Life Lessons 1-10

I was at a doctor’s appointment the other day, and I filled out all the forms, writing my age as “31.” Then a few hours later, I said, “Wait a minute,” remembered the year of my birth, did some counting on my fingers, and realized I’m 32. I’ve reached the age where I can no longer remember how old I am.

Since I plan on living till I’m 96, I’m really only a third of the way through life, but I have learned a few lessons along the way, so I’ve decided to write one of those “I’m old, so I can give advice about life” lists. Here it is, in no particular order:

1.) Stop trying to gain self-worth from other people’s opinions of you. Promiscuity, perfectionism, and people-pleasing are just different paths that begin at a very desperate place of insecurity and unworthiness, and lead to a place of a whole lot more insecurity and unworthiness. It becomes easier to get off of those paths when you realize that you are already more loved than you can imagine.

2.) Commit yourself to God. You’re never going to solve all the mysteries of the universe, or maintain a constant feeling of joy and peace. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t explore and accept the tenants of your faith. There is nothing irrational or inauthentic about committing to something bigger than yourself simply because you can’t always feel it, or understand all aspects of it. If you could, it wouldn’t be bigger than you.

3.) Cut back on the drinking. We all struggle with moderation at times. Unfortunately, if you drink heavily enough, often enough, your regular self will start looking more and more like your drunk self, until eventually you become a stranger. When we are drunk, we numb our real feelings. We trade authentic connection and our powers of reasoning for sloppy, artificial sentiments and unnecessary confusion. We trade our treasures for trash.

4.) Don’t do drugs. See above.

5.) Feel your feelings. We don’t like to feel things like disappointment, guilt or anger, but feelings tell us important things. Guilt tells us when we need to change certain behaviors. Anger or fear tells us when we need to protect ourselves from further hurt or turn down our stress levels. Sadness tells us we have lost something we loved, and we need some time to grieve. I’ve done crazy things to ignore reality, and not feel my feelings. It has never led anywhere good, so I’m learning to walk through those valleys, knowing that eventually those things that feel unbearable now, will become bearable, and then become merely uncomfortable, and eventually they will become wisdom.

6.) Understand that love is not a feeling. Falling in love is easy. All it takes is some romantic music, a sexy outfit, and plenty of alcohol – just watch The Bachelor sometime. But actually loving someone is hard. It’s hard when there are little ones running around, and jobs, and so much to do, and it’s hard when someone acts unlovaScreenshot_2016-04-07-13-29-13ble, as we all do from time to time. And it doesn’t always feel worth it, either, despite all our platitudes. But then again, actual love isn’t a feeling, is it? It is actions and service and sacrifices and forgiveness and choices. And sometimes it is in those painstaking, daily decisions to act in love (even when you don’t feel like it) that feelings of love are rekindled.

7.) Practice forgiveness. It’s easier to forgive than to hold on to bitterness, which is incredibly painful. Not forgiving is a way of holding on, of keeping the hurt close, and forgiving is letting go, so that it no longer occupies your mind and your heart. It doesn’t mean that you have to forget, or that your relationship with the person who hurt you has to stay the same. It does mean you have to understand that you are also forgiven.

8.) Savor the moment. Even though we hear it all the time, it’s hard to accept that we can’t change the past, and that the future holds no guarantees. But once we accept that, it’s easier to enjoy the moment. And that sunset won’t last forever. You won’t always be able to enjoy a cup of tea with your grandparents. And some day that child will not want to sleep with his arms in a vice grip around your neck and his face smashed against your ear, so you might as well enjoy it now.

9.) Understand that everything is not going to be OK. People get sick, and they don’t get better. People do their very best and still don’t obtain the desires of their heart. People hurt each other in profound ways. People give up. Sometimes life is far more painful than we expected, and at some point, we will all face deep disappointment.

10.) But then again, everything is going to be OK. We see such a tiny fraction of space, and hear just a millisecond of the story. Human beings are tremendously resilient, especially when they harbor a belief that there is always a reason for hope, and I don’t think that is a coincidence. While I will never fully understand the complex interaction between free-will and divine providence, I believe that God can take our biggest hurt, our greatest failures and even our most asinine decisions and still make something beautiful. And if we look for it, sometimes we are fortunate enough to see it.

 

Clinging to a Mustard Seed

The night is hurtling towards the early morning hours but I lie awake with my mind spinning. A sleepless night with no distractions is my enemy. I push away memories like ping pong balls in my head, only to have them return, jolting, distorted, as soon as my body begins to relax.

And so I seek desperately for a solution to an unsolvable problem. My heart aches and my mind turns round and round for a resolution, an answer, relief, but there is none. Time (and work) heals all wounds, but I am impatient. I am tired of feeling.

My husband touches my elbow. I am pulled back, as if from outer space, to the present moment. To a half-asleep caress. To a bed, with soft pillows and warm blankets. We have so much. Our home is quiet and at peace in this moment. For now, the past is blown away in the sound of a stormy wind. I am sheltered in a warm home.

As the wind picks up, a whimper from the little one’s room turns to a wail. After a moment, I go to her. She settles immediately, like she just missed me. We rock a little while in our hand-me-down rocking chair. The stuffed and faded arms are scratchy, and it squeaks softly with each rock.

Soon her weight is limp in my arms, her fat, velvety cheek squished against my chest. I rock slower, then I stop rocking.

Be still and know that I am God.

She smells like milk and cookies, and feels as warm as toast. I breath in the moment. Then I lay her down in her crib and go back to bed. And there they are, still – all my worries. There on the bed, waiting for me, in a heap. Kids, marriage, job, money, home, parents, health, the state of the world, the state of myself.

Is everything going to be OK?

Some questions have no answers. The wind rattles the windows. I can see the tree branches shaking against the hazy moon. The ground will be littered with them in the morning, if they’re not strong enough.

Be still, be still, be still…5bdb5539-b0c8-4bd3-9971-67820b30e383

All things work together for good.

In this moment, the words are lost in translation. They do not make the journey from my head to my heart. But they are true, nonetheless. So I wait. I endure.

I focus on five things I can see, four things I can feel, three things I can hear, two things I can smell, one thing I can taste. I ground myself in the night. I count my breaths. I say another prayer. The same prayers, again and again. Then I listen. I remind myself that the silence does not mean that I am alone. The wind dies down. And before the sun rises, I sleep.

Want to see other stories of faith in the dark or add your own?  Click on the link.

Night-Driving-Synchroblog (1)

 

Self Care and the Christian Life

I grew up attending a conservative Christian school. Our skirts needed to be no more than 4 inches above the knee, and we had devotions every day and chapel once a week. I learned many of the foundational truths of my life in that school. But I may have misinterpreted some of the Biblical principals that were presented to me as a child, because my thinking remained too simple.

For example, I distinctly remember a picture that hung in the hallway. It looked something like this:

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This represented a concept that somehow crept in and took hold of me – the idea that I ought to always put my own needs last, and that if I could consistently put myself last, or think of myself as less valuable than others, I could earn joy. This is misguided on several levels, and it sets an impossible standard and also an unhealthy one. The first and greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and the second is to love your neighbor as yourself. The idea that we are to love ourselves is assumed.

As an adult who works in mental health education, I have frequently spoken about the importance of self-care. But deep down, I didn’t really believe it. I thought it was selfish. Or that it was hippy-dippy psycho-babble.

I must have read my son the Jesus Storybook Bible five times before I noticed the simple phrase “they were lovely because God loved them.” This is in the beginning of the book, referring to when God pronounces his creation “Good.” And as it turns out, we too, are lovely because God loves us. I am immeasurably valuable because I am a beloved child of God. I am fearfully and wonderfully made. I am a temple.

My worth does not depend on how attractive I am, how much money I make, how well my children behave, how people treat me, how clean my house is, how busy I am, or even how much I give of myself. I am complete in Christ. I do not need recognition or applause to be important. I do not need a conflict-free life to be at peace, or a sorrow-free life to have joy. My identity rests in God and therein lies my fulfillment. And if I am this beloved, complete being in God, shouldn’t I care for myself?

This is not to say we should always put ourselves first. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be humble or acknowledge that we are flawed, and work to improve ourselves. But gaining humility doesn’t mean losing love and respect for oneself, and acknowledging sin doesn’t mean living in constant guilt and self-loathing – in fact it allows us to live in joy knowing that we are valuable enough that God suffered to offer us grace for sin. If we are that valuable to God, shouldn’t we treat ourselves as such?

So I’m here to tell you that I’m going to eat, sleep and exercise. I’m going to rest sometimes. I’m going to maintain healthy boundaries, even when that means saying no, or saying goodbye. I’m going to choose an apple instead of bacon… maybe. On a good day. And I’m going to love you, and love myself too, because we are both flawed, but we are both God’s beloved creation. And even if you think that the idea of self-care is hippy dippy psycho babble, I’m here to tell that it’s also sound Biblical truth.

 

Some Photos

Since my brother died in 2011, I have taken my kids to see his stone each spring, and posted pictures.

 

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It is a peaceful and lovely place for them to run around. I hope to foster an environment where we feel comfortable talking about life, death and life after death; and about health, mental health and mental illness.

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It is a time for reflection, and a time to remember Jesse’s life. I like to imagine that he is looking down on us, imagine the jokes he would make and the way he would play with the kids.

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Of course, I don’t know if he really sees us. I believe he is with God, and I don’t know why he would choose to turn away from paradise for a moment to look down at this broken place. But in my heart, I hope he does, because he would just love them.

 

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Even though I know he is in a better place, I wish he had gotten to experience the joy that the kids bring to our family. My children have brought me more joy than I could have imagined, and taught me a great deal about being a child of God.

 

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So I wanted to share their photos on my little blog, and say once again that we love and miss Jesse, today on the anniversary of his death, and always.  And to remember, simply, that life can be tragically painful, but can also be profoundly joyful. There is hope for each one of us.

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May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. Romans 15:13

How To Organize Your Life in 3.5 Years

In 2011, I started going through a book called One Year to an Organized Life. I got through it earlier this year (yes, I realize it’s 2015), and here are some lessons I’ve learned along the way:

1.) If y20150506_205843ou want to have an organized life in one year, do not have kids that year. Kids are cute little balls of chaos that bounce into every nook and cranny of your life.

2.) Spend time planning. Even if you feel like you don’t have time – make time. I’m super nerdy, so I enjoy planning. But even if I didn’t enjoy it, I would do it anyway. If I didn’t, my life would feel even more chaotic than it does now, and that’s hard to imagine. I know you may think that it’s a little sad that I spend my Friday nights planning, but my husband is at work, so what could be better than hanging out with a glass of wine and multiple calendars? I plan everything from my wardrobe, to my schedule for cleaning the house, to my weekly menu.

Danny Trejo
Me, when I didn’t do my weekly meal planning

3.) The food planning is the most time-consuming but also the most important. When I plan a good weekly menu, I spend less money, eat better, enjoy eating more and don’t do silly things like skip a meal because I don’t feel like going out and don’t have food in the house (and then get really grouchy and mean, and turn into Danny Trejo until I have a snickers bar.) Planning creates a force of it’s own. Even if I don’t feel like preparing a meal that day, if I bought the ingredients and typed it on my calendar, I will likely do it and feel good about that decision afterwards.

4.) Put things in containers, especially if you have kids. You can throw things in without much effort, and they can too, and afterwards you feel orderly. Have one for books, one for blocks, one for blankets, etc. Your kids will figure out where everything goes by the time they’re two. Your spouse, on the other hand, may never figure it out. That’s OK though. They will know that stuff goes in containers, not on the floor. And this may keep you from dragging your body out of bed one morning, tripping on a LEGO, and fracturing some minuscule but essential bone in your foot and not being able to walk for six weeks.

5.) Have a file system. I know you don’t feel like it, because it takes a lot of effort at the beginni ng. But if you don’t have a system for organizing papers, the paper pile may turn into a monster that will peel off your skin and slurp up the puddle that remains. Fear the paper monster. Create the file system.

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6.) Maintain. So you organized your kitchen, and cleaned out everything from the fridge and counters to the insides of your cupboards. Then, roughly two weeks later, it looks like the paper monster sucked up all the food and dishes in the room and spewed them out all over the floor, sink and counters. I’m still working on this one. But when I do get something done, I try to put it on the schedule to do again in a reasonable amount of time, to avoid this problem. It’s usually much easier to maintain order than to completely do-over.

7.) Just make a decision. I don’t know how you become more decisive, but I do know that a more decisive life is a more organized life. That party invitation when you already have 3 other things going on? Just say no. That project you wanted to work on for the last 3 months? Break it down into small steps, put each step on your calendar, or decide it’s not worth doing and get it off your to-do list. That ugly chair your Aunt Mildred dropped off on your doorste20150506_211423p? Give it to Goodwill. Which brings me to my next point…

8.) Get rid of stuff. I like to keep a lot of things. But if it’s more than a few large plastic tubs in the basement, I get rid of it. I have had lots of clutter in my life, mainly because I didn’t feel like making decisions about what to do with it. Now it is either in said plastic tubs, at Goodwill, or re-purposed and useful.

9.) Simplify your schedule and your goals. I struggle with having too many goals at the same time, and packing too many things into a day. If you want to actually keep up, prioritize what you need to do and let the rest go. The book suggests doing things like putting your clothes in color coded order in your closet and buying all matching hangers. This is supposed to help keep your mind zen. For me, this feels like an unnecessary complication. I’d rather just shut my closet door, and keep things simple (a.k.a. off the floor of my bedroom).

10.) Accept imperfection. The reality is sometimes plans fail, life gets messy, we get sick and/or tired, and sometimes we get behind for no very clear reason at all.  It’s important to give yourself grace and learn to live with a little bit of chaos. Not everything is in our control, and the sooner we accept that, the sooner we can enjoy doing what we want with the things we can control.

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I’m clearly awesome at accepting imperfection

 

A Response to the Ten Non-Commandments of Atheism

In my last post, I introduced this response to the 10 non-commandments of Atheism that some dudes compiled. I don’t believe these dudes or this list is representative of all atheists any more than I believe the Tea Party is representative of all Christians. But, this list does represent a fairly common set of beliefs for our culture, which we often accept without questioning. I have encountered the larger ideas and attitudes behind these beliefs at various points in my life, and I’d like to respond to them now.

So without further ado, the ten non-commandments:

  1. Be open-minded and be willing to alter your beliefs with new evidence.

The implication here is that if religious people would only stop being so close-minded, and really consider the evidence, they would alter their beliefs.  And probably the most commonly noted example of this would be a little thing called EVOLUTION.

moses and then ten commandments
The real question is:
Charles Darwin
Who has the superior beard?

More on science in number 3, but I do want to mention first of all that if we have historically believed that the God of the universe could simply speak everything into being from nothing (think big-bang), why could God not also use an evolutionary process to accomplish creation? I’m certainly no expert in whether the creation account in Genesis should be read as six literal days or as six long ages, but I see no reason that science should not help us better understand God.

But I also think we could stand to use a little caution in our estimation of what we learn through science because, after all, the scientific method is a self-correcting process, and what it tells us is “most likely to be true” sometimes changes. In other words, while evidence matters, there is no need to elevate the scientific method above all other ways of understanding the world, and it doesn’t always get it right.

Just take the example of cholesterol. Remember how eating foods high in cholesterol was the worst thing ever for most of your life and then, about 5 seconds ago, science decided it’s actually fine? Thanks a lot, science, you filthy liar, for making me feel terrible about my love for bacon and eggs.

However, bacon is still not good for you. Sorry, Dad.

Anyway, for the theist, the evidence for God is everywhere. It is the astoundingly beautiful and intricate order of the natural world, the profound depth of feeling and desire for meaning and connection that we experience as human beings, our innate understanding of morality and sense of justice, our insatiable and powerful desire to know and be known. For many of us, it is not that we are closing our minds to the idea that we could be wrong, but that the evidence for the existence of God is too overwhelming for us to deny.

  1. Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what you wish to be true.

I agree with this statement in that we should have the integrity to believe what we think is most likely to be true, not simply cling to something irrational that satisfies our needs. I disagree with the larger implication that this is what religious people do.

In my last post, I wrote a little bit about my own experiences with trying to live apart from religion, and how I became quite adrift and depressed. I described my return to religion as a return to peace and life. Does that mean my religion is a crutch? Maybe so. But does the idea that we might need a crutch mean that we invented religion to meet our needs? Or could it mean that we were invented with the need to connect with something greater than ourselves?

  1. The scientific method is the most reliable way of understanding the natural world.

Can you prove that statement is true by using the scientific method? No?! Then why would you believe it to be true, you silly silly person.

It’s not that I don’t think science is important. The scientific method has been an invaluable tool for understanding the world and making it a much better place. It’s just that when we regard the scientific method as the only reliable way of establishing truth, we forget that there are some things that science simply cannot tell us, and that these things are at least as important as the things it can tell us. We place too much faith in what ought to be a tool for understanding the world, not a process by which we define our existence.

I realize I made a leap from “most reliable way of understanding the natural world” to “only reliable way of establishing truth,” but well, I think that is what we have done as a culture. Because things like morals, values, good and evil are not scientifically “provable,” they have been relegated to the realm of imagination. But are things that can be established scientifically, like the dietary guidelines for cholesterol for example, really more reliable than things that are outside the realm of science, such as the moral judgement that slavery is wrong?

  1. Every person has the right to control of their body.

If we consider the natural world, we see quite a lot of violence. If it is wrong to control someone else’s body, it is certainly not because this is a law found largely in nature. It is a law which depends upon our understanding of the value of being a human being. I’m not sure how dependable such a suggestion is in a world where we are all just slated for death anyway. Of course I believe that persons have the right to control their bodies, but I think that this is a God-given right.

  1. God is not necessary to be a good person or to live a full and meaningful life.

This depends on who defines “good.” If God does not exist, and we define what is good ourselves, then yes, of course we can live a good life (according to ourselves.) If we decide that without the existence of God, certain attributes and actions that could be defined as “good” in absolute terms still exist (kindness, compassion and integrity, for example), then yes, an atheist could certainly display such attributes and perform such actions (and they often do.) But to acknowledge the existence of “good,” I think we might have to throw out non-commandment number 9.

6.   Be mindful of the consequences of all your actions and recognize that you must take responsibility for them.

Unless you don’t get caught. Then you actually don’t have to take responsibility. Because you’re just going to die like everyone else, regardless of your actions. Sure, it might feel good to do the right thing. But sometimes? It feels really good to do the wrong thing. And it’s super easy to talk yourself into feeling OK about doing something that’s really not OK. I’ve done it, and you probably have too. Responsibility Shmeshmonsibility.

7. Treat others as you would want them to treat you, and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated. Think about their perspective.

Good advice.  So good, it may have been recognized 2000 years before this current enlightened age, when Jesus Christ said the following: “And the second (of God’s two greatest commandments) is like it: love your neighbor as yourself.”

8. We have the responsibility to consider others, including future generations.

If all there is, is now, why am I responsible to consider anyone else? The lives of future generations will be as fleeting as mine. See number 6. Responsibility Schmeshmonsibility.

9. There is no one right way to live.

If that is the case, why would I abide by any of these commandments? You are writing commandments that you think are right, but you don’t think that right exists! Come on, people!!

Saying there is “no one right way to live,” suggests that there are many right ways to live – at least I think that is the intention. This is true in the sense that some people may like gospel music while some people prefer classical. Some people enjoy a soak in the tub, and some people prefer a shower. Some people like to eat sushi and some people like to eat chimichangas, and all of those are OK. Especially because eating cholesterol is FINE.

But  could there be, “one right way to live,” if you are talking about morality? Could it be that there are certain beliefs that prescribe certain actions, and that are true? For example, if we believe that across time and place it is true that people have inherent value as people, should we then take certain actions, such as treating them as we would want to be treated? Isn’t that the right way of living? And isn’t it non commandment number 7?!?

I think that this item is indicative of a broader societal attitude that we can all be right, except the people who don’t think we can all be right – those people are wrong. See how that works? It is a pleasant idea that completely contradicts itself.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t respect the beliefs of people with whom we disagree. But I also think that in the name of pluralism we have decided it’s somehow inappropriate, or even wrong, to publicly acknowledge and debate our opinions about things like religion and morality, and that instead of engaging in respectful dialogue we should just accept that “we’re all right, in our own way” (except for those who disagree with this tenant.)

  1. Leave the world a better place than you found it.

See number 8. There’s a lot more to say, but I’m going to stop because this is a blog, not a book. And also because when I ponder existential questions for any length of time:

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This is how I feel

A Pre-Ramble to my Response to the Ten Non-Commandments of Atheism

As I was poking around the world of internet news a while ago, I discovered an article about some dudes who wrote a book about what to do once you decide you’re an atheist, and then created a contest for people to send in what the ten commandments, or “10 non-commandments” as they call them, should be for those who choose to live without religion. They got quite a few submissions.

“A lot of atheists’ books are about whether to believe in God or not,” one of the dudes says. “We wanted to consider: OK, so you don’t believe in God, what’s next? And that’s actually a much harder question.”

I agree with the author here. If one doesn’t believe in a power beyond the natural, physical world, it can be hard to construct meaning. If everyone is headed for death and oblivion, what really matters? Why labor for success, fight for justice, or help other people if we are all just a tiny, accidental blip in the vast expanse of time?

The answer that I have heard that most resonates with me is “because we want to.” If nothing really means anything, we can invent our own meaning as we see fit. So we construct our own concept of what is good, and seek after it.

But is that enough? What about when we aren’t successful? What about when it’s really hard to fight for our fabricated idea of good, especially when we are faced with the understanding that nature doesn’t agree with our idea of good (the strong prey upon the weak, after all – violence is rampant) and that we are nothing more than a part of nature? How do we then motivate ourselves to labor on behalf of other people? What about when we face a chronic illness or become depressed? What about when our idea of good begins to look more like what is most convenient for us? When I look inward, at myself, or outward, at society, I am not convinced that we don’t need something more to make life meaningful and good than our own desire.

But that is simply my reaction. There is plenty of substance out there for anyone looking for scientific, historical, or philosophical debate on the topic of theism, some of which I have read but on none of which I am an expert. I am only an expert of my own experience, a bit of which I’d like to share now.

I grew up in a Christian home with a clear belief in God and the Bible. But like countless other young people, I began to come across what I viewed as contradictions and things that made me uncomfortable with religion as a teenager. This happened gradually but at some point I decided I no longer wanted to be a Christian.

who am i

This worked out well for a while, but as I became more nihilistic, I became more depressed. I surrounded myself with secularism and stopped seeking answers to my questions about Christianity. I struggled with feelings of worthlessness, because if life is meaningless, why should anyone have any worth?

I want to quickly interject here that I do not view depression as simply a spiritual problem. Research has clearly shown that it is a medical problem for which medical treatment is effective, with a variety of complex causes, and it can happen to the religious and non-religious alike. But I do believe that there are times when our spiritual state can affect our mental health, and this period of my life was one of those times.

I began to see myself (and everyone else) as a collection of chemical and environmental responses, and as such felt that I had very little control or responsibility for my actions. Predictably, I made selfish, irresponsible, and hurtful decisions, and ultimately become rather apathetic about what happened to me.

By the grace of God, I came back from that period of my life to a much deeper understanding of what I believe to be true about God and Jesus and life, and why. I never had a breathtaking conversion or re-commitment experience, but instead encountered a gradual pulling, a s20150403_211804tep-by-step letting go that was quite painful at times and ultimately freeing and life-giving. That doesn’t mean I never feel depressed or have questions about my faith now, but it is different. Underneath the challenges, like the proverbial river, runs peace.

People have many very different experiences that inform their beliefs, and I am interested not only in sharing mine, but in hearing about how others see meaning in their lives. So if this is a topic of interest for you or you’d like to share your views, drop me a comment, write me an email (MercyInTheMadness@gmail.com), give me a call, knock on my door, throw rocks at my window, etc. Except don’t really throw rocks at my window – my husband might try to come at you with a baseball bat.

Anyway. My next post will be a quick response to each of the 10 non-commandments. I’m writing this not because I have any interest in attacking atheism, but because I am interested in questioning the validity of some of our very prevalent cultural ideas that I think inform the 10 non-commandments. You may like it, you may hate it, or you may think I need to get a life, but in any case, I’ve tried to write thoughtfully and I hope you’ll take a look. As always, thanks for reading.