Category Archives: Personal

Lessons from the Monks for the COVID-19 Pandemic

When people ask me how I’m doing in this time of “shelter-in-place,” I sometimes will make an attempt at humor and respond: “I’ve always thought I could have been a monk.” 

I’ve long been intrigued by monks and by monastic living.

Whenever I’ve had the opportunity, I’ve tried to learn what I can about monks and monastic living and to incorporate those insights into my daily life. Many years ago, for instance, I participated in the sunrise chants of the Benedictine monks living at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, and this taught me something about the vitality of intentional prayer, particularly early in the morning. Since it aired 13 years ago, this On Being interview with Shane Claiborne about “a monastic revolution” has challenged me to be a “real Christian” and follow the sometimes very straightforward and radical teachings of Jesus. Similarly, I’ve been struck by this publication of “the Monk Manifesto” a few years ago, particularly principle #3: “I commit to cultivating community by finding kindred spirits along the path, soul friends with whom I can share my deepest longings, and mentors who can offer guidance and wisdom for the journey.”

As I think about this, I wonder if part of the challenge many of us are facing right now is this: we’re living sort of like monks as we “shelter-in-place,” but without the knowledge of tradition, support, or intentionality that typically comes with monastic living. 

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The Most Lonely and Isolated

Which of the following groups do you believe, in the last 7 days, have felt most lonely or isolated?

-Those aged 18-29
-Those aged 30-49
-Those aged 50-64
-Those aged 65+

If you guessed the 18-29 year-olds, you’d be correct.

In a recent nationally representative survey, 69% of 18-29 year-olds reported being lonely or isolated in the last 7 days (59% of 30-49 year-olds reported this, as did 45% of 50-64 year-olds and 39% of those ages 65+).

Of course, this isn’t a competition, and we who call ourselves Christians – and we who call ourselves compassionate humans – seek to care for those in need no matter the age or background. Still, I bet not many would guess that young people are those most struggling with feelings of loneliness or social isolation during this pandemic.

In another nationally representative survey, 66% of 18-25 year-olds said they had no one to talk to about these feelings. And, 80% felt better when a trusted adult outside their household reached out to them.

Do you know a young person – outside your household – you might connect with? Maybe a child, grandchild, niece, nephew, member of your community, or someone you barely know but feel like might be struggling?

A call, text, Facetime, or care package dropped off at their front door might mean more than you realize.

Holy Saturday

I have always loved what Christians historically call “holy week.” Part of this is because, as someone raised Catholic, I remember this week as the time in the year when church services follow a different rhythm. That is, rather than repeating the same basic structure of the Mass like most Sundays, holy week consists of services for Holy Thursday and Good Friday that feel unique, more soulfelt and dark. But, then, I’ve long believed Catholics practice sadness better than Protestants.

Interestingly, as my theologian friend, Deanna Thompson, points out in her book “Glimpsing Resurrection,” most Christian churches do not mark “Holy Saturday.” She writes:

“It is a day that is attended to only briefly in the Biblical story, a space where meaning is elusive and hope can be hard to see… This day between cross and resurrection seems like a nonevent, a time of waiting in which nothing of significance occurs and of which there is little to be said.”

And, yet, this is the day that marks how, as the Apostles’ Creed acknowledges, Jesus “descended into hell.” It is, as Deanna mentions, “a story of abandonment and separation.” 

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Finding Self-Worth in a Pandemic

I feel like I’m finally settling into a bit of a rhythm during this time of “shelter-in-place,” and most days, I start with some kind of spiritual meditation. One that has particularly struck me came from a podcast by Krista Tippett, host of one of my favorite programs, “On Being.” (I’d encourage you to listen. The podcast is about 10 minutes long.)

What initially made me pause was how Krista referred to how individuals typically gain a sense of self-worth, and how this time of pandemic is sometimes proving to be a mental health challenge because of that. In fact, research in Social Psychology by Jennifer Crocker shows how people use many strategies to find worth, some of which are more steady and healthy than others. Krista points out that in our individualistic, modern world, many of us have been taught to believe our worth comes from achievement and activity, and how this source of worth is now being threatened because we are not as able to achieve and be active as we might prefer. Others, in contrast, may find worth through their relationships with others, and that, too, may be challenged now during this time of physical distancing.

As an alternative to these sources of self-worth more likely to fluctuate – particularly in this time – Krista discusses how, at her best, she finds worth in simply “being human.” This idea is heavily referenced in Humanistic Psychology and particularly the writings of one of my Psychology heroes, Carl Rogers, who basically argued that all humans have dignity by birthright. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, this kind of inherent worth is thought to stem from the fact that we are “children of God,” “made in God’s image,” or possessors of a “Divine spark.” That means we don’t need to strive for worth; we already have it, if we’d just accept it as ours now.

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Paul Tillich

In a passage that has become one of my spiritual touchstones, theologian Paul Tillich put it this way:

“Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness… Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.'”

Suffering in a Pandemic Age as a Christian

A few weeks ago, when the novel coronavirus was just starting to spread in the Western world – and along with it, many people’s fears – I became aware of an essay by C. S. Lewis: “On Living in an Atomic Age.” The entire essay can be found in Lewis’s collection “Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays,” but the following excerpt has been most circulated:

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

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C. S. Lewis

As noted by Aaron Earls in this response, many people seem to be misinterpreting Lewis’s thoughts here. As he suggests, Lewis would not tell us to ignore the coronavirus, to just go on with our lives by “doing sensible and human things” (in fact, that wouldn’t be “sensible”). Experiencing a daily threat of the bomb is not the same situation as experiencing a global pandemic, and our actions need to fit the situation. As the top scientific and public health experts are telling us, it’s key that we adapt our behavior to stay home and socially distance to decrease the spread of the virus to the fullest extent possible.

When I first read Lewis’s essay, I felt strangely comforted. Humans have lived through epic tragedies before –  such as during the days when there was significant threat of the atomic bomb, the great wars, and the plague – and the novel coronavirus falls in that long line of global crisis. This has helped me to connect with ancestors – including my dad who fought in World War II and likely had to deal with a lot of the same feelings as I am now – as well as many more before me. Many did not survive, but this crisis is helping me to connect with a sense of humanity common to all people across ages, races, religions, genders, etc., and that feels really important. If we are learning nothing else from this pandemic, I believe, it is that we are all far more interdependent than we previously realized.

I think Lewis’s main idea comes in his obvious point that we all are certain to die, many of us in rather unpleasant ways. Most have not really seriously entertained that thought or worked through how to deal with it. We have not yet prepared ourselves for suffering.

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What If It Was Alright Now?

“So here is my little nugget of gospel truth for you to take home. The truth is not that it is going to be alright. The truth is, it already is.” (Fredric Evans)

I’ve been chewing on this quote for the past week, and I’m still now sure what I think about it.

Of course, we need hope that this global pandemic, too, shall pass. And it eventually will. And we have responsibilities for making this happen and preventing as much suffering as possible by staying home, staying connected with each other, and caring for those in need.

But, on the other hand, from the perspective of my Christian faith, there is something deeply profound about realizing that, below the surface, some really important things are already settled. Some things are alright now and no matter what may come.

As we practice social distancing, it’s a perfect time for you to comment below and engage in some virtual discussion.

What, for you, is “alright” now and no matter what may come? How have you been able to connect with deeper truths and greater peace in the midst of this storm? Do you have a faith perspective, and has that helped” If so, how? What are you doing to connect with a deeper and more peaceful perspective intentionally in your daily life?

Spirituality and Breast Cancer

It’s not every day that my lovely wife asks if she can interview me! But, a few weeks ago, she did exactly that. The topic was spirituality, and the context was a blog series she was writing for Firefly Sisterhood on spirituality and breast cancer. You can see the blog entry here.

The Quest for Better Education

In June of 2015, my wife, two daughters, and I travelled to Vancouver, British Columbia, where I attended a 3-day international teaching conference. Remarkably, the most pivotal professional development event of this trip wasn’t the conference, however; it was a half-day whitewater rafting excursion that led me to reconceptualize much of my work with students.

On the day of our rafting adventure, we rented a car and drove about an hour north via the Sea-to-Sky Highway to the mountain community of Squamish. We registered with the outfitter and then met Shane – our witty, bearded, abundantly enthusiastic, twenty-11755286_416459531877876_7221043668631048320_nsomething guide. After a short bus ride, brief portage, and successful launch, we spent a few minutes learning how to navigate the rapids of the Cheakamus River. Shane clearly was a gifted rafting guide, but this was only a class II tour, allowing for him to have plentiful opportunities to turn his attention to the local ecology. Shane enlightened us on the glaciers observable in the stunning peaks of the nearby Coast Mountains; the frigid and moody blue characteristics of the pristine, glacier-fed river; and the rare wildlife and “bearded” moss pervasive in the old growth forests surrounding us. We were awestruck – not only by some of the most breathtaking scenery I have ever seen – but also by the extraordinarily detailed knowledge and heartfelt passion of our guide. I couldn’t help myself from asking Shane: “how do you know all this?”

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Armistice Day

A few weeks ago, I attender a Quaker memorial service for a friend named Gary. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to know Gary as well as I would have liked before his unexpected death, but that made the service all the more thought-provoking.

One thing I learned about Gary was that he was serious about following the Quaker Christian testimony of peace. Key to this testimony is Jesus’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). Gary wanted to serve his country so, when he was young, he enlisted in the Coast Guard, the branch of the American military known to be least violent and most about peacemaking. After his time of service, he joined an organization called Veterans for Peace, a group I had sadly never heard about.

Veterans for Peace sent a representative to Gary’s memorial service and made two major points, neither of which I had ever considered. First, rather than offering a typical 21-gun salute – which they believed glorified violence – this representative rang a bell, signifying the hope for peace (and moving most of those in attendance to tears). Second, the representative for Veterans for Peace noted the shift in our country from celebrating Armistice Day to celebrating Veteran’s Day, something others apparently have discussed often – sometimes with considerable frustration – but which I had been completely ignorant about.

Without going into great detail, Armistice Day was created to celebrate and commit to ongoing peace after the end of World War I. After the Korean War, the day was changed to celebrate all Veterans – and not just those veterans who served in World War I or World War II – which obviously makes sense. However, in doing so, as some have argued, the shift became more about the glorification of war; the celebration of peace was lost.

Today, with so many others, I celebrate all Veterans, including those in my family such as my dad who put himself in harm’s way to combat evil. I am thankful for this service, just as I am also grateful for the service of many others who serve our country in often unrecognized ways (such as public school teachers, just to name one example).

At the same time, I remember the original intent of Armistice Day. I pray for a day when war is no longer necessary, when men and women in the prime of their lives do not have to be deployed and put in harm’s way. I pray for those who have been hurt physically, emotionally, and spiritually because of violence. I reflect on which of my actions plant the seeds for further war. And what habits I might nurture in myself and others to plant seeds for peace instead.

Being Moved by Story

In the past few months, I have become quasi-obsessed with the experience of being emotionally moved. I reported on new research about that experience a few weeks ago, and also discussed how someone sharing something “soulfelt” often might prompt a feeling of being moved or touched in others.

I suspect when one becomes more aware of an experience such as this, one starts to pay more attention to it. And so it has been with me.

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Jennifer Isaac

A few weeks ago, my beloved college celebrated its 50th anniversary with a faculty & staff talent show. My friend and longtime collaborator, Jennifer Isaac, shared a Moth-award winning story about her brother that moved everyone in my aisle to tears. I suspect storytelling – along with a few other major modes of expression, such as music – are particularly likely to move people. With Jennifer’s permission, I share her edited story below. It’s also available by video beginning at around 1:21:00

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Flying: A Personal Story
By Jennifer Issac

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The Meaning of the Cross

Last week, my family and I returned from 9 days of touring France, including 6 days in Paris and 3 days in Normandy (click here for my updated photography page). Part of our interest in this trip was a sort of pilgrimage to visit the American cemetery near Omaha Beach, where thousands of Americans died on D-Day. In preparation, before we left, we watched the horrific opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan, to get more of a sense for what happened on that epic day.

I don’t cry very often, but when I surveyed 9,388 crosses and stars of David at the American cemetery, I wept. I replayed in my imagination what happened at this site, and I connected with the sacrifice made on our country’s behalf. Watching filmed testimonies at Pointe du Hoc only reinforced this, as survivors recounted what it was like going into this day, how young most everyone was, and how afraid.

Many talked about how they prayed, and how they felt like their ultimate sacrifice – though tragic – might be needed: for God and country.

 

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What To Do When Stressed

A few weeks ago, while watching old episodes of Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix before going to sleep, I noticed my right eye felt drier than usual. I tried different tactics to adjust to this and fix my dry eye problem, but none really worked. Then, one morning, I woke up to find this same eye felt kind of sticky. It would improve after a few minutes of heavy blinking but, about a week later, I noticed it felt grittier when I blinked. A few days later, my left eye was starting to show some of the same symptoms, and also was bloodshot. How aggravating. I then discovered some kind of yellow-headed growth on the underside of my upper eyelid of my right eye. What was that? I found that thoughts and worries about my eyes started to interfere with my ability to be fully present in my daily life. I was distracted and less effective than usual.

My eyes are on the mend now. I went to my trusty eye doctor who prescribed a few eyedrops everyday, and the inflammation she discovered is going away. The yellow-headed growth? A benign calcification. So, everything is good, really, and my problem only illustrates a minor inconvenience. Nonetheless, this story illustrates how even one small stressor can negatively influence someone’s life.

Anything requiring a new response can be stressful. Stressors can involve loss, challenge, the anticipation of loss or challenge, or even something positive. In the classic social readjustment rating scale, stressors range in severity from minor (such as a speeding ticket or major holiday) to major (such as divorce or the death of a spouse). Traumatic life events can be even worse.

When we experience stress, our sympathetic nervous systems are activated. Our bodies direct stress hormones such as adrenaline to respond. Salivation decreases, perspiration increases, breathing quickens, heart rate accelerates, digestion slows, blood pressure increases, and immune system functioning lessens. Although this fight-or-flight response often protects us when we face an immediate, tangible danger, it causes problems when chronically activated, as typically is the case with modern stressors. This helps explain why many distressed individuals regularly experience symptoms such as dry mouth, sweaty palms, labored breathing, irregular heartbeat, nausea, high blood pressure, and vulnerability to sickness. Problems such as headaches, depression, and heart disease all become more likely as a result of chronic sympathetic nervous system activation.

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Unsheltered

When I look backward into my youth – forward all the way to today – I observe an undeniable, constant strand: Part of my identity is that of being a learner and a teacher.

Of course, there are many ways to be a learner and a teacher (two sides of the same coin for me, anyway). Right now, in my life, for example, I a professional teacher, a college professor. However, I also learn and teach at church (as I did recently in leading a group on gays and the church), as a parent, and even sometimes as a friend. This blog post, in fact, is also an act of learning and teaching for me, as it involved reading, thinking, and now sharing. Others learn and teach in their roles as managers, coaches, crew leaders, volunteer leaders, mentors, and pastors. Learning and teaching are roles many of us play in everyday life.

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Gays and the Church

Although the Supreme Court’s landmark 2015 ruling in Obergefell vs. Hodges seemed to settle many civil issues about same-sex marriage in the United States, the topic remains contentious in many religious communities. In recent years, some denominations have broken with the historical Christian view that same-sex relations “miss the mark” and have become more LGBTQ affirming. Many have not, however, meaning they will not support “unrepentant” same sex sexual behavior or same-sex marriage in their churches.

From February 23-26, 2019, another major denomination will meet to discuss its official stance about same-sex relations, as leaders in the United Methodist Church will convene in St. Louis, Missouri to discuss “a way forward.” The plan recommended by the Methodist Council of Bishops would allow local decision-makers to implement policies about matters such as same-sex marriage that best fit their social contexts. If approved, this would enable more progressive districts to support the ordination of gay and lesbian Pastors and marry same-sex couples, subject to the conscience of the local pastor, while allowing more conservative districts to remain unchanged in policy and practice.

At play in these deliberations are questions of how to know what is true about matters of faith. The founder of the Methodist tradition – John Wesley – proposed four “ways of knowing,” now organized in what is popularly termed the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral:” experience, reason, tradition, and Scripture. Basically, Methodists look for “converging evidence” in these four domains when creating church policy, although Scripture is prioritized.

Gays_2In anticipation of the denomination’s upcoming meetings, I have led a discussion group at my local Methodist church exploring same-sex relations, using the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as an organizing tool, for the past six weeks. Members of my church community have discussed their experiences with gays and lesbians, we invited several gay Christians to our group to listen and learn from their stories, and we have explored Scripture from both conservative and progressive perspectives. As a facilitator, my charge was to lead this group neutrally, meaning I have not shared my opinion very often, I have tried to make sure the best of materials are shared from both conservative and progressive viewpoints, and I have sought to create an atmosphere that is hospitable and conducive to honest, respectful conversations among individuals who often disagree.

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Letter to a Middle School Student

Last week, I was delighted to receive this Letter from a Middle School Student asking for my thoughts about the meaning of life. My response is below. I think this brings together several elements of my thinking.

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Dear Jasmine,

It was a pleasure to receive your letter. I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the great tradition of letter writing with you.

I share your interest in the meaning of life. In fact, probably most of us ask ourselves about the meaning or purpose of our lives at some point.

I think there probably are three ways to think about this. The first is about the Meaning of Life overall. Questions that fall into this category include: Why is there life at all? What are the origins of life? What happens after we die? What does it mean that we live in a universe where there is life? The second way to think about this is more personal. Questions include: What does my individual life mean? What is my unique purpose? What am I going to do with my “one wild and precious life?,” as the recently deceased poet Mary Oliver put it. The third way is to approach the question as a psychological scientist. Following this, we could ask ourselves how we might measure the perception of meaning in life, in general, and then consider how to perform scientific studies seeking to uncover what predicts the experience of more or less life meaning in a broad group of people.

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My Journey with the Bible

I’ve written some personal essays before – these on death and the relationship between science and faith are examples – but below is maybe the most personal essay I’ve ever written. It technically is a narrative essay – focusing on my lifelong experience with the Bible – and I developed it through the help of some amazing folks at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Our teacher at the Loft encouraged us students to submit our work to literary publications, and I sent mine to a very cool Christian literary magazine called Ruminate. I was so honored when they accepted!

Anyway, here it is. I’d love to hear your reaction.

My Journey with the Bible

 

Six Forms of Resolution

As we begin a new year, many of us find ourselves in a bit more contemplative mood than usual. What were our highs and lows in 2017? What do we want for 2018? We all could use some clarity to live our best lives.

Sometimes, we’re waiting for clarity to strike us from the outside, maybe in the form of a sign or revelation. But more often than not, the clarity we seek is already within us, waiting to be discovered.

When I was a Sophomore in high school, I started to connect with my own unclarity. What was I going to do with my “one wild and precious life,” as Mary Oliver put it? A friend gave me a copy of Anthony Robbins’ “Awaken the Giant Within,” a book I generally now regard with great skepticism, but nonetheless that helped change my life.

Eventually, I found my way to a chapter on goal setting. Like most everyone, I had been taught I should set goals for my life. But just like how I had also been taught I should dust my room and floss my teeth, I wasn’t particularly motivated to do so. Goal setting just seemed painful, with no clear benefit. So, when I started reading the chapter, I was surprised to find a quote from Carl Sandburg: “Nothing happens unless first a dream.” I had never thought that goal setting may be more akin to dream identifying. I continued to read:

“Are you ready to have some fun? Are you willing to be like a kid again and let your imagination run wild?”

The tone caught me off guard. Maybe goal setting wasn’t like dusting my room or flossing my teeth.

I then was led on a series of tasks in which I dreamed what I wanted to create in my life. I brainstormed for 5 minutes about four areas each: personal development, career / economics, adventures, and contributions. Ultimately, I identified the most important one-year goal in each area.

The effects of this exercise on me can’t be overstated. It brought me clarity for the first time in my life. I had been a mediocre student, for instance, often struggling in difficult subjects, sometimes getting into trouble with my dad because of earning a “D.” But, during my goal setting session, I decided I wanted to be an “A” student. From that point forward, that’s exactly what I made happen. I earned straight “A”s through the rest of high school. This allowed me to enroll at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where I continued being an “A” student. This, in part, allowed me to get into a top-rated Counseling Psychology program at the University of Minnesota. My future opened before me. And it all started with a goal.

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The Psychology of Religion

One of my first memories happened at church. We always seemed to arrive early enough to say the rosery, but this one particular Sunday morning, my mom, brother, and I were late. We double-timed it up the concrete stairs to heave open the austere metal doors of the traditional red brick Catholic church only to find the sanctuary doors to be closed. It seemed we were not allowed entry because of our tardiness, so we were confined to a small, cold foyer filled with nothing to look at but posted advertisements for local businesses and two holy water stations. Being only 4 at the time, I quickly became bored. A hymn had started, and I snuck a peak through the closed passageway. The congregation was being led in song: “Here I am, Lord! Is it I, Lord? I have heard You calling in the night! I will go, Lord, if You lead me!…” Powerful words, I thought, and yet I observed no sign of emotion among anyone in the church. Much of the congregation didn’t even sing along.

The fact that I so clearly remember this incident reveals something about my strong religious and spiritual inclination. But the incident also raised a question for me that has become the focal point for much of my professional life: What explains why some people are more religious than others?

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Protesting God

This article was inspired by conversation with Deanna Thompson.

Marian Fontana was living a good life. She had been happily married to her husband, Dave, for 17 years, with whom she had a young son. Marian had frequent “conversations with God,” as she put it. As a normal part of her daily life, she would thank God for all that was going well and ask God to bless others in need.

Then came September 11th, 2001.

When Marian saw the World Trade Center crumble on television, she knew her life was crumbling as well. Dave was a New York firefighter who was called to the scene. After sensing his death, her initial response was to wander into every church in her neighborhood to pray and pray and pray for Dave’s life. But, this prayer was to go unanswered.

After several months of total grief, Marian started to see beauty again. However, her spiritual life was different. As she stated in the PBS documentary, “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero:”

“I couldn’t believe that this God that I’d talked to in my own way for 35 years could… turn this loving man into bones. And I guess that’s when I felt that my faith was so weakened… My conversations with God that I used to have, I don’t have anymore… Now I can’t bring myself to speak to Him… because I feel so abandoned…”

Years later, Marian is doing better. She has written a memoir about her experience (“A Widow’s Walk”), and she reports being less angry. Yet, as she said in a live chat organized by PBS 10 years after Dave’s death, “[I] still don’t have conversations with God the way I used to.”

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