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the danger in undefined love

Readers of this blog will remember my friend Emily Timbol, who wrote a wonderful post for us earlier this year.  Emily is a passionate author who always has sharp, incisive things to say, someone who consistently communicates her message in an empathetic, pleasant-to-read way.  I’m excited for her to share some thoughts here on a subject we all could stand to think more about.

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I recently participated in a rather lively Facebook discussion on this NY Times video, titled “An Imperfect Beginning.” In it you meet a couple, Vince and Rebekah, who talk about how their “love” has overcome baggage and obstacles – mainly the obstacle of Vince’s wife, who he left to be with Rebekah. In the video Rebekah says, “Love is one of those things where it doesn’t always happen the way you think it’s going to happen.”

Sure, she has a point there. But “love” is not something that leads you to break up another person’s marriage. Lust, selfishness, fear, or infatuation, maybe. But love? No. Love is not merely a feeling, a “spark” that draws us to another person. That is attraction, and sex. If you truly loved someone and they were married to another person, you’d leave them alone. Love is not about what you want – it’s about putting another person’s needs and wants above your own, and caring about them more than you care about yourself. Just because you badly want to be with someone doesn’t mean it’s love that drives you to break up their marriage and leave their three kids in a fractured home. Love doesn’t do that. Selfishness and lust does. Love would be walking away. Or, at the very least, waiting and seeing if that person is truly unhappy, unloved, or miserable enough on their own to end a marriage, without you being a catalyst for its dissolution.

I don’t really blame Rebekah and Vince though, for thinking that what brought them together was “love.” We, as a society, have a truly warped idea of what love really is. We often confuse it with the heady emotions that go with a new relationship, or the magnetic pull that causes us to want to spend every waking moment with another person who seems impossibly perfect (or at least perfect for us.) But while those feelings and emotions can certainly lead us into love, they are not what love is in itself.

What separates love from like, or lust, is not just a commitment, but a removal of self. When you like someone it can be because of how they make you feel, and when you lust after someone, well, that’s all about feelings. But when you love someone – truly love them – you care more about them than yourself and your feelings. You choose to do things that might be better for them than yourself, because you care about their well-being more than or as much as your own. Loving someone means being committed to another person’s wants, needs, and emotions, often times at the sacrifice of your own. People rarely want or need the same thing at the same time.

The only way love really works then, is when two people in a relationship are both doing this, for each other. When a marriage or relationship is healthy, it’s not just a sacrificial commitment devoid of feelings or emotions, but one that is filled with the feelings that go with love, because the love has created the kind of foundation required to allow those feelings to grow. To use a Biblical example, it’s like the parable of the seeds. If you don’t have the rich soil of mutual commitment and selflessness for love to grow, than any emotional seeds of attraction, friendship, or “love” will be choked out and eventually die.

It’s not just romantic love though, that people tend to get confused about. Especially when the people we’re talking about are Christians (of which I am one.) One of the concepts I see most abused and misused in the church today is the one of “love.” Specifically, “loving your neighbors” or “loving your enemies.”

the food of love

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a Christian say that they are doing something because it’s “the most loving thing to do.” However, as I’ve often been the one either on the receiving end of that “love”, or supporting the person who it was directed to, I can say that love is usually the last thing being felt. Rejection, shame, anger, and pain are the result instead. But the person doling out this “love” truly believes in their heart that they care for the person, and feels no malice towards them.

Which raises the question – if the person on the other end of your “love” feels hated, is what you’re doing truly loving?

As Christians, it’s not hard for us to find a Biblical definition of love. It’s right there in 1 Corinthians 13, spelled out for us in easy-to-understand terms. But it can be hard to look at instructions on being patient, kind, and keeping no record of wrongs, and applying that to how you should treat someone to whom you’re trying to give “tough” love.

That’s the main problem Christians face when we conflate love – agape love, with our own feelings – we center more on our feelings about what is best for this person, than about what this person needs from us. Even if you insist that it’s not your personal feelings you’re operating from, but what the Bible says, if you’re making someone recoil in hurt and shame, you’re not loving as Jesus taught us to love.

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Emily Timbol is a blogger and author who writes faith, life and humor related essays. Her work can be found on theHuffington PostThe Burnside Writers CollectiveRed Letter Christians, Christianity Today’s Her.Meneutics, and RELEVANT magazine online. Her first book, Two Words: Why Hearing “I’m Gay” Changed My Straight, Christian Life is available now on Kindle, and paperback. You can find links to all her published works on her blog and on her Twitter, @EmilyTimbol.

#faithfeminisms

It’s been so encouraging to see the organic, multifaceted conversation that’s sprung up this past week under the #faithfeminisms campaign.  One of my friends pointed me to the movement earlier this week, asking members of our collective if we would be willing to contribute to the synchroblog.  Although I’m far from the first person to ask about issues related to the intersectional feminism happening among grassroots communities of faith, at the good reverend Kim-Kort’s behest I thought I’d offer some thoughts here.

I grew up in a conservative evangelical megachurch, the kind where I regularly saw pictures of road trips my pastor took with his buddy Mark Driscoll.  This atmosphere introduced me at an early age to the conveniently misogynistic theological framework with which contemporary evangelical culture seems to have become obsessed, beliefs that implicitly blame women for real or imagined sin and explicitly exclude them from visible leadership positions in the home and the church.

As long as I have been a Christian – from those early Sundays all the way to recent experiences within college campus ministries – I’ve watched as smooth-talking Christian men twisted inspired biblical imagery and testimony (the story of Adam and Eve, the legacy of Junia the apostle, St. Paul’s beautiful metaphor in Ephesians 5) to demand that the female members of their faith communities lie spiritually prostrate and acquiesce, remaining silent and subordinate to their husbands (as slaves are to their masters).

It’s naturally quite the disturbing, marginalizing system, and it’s also one I shamelessly participated in and proudly prolonged for many years.  What I wish someone had told me then is that holding these beliefs about women serves a cause very nearly opposite to that of Christ (which, remember, at its core insists that all humans are created and valued equally – ontologically and practically – in the image of the very same God).  When I eventually decided, like many of you, that I couldn’t continue to hold to these unscriptural, 1960s-era gender roles and baptize them as God’s Timeless Decree™ for human flourishing, I thought I’d solved everything.

Because, how nice of me – I changed my beliefs, changed my theology, consciously chose to stop affirming statements that overtly placed men above women, and now things were going to be all better.  You’re welcome.

thanks, men

thanks, men!

But what I had forgotten is that the Christian way of life was never just a matter of believing the right things.  Jesus could have given us anything for the Golden Rule, but instead of declaring it “believe the correct abstract doctrinal statements about one other,” he insisted that the most important thing was to “treat others as you want to be treated.”  In other words, lip service and public contrition don’t earn you much in our religion.  Having mountains of knowledge or experiencing wild, musical changes of heart without practically working out these miracles in fear and trembling is completely worthless.  (Yes, the Apostle, our Lord, and the gospels all testify that faith without works is – as my grandfather likes to say – dead, dead, never get up dead.)

In other words, for followers of Jesus, connecting with God through the practice of religion and actively standing with the most vulnerable are not somehow separate issues.  They’re not even “two sides of the same coin.”  They are the coin.  They are two equally essential wholes that make up One greater whole, values mutually engaged in a wonderful, creative dance of love.

Simply, it’s dangerous to divorce right action from right belief.

But that’s exactly what I had done.

Because although verbally confessing belief in the spiritual equality of women and men was an important step, taking this stance didn’t suddenly absolve me of all sin.  It was the beginning of a journey, not the destination.

Honestly, I’ve harmed women in countless, juvenile ways for all my life – more brazenly and vocally before I became an “egalitarian,” and certainly in more pernicious and subtle ways after.  I have let my reckless personality, and my gendered expectations for how a woman “should” behave, unjustly dominate conversations and relationships.  I’ve bro-ed out.  I have abused humor and made jokes that contributed to the very systems of oppression we Christians are called to dismantle.  I have unconsciously shamed women for their presence, for their voices, for the galling crime of possessing self-determination.

Although participating in such individual acts of silencing and oppression clearly constitutes sexism, it’s far from the extent of it.  There are, as the Apostle says, powers and principalities at play here – as a male, I’m naturally an agent deeply complicit in institutionalized systems of oppression that perform violence against women (and specifically against women of color) on a large scale.  This means that having the right superficial beliefs about women, and the best intentions, they don’t help anybody.  I have to not only admit my guilt, my ignorance, but then actually do something about it.

 

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Today in class, our students heard from an instructor who assured us that, actually, even though she’s white, she knows “what it’s like to be a minority” because she has a quaint accent and is from a very small town.  This upset many of my residents because no, a white person does not (nor will ever) know what it means to be a person of color.  It is unfair to presume otherwise.

In a similar way, men, we really just need to get out of the way here.  We don’t have the answers because we don’t know the problem as women do.  So we needn’t self-aggrandize our own voices and opinions, shoving them into a conversation that’s already burgeoning.  Women are already speaking.  And start listening.  Let’s look to those who might have something to teach us.

I can’t perfectly predict what challenges these convictions will bring to our children, who will continue to march forward in this journey of justice.  But I can make a few guesses: I expect that as fundamentalist faith communities continue to wither externally and pack their fewer remaining members tighter and tighter into whitewashed tombs, they will become the moral minority.  Subsequently, their positions, such as their commitment to the explicit subordination of women, will become increasingly unpopular.  And much like what’s happened with issues of race in this country, I expect societal and cultural bias to become less de jure and more de facto as there will inevitably emerge much more layered, insidious ways of inflicting harm against women – especially by those of us who claim the label of “ally.”

I’ve seen this happen recently in several Internet conversations that have taken place in “safe,” “third way” Christian spaces.  There seems to be this expectation operating among men in egalitarian circles that being a “progressive” Christian (or a “theobrogian,” for that matter) who believes that women should (theoretically) be allowed to preach somehow medically inoculates our gender from both forwarding individual acts of sexism and from participating in systems of misogyny.

But actually, oftentimes the opposite can occur.  To push this analogy of disease, Christian men who continue to unquestioningly center their own voices in espousing gender equality aren’t somehow precluded from sexism – in fact, sometimes engaging in this behavior only means that a nastier, more aggressive strain of the patriarchy virus is at play, a version more resistant to medication, suggestion, and correction by experts than ever before.

This is why it’s important to not do as I did.  When I finally decided to affirm gender equality in the church (yay me?), it sent me spiraling down a warpath against those people, pointing fingers at the awful “complementarians” who oppressed women in the most visible ways.  But I both continued to center my own protests above female voices and refused to actively confront how my own behaviors continued to uphold those same forms of patriarchy.  Again, you can profess belief in all of the right things and still be a complete ass.  (I think I’m quoting Jesus verbatim on that.)  Calling ourselves allies isn’t enough.  We need to follow through.

Because feminism was never about celebrating men; we can only point you to those who have something authentic to offer here.  And as long as “progressive” Christian men continue to act in ways that attempt to inhibit the eschatological vision we are given in verses like Galatians 3:28, we will remain unfaithful to Jesus’ golden rule, that simple and unconscionable command to love others at least as much as we love ourselves.

such is life (a true story of love and war)

In my last post, I shared the story of a young Russian couple who were miraculously reunited after long years apart.  I thought here might be a nice place to share a similar tale, from Kuramitsu/Nakamura family lore: the story of my great uncle Clark, presented to the best of my recollection.

Sadamu “Clark” Nakamura was a college student living in Sacramento, California when he received a notice from the United States government that he had to report for “evacuation.”  In the time that followed, he lost his property, his work towards a college degree, and was illegally incarcerated in a concentration center called Tule Lake.  Not long after, desperate to prove his loyalty to a country that betrayed him, he volunteered to fight in a racially segregated combat unit that served in France, Germany, and Italy.  This unit would later become the most decorated army unit in United States military history.

this is the kind of place my uncle was shipped off to

this is the kind of american wasteland my uncle was incarcerated in

While abroad, my uncle Clark met a beautiful Italian girl.  The two of them fell in love, and he asked her to marry him, but her mother wouldn’t allow it.  However, they still remained close.  After the war ended, Clark moved back to the United States.  Not even knowing if he would have a home to return to in California (he didn’t), he gave her his family’s address in Hakalau, Hawai’i.  Over the next few years, she would write him long letters of love and longing.  However, his Japanese-speaking mother didn’t know what these letters meant, or what they were, and she squirreled them away and never told him a thing.  Clark thought of her often for a while, but eventually got married to someone else, had a family.

Tens of years later, after his mother and his first wife passed, he found these heart wrenching letters in a box in their family home.  Outraged and exhilarated, he set out on this half-cocked search for this special woman, moving towards his goal with reckless hope.

He first wrote a letter to the mayor of the town he originally met this girl in, asking about her family name and any possible news of them.  A few weeks later he got a response from a city official which said that the family moved to another town many, many years ago.  He then wrote to the mayor of that town and, after another tepid waiting period, was subsequently informed that many years ago the girl’s family moved to a little place called, oh, Rome.

Not one to give up, my uncle then wrote to the mayor of the city of Rome, explaining his entire predicament: Japanese American G.I. Stationed in Italy During WWII, Looking for Lost Love.  My family still has a copy of the story that ran on the front page of Rome’s biggest newspaper, which reprinted Clark’s petition in full and asked the public for aid in finding this girl.

Not too long afterwards, my uncle received a letter postmarked from Italy.  He opened the letter with trembling hands.  The son of the woman he had been seeking had seen the letter, and wrote to my uncle in the stead of his mother.  The young man was overjoyed at Clark’s tale, he said, but his mom had actually passed away just a couple of years ago.  She never did get to reconnect.

There’s a phrase that many folks in the Japanese American community use, especially our elders, whenever emotions run high and life becomes difficult.  Shikata ga nai.  Nothing can be done about it.  It cannot be helped.  Though my personal sense of North American individualism (and Arminian self-determination) naturally challenges this deterministic philosophy, this teaching is what has helped many members of our community get through the nastiest curveballs and trauma that life can bring us.

After he finishes telling the story, my uncle always glances downwards with a wistful look: “how she would have liked to hear from me.  How happy she would have been.”  I can’t help but thinking how happy he too, would have been.  How things might have been so different, if only he was able to recapture fate and find this woman again.  This is a pretty amazing, crushing story and people often ask to hear it, so I’ve heard it on several occasions.  Each time my uncle tells it, without fail, the tale is concluded in the same way: Clark closes his eyes and smiles tightly and says only “but such is life.”

breaking up in the Internet age

I recently read the story of a young Russian couple who were torn apart just three days after they were married, when the husband was forcibly shipped off to join the Red Army.  Upon his eventual return home, he found his wife and her family gone, having been forcibly relocated to somewhere in Siberia as enemies of the state.  The couple didn’t see or hear anything from one another until sixty years later, when one day Anna and Boris both just happened to visit their old hometown, where they shared an incredible moment:

From the Telegraph:

“When Anna Kozlov caught sight of the elderly man clambering out of a car in her home village of Borovlyanka in Siberia, she stopped dead in her tracks, convinced her eyes were playing tricks.

There, in front of her, was Boris, the man she had fallen in love with and married 60 years earlier.  The last time she had seen him was three days after their wedding, when she kissed him goodbye and sent him off to rejoin his Red Army unit. “I thought my eyes were playing games with me,” Anna said.  “I saw this familiar looking man approaching me, his eyes gazing at me.  My heart jumped.  I knew it was him.  I was crying with joy.”

Now 80 years old, Boris had returned to visit his parents’ grave.  As he stepped out of the car, he looked up to see Anna standing by her old house, where they had lived for the few days after the wedding.  “I ran up to her and said: ‘My darling, I’ve been waiting for you for so long. My wife, my life…’”

This is an amazing tale.  Reading it makes me break out into the biggest, sappiest smile.

But that was then.  Love stories like these don’t happen anymore.

Over the past quarter century, we’ve seen stunning innovation in the field of how we connect with the world, how we socialize and interact with each other in virtual online communities.  Social media, as these tools have been dubbed, has been used for plenty of things: for self-promotion, for journaling, for organizing, activism, and sharing art, for staying in touch with friends, keeping track of enemies, and meeting new people.

These social trends haven’t left North American culture unaffected.  We now live in an Internet era, one in which split-second decisions can become easily immortalized, prominently displayed for all to see.  (Entire websites exist to this end, documenting inebriated late night texts or other minor scandals.)  However, in my opinion the most interesting way the Internet Age is affecting us is how it has changed the way we relate to each other romantically.

Back then, Boris met Anna in through friends, asked for her address or phone number, then took her out on a date, and the two of them distinctly ended the affair if things did not work out.  But now, Bro is meeting Annie on Tinder, then they “talk” (flirtatiously text on and off for a few weeks), follow each other on Twitter, hook up when convenient, and stay Facebook friends long after the relationship ends.

social media

he’s probably sexting

I don’t think the romance of the past sappy and sweet and things today downright horrible; indeed, meeting someone back then wasn’t perfect, and falling in love today can be really nice too.  But one thing should be clear – short of moving to a desert island, there is no way of going back to how we romantically socialized and loved then.  Technology has ensured that the way we date has been changed forever.

One obvious example of this, something our generation is only now beginning to understand, is that social media has made the process of getting over an ex much, much harder than it was in the past.

Think about it.  Before the Facebook era, if, say, one night you had more than a couple of drinks and suddenly began feeling rather melancholy about your life, becoming dizzy and pained with the silly urge to reconnect with a person you used to love – a person with whom things ended very badly – if this happened to you, you most likely couldn’t do anything about these feelings.  Whenever they arose, as they inevitably did every once in a blue moon, you would just grit your teeth for a few minutes and wait until the thoughts dissipated.

Because the alternative was truly impossible.  Really, you’d have to put such effort into actually hunting down and reconnecting with an old flame.  You might have considered it for a second, but any longer and the entire idea would collapse.  I imagine the whole process would be quite complicated: you’d first have to open up a phonebook, or sort through some old papers, maybe write a letter or two, set aside time to call up ancient acquaintances, spend days or weeks traveling across town or scouring the country in the name of following this natural itch.

It would have been a lot of work.

But let’s assume you finally somehow succeeded in digging deep enough into the past to unearth this ossified relationship, let’s say you’ve even gotten to this point, which, let’s be honest, you haven’t, because the momentary urge to run back to an ex was never enough to sustain all of this effort.

But sure, let’s just say that yes, you’ve finally gotten here.

You show up on this person’s doorstep.

And you have no idea what to expect.

They could be married.

They could have kids.

However you went about trying to reconnect with them, whether by showing up in person or just penning a goopy letter, you would end up looking like a total psycho.

Because no one did that.

And I think this is how getting over a bad heartbreak was meant to happen.

together forever

together forever?

Today, it’s completely different.  Say ten, fifteen years from now you’re pretty happy, but you also develop an inkling to find out how your ex is doing.  You can, before you even realize what you’re doing, pull up his Facebook page and gorge to your burning heart’s content.  You can see if he’s still in shape, if he’s still posting sanctimonious selfies.  You can gape at how much hair he’s lost, check on his relationship status, see Christmas cards, breeze through pictures of his children and wife (who is really not prettier than you at all), and the aching feeling that will be left in your stomach afterwards will be one of overeating, of filling your belly with too many spoonfuls of ice cream long after you’ve had that “I’m soooo full” moment.

This is unhealthy.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about college and young adult breakups over the past few years, it’s that when you end things with someone who you never thought you would end things with, it is a good idea to really separate from each other.  To create as much emotional and physical distance as possible.  Sure, some people really can “stay friends.”  But most of us mortals can’t.  Most of us would be lying to ourselves if we insisted that it wasn’t so difficult remaining close to our former life partner, that we were completely over them and doing just fine, thank you very much.

Distance is good.  I think we’re kind of supposed to lose track of the people who broke our hearts.

That’s how breaking up was back then.  More clean cut.  It was much more difficult to fall hard into old memories and spontaneously reconnect with an old flame, so it really didn’t happen all that much.  (This was probably a good thing.)  Maybe you bumped into them years later at the grocery store, and it was nice.  But other than that, nothing.

Today, breakups are long, muddled processes.  We split but then continue to casually hold our greatest heartbreaks at arms length, toting around the ghosts of our past in polished digital portfolios.  We are easily able to gain the most intimate knowledge about an ex in just a few clicks.  The information era has increased our inclination for immediate gratification to the point where a booty is just a call away, a text pouring out forbidden longing only as distant as your cell phone and a bottle of tequila.  (Or Burnett’s.  We are in college.)

In the olden days, things faded more smoothly with time.  Today, the temptation to pitifully bemoan a former love interest, thinking “if only, if only,” can be nursed for years afterwards.   We can always “Facebook stalk our ex.”  Which is fun, in a sick sort of way, but in the end it makes you hurt (especially if it seems they’re doing too well) and this habit does make it a lot harder to get over breakups.

All that to say, this is why I believe it is good to have a couple of serious friends around who are committed to keeping you gagged and tied down after a devastating breakup.  Whenever a bittersweet, rogue memory crosses your emotional palate, they will be the ones who keep your mind otherwise occupied.  When you are feeling your most vulnerable, they will be the ones who monitor your social media activity; they will be the ones who help you hammer down any violently surfacing memories.

These friends will take you out to help you move on.  They will be the ones who hold you back when you’re raging, trying to stumble across town and spill your heart out to her.  In this day and age, one truly needs good friends who can keep you penned in, trapped, like Prometheus.  (Although instead of an eagle descending daily to devour you, and instead of being a god, you’re a child, and you’re inflicting your own torture, trying to eat your own liver out.)

One last story.

I was talking to a Cuban friend last month about the pain he has been feeling since he and his girlfriend abruptly ended things.  As he was telling me about this girl he was completely in love with, I asked for her name, to see a picture of her.

But he had gotten rid of all her photographs.  It hurt him too much, being that close to all those memories.  She did not have a Facebook either, or any social media, which helped to shelter his fragile psyche a bit more.  He even deleted her number from his phone, “so I wouldn’t be tempted to call her when I got drunk or sad.”

Stepping away from the technology that put her within arms reach, I think, is helping my friend begin to really internalize the fact that he will never hold her again.  I think everyone in this millennium who is struggling working to get over an ex could take a lesson from that.

And then he looked at me and said, “I could still call her, though.”  He rattled off a sequence of digits.  “I have her number memorized.”

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Good Deeds Are Easy

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Married in Mile Square City

life & love in hoboken

Ad Dei Gloriam

My thoughts and work on philosophy, theology, and politics.

Walking Christian

One Way, One Truth, One Life

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