On Writing and Not Writing

A while ago, I noticed that there was a subtle shift in my life. It happened shortly after I moved to Gagetown to begin pastoring the Nazarene church here.  I didn’t expect for this change to occur. In fact, I expected my life to shift in the opposite direction. Regardless of what I expected or didn’t expect, the reality of this change is still something that shocks me…

I stopped writing.

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I do write Bible studies for our Sunday Night study time and the Youth Groups studies, and I write sermons.  But, I stopped writing here; on my blog.  That strikes me as unusual, especially given that I see many pastors regularly publish their thoughts and reflections (many times, this is done by people I know who never seemed too interested in writing before).  Of all the ways that I, as a pastor, can reflect and play with ideas, I thought that my blog would be the perfect place to do so.

I was wrong.

As I was thinking about this last night, I realized why I haven’t written on here in over a year: it’s because I’m a pastor.  I don’t say that as an excuse, nor am I saying it to make anyone in my church feel guilty.  I say it because it’s a matter of fact.

When I write things on here, they are the result of personal study and reflection. I write the things that are going on in my head and heart. Honestly, over the last few months I have really wanted to write about what I’m learning through studying Job, Genesis, and the study of eschatology in scripture.  However, when I sit down to put my thoughts into words, I simply can’t go through with it.

I have found that much of my thoughts revolve around conversations. In talking with people in my church, I tap into new areas of exploration.  I learn more about myself, those around me, and what it means to be a pastor and a Christian. Through these conversations, I ask questions I haven’t asked before, I confront doubts I’ve never faced, and I come to realizations that I’ve never expected.  And that is the heart of why I don’t write.

Almost everything I have thought of writing about are products of personal interactions. They are the result of someone opening their heart to me in the foyer after church, or an ongoing conversation that develops a new chapter every week, or they stem from a discussion that grew out of grief or personal struggles.

What would it be, then, if I took those moments and reduced them to tools in order to publish something? Could I be trusted to maintain confidentiality if anyone I talk with could have their private thoughts put on display just so I could make a point? Certainly, as we all know, I rarely use names or reference specific instances that we could point to and say, “I know exactly what/who Ben is talking about!”  But the person whose conversation is critiqued, or analyzed, or – at the very least – mentioned, would know.

How would I feel if I were reading someone’s blog and ran across a reference to an interaction the author and I had? I’m not so sure I could trust the author anymore, knowing that anything I share with him/her could be used as a writing device for others to see. There would be the constant threat that our private conversations could be reduced to public tools.

I have tried to explore ways of writing that separate me from my pastoral context.  Perhaps if I wrote in a more mechanical manner, it would be easier to avoid bringing my church into the conversation and causing unnecessary collateral damage.  Maybe I could simply quote authors and develop a synthetic framework within which I could explore the applications of my own thinking.

I have tried that, actually. But, I can’t do that. I cannot separate myself from my context. Every time I sit down to write, I impulsively seek out ways of how what I’m thinking/learning/studying could be applied in a pastoral way; “How can these ideas help the people in my church to grow in their relationship with the Lord?” And when I ask those questions, I inevitably bring in specific instances. Suddenly, the writing becomes far less mechanical, and far more intimate.

I begin writing about so-and-so’s personal loss or struggle. I type up the victories that what’s-his-face has experienced. In the blink of an eye (rather, the click of a keyboard), those personal interactions becomes mechanisms for writing. They are no longer the personal complexities, full of emotion and intricacies. They are reduced to a single instance, and the individual behind them is reduced to a 1-dimensional character – created to serve a purpose in a parasitic dialogue; having all of their uniqueness sucked out of them so I can write a conclusion.

Even if I were to remove those personal conversations, I cannot help but wrestle against one of the greatest challenges in writing: “It’s rarely what you say that should concern you, but what people hear.” It’s possible that my conclusions on interpreting Daniel’s visions or interpreting Genesis 1-3 could cause unnecessary chaffing between myself and my people.

Please don’t misunderstand: I am not against conflict. Conflict, in and of itself, is amoral. I enjoy conflict of ideas and perspectives, because it helps bring to light things we may have not noticed before. It forces us to confront our own weaknesses and brings us to new levels of understanding. However, my concern with the impersonal medium of writing is that I could unintentionally push someone away.  For those in my church, or connected to my church, my writing could cause alarm and even make them uncomfortable to be around me. In that case, it would be better to have not written at all.

I know that may sound incredibly overdramatic.  Maybe it’s even a horrible way to think about writing as a pastor. But that’s how it is when I [try to] write. I truly would like to write on this blog again like I used to, but I’m not convinced that is the most pastoral thing I could do. More than not, I actually see it working against my role as a pastor.

Before I became a pastor, it never occurred to me that such would be the case.

 

Maybe I’ll start writing more regularly again. Maybe I’ll find a niche way of writing that avoids the potential pitfalls that I’m concerned about. Or maybe I’ll just say, “Screw it!” and write whatever comes to mind. Time will tell.

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On Family and Church (Part 2)

I recently went to a Children’s Ministries conference in Columbus, Ohio. It was hosted by our own Nazarene Children’s Leadership Network. There were workshops, keynote speakers, books and materials to buy, and a good social experience. I’m a huge supporter of ministry to/for/with children. Part of my education was in children’s spirituality and how to foster and strengthen a child’s relationship with God. Reformed theologians, at least Baptists, would prefer the term ‘acquaintance’ rather than ‘relationship’ when referring to children. One other reason why I like being Wesleyan!

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So, in what follows, I am not at all attempting to malign children’s leaders. However, I think there is a key distinction that has had far-reaching ramifications when it comes to passing on our faith to the children in our churches.

I first noticed this a few years ago, while looking into the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). The Shema is a cornerstone passage in Children’s Ministry. If you work with children and haven’t heard of the Shema, you should check it out! Also, read past verse 9 and get cozy with verses 20-25. There’s some good stuff in there, too.

Anyway, I remember growing more and more frustrated with authors, speakers, and teachers of Children’s Ministry because, even though they hold the Shema as their flagship Scripture, they by and large misinterpret it. And to the detriment of their cause. This is a frustration I have expressed among my peers and advisors, who helped me to see this misreading of the text.

Here is how the Shema is typically interpreted: “Parents, teach your children about our faith. Teach them the stories and the characters, so that they can grow in their relationship with the Lord.” And so, we develop programs to get parents involved in the faith development of their offspring; we create booklets, design lesson plans, write family devotionals, and find creative ways to invite guardians into our ministry so they can take ownership over their children’s spiritual formation.

Here is the problem: the Shema isn’t addressing the parents. The Shema is addressing the entire community of believers. It is the role of the whole community to pass on the faith. Certainly parents play a special role in that, but the responsibility of raising our children to fear the Lord rests upon the community as a whole. What does that mean for us, millennia later? – The role of passing on the faith is the responsibility of the Church, not exclusive of the parents.

Somewhere along the way we have lost this. We have relegated spiritual development of children to a family endeavor, regardless of how sound or knowledgeable our parents are in their own understanding of the faith[1]. We cannot imagine children not being always and only under the tutelage of their parental guardians.

One of the biggest reasons I hear against having children join in the regular worship service[2] is that they will be a distraction to their parents. Disregarding the fact that such a statement assumes that parents are more important than their children, this assumption is completely ignorant of the fact that parents are not the only people involved in the faith development of our children. Let me illustrate:

For most of my childhood, I do not remember sitting with my parents in the Sunday morning worship service. Even during the Sunday night service, I do not remember sitting with them very often. But, I do remember Don and Martha. They were an older couple who sat in the middle rows of the sanctuary about 6 rows behind my parents. My friend and I would always push each other to ask for candy, and Martha would somehow magically present us with it.

There were other adults in the church who looked out for me and spoke into my life while I was a child, but Don and Martha left a mark on my life that I will never forget. In fact, it was Martha who first sensed I was called to ministry. Not even myself or my own parents started to catch on until several years later! And it was Martha who helped me to accept the Lord as my personal savior. I don’t remember the details of when/where/how, but my fuzzy memory of the whole affair has an unmistakably ‘Marthan’ aroma to it.

Now we come to the point of all this. Why do we wrongly assume that parents and ‘professionals’ are the only ones capable of speaking into the life of our children? Why do we continue these endeavors to separate our young people from the rest of the community that is responsible for their upbringing? Is it because we are afraid of what other people in the church might teach our children? If so, then I feel that speaks more to what we are teaching our adults than what we are teaching our young people. If we don’t even trust the theology of our seasoned veterans of the faith, then something has seriously gone awry! Perhaps we should stop with the gimmicky themes, programs, and events, and focus on – I don’t know – teaching sound fundamental doctrine, if that is the case. I know of many parents who, themselves, can hardly articulate the basics of Christian belief, so why not involve others in the process of teaching their children?

I love parents. I love the work that parents do. But parents can’t do everything. Spiritual formation absolutely occurs inside of the home, and in ways that cannot be replicated within a church setting. However, that does not excuse the rest of the community from adhering to their part of the deal. And it certainly does not excuse us from withholding children from the faith community.

“Hear, O Isreal: […]
These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children.” (Emphasis mine)

 

[1]. Or, even more so, regardless of whether or not they are believers themselves.
[2]. Should it not concern us that we have to ‘hyphenate’ our worship services? What hubris to claim we can justifiably segregate the community of faith!

 

On Family and Church (Part 1)

The greatest thing my parents ever did for my sister and me was this: they never claimed ownership over us.

This revelation came about some years ago, when I was 21 years old. I don’t recall the context, exactly. It was either when I talked with them about feeling called to pastoral ministry, or when I shared with them that I felt I needed to go on a mission trip to Kenya. Either way, it doesn’t matter how it happened. It only matters that it happened.

It was in a moment when I had to make a serious decision, and I clearly remember the truth that was shared with me from my parents: “We raised you and Jenn knowing that you do not belong to us – you belong to God.”

Since then, I have seen pieces here and there fall into place. Parts of my life that make more sense as I look into the past through this new lens; a lens that changes the hue of my memories just enough to make things clearer. The times I was frustrated by what was going on. The times when I was confused about certain decisions, or why my parents raised my sister and me the way they did.

Now, I know that my parents are not perfect. They’ll be the first to admit it. They made poor decisions, just like anyone else does. But there remains in my life a kernel of truth that we have begun to forget in the Western church: children do not belong to the parents.

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I am not entirely sure why it is. Perhaps it’s because of our social culture. But family has become defined as the prime community – the ultimate locus of social experience and relational intimacy. We forget, however, that as believers we are called to a family that transcends biological or legal barriers. “Blood may be thicker than water, but the bond of the spirit is greater than both.” (Can’t find who said this, but it was in a book/article I read a while ago)

Why is it, then, that family time has become a rival to church time? How has it become so easy to justify neglecting corporate worship in order to spend time sharing a meal and watching a movie together?

I distinctly remember that for most of my life my parents were exceptionally busy people. But, the one thing that could be counted on is that every week, usually at least twice a week, we would gather together and worship. We would pray, sing praise, and listen to the Word together. We would participate in ground-breaking ceremonies, witness dedications and baptisms, and celebrate in ours and other’s achievements together. We would dream, mourn, laugh, and cry together.

Church was not a mere weekly activity for us. It was a central bonding agent of our lives. It prompted discussions during our car rides. It caused us frustrations and joys. It merged us with other families and developed life-long friendships with people who are more than friends to us. And the stories… so many stories! The stories of our local church became the stories of our family. Even today when we come together we talk about church – it is the one thing to which we can all relate.

It breaks my heart to see what is happening to so many churches today. It also infuriates me. When the local church is no longer a place where the family can spend time together, we have a problem. When the local church is not viewed as that place and time where a family can join with one another in worship, we need to seriously think about what it going on. And when churches distance themselves from being the prime community into which we are called, we have lost a central aspect of our ecclesiology and have forgotten a large part of who we are as Christians.

Let us not fool ourselves, here. When families need to become absent during worship in order to spend time together, we have established the family as an idol. We tell ourselves that our biological family is more important, and so it should not surprise us when our children grow up to be apathetic towards church because we have trained them to see it as an auxiliary part of their lives. The family, then, becomes a church unto itself, with its own modes of worship, sacraments (football games, movie watching, weekly meal sharing), saints (distant relatives, grandparents), and gods (Detroit Tigers, MSU, USA). These things, in and of themselves, are not bad. But when they usurp the primacy of gathered worship of a greater community to our Lord, we throw ourselves into a subtle yet powerful confusion.

A part of this, no doubt, is due to the fact that in many churches the family simply cannot be together. Silo ministry models, where people of different ages are segregated from one another, perpetuates a culture that teaches that church is not a place for families. It is a place for family members, but not a place where families can share memories, celebrate, or worship together. And so, families are justified in their absence from church in order to spend time apart. A justification that is, itself, built on a sandy foundation.

We ought to be ashamed when families must choose between “family time” and church. We belong, ultimately, to God. And yet we are creating and perpetuating a culture that says we ultimate belong to ourselves. Is this not a tragedy? Has church simply become a purveyor of spiritual and religious goods and services; a consumable item families indulge in when convenient? Or something to partake of when, in their ‘good judgment,’ they feel it is necessary to purchase through an investment of time and non-participatory attendance? As easy to attend or abstain from as going shopping at the local mall or eating out? – Just another cog in the machine for us, no more or less significant than everything else we participate in.

My parents have been asked by co-workers and friends over the years an interesting question that comes in many forms: “What did you do to have your children turn out the way they did?”

The answer is simple: my parent’s children didn’t belong to them. They belonged to God.

Church is not a family tradition for us. It is who we are. It is greater than our family. My sister and I did not grow up being taught to serve the family. We grew up being taught to serve Christ and his Kingdom. A major facet in that was our consistent involvement in the life of our local church through all seasons of life.

 

 

On Ministers and Open Gates (Part 7)

I can remember every single one.

Every single instance.

Those moments, not always brief, but profound. I can remember them all.

One was in the passenger seat of a car. One was during a tour of a church. One was sitting in my kitchen chair in Nairobi. Another was with my parents as we sat around the large chest/coffee table in the entertainment room. One was in my brother’s and sister’s living room in front of the t.v. And one was in the basement of the home of my previous pastor, Jake.

All of these were moments when I wrestled with opportunities to pursue pastoral positions.

As was mentioned in a previous post, it is an incredibly tempting thing to jump at any and all opportunities. In a culture that teaches us that with education comes golden opportunities (and that they come quickly), it is easy to assume that the first open doors we come to are the ones through which we should walk. Especially for a young minister, full of other’s advice and eager to prove his/her own competence, there is a strong pull to accept whatever position opens up. And, if given the opportunity to interview for those positions, there is almost no question: pursue it at all costs!

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I remember those moments because they were all times when I felt a mixed concoction of excitement, anxiousness, and worry. It seemed that for every good thing about a particular position (or, at least, every ‘potentially’ good thing), I could find something else that may have been not-so-good. I tried to balance the pros and the cons. I talked my way through the possibilities, how my strengths and weaknesses would be used or challenged in different ways, attempted to discern a vision for the particular context and where the people were in their discipleship journey…

Attempting to discern the will of God is a difficult thing. Maybe it gets better with age and experience, or maybe it’s easier depending on the circumstances, I don’t truly know. But what I’ve come to discover is this: When the time is right, the will of the Lord is made clear.

It is good to wrestle with things. It is good to think through decisions, to seek counsel, to discern according to the best of our cognitive and emotional abilities. But, at the end of the day, we must recognize that even our best decisions making skills submit to the will of our Heavenly Father.

Many times our decision making skills align with His will, and so it is easy to discern. Other times, it almost goes in the opposite direction.

Most recently I was in that basement, pacing around nervously while I waited for a phone call from my new District Superintendent. My phone began to ring. I had been praying about this moment for a couple of weeks by that point. I had weighed the good and the bad, the pros and the cons, attempted to learn as much as I could about this particular church in order to make an informed decision. But I still was not completely sure what to do.

I answered. I don’t remember much, except this phrase: “The vote was pretty strong. But I don’t know how you could get a vote stronger than unanimous.”

For me, that was the moment of confirmation.

I want to be clear, though. My confirmation was not in the approval of what other people decided. I have had strong supporters for other positions before. In the end the decision to pursue what is now my first senior pastorate position fell upon the kind of confirmation and affirmation that can only come from God himself.

And, after all is said and done, he is the one to whom we are ultimately accountable.

“But seek first his Kingdom and righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
Matthew 6:33-34

When we seek first the will of our Lord, our way will be made clear. Perhaps not as timely as we would like, but when it matters the most.

 

Welcome to the life of a disciple.

In Ministers and Trust (Part 6)

I did my March budget today. That may have been a bad idea.

Fortunately, I have a decent sized tax refund coming in either this week or next week. Thank goodness, too, because otherwise the next couple weeks would be pretty difficult to get through.

I won’t lie. Transitioning into a volunteer pastor position has not been an easy one by any stretch of the imagination. Mix together the search for employment, the stress of feeling a need to meet unrealistic expectations, financial difficulties, and all the little stresses that go along with being a leader in a local community you are still trying to becoming a part of, and it’s no wonder to me why so many people leave the ministry.

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To be fair, there is always an opportunity in ministry to complain either at the beginning or after multiple decades. But,  I’m not saying all this to promote an attitude of complaint. Instead, I am saying this in an attempt to paint a picture of what serving the Lord can be like for those entering into ministry.

I was in God’s waiting room for a year, and now I’ve been graduated into a “standby” room so to speak. Similar to why I turned down other ministry opportunities, I moved here out of obedience. I moved here because I sensed this is where God wanted me to be. And now, I am still here because this is where I sense God wants me to be. And until I hear from Him that He wants me to move somewhere else, this is where I will be.

But I won’t be surprised if I get my first grey hairs before the end of next month. Obedience to the call is not without its share of difficult times. Doubly so when one has to shoulder those burdens alone. I wake up, and they’re there. I go to bed, and they’re there.  The problems we face in life and ministry will never go away.

In truth, I wish that issues I face were due to my own irresponsibility that I’m in the situation I am. At least in that case I could point to something and say, “Here it is! This is why I can’t buy my own food. If I only fix this issue I will be okay!”  But I can’t say that in honesty. Instead, what I am forced to say is, “I have no idea what I’m going to do. All I can do is trust that God will provide.”

I think of that popular passage in Philippians 4:13. I’m sure most people know it: “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” I find it interesting the verses leading up to this are Paul reflecting on his moments of both prosperity and need. But this verse doesn’t speak to a truth of acquiring higher status or achieving great things. Instead, it is about being content in all situations. How? Because through Christ we find the satisfaction of our needs.

I know that probably sounds very churchy and inadequate. However, being someone who is (in my humble opinion) as close to the heart of this passage as I’ve ever been, I have discovered that sometimes in life that is all you can say…

“Ben, how can you remain at a church that can’t pay you? How can you keep living in someone’s basement without a job? How can you…..”  Honestly, I really don’t know. Except to say that I am still here, and I am continuing with this mission, because Christ is strengthening me.

This is one of those posts that doesn’t have a very uplifting message. Young ministers, ministry is really tough sometimes. Especially in the finance department. And it can be very tempting to get up and leave in order to pursue a more fiscally advantageous opportunity. However, if we are obedient to the call God has placed upon our lives, I can promise that He will take care of our needs. And, in the process, we will learn what exactly our needs are because, in most cases, I’m willing to bet that what we think we need is a lot more than what we actually need..

On Ministers and F.O.M.O. (Part 5)

I was watching a movie review of Woodlawn, a movie that came out not too long ago. In the review, they cut to a clip of the director discussing how they wanted to instill a sense of F.O.M.O. among the non-churched group. It was then that I learned what F.O.M.O. actually means: Fear Of Missing Out.

A couple months ago I was driving to Ohio and began to listen to Catholic Radio (or All-Catholic Radio… I don’t remember what it was called). The hosts were discussing how our culture is built off of two primary emotional reactions: fear, and hype. Fear comes into play a lot in consumerism. We are fed ideas that we need to have something, or need to live a certain way, and this incites a sense of fear that drives us to make really ridiculous and illogical decisions sometimes simply because we have been taught to fear certain things. Credit Card companies are great with this, by the way.

The other reaction is Hype, and it plays out in a similar way to fear. It causes a drastic level of excitement out of acquiring or the possibility to acquire something new, revolutionary, or unique. It could be an idea, a product, or an experience. Hype works pretty well. This is a big reason why a lot of people spend upwards of $600-$700 a year on a phone they’ll use mostly for calling, texting, and a couple apps until the next model comes out.

The hosts went on to explain that these two emotional reactions are what many American’s go through every week (if not every day). We have a fear of missing out on the next big thing, or we are overly excited about participating in it.

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Unfortunately, this bleeds over into ministry as well. I have seen pastors guide churches on this principle of F.O.M.O. They develop programs, copy mega-church paradigms, and go to drastic measures out of a sense that they would otherwise have their church miss out on some new church fad that God is using to change people’s lives (or increase buildings and budgets… it’s hard to discern the two sometimes). Sometimes, I have even seen churches run themselves into the ground because they were changing so drastically and so often that they became victims of an ultra-consumeristic approach to ministry and they simply couldn’t sustain it.

Although many of those who are entering into the ministry may not have an opportunity to fall victim to the”Fear Of Missing Out” on that scale, it is still a great temptation that ministers face. A new church opportunity in a growing city. A possible promotion in a bi-vocational position. A much better paying full-time job. Or even just the opportunity to pastor in a church at all.

I lament the fact that no one really prepared me for the temptation that comes with this “Fear Of Missing Out”. It was expected that once I graduated from college I would be the pastor of a church that God clearly called me to within a month or two. After all, this is pretty typical if our attitudes about entering into ministry are accurate.

But for me, and for many others, this isn’t the case. We wait, and we wait. And at some point we would be happy to be a janitor in a church or at least have a paying job. So, out of fear, we jump at the first opportunity that comes our way without a second thought.

Or, and what is probably more accurate, we see our friends taking on churches of their own and doing well. We see them living their lives, getting married, having children, and then we look at our own lives and realize that our situation hasn’t changed in years. In fact, for some, it has even gotten worse. We are less sure of our calling, less stable in our life situation, less confident of our abilities, and less in love with the Church than when we started this journey. Add to that a ticking clock as we need to fill our “years in pastoral ministry” requirements for ordination within a certain amount of time, and you have a recipe for a “take whatever you can get” attitude that can lead to a lot of pain, and a lot of burnout.

Waiting for God to do his work in his time isn’t easy. Believe me, it’s not even close to easy. I can’t tell you how many times I have tried to jump-start something or open a door myself only to have it beat me down and leave me worse than how I was. However, and I know this is similar to the previous post about patience (but I felt it was needed to look at it from a different angle), but sometimes the best thing you can do for your ministry and for the future God has called you to is to wait.

On Ministers and Waiting Rooms (Intro)

Once again, I am following up on a long hiatus from blogging. There have been many interesting and unpredictable twists and turns in life over the last year (and since my last blog where I did a venting rant on where I was at ministry-wise). And these events have inevitably found me in the same position I was a year ago, more or less.

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In light of this, I have decided to begin working on a blog series dedicated to exploring where I’m at as a non-appointed licensed minister in the Church of the Nazarene. After returning from my volunteer missionary work in Kenya at the end of last October, I have had the privilege and frustration of going through a number of great and terrible situations. I have learned a lot, and have come to expect certain things as a minister in my position.

Maybe you are curious to know some of the things I have learned, whether you are also a young minister without a church, a pastor with young ministers in your church, a person who is curious to know what life is like for a young minister without a church, or if you simply enjoy reading my blog. Whatever reason you have for reading on, I appreciate your viewership and feedback.

Just a heads-up: in this series I will try to be honest. I don’t believe I would be doing anyone a favor by sugar-coating things, but I will try to be fair. There are certainly some very negative points in my experiences that I feel would be good to talk about, but there are also very positive points as well. I will try to refrain from venting and lay things out as plainly and frankly as possible.

I figure if this is where I’m at for the time being, I might as well try to use it for the benefit of others in some small way…

Enjoy the coming weeks!