An Evolution of Faith

A thought crossed my mind a few days ago. It continues to float in, wander around, and float out again. Last night I ran upstairs to jot down a few notes so that I would be able to somewhat clearly remember the jumbled thought, and, hopefully, organize it and make it a little more coherent. As I start to write this I can feel my heart beating a little faster because I tend to keep thoughts like this, thoughts concerning my faith and understanding private with the exception of a very small number of people.

Perhaps a little back story is required…

When I first began to read the Bible and other texts concerning the Christian faith in earnest, I was struck by the image of Jesus’ openness and vulnerability in the garden of Gethsemane. It was just him and God. There he prayed, alone, and asked God “may this cup be taken from me,” (Matt. 26.39 NIV). Alone, in solitude with others watching outwardly in order that he not be disturbed during such an intimate act. Also, he, himself, directs that prayer is an act to be performed in private in Matthew 6, “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father who is unseen,” (Matt. 6.6, NIV). Long story short, I rarely, if ever, pray in public. When I do pray in public, either in church, at the dinner table, or reciting the Lord’s prayer before an athletic event in high school (in my youth), it does not feel the same. There is a lack of intimacy, a lack of depth. It is not empty, but definitely not full either. Does that make sense?

I also take very seriously words from earlier in chapter 6 of Matthew, verses two through four, “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret,” (NIV).

As I said, I keep my thoughts private, probably to an extreme. I keep my actions concerning my faith private, definitely to an extreme.

There are other reasons, well really only one reason, why I tend to keep quiet concerning my faith, and that is because when it comes to the very loud and outspoken conservative evangelical point of view, I have always seen myself in the minority and did not want to attempt to defend my thoughts against an overwhelming number of people driven by an unwavering opinion, belief, or faith in their rightness over others. And I am not just referring to more conservative Christian points of view, but also atheists and agnostics that are just as fervent and unmoving in their opinions and/or beliefs. It hits harder, though, coming from a fellow believer, because a fellow believer will tell me that I am missing, or have missed, the point, attempt to correct me, and then tell me that because I do not agree that I am lost and going to hell. Though those closest to me may never tell me that to my face, they do support and follow those that proclaim such, and, I won’t lie, that stings. That stings a lot.

So where am I going with this?

The thought that crossed my mind the other day was this. Grace vs. legalism. That’s it. One word against another, but oh, isn’t it so much more complex. A couple of definitions to start:

Grace- (in the Christian belief) the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings; a divinely given talent or blessing; the condition or fact of being favored by someone.

Legalism- excessive adherence to law or formula; theology dependence on moral law than on personal religious faith.

(Both definitions come from the handy-dandy New Oxford American Dictionary app on my computer)

Grace is further defined by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland as “God’s unfailing commitment to love,” (If Grace is True: Why God Will Save Every Person, p.7).

Those that read, study, have read, or have studied the Bible know that both legalism and grace are within it. Grace tends to abound in the New Testament, and legalism is firmly rooted in the first five books of the Old Testament, especially Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Why is that? The simple explanation is that Jesus came as the Messiah, or Savior, and fulfilled the old law (Matt. 5.17), bestowing upon the world God’s grace (John 1.17). There is more to it than that, especially if one reads the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) while considering what the Israelites living under the law were doing.

Think about it. These men, women, and children were freed from their bonds of slavery after generations. They had no real identity as a free culture. Little set them apart as God’s chosen people and descendants of Abraham from those other Middle-Eastern cultures surrounding them. They wandered to and fro seeking land to establish themselves. Not only were they seeking land to establish themselves as God’s chosen, but also they needed a law or code to set them apart, or sanctify themselves, from those around them that did not subscribe to their one God.

So there they were, a small, wandering tribe of people with little cultural identity to set them apart and a belief system that was completely alien to all of the other cultures around them. What better way for God to set them apart than to give them a strict code of law to follow and attempt to fulfill? A strict code that would not only keep them safe from natural harm (it protected them from eating spoiled shellfish, parasite ridden pork, and other harmful things (Lev. 11) ), but also directed the propagation and growth (the classification of homosexuality as an abomination/sin (Lev. 18 and 20), etc…) of the small tribe into a larger, established society dedicated to continuing its sanctification.

The Israelites eventually settled on a piece of land and continued to grow through observance of their God-given law. In this way, legalism served a positive purpose. It gave a group of people a direction for positive growth and security. It helped them establish a stable society in a time when the state, as we know it today, did not exist. As all of this was happening, they continued to live in anticipation of their Messiah who would save them from the perils of the surrounding world.

They did not follow the law word for word. How could they? It would take a true act of God for anyone to be able to follow such a strict and regimented code without falter. They did, however, follow it well enough to continue to multiply and reestablish themselves after being conquered and moved and resettled again, and being hellenized by the Greeks and later ruled by the Roman state (though different than the modern nation-state, a state nonetheless).

Seeing that His people were set apart distinctly from those surrounding them, and that their society was stabilizing and that the world around them was growing more organized and stable, God felt the time was right to bring forth a new law, one different from the law under which they lived that promoted outward sanctification, but inward sanctification. A law that would not only provide for their salvation but also the salvation of those with whom they lived and interacted, namely Gentiles. Thus enters into the world, Jesus.

Arriving in a time of Roman rule over the kingdoms of Israel and after the hellenization of the region by the Greeks, with trade routes and roads coming together and stretching to the limits of the known world, Jesus knew that the time had come for the law to change and that the gospel could and would be spread to the corners of the earth, allowing for the salvation of all people under his new covenant, regardless of their lack of observation of the old one. The Hebrew people had managed to maintain their society and culture under foreign rule and that through peace, they could continue doing such.

The law became one of spiritual sanctification. Followers were to no longer set themselves apart with action and behavior governed by law, but through their faith and their behavior as guided by that faith, with the complex old law being reduced to one phrase, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets,” (Matt. 7.12, NIV). Followers were also commissioned to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you,” (Matt. 28.19-20 NIV).

The law became one of internal observation rather than observing that others were keeping the law. It became a law of forgiveness of others and bestowing grace and love on others, because we, ourselves, are inadequate to fulfill the old law. Through the same forgiveness shown to us, and the life given to us, we can forgive others and live a life of love, free from the judgment and punishment of others. In short, the law became love, and that love is shown through grace and mercy.

The writer of James said it well. “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgement without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgement,” (James 2.12-13 NIV).

We all think of the impossibility of following the legalism of the Old Testament and the kind of discipline that must take. Little is ever said of how incredibly difficult it is to live under the covenant of the Gospel. How much more infinitely difficult is it to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Matt. 5.44 NIV). Remember the “love” spoken of by Paul in his first letter to the church at Corinth? The love that is “patient” and “kind”? The love that “does not envy” or “boast”? That “is not proud” or “rude” or “self-seeking” or “easily angered”? That “keeps no record of wrongs”? That “does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth”? That “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres”? That is a hard love to give, even to ourselves and those we love. Imagine showing our enemies that kind of love. Imagine the kind of grace it takes to give that kind of love.

I have read those words many times in private and a time or two at weddings and one funeral. Yet, it still hits me at how difficult it is to show that kind of love, and I imagine it is just as difficult for all of us. I don’t just imagine, I know it is. It is infinitely easier to show contempt toward those with whom we disagree or disapprove. It is easy to show disapproval. Replacing that contempt and disapproval with love and mercy is our calling. It is what we are supposed to do, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another,” (John 13.34 NIV).

It is an endless road to walk. I know I will spend the rest of my life attempting to learn how to love the way in which we are instructed, and I will likely not ever get it completely right. I suggest we all do a little walking ourselves before we try to tell others where and how to walk. That is the whole point of the Gospel, not how, or about what, my neighbor thinks and lives, but how I think and live, and do I live and walk a life of love.

I partially stole the title of this piece from Philip Gulley’s book The Evolution of Faith. It’s a pretty good book and one that I will likely flip through again.

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Remembrance and Celebration

I wrote this tonight as I was thinking of those that have gone on to greener pastures…

We each have our own remembrances
and stories to share and to tell.
We have our reasons to weep
and those to laugh.
We have our reasons to mourn
and those to dance.
We have these because those we loved have gone away,
but through these memories, reasons, and times,
we have them with us every day.

Inspired by:

Ecclesiasties 3: 1, 3, 4

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven:
a time to be born and time to die…
a time to weep and time to laugh…
a time to mourn and a time to dance…

A Thought on Love, Empathy, and Faith

This started out as a post on Facebook, but I’m going to try to expand on it and see what happens…

If we spent more time seeing people as people rather than as the labels we put on them, then a path to real empathy and understanding shows itself. The problem with labels is that we all wear more than one. Yet, when we see a label on someone that we do not agree with, that is the label we give them. Never mind the other labels one might wear that we would approve of or wear ourselves. It is the label that promotes some kind of disagreement or conflict that we freely choose to accept as the one that most aptly describes or define the individual.

Surely we are smarter and more compassionate than that. Surely we all have the ability to see people for who they are rather that what they are. Why would we willingly take such an ability and simplify it? Does it make life easier? Does it help us sleep better at night? Does it bring us closer to our faith, regardless of what that faith may be?

I’m going to address the last question first and see if they will help answer the other three.

Does it bring us closer to our faith, regardless of what that faith may be?

I’m going to place a label on myself just to show how I view the answer I have for this question. I identify as a Christian, and the answer that follows is according to my understanding of Christian faith.

By simplifying an individual that we may not agree with to the label with which we disagree, faith eludes us. We are not told to love the neighbor with whom we most identify. We are told to love our neighbor. It does not matter who that neighbor is. It does not matter what that neighbor does. It does not matter what we think of that neighbor.

One of the most important aspects of love is empathy. In order to love someone, empathy, and the practice of empathy, within the relationship is absolutely paramount. With empathy, one must understand or want to understand the object of their love. With empathy, there may not always be agreement, but there is always an attempt to understand. Without empathy, one cannot find the commonalities one might have with another in order to build a meaningful relationship. Without empathy, it is easier to cast judgment on those with whom we disagree, paste a label on them, and toss their basic humanity aside. Without empathy, we fail to see the person behind the label. We fail to see the person’s wants. We fail to see their needs. We fail to understand them as people, and choose to see them as enemies, if even in the loosest sense of the word. Without empathy, there cannot be trust. Without trust, there cannot be love.

Empathy takes a lot of practice. It can be difficult, but isn’t that the point? Are we not supposed to practice our respective faiths? Are we not supposed to work in order to build a stronger character and make our faiths stronger?

We have an ability to understand. We have an ability to empathize. Some say it is God given. Some say it is an evolution of the mind. Some say it is a combination of the two.

We can also practice apathy. We can choose not to care. We can choose not to understand. In essence, we can choose not to love. Apathy takes no practice, builds no character, and is a weak foundation upon which to build faith.

Which brings us closer to our faith? Which makes life easier? Which helps us sleep better at night? For me, a better understanding makes me more comfortable and helps me trust that I will be okay. That trust helps me sleep at night. That understanding makes my life just a little bit easier.

There is a debate, has been for a long time. Does faith alone provide for salvation, or are good works necessary? Faith, in and of itself, requires work. Faith requires practice, because we, in and of ourselves, will never be perfect. Through practice, we can come closer to perfection, but cannot attain it but through the continued practice of love and of faith.

We’re Doing It Wrong.

I just finished reading this article talking about the creation of bullet-proof blankets for children at school.  I applaud the creator for thinking of, and making, something that can provide even a modicum of safety and security for our young people, but it deeply saddens me that such an idea was even contemplated in the first place.

It saddens me that our society is so drenched in violence that people are completely desensitized to it.  It saddens me that we have allowed it to happen.  We condone it every day, either actively or passively.  We glorify it rather than reflect and learn from it so that it doesn’t happen again.  We memorialize violent acts through memorializing the victims rather than doing anything to ensure, or even partially prevent, such acts from ever occurring again.  And it keeps happening more and more and more.

Apparently, such thinking is considered naïve and unrealistic.  I mean, how does anyone think that all violence can be stopped?  It’s impossible.  Violence is going to occur.  It is going to happen, so why try to stop it?  Kind of reminds me of a phrase I heard after two boys got into a fight, “oh well, boys will be boys.” This coming from the father of one of the boys.  This.  This is part of the problem, but only part, but it does get us closer to the source, but that comes later.

Through our actions and words we advocate violence as a method of solving problems, or better yet, eliminating them.  We do not deal with it.  We beat it into submission until it goes away or erase issues from our consciouses altogether.

Think about this.  No war has ever ended because the ones doing the fighting ran out of bullets or bombs.  Wars are ended at tables or desks, and with pen, paper and discussion.

Violence tends to come about because someone wants something they feel they cannot get through other means, or, maybe, the perpetrators of violence believe it to be the most effective, or easiest, means with which to obtain what it is they desire.

Example:

My brother and I are two years apart in age.  I am the older.  He, the younger.  We fought all the time, and it was usually because one of us had something, or was doing something, the other wanted or wanted to do.  When the one doing would not give, shouting typically ensued.  Then when the yelling did nothing, pushing, shoving, grabbing, arm twisting, and punching started.  Sometimes it was effective. Most of the time, however, not so much.  What usually happened was that the parents would intervene and we were both denied, so we both lost. Violence accomplished nothing.

We are better than the violence we see or read about everyday.  We are put together with minds that understand compassion, that have empathy.  We have minds that are capable of understanding and working through issues in a nonviolent manner.  Such is much more challenging than escalating to violence. Challenges that require constant work do not bode well for a society that craves instant gratification.  We are willing to work ourselves to the bone in order to obtain what we want or need materially.  Adults get in fist fights while Christmas shopping, think about that, too.  Yet, when it comes to being better humans or being more humane, “ain’t nobody got time for that.”  Do you think we have a problem yet?

We are better than the violence that people protect themselves from everyday.  Some carry a firearm with them everywhere they go.  What does that say about a society when, number one, one feels that in order to feel safe going to the grocery store they have to be packing a pistol, or number two, that such would even be condoned?  What does it say about a society in which an individual develops bullet-proof blankets in the hopes that they will save children’s lives at school?  What does it say about a society that even considers arming teachers or other school faculty and staff to provide security at a school?  What does it say about a society that attempts to solve problems by throwing possible solutions at the symptoms of the issue rather than the source? It’s kind of like trying to cure strep throat by placing a cool cloth on a fevered forehead.

What is the source?  Where does the violence come from?  Does it come from within?  Or from without?

I have my ideas, most of which lie within society itself, but I am sure it is not that simple.  Most of the ideas that I have are simply symptoms, but maybe not.  As I said before, we glorify violence.  We watch it on television.  Often times some pay extra to watch human beings beat one another senseless for money.  People promote this.  People participate in it, and people pay to watch it.  Name another species of animal on the planet that does this.  Sure, there is violence within other parts of the animal kingdom.  There are challenges for dominion and killing done for the purposes of survival.  We, on the other hand, have forward thinking, intellect, and reason. We can see, process, and understand the consequences of our actions.  Such sets us apart from what we see on Animal Planet or the Discovery Channel.  I mean, if they show documentaries anymore besides Shark Week.

The violence that I am thinking about is not only gun violence.  We are surrounded by violence of all kinds.  People are killed by violent people with guns, knives, or bare hands to name a few tools.  Some tools make it easier to kill than other ones.  Some tools were made specifically for the purpose of unleashing death.  Some tools are misused and become harbingers of death.  This is a hotly contested debate that only attempts to control a symptom of the problem and not the problem itself.

People kill or beat out of perceived necessity, desire, or fear.  People commit violence due to a lack of understanding and/or compassion for those that live lives in a different way.  People kill or harm in order to defend the ones they love and what is theirs. People kill out of anger.  People kill or commit violence because of a lack of empathy toward fellow human beings.

Earlier, I wrote of what saddens me about all of this, but here is what saddens me the most…

Some, many maybe, will read this post and scoff. They will consider it naïve, immature, idealistic, and unrealistic. The response will be that violence cannot be ended. There has always been violence.  There will always be violence. There are violent people in the world. There is nothing that can be done about that.

We will quit before we even get started. It will end before it begins. The idea will fail before even having the opportunity to succeed.

There is a quote from one of Noam Chomsky’s most recent books,  Hopes and Prospects, I particularly enjoy, and I think it bears stating here:

“Historical amnesia is a dangerous phenomenon, not only because it undermines moral and intellectual integrity, but also because it lays the groundwork for crimes that lie ahead.”

Essentially, what we do not remember or learn from our history, we are doomed to repeat it. As our society continues to disconnect from one another, the human connections we are possible of establishing and maintaining will continue to wither.  Rather than being seen as people, we will see each other as small square profile pictures with little thought or regard toward the person within the photo; lacking the compassion or understanding to even attempt to see their struggles or feelings or their hopes and dreams.

What makes us human and separates us from the rest of the world is that we have this conscious choice. We can choose to be empathetic, compassionate, and understanding people; or we can choose to ignore this gift we have. Some say it is God given. Some say it is simply an evolution of animal psychology. That does not matter here. Whether it is given to us by God or by Nature, it is being thrown away with little regard for the consequences that we can more than easily see every single time another human being is murdered or beaten or raped by another human being.

We are supposed to be a civil species at either the pinnacle of evolution or made distinctly in God’s image. You choose your belief. I personally believe that we are failing on both counts, and the continued violence and glorification and justification, either active or passive, of it is a perfect and sad illustration of that failure.

 

Siesta Key, My Desk, My Coffee, and Back

It’s been a crazy week, so there has not been much time for writing or even to think of something about which to write. We’re just going to go with a true free writing session and see where the fingers and mind take us.

One great thing that has happened this week is that my wife and I have ironed out our vacation plans. We are going back to where we spent our honeymoon last August. The super cheesy part is that we will be there to celebrate our first anniversary. It was all my idea. I swear.  We will be heading to Siesta Key, a small barrier island right off the coast of Sarasota, Florida. If you have never been, I highly recommend it. The name of the island gives a pretty good idea about what it has to offer. Siestas abound, and if you know me, you know I love siestas. Siestas on the beach, as long as there is an umbrella that will move with the celestial movement of the sun in order to protect my fair skin from the beams of cancer that radiate from it, siestas in the condo, siestas on the lanai, siestas anywhere I can lay my head and feel pure serenity. Needless to say, I am excited.

Also, also! my new writer’s desk arrived this week, and my wife, being the ever so crafty and assembly inclined woman she is, put it together for me while I was at work on Wednesday night. I was pretty stoked about buying it, was stoked when I bought it, and was stoked when it showed up. I am still stoked about it. The surface is four feet by a little over two feet, and is unfinished which I love. For a long time I was a top of the lap or a tv dinner stand laptop user, but now I have a desk and I must say that desks, especially those that offer room, lots of room with no clutter, are the way to go. When I was in college and it was research time, which seemed like all the time, I would stake my claim on the biggest table in the library I could find and go to work finding books, printing journal articles and dissecting them all in marathon, caffeine induced, sessions. And there was room to organize and stack everything in its proper place. Ahhh, I miss those days. Maybe my new desk will allow me to recapture those moments along with a cup of my sublime weekend coffee.

Oh yes!

The weekend!

It is nearly here, and I have no plans. Ahhhhhhh, it’s a wonderful feeling. So when asked what I am doing, the response is likely to be “nothing” or “I don’t know…something,” and That. Is. Fabulous. Maybe I’ll go for a walk. Maybe I’ll hole up with my new desk and write. Maybe I’ll watch a movie. Two things are definite, and two things only. I will have coffee from my French press, and I will be practicing making the perfect cappuccino with my espresso maker. Oh yeah! My espresso maker! I now have my own area of the kitchen that is solely mine. Mine! It does not have a name yet, but it is the little countertop by the sink that has my weekday automatic coffee maker, my French press, and my espresso maker on it.

You could say that I am an addict. Actually, you should probably say that. I am an addict.  When I went back to school in my late twenties, I discovered the indispensible value of coffee. Coffee to wake me in the morning. Coffee to get me to lunch time. Coffee to perk me up in the afternoon. Coffee to accompany through the evening hours studying or writing papers or doing research. And coffee to push me through the deep, dark hours of night to meet assignment deadlines. I embraced it. I came to love it, and still do. Although, now I try to keep my coffee intake between the hours when I wake up until lunch time. After lunch, no more coffee, and that is okay. As I have matured in my coffee love, I have come to know good coffee, and life just keeps getting better. My wife’s sister sent us some coffee from Italy, Lavazza Crema e Gusto, at Christmas time. Not long after, we bought a French press, and coffee heaven has been in our midsts since on the weekends because good coffee takes time and time in abundance is something I do not possess in the morning during the work week.

Needless to say, our French press and our Lavazza will be making the trip with us to Siesta Key, along with my immersion blender to foam my milk. Heaven in a cup in our siesta filled heaven that is to come. Life is good. If only I could take my desk…

My wife will likely have something to say about that, and speaking of my wife and remembering that she is the boss, I have yet to ask her what the plans are for the weekend. I’m hoping she feels about it the same way I do.

Elastic House

So, a couple of weeks ago I found House on Netflix.  This is probably one of my favorite TV shows for several reasons.  One of which is the depth of the main character, House.

I won’t go through a detailed biography of the character.  If you know the program, then you know the character.  If you don’t, I invite you to watch an episode or two, perhaps three or four, to get an idea of him.

I was driving home from work a couple of days ago and I had a thought.  What if there was more to the show?  Let me give you this much.  Each episode begins with someone getting sick or getting into an accident of some kind.  Then House and his department take the medical case and discern what it is that is wrong with the patient.  Typically, it ends up being something completely outlandish – something that no one would ever consider.

This begs the question, how do they come up with their diagnoses? They use a lot of conversation among one another, conversation with the patient, and conversation with the patient’s loved one or ones.  With each conversation usually comes some kind of medical test or exam.  Only a handful of times does the cost of those texts or exams come up.

And there is the genesis of my thought…

I could give you an exhaustive list of tests, scans, and exams that the characters use to find their diagnosis and save the day, but I won’t.  You rarely see the patients or their families after the fact, but one can imagine the mountain of medical bills that have been issued.  There is little talk of insurance coverage beyond the doctors’ (mainly House’s) malpractice insurance.  Yet, it cannot be denied that huge costs are incurred with every decision the patients or the doctors make.

It reminded me of a time some years ago…

My ex’s dog got pretty sick. I was at home with our dogs and she was at school, and her dog, Misti, began pooping blood.  Needless to say, I completely freaked out. I called her, left a message.  Called my dad to get in touch with his sister (a veterinarian) to get her to call me.  After I talked with my aunt, my ex called and told me to hurry to campus and pick her up. She got an appointment with a vet in town.

Once we got to the vet’s office, the attendant at the desk asked us if there was a limit to the treatment we could afford.  My ex, without hesitation, said, “there isn’t any.”

And there, there, is the point.  I read something once, and it has never left me.  Essentially, what it said was that the founding fathers of our country, knowing that the cost of national defense is infinitely elastic because security is paramount to establishing a stable society, socialized it.  At the same time, the medical care of those whom we love, or ourselves, is quite the same.  How many of us have ever told a doctor not to perform a test on ourselves or a loved one because the test will be too expensive, especially if one is really, really sick?  Personally, I don’t know anyone that has ever done so.

Back to House… I believe that one of the underlying purposes of the show is to illustrate that point.  People will pay whatever they need to pay in order to ensure that a doctor, or doctors, can find the cause of an ailment.  They will consent to the test.  Occasionally on the show, there is a lack of consent.  Not because of money, but because the treatment or test is perceived as too dangerous. They will knowingly consent to the debt without question, and why wouldn’t they?  People want to be well.  They want to live as long as possible, and they want their loved ones to do exactly the same, regardless of the possibility that the debt incurred will live long after they are gone.

If I’m wrong, I’m wrong, but I don’t think that I am.  This is something that I will probably continue to mull over in my mind.