Tag Archives: Conscience

“Damned Spots”

"Damned Spots" (CaD James 4) Wayfarer

Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.
James 4:8 (NIV)

There is a classic scene in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Lady Macbeth and her husband murder the King of Scotland who is spending the night in their home. Macbeth had received a prophetic word that he would be King. The King unexpectedly shows up for a visit on his travels through the region. The couple decide that it’s their place to make the prophecy come true. They murder the King.

In classic Shakespearean story-telling, the murder successfully launches a chain of events to put Macbeth on the throne. It also launches a chain of events that destroy the couple.

In the final act, Lady Macbeth is descending into madness. Her servant notes that Lady Macbeth often walks in her sleep and acts strangely. She and a physician watch together as Lady Macbeth, sleepwalking in the middle of the night, struggles to wash the blood of her victim off her hands…

Out, damned spot! out, I say!-
…who would have thought the old man
to have had so much blood in him.

What, will these hands ne’er be clean?

Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the
perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little
hand. Oh, oh, oh!

Wash your hands, put on your nightgown; look not so
pale.–I tell you yet again, Banquo’s buried; he
cannot come out on’s grave.

To bed, to bed! there’s knocking at the gate:
come, come, come, come, give me your hand. What’s
done cannot be undone.–To bed, to bed, to bed!


Macbeth Act 5 Scene 1

Almost anyone who has committed awful acts can attest to the fact that a guilty conscience can really do a number on you. I know this because I write from personal experience. Along my life journey, my hands have been stained with the consequences of my own willful transgressions. I remember the pit of despair, the sleepless nights, the heaviness of soul that reverberates with Lady Macbeth’s question: “What? Will these hands ne’er be clean?”

In today’s chapter, James begins by calling out those who have allowed unchecked passions, appetites, greed, and selfishness to lead to transgressions and the dark consequences of the soul that accompany them. James urges:

Come near to God, and he will come near to you.

Like the Prodigal Son, like Lady Macbeth, when I wallowed in the slop of my own making and wrung my hands in hopes of washing away the stains, it was futile exercise. It was only when the Prodigal returned home and “came near” to his Father that things began to change.

Wash your hands…

Notice that the washing of hands comes after the “coming near.” This is not a coincidence because it’s not me doing the washing. It was Jesus who washed my feet of the dirt of where I’ve been. It is the Living Water that springs up to wipe the stubbornly stained conscience clean.

In his letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, Paul addressed those among the local gathering who had once been immoral, adulterers, drunkards, and slanderers. “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

Purify your hearts

Purification from my sins not something I did. It was something Jesus did for me. Once again, like the Prodigal, all I did was to come near and confess.

And, as John wrote to the followers of Jesus: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

I found myself, like the woman caught in adultery. One moment I was lying in the naked shame of what I had done. The next moment I find that Jesus had not condemned me, but had washed me, purified me, and given me a clean start.

“Go,” He said, “and don’t go back to those dark, dirty places.”

This is what I found crucial to understanding the way of Jesus. The repentance, or turning away from sin, was not the result of being shamed, condemned, and/or threatened. It was the result of experiencing Jesus’ kindness as He washed my stains clean and purified my spotted soul when I didn’t deserve it.

Macbeth and his Lady, I’m afraid, did not experience this grace and forgiveness. Lady Macbeth dies, leaving her husband to cynically reflect on their lives, the futile mess they’d made of things, and the meaninglessness he finds of it all:

It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself grateful that in the deepest and darkest stretches of my journey, I was afforded the grace to “come near” to Christ and experience my “damned spots” washed clean.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Freedom and Sacrifice

“But even if he does not [save us from the fire], we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
Daniel 3:18 (NIV)

Tomorrow is Independence Day here in the States. Wendy and I will be celebrating from the lake. Fireworks are legal here in the state of Missouri and it is always a night of loud and bright celebration as people light fireworks off of the end of their docks and over the cove. It’s a lot of fun right up to the time you’re ready to sleep.

I’ve lived my entire life in a nation where freedoms of speech and religion are protected and where life and liberty are held sacred. Despite this fact, I’ve observed along my life journey that there are subtle forms of social, political, religious, and cultural pressure to conform. I find it fascinating that I came of age at a time when religious conservatives wanted to dictate their particular morals and standards on the nation. Now, I find that it’s the other side who appear to want to demand wholesale adherence to a host of social, cultural, and political beliefs they hold sacred.

These examples notwithstanding, I have always found it a bit hard to fully understand or appreciate the predicament that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego find themselves in today’s chapter. They are exiles in a foreign land. They are minorities holding a very different set of beliefs than their captors. They have likely had to learn to live among society and culture that was very foreign to them while trying to maintain a  sense of their identity and faith.

King Nebuchadnezzar’s demand that all bow down to the statue he had erected was somewhat of a common practice in that ancient culture. It was a litmus test of obedience. Interestingly, as I read some commentary on today’s chapter, I found that scholars are split on whether the Hebrew trio would have been breaking the Law of Moses if they had chosen to bow down. This makes it an even more fascinating episode for me. If it wasn’t a black and white matter of religious law, but a gray area of their personal conscience before God, then their refusal to bow become even more meaningful.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about my own personal beliefs. Where’s the line(s) that my conscience and my faith would not allow me to cross? I even find myself silently asking “For what am I willing to sacrifice my life?” On one hand, this feels like an overly dramatic and exaggerated question given the fact that I live in a land of freedom and I don’t anticipate ever having to face such a trial. On the other hand, I am fully aware that around the world people are facing this very real question on a daily basis. There continue to be dictators, tyrants, and regimes perfectly willing to execute those unwilling to bow to their political, cultural, social, and/or religious demands.

For what am I willing to sacrifice my life?

Today, I find myself whispering a prayer of gratitude for those men and women from every culture, ethnicity, religion, and political persuasion who sacrificed their lives across the centuries that I might walk my entire life journey on this earth without seriously having to answer that question.

Keeping it to Myself; Holding it Together

For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
Romans 14:17 (NIV)

Yesterday Wendy and I were with our local gathering of Jesus’ followers and I met young ladies who were from Honduras, Nigeria, and Afghanistan. I was told that the first time my young sister from Afghanistan joined us I happened to give the message that day, and she was relatively new to living here in the States. At some point during the message I began to cry (that happens quite frequently, I’m afraid). She, however, was taken aback. Culturally, men in Afghanistan do not cry, especially in public. She laughed about it now, and the moment became an opportunity for her to learn and grow on a number of different levels. Very cool.

Along my journey I have encountered people from all manner of cultural, religious, and denominational backgrounds. People have all sorts of things that are important to them religiously, spiritually, or culturally from things you eat (or don’t), things you wear (or don’t), and certain days that are special (or not). We’re not talking here about matters of civil law or basic morality. This conversation is about preferences, practices, customs and traditions that are not the command of Christ, though they may hold some special spiritual significance to a particular individual or a particular group of individuals.

As Paul is writing to the followers of Jesus in Rome, he is aware that among all the fledgling local gatherings of believers there are very diverse cross-sections of humanity. Not just Jews and Gentiles, but people from different nations, tribes, cultural backgrounds, and socio-economic positions. This would especially have been true in Rome which was the cosmopolitan epicenter of the western world at the time. The Jesus Movement was breaking down barriers between people for the first time history and for the first time people were interacting with one another, eating together, worshipping together, and speaking to one another as equals on a regular basis. Of course this is going to create all sorts of minor clashes between people from diverse cultural, religious, social and economic backgrounds.

In today’s chapter Paul gives some very clear teaching on these various and sundry differences.

First, he points out that what a person eats and drinks (or doesn’t) and what days are of special spiritual significance (or not) are really of no concern to God but are merely concerns of personal, individual conscience. This, in and of itself, might be a huge eye-opener if my ego has convinced me that I am the universal spiritual template and standard by which all other followers of Jesus should abide by and be judged. Each individual, Paul instructs, should worry only about herself/himself and her/his own behavior in accordance with her/his own conscience before God.

Second, Paul explains that because many different believers have very different matters of conscience on these matters there is no binary “right” and “wrong” in these matters except within my own heart and mind. These things are a private matter between me and God.

That being said and established, Paul urges me to take off my Junior Holy Spirit badge and stop playing spiritual judge, jury, and executioner applying my personal conscience before God onto others who have very different consciences before the same God. “Worry about yourself,” Paul is saying, “and let God worry about others.”

Finally, Paul exhorts me to follow the example of Christ and put others and their personal consciences above my own right to exercise my very different conscience. If I know that a person holds that Sabbath is sacred, I’m not going to ask her/him to come over and help me move my couch that day. If I know that another person finds alcohol to be evil and prohibitive, I’m not going to make an appointment to meet that person at the local pub and I’m going to abstain from drinking in her/his presence.

And, if a sister finds that a man crying in public is wrong, well…I’ll try to hold it together!

Have a great week, my friend!

 

“Ten Bucks”

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial.“I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive.
1 Corinthians 10:23 (NIV)

About 20 years ago there was a television show called Ed. It was a rom-com series about a young man who moves back to the small town where he was raised after his life falls apart. He reconnects with old friends and tries to get his life back together. It was an endearing show and ran for four seasons.

There’s a running gag in the show in which Ed and his best friend Mike have an on-going series of dares that they compete to win “ten bucks.” These guys do the craziest things to win “ten bucks” from each other. I still can’t hear the term “ten bucks” without thinking of Ed and Mike (kind of like I can’t hear “two dollars” without thinking of the paperboy in Better Off Dead).

I never enter pools. It doesn’t matter if it’s March Madness or when the ice will melt off the local pond and dump the old clunker to a watery grave. I don’t have anything against pools and lottery type games. I think I’m just a pessimist at heart and assume I’m going to lose my money. I just never do it. It is, therefore, somewhat strange that before the holidays began I entered a simple pool at my local CrossFit box.  You put in $10 and weigh in. After New Year’s there is another weigh in and those who maintained or lost weight during the holidays get their $10 back and split the money of all those who gained weight.

It’s been interesting as we’ve journeyed through the holidays that I can’t get that “ten bucks” out of my head. At every meal, at every Christmas gathering, and when I’m reaching for that second piece of Wendy’s peanut butter chocolate chunk cheesecake I keep thinking about my “ten bucks” hanging out there in the balance.

Along my journey I’ve come to realize that a lot of individual life problems I see in myself and those all around me boil down to some type of appetite indulgence. We indulge our appetites for all sorts of things like power, control, greed, rest, food, sex, adrenaline, vanity, accomplishment, applause, “Likes,” and pleasure. We indulge these normal appetites for all sorts of insidious reasons and the results of our out-of-control indulgence are generally not healthy.

The holidays are a great excuse for most everyone to indulge our appetites. Enjoying good food, good drink, rest, and relaxation with family and friends is a good thing. At the same time, too much of a good thing easily becomes an unhealthy thing. There’s a reason why New Year’s resolutions come annually after five weeks of holiday indulgence.

In Paul’s letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, Paul continues to address a simmering conflict between two factions. Some on the legalistic killjoy end of the spectrum were against eating any meat that had been sacrificed at a pagan temple. Those on the open-minded, permissive end of the spectrum saw no issue with the practice. The latter were quick to say “I am free to eat whatever I want!

Paul’s response is a great example of choosing the “both, and” rather than the “either, or.” He makes the point that while everything may “permissible”  (i.e. a little holiday indulgence), not all things are “beneficial” (i.e. I gained so much weight I need to make a New Year’s resolution). In the case of the bickering factions in Corinth, Paul reminds them that the beneficial thing for the good of the community is to consider your friend’s conscience a higher priority than either my personal freedom or my personal convictions.

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking about my own appetites. I’m thinking about the holidays (still at least four gatherings to go), and I’m thinking about how a silly “ten bucks” has changed my thinking and behavior this holiday season. The question I’m asking myself this morning is: Is a friend’s conscience worth more to me than ten bucks?

Non-Essential Liberty

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.
1 Corinthians 8:9 (NIV)

The local gathering of Jesus’ followers to which Wendy and I belong has been growing steadily in the years since I began regularly joining for worship and serving in the community. What has been interesting is that the growth is largely coming from other local and regional churches and gatherings who have been slowly fading and even shutting down. The result is that among our community of believers we have a growing, yet increasingly diverse, population who bring with them a host of different traditions, beliefs, customs, and worship practices.

What I’ve observed among the leadership and staff of our community is that the attitude has not been a black and white “This is our way and we don’t do it your way” type of attitude. Rather, I’ve observed an open attitude asking “What can we learn from the richness of all these other traditions?” The result has been a fascinating and unique experience. A traditionally “mainline” church operating in the gifts of the Holy Spirit typically found in gatherings labeled “Charismatic” or “Pentecostal.” A contemporary-style worship service that incorporates pieces of ancient liturgy and generally follows the ancient church calendar. A gathering that most casual observers would label “modern evangelical” and yet during the week many in our community pray the ancient, Divine Hours. During Lent you’ll find members of our community journeying through the Stations of the Cross. The whole thing has been less “either, or” and more “both, and.”

As I read today’s chapter this morning it struck me that Paul wrote to a fledgling gathering of believers in Corinth who were experiencing their own melting pot of diverse backgrounds and belief systems. The Christian faith came out of a typically rigid, black-and-white religious system of Judaism. Yet in Corinth there would have been believers who had come from pagan backgrounds and  knew nothing of Judaic traditions or beliefs. There would have been intellectual Greeks who were mostly steeped in philosophy and had little practical understanding of any religion. The result was a clash among the local gathering of Corinthian believers. Good Jews were horrified at the notion that the meat on their table may have been once sacrificed in a pagan temple. The former pagans and those who weren’t raised in the Jewish tradition couldn’t quite understand why, on Earth, it was that big of a deal.

Paul’s wisdom was the adoption of a “both, and” spirit rooted in Jesus’ law of love. Those who rolled their eyes at fellow believers from Jewish tradition (who couldn’t handle the idea of meat sacrificed to idols) were to respect their brothers and sisters who were. If the Abrahams are coming over for dinner do the hospitable thing and keep it kosher. Those of Jewish tradition were to respect that not everyone was raised in their life-long, black-and-white religious traditions. It’s not the same for them. Take off the Jr. Holy Spirit badge. Let it go. Take one for the team. Love one another in the diversity of our consciences and convictions.

I believe St. Augustine nicely summed up what Paul was getting at a few centuries later: “In essentials unity. In non-essentials liberty. In all things charity (i.e. love).” Whether or not you care that your rib-eye had been butchered in the Temple of Apollo is a matter of individual conscience. It’s a non-essential. Love and respect those believers in your midst who come from different backgrounds and may not believe the same way you do.

This morning I’m grateful for the diverse group of believers with whom Wendy and I regularly worship. From the “frozen chosen” believers from mainline backgrounds to the former Roman Catholics and all the different forms of baggage they carry to the Charismatics who spiritually bring in da noise and da funk. I admittedly don’t always understand, nor fully appreciate where they’re all coming from. We just shrug our shoulders, keep an open mind and spirit, and love, love, love, love, love. When it comes to stuff like this I always want to live, learn, love, and operate in “non-essential liberty.”

Honor, Challenge, & Letting it Go

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.
1 Corinthians 8:9 (NIV)

Along my faith journey I’ve encountered a whole lot of silliness as it relates to fellow believers’ attitudes and beliefs. I’m reminded this morning of the sweet old woman who was dead-set that the King James version of the Bible was the only true version. “If it’s good enough for the Apostle Paul it’s good enough for me,” she said.

Um…ma’am…oh, never mind.”

We’ve been talking a lot about the word “honor” among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. The word picture that always accompanies that word for me is “to attach worth” to someone or something.

In today’s chapter Paul addresses an issue that was relevant to the followers of Jesus in first century Corinth, but rather a strange notion in the modern world. Corinth in 55 A.D. was a major trade hub for the Roman Empire and there were a lot of travelers from all over the known world passing through. As such, there were a lot of pagan temples in town. When animals were sacrificed to a Greek or Roman god at one of the local temples, the meat was first used to provide food for the priests and priestesses of the temple. Any excess was sold in the local market as a source of revenue.

This raised a hot moral debate within the new Corinthians believers. It it okay to eat meat that got butchered as a sacrifice to Apollo or not? I can imagine at least one person claimed that an Apollo pot roast was “of the devil.”

Paul makes it clear in his letter that there was nothing wrong with eating the meat, but he made one major addendum for mature believers to follow. If you know that a fellow believer in your midst gets the spiritual heebie-jeebies from eating Apollo pot roast and considers it personally reprehensible, then you should honor his/her belief (literally attach worth to what you consider a silly, worthless superstition). Don’t cause a “weaker” fellow believer to go against their own conscience. In essence, it’s not my job to convince someone they are being silly. That’s Holy Spirit’s job. My job is to extend honor, love and respect for a fellow believer’s sincere belief.

This morning I’ve been taking stock of my own track record on honoring fellow believers who have a very different conscience than mine. On the whole, I’d like to think that I am, and have been, an honoring person. That being said, I realize in the quiet this morning that along they way I’ve sometimes made distinctions between those Paul would call a “weaker” brother or sister in his/her immaturity, and a brother or sister who should have matured and needs to be challenged to grow up. I’m not convinced my discernment between the two has always been correct.

And then there’s the old lady whose convinced that the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians in the Medieval English of King James.

Sometimes it’s best to just let it go.

Love Trumps Freedom

No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.
1 Corinthians 10:24 (NIV)

Wendy and I have friends and family members who represent a broad spectrum of generations, backgrounds, beliefs and social customs. When we get together with people we are aware that others have very different thoughts and feelings about all sorts of human rituals and behaviors. From saying a prayer of thanks before a meal to whether it’s acceptable to consume alcohol to choice of appropriate words/topics to the appropriateness of a cigar after a great meal, there are many different considerations.

That’s the crucial word: consideration. When it comes social settings with others of very different beliefs, my behavior is determined largely by whether I consider my beliefs or others beliefs more important to me in that moment.

Paul was dealing with exactly the same situation among the followers of Jesus in the first century town of Corinth. Some of the community felt passionately that it was inappropriate to buy or consume meat that had been sacrificed to one of the many pagan temples there before it ended up in the market.  Others felt just as passionately that it was silly to worry about such things. The result was one of many conflicts that had come to full boil among the diverse community of believers.

For the past three chapters Paul has been addressing this controversy. Yes, he agreed, there is nothing wrong with eating the meat. Those who felt such freedom of conscience were not be convinced otherwise. At the same time, Paul urged those who experienced such freedom to be considerate of those who held different beliefs on the matter. In other words: relatively insignificant dietary rules or beliefs of religious/social propriety are subordinate to the great commandment Jesus gave: Love those who think differently than you do. When you are with them, Paul urged, consider their conscience more important than your freedom. Freedom of conscience is subordinate to the law of love.

As I ponder this principle, I am aware that at times I am admittedly guilty of putting my pride and freedom ahead of others whom I make uncomfortable. I am reminded this morning: Love trumps freedom. Consideration of others trumps the freedom of my conscience. A good thing for me to embrace and apply as I press on with my journey today.

It is Well

Be careful to obey all these words that I command you today, so that it may go well with you and with your children after you forever, because you will be doing what is good and right in the sight of the Lord your God.
Deuteronomy 12:28 (NRSV)

Thinking back to childhood, there stand out a few examples of when I chose to blatantly do what I knew was wrong. For example, there are a couple of instances of petty theft on my pre-adolescent rap sheet. One of the forays into criminal conduct resulted in swiftly getting caught and punished. You could say that I got away with the other instance, though the lingering pain of a guilty conscience and the self-recrimination may have been worse punishment than if I had simply been caught in the act. I eventually chose, of my own free will, to come clean and pay my debt.

Those early experiences taught me that there is a peace of soul that comes with simply doing what is good and right. No one is perfect. I have my blind spots and I make poor choices — willfully and regularly, I’m afraid. I have learned , however, that life is certainly less anxious when I daily endeavor to live, speak, and act out of a respect for others and a desire to do the right thing. Sleep comes more easily and the day is experienced with a greater fullness of joy when my conscience is clear.

In today’s chapter Moses urges obedience to God’s commands “that it may go well with you and your children.” While I certainly believe that God blesses His children, I also recognize that there is a natural “going well” that occurs simply as a consequence of doing the right thing.

I cannot control all of the circumstances of life around me. I cannot control what others think, say, and do. I can, however, control my own thoughts, words, and actions. And, if I do things the right way then life, for the most part, tends to go well.

chapter a day banner 2015

featured photo by jsrcyclist via Flickr

The True Spiritual Test

 

English: Nathan advises King David
English: Nathan advises King David (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
2 Samuel 12:13a (NIV)

 

When I was five years old, while on a Christmas Eve sleepover at my grandparents’ house,  I stole all of my siblings’ gift envelopes off of the Christmas tree and hid them in my suitcase. I watched in silence on Christmas day as grandma racked her brain to figure out where those envelopes went. Then, I promptly forgot that my mom would be the one unpacking my suitcase when we got home. I was totally busted. My butt cheeks were rosy from the spanking that quickly followed, the cheeks of my face were quickly stained with tears of remorse as I called grandma to confess my heinous crime and to ask her forgiveness.

 

I learned early that your sins find you out. Having said that, let me readily I admit that it didn’t stop me from sinning. I’ve made plenty of tragic choices since then. I make them on a regular basis, in fact. Along the way, however, I’ve come to realize that hiding, concealing, obfuscating, blaming, and excusing my wrongdoing is both delaying the inevitable and stunting my spiritual growth and development. The further I get in the journey the more readily I’ve embraced my fallibility and shortcomings. I might as well cut to the chase, admit I blew it, and allow everyone to move on.

 

In this morning’s chapter, David is confronted by the prophet Nathan and his illicit affair with Bathsheba, his conspiracy to murder Bathsheba’s husband, and his attempt to conceal his paternity of Bathsheba’s child is revealed in dramatic fashion. David’s response was to quickly confess his wrongdoing and seek God’s forgiveness. It’s a fascinating contrast to David’s predecessor. When the prophet Samuel confronted King Saul of his wrongdoing, Saul excused his behavior and refused to repent of his actions.

 

We all make mistakes. We all make selfish choices that hurt others. The true spiritual test is in how we respond to God and others in the ensuing guilty conscience, or when when we are confronted and exposed.

 

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Chapter-a-Day Deuteronomy 16

HDR @ the DMV
Image by stevelyon via Flickr

The right! The right! Pursue only what’s right! It’s the only way you can really live and possess the land that God, your God, is giving you. Deuteronomy 16:20 (MSG)

I was talking to a friend on the phone the other day, and he related an experience from his day. Standing at the teller of the local office of the County Treasurer, he was registering a used car he’d just purchased. When asked how much he’d spent to purchase the vehicle he had a momentary mental struggle. If he simply gave an amount that was a few hundred, maybe a thousand, lower than what he actually paid, he would have to pay less tax to register the vehicle.

“Truth wins out,” he heard inside his head, inside his heart. And the struggle yet ensued. There were, I’m sure, all sorts of arguments for being dishonest. It’s not a great amount, no one would know, and who really cares if the government gets a few dollars less on a registration tax in the grand scheme of things. “Truth wins out,” his conscience whispered. Or, perhaps it was Holy Spirit.

He gave the true amount of the purchase, paid the proper amount for registration, and slept much better that night.

I thought of my friend when I read today’s chapter. Little white lies and small dishonesties are easy to get away with. We think very little about them, but perhaps we should heed the challenge in today’s chapter to actively pursue what is right. Little dishonesties have a tendency to grow in unexpected ways and require further deception. Doing what’s right in the little things clears the conscience and paves the way for doing right in much more substantial life matters.

Indeed, “truth wins out” in many ways.

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