.” We are discovering that you are not necessary to organize, motivate, preside over, or govern us.

We are remembering that Christ urged us to “give to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and to God the things which are God’s” – and we are realizing that in this equation, you are nowhere to be found.

We are discovering that you are only relevant as long as we allow you to be, and we are beginning to revoke that permission.

We are the former footsoldiers of the so-called “Christian Right”

. . . And we are defecting.

Why I am an Agnostic Christian

I have been asked, of late, by a number of people whose opinions I value, why I refer to myself at times as an “agnostic Christian.” Some have expressed concern with my answer, and I therefore feel a need to clarify. This post will be the first of several relating to my thoughts and studies of late on a number of spiritual issues that have been troubling me for some time now.

To begin with, I have been told that the term is an oxymoron – that it contains two terms that cannot be reconciled. I disagree. I find it more of a paradox – two terms that seem to be irreconcilable, but which, under closer examination, make perfect sense.

Why then do I call myself an “agnostic Christian”? To answer that, I need to break the term down. The latter part is the easy one. I call myself a “Christian” because I believe Jesus Christ – the same Jesus whose name appears in early first-century Roman records from the province of Judea – was more than the great teacher many thought him to be at the time. I believe, as did his closest friends, that he was God incarnate, who was born as a gift for his creation, mankind, died to absolve us of the guilt brought onto us by our sin and that of our progenitor, Adam, and rose from the dead in victory over the physical death that is Adam’s curse. I rely on this same Jesus . . . on his life, his death, and his resurrection . . . for absolution of my own sin, and for the promise of eternal relationship with him.

The question of why I call myself an “agnostic” is a bit more difficult to explain. At its root, the word agnostic is derived from the Greek word gnosis – or knowledge – and the prefix a – indicating a lack thereof. Thus, an agnostic is quite literally one who does not know.

This, I find, describes me more by the day. I was enamored, recently, of a bumper sticker I saw, that said, “don’t believe everything you think.” This saying fits me to a tee. I find with each passing day that more and more of what I think is wrong. Therefore, while I hold my beliefs (any beliefs) firmly until they have been disproven, I am always open to that happening. Given how much of what I once thought has been shown to be wrong, I live assuming that much of what I still believe is probably wrong as well.

So by that most basic of definitions, I am, quite literally, an agnostic Christian. I believe in the existence of absolute truth, but not necessarily in the assertion that I have grasped it completely – or that I ever will, though I will never stop searching.

The problem then becomes the fact that this word “agnostic” has been used for centuries to describe one who does not believe the existence of God can be proven.

It might shock some who know me well to hear that I agree.

You see, Paul’s letter to the Romans says that, at present, we “see through a glass darkly” and that the time when we shall see “face to face” is still in the future. To my mind, the instant I assert that I “know�”. . . or even that I can “know” . . . that God exists, there is no place for faith in my relationship with God – and faith is an essential . . . the essential . . . ingredient in a true relationship with him.

If I assert that I “know God exists,” this assumes that I know exactly who I am talking about when I speak of Him – that is, that I know his attributes, his character, his form and behavior.

Needless to say, I don’t. If I did, the request he makes of me to trust him, to commune with him, and to love him would be a simple task. If I made that claim of God, it would mean that I know him better than I know my wife, my family, my dearest friends. While I hold God as my most important relationship, I wouldn’t dare to presume that much.

So the simple truth is that I don’t know if God exists. It is enough for me to believe that He does. That, to me, is the faith He asks of me.