Tag Archives: alternative church

“Only Love Can See”

People say love is blind, and there is an element of truth to that.  I think of the verse that says “Love covers a multitude of sins.”  But so often when the expression “love is blind” is used I think we are talking about infatuation.  Infatuation is blind.  But Love?  Love is not blind.  It is, in fact, the only force in the universe that enables us to see.

For the past couple years, I’ve been part of a small fellowship.  We’re kind of an oddity.  We’re small, and we meet like a home fellowship, but we ended up in possession (though no effort of our own) of this 182 year old church meeting house, built in 1829.  We were all somewhat puzzled.  We knew we didn’t need it, but the circumstances that brought it into our possession made us feel we had it for a purpose.  So, we met there, and kept asking the Lord “why do we have this?”  Some “meet-in-houses-only” Christians at times explored meeting with us, but the fact that we were meeting in a “church building” really was this huge stumbling stone, and so our meeting together with them never materialized.

I myself, before joining this little fellowship, found myself increasingly of that camp.  I felt so much of “building campaigns” and the like were a waste of time and money and were focused on things rather than relationships. I was increasingly of the mindset that homes were the the only model of church life that really would produce the kind of vibrant community of love that one sees at the end of the second chapter of Acts, one where people were loving each other so much that they were selling their possessions to help those among them who were in need.

But this little fellowship messed with my ideas.  I started going there because I had some old friends who were there, including the leader of the group, Craig.  I really wasn’t planning on being a part of them, but the first day I came, I remember feeling so at home just to worship with them, and I found myself being continually drawn back.  The group was in transition at that time, which meant a number of people left, but the smaller we got the more real we got with one another, and we transitioned from Craig sitting on a stool up front, to turning around the pews in a circle, to finally all sitting in a circle in the back of the room.  That was when we got puzzled.  Five or six people sitting in a circle in a vacant building.  Why not meet in a home?  Some of you reading this, maybe have the same question.  But, I now believe God allowed it to intentionally challenge my ideas.  I was so sure I knew what the “right” model was, and it was as if he was saying to me: “You’re missing the point.”

When I first arrived at this little fellowship, Craig was leading a discussion weekly on John 15, and though we have certainly had many discussions on many other books, chapters and verses since then, there is a sense that we haven’t left that chapter.  It’s helpful to understand this chapter by viewing it from the point of view of Jesus’ humanity.  He knew he was preparing to face an excruciatingly painful death.  When people are facing death, they tend to focus on the most key, most important things.  So what was on Jesus’ mind as he faced his imminent demise? In a word, Love.  If he had one parting word, one parting thought, it was that they love one another.  Yes, he said “keep my commands”, but then if there was any doubt as to what he meant, he said “This is my command: love one another.”

I wrote about this in an earlier essay on this blog.  There, I spoke of my reflections on Judas, and how heart-breaking it must have been to the other disciples to realize they were unaware of what was going on inside of him.  Only Jesus had known.  Why had he known?  Because he loved even Judas.  The disciples, by contrast, in those last moments when Jesus was pouring out his heart, still had not really learned to love one another.  They were still vying over who was better than the other, and because of all their jockeying for position, they were blind to what was happening right in front of their eyes.  Only love can see.

And how did Jesus know that the Pharisees were plotting to kill him?  Was it because he was just so wise in the wisdom of this world?  So often we read his words to them – the “eight woes” they are often called – and we hear the way we might say those words.  For years, I sort of heard Jesus saying “You guys are real jerks.  I really don’t care for you very much.”  But slowly as the Lord loved me in my own moments of hypocrisy (play-acting, pretending), I realized his tone of voice, even then, even in those eight woes, was far different than I had ever imagined.  Now when I read those eight woes, I hear a gentle, loving, chiding voice, pleading with everything in His power for them to see themselves, and cease from their destructive murderous behavior.  Was he serious?  Dead serious.  He knew how terribly harmful their behavior was, but his viewpoint was absolute and complete love.  It was for this reason that Paul the apostle, who was a self-proclaimed “pharisee of pharisees” could write “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

“You’re missing the point.”  Yes, I had been missing the point.  Where I met with other believers was not the point.  No more than the many things the pharisees brought up were the point – whether or not you wash your hands before eating, whether or not you fast, whether or not you consider picking stalks of grain to be “breaking the sabbath.” All these things missed the point.  The point, the message of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection was Love.  Love God.  Love one another.  Love your enemies.  Far from making us blind, Love, true agape love, gives us eyes to see.

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“If only one flower stands out, it is not truly spring”

The following article was published on the Serving China Prayer Blog.  Though it was originally written to help foreigners more effectively pray for and serve the Body of Christ in China, it is really full of many lessons that we can learn from them as well.  Enjoy!

A House Church Pastor’s Perspective

By Brother Dong

EDITORS’ NOTE: This month we are so glad to present you with a letter written first-hand by a leading Chinese house church pastor himself! “Brother Dong” is a premiere Christian leader on a nationwide scale, involved in a very wide spectrum of Christian work across many provinces. Recently, he spoke to us by phone, giving us his insights on what we as a foreign servant ministry in China should focus on in the months and years ahead. It was so profoundly valuable that we asked him to put it in writing, which he agreed to do and then let us share with you also.

When Brother Dong first shared with by phone, his framework was how we could better pray for the church in China. Later, when he wrote the article, the same comments focused on how to best serve the church in China. Finally, when we read the article ourselves, we couldn’t help but notice how much we here in the West could learn from the church in China. It is our prayer that this excellent article will aid you both in better interceding for our brothers and sisters in China, as well as inspiring all of us to learn and apply lessons from the church in China to our communities of faith at home.

God’s work in China in the past fifty years has surprised many–Christians and non-Christians alike. Restricted circumstances and non-existent religious structure have birthed a homegrown movement, which does not easily fit into any traditional model. Maybe now for the first time Christianity has taken root in China. For the church to flourish within and without China, it is important for the Body of Christ to engage church in China in a holistic way.

First, help her stick to the essentials that sustain and grow a Christian or a church. There is a continual need for Bibles, and literature on spiritual life, preaching, and teaching, gospel tracts, world mission history and missionary biographies. Particularly in the current circumstances, these types of literature can reach many people at many places.

Second, help her return to the basics of Christian faith. The simplicity of Christian faith is the vitality of God’s church. The essence of Christ’s gospel needs no more than a mouth and a breath to spread. As the educational level improves in Chinese society, there is a temptation to develop elaborate theologies and practices, which are not only incomprehensible to many Christians and cause divisions, but also divert and waste the energy that should have been utilized to expand God’s Kingdom.

Third, encourage her to pick up the zeal and vision for world missions. The Chinese rural house church will be an important model for the future of world missions because 1) it is homegrown, which is non-threatening to local community and culture; 2) its strategies and methods are indigenous, mostly free of Western denominational influence, and so are flexible and adaptable; 3) its operation, without the burden of church building and clergy, is least resources-dependent, which in turn enables her to focus the resources for outreach; 4) it remains communal and relational, which is the nature of many societies/cultures in Asia and Africa; 5) it is of the lower class, which comprises of the majority of world population. This will potentially result in a shift in Christian missions and social development from “the strong reaching out the weak” to “peer help”.

Fourth, interact with the urban church productively. This requires Western believers to be especially wise, using caution in this effort. The urban church has experienced significant growth in the last fifteen years. It tends to be strong in education, affluence, skills, and resources, thus often self-sufficient. The strong background of leaders and limited exposure often result in isolation of churches. Intellectual ability often hinders urban churches from coming together because disagreement on certain doctrine or practice. Advanced training offers the urban church competence in managing efficiently, which could lead to some mega-churches. This may not be a good thing. There is a Chinese saying, which says: “If only one flower stands out, it is not truly spring.” In the same way, efficiency of one entity may not mean effectiveness of the whole Body of Christ. To gain recognition, urban church tends to institutionalize through legal/structural effort and purchase of property, which is resource-draining. The consequences may be unexpected: when the Spirit is there, everybody cares for one another; but when the Body of Christ becomes institutionalized, each person becomes just one of many which often results in insensitivity and indifference. It is our hope that urban church would not fall into Western denominational structures and theologies.

Fifth, build dialogue and partnership between urban and rural churches. Because of societal and cultural differences, China exists in two very different worlds: the rural and the urban. Despite rapid urbanization in recent years, the influx to cities is mainly of rural outlook. The feelings of inferiority among the rural versus those of privilege among the urban often hinder interaction between the two worlds. This bears similar impact on the churches as well. They need to be pushed into dialogue and partnership to utilize their respective gifts. Rural churches typically are strong in dedication, human power, time, and contextual adaptability, while urban churches possess finance, knowledge, and advanced skills. Doing projects together may offer a good venue to develop dialogue and grow partnership.

Sixth, network churches from different background and areas. Because of the current circumstances, churches, big or small, often operate within their own circles. It would be beneficial for them to cross the boundaries which they have placed between themselves so that they can catch a big picture of God’s work and His call upon the Chinese church. This is usually not easy for nationals to initiate. Foreign believers are a good third party to initiate and sustain this kind of interaction. Only through this effort can real growth and expansion happen. Then many small and solid churches will bloom all over China, rather than a few big ones in a few centers.

Seventh, help her grow in the understanding of social witness and cross-cultural outreach. The one-sided economic development in the past thirty years has left out many in society. Most of the marginalized live among or are from the rural area. Christians have won approval through their upright living in their community, but they need to actively enter the society to reach out to the needy. Churches need to open their eyes to see the needs of orphans, HIV/AIDS, prostitutes, and the poor. Another area is cross-cultural: many churches have little experience or understanding of other cultures in China’s predominately Han Chinese society. As a result many Chinese missionaries are not effective in their work among ethnic minority groups. There is a need to understand cross-cultural issues and their practical implementation in order to include those people groups in fulfilling the Great Commission. Chinese churches are rich in resources, which can be effectively used for reaching out people outside of China, such as North Korean refugees and people-groups in Southeast Asia.

Finally, rekindle dedication to and sacrifice for Christ. As China develops economically, comfort, security, and stability begin to set in. Programs and strategies become increasingly sophisticated. There is a need to return to simplicity and rekindle the spirit of dedication and sacrifice. That is the most sustainable strategy in bringing the whole world to Christ!

I LOVED this…

Okay, one of my favorite bloggers has outdone himself.  Great little article.  “Why I Don’t Like Church Names” —  Check it out!

Organic

I grew up in the counter-culture – hippies, communal houses, civil rights marches, anti-war demonstrations, and yes organic gardening.  When I was about 5 or 6, our family moved to a big farm in the country to seek intentional community, and to get back-to-nature.  (All these years later, I still love the song “Woodstock” by Crosby Stills Nash and Young with the words “got to get ourselves back to the garden” — I think they were on to something there, humanity is still longing for the Garden, a place of connectedness with God and the rest of creation, not that CSNY’s interpretation of what that looked like or how to get there was on target.)  We had a huge organic garden behind our house, and I have fond memories of walking through the fields to collect praying mantis egg cases to put in our garden.  If you do not know, a praying mantis is an insect that eats other insects, and if you put them in your garden they will eat the insects that might eat your vegetables.  We also ordered lady bugs in the mail, which also eat other bugs (as you might guess from this memoir, I was an atypical girl — I loved bugs and frogs and the like).  Our dogs dealt with the deer and rabbits.  So, it is with these memories that I think about the term “organic church” or “organic community”.

What does this mean practically?  It means that the idea of “organic community” has to do with letting things grow naturally the way God intended.  It means finding His way of dealing with problems that arise, instead of inventing some man-made rule or organizational structure.  We are finding all the time that the man-made chemicals which we have used to “protect” our crops from pests actually are not so good for us (wow!  what a surprise that stuff that’s made to poison bugs could also hurt us!)  In the same way, our worldly ways of dealing with things like church discipline, harmful teaching, etc can actually also slowly poison us, and can in the end become as bad or worse than what we were seeking to protect ourselves from in the first place.  Or perhaps we are seeking to preserve something, much like many fruit & vegetable genetic hybrids seek to extend shelf-life.  However, like those hybrids, we can end up with a tasteless copy of what we were trying to preserve.

So, how do we do this thing called “organic church”?  I believe we must begin by challenging our assumptions.  We can not do things simply because “we’ve always done them that way”.  That does not mean that we have to throw something out simply because it’s traditional.  Some traditions are good.  They can provide us with a sense of stability and continuity, and actually can help foster a sense of community.  However, when traditions no longer express the heart of God, we need to examine them carefully, and modify them or discard them to more clearly express our message.  This is what I believe Jesus was referring to when He said to the Pharisees that they “nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.” (Matt 15:6)  It wasn’t tradition that was the problem.  The problem was making the tradition more important than the word of God – i.e. the message of God – which was to express justice, mercy and compassion to the downcast of the world (which, if we correctly understand the condition of the world, is the entire world).

Unfortunately, such “nullifying traditions” are typically so much a part of our culture that we are no longer aware of them.  Thus, in order to challenge our own assumptions we must approach with humble hearts and a desire for change, and we must ask the Lord to reveal to us the things we can not see.  I also believe it is vitally important that we continually ask this of ourselves, not simply point to those outside ourselves.  For instance, it can become very easy to focus on the speck in the “institutional” church’s eye, and neglect the plank in our own eye.  All of us are susceptible to developing “pet traditions” that make us very comfortable, but do not accurately reflect the heart of God.  As the psalmist said “Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults.” (Psalm 19:12).

Hebrews 10:25 – Why We Gather…

Last post I talked about my journey towards a deeper understanding of Hebrews 10:25. I began by sharing what I realized this scripture did not say, specifically:

  • It didn’t say be sure to go to church every Sunday.
  • It didn’t say be sure that you gather in a specially designed building.
  • It didn’t say be sure you join an institution.
  • It didn’t say gather in one place around one primary leader.
  • It didn’t say make sure you hear a 1-hour sermon every week (or a 40-minute one, or a 30-minute one).
  • It didn’t even say how often to meet.

So what does it say? Well, let’s look at the context a bit. Hebrews 10:22-25 says:

22 let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; 24 and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, 25 not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.

These verses imply a number of things about the purpose Christian community. Here are a few, I see:

  • To draw near to God
  • To experience forgiveness
  • To help each other hold fast and to not waver in our faith
  • To spur each other on to love and good deeds
  • To encourage each other

Furthermore, when reading the entirety of the book of Hebrews, one finds a major theme through out is that this world is a very difficult place, very much like a wilderness, which has a hardening tendency on our hearts (2:1, 3:7-8, 3:15, 4:7). It is in this context that we are exorted to:

The verse in 3:13 is especially interesting. I remember reading this verse once a few years back, and realized for the first time that it said to encourage each other “daily”. I looked up this word in my Greek lexicon, and found it meant (and I quote) “daily”. It hit me then that I wasn’t sure I had ever in my life encouraged someone or been encouraged by someone every single day.

So, a radical return to Hebrews 10:25-type gathering is what I would like to experience, in every increasing measure, in this life. Are you experiencing that? Let me hear from you. Feel free to leave a comment.

My Journey to Hebrews 10:25

I lived overseas for a while. The place I was living was wonderful, but the problem with leaving what you know is that when you come home you tend to see everything with a new set of eyes. So it was when I moved back home. The things I used to think normal now bothered me. One of those things was what we call “church”.

I remember in those early days of being home, the hype and commercialism of American church life were in my face daily, screaming at me, and I experienced what some would call “a crisis of faith”. Ironically I was speaking in some churches, and as I was driving from one engagement to another, I said, “God, I don’t even know what I believe any more!” I was thinking about all the hyped-up “truths” I was hearing presented as if these things were ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY from God, when really they were nothing more than our American cultural opinions. I suddenly felt I simply didn’t want to be a part of that kind of Christianity anymore.

A still small voice spoke to my heart and said: “Do you believe in Jesus?” I was so exasperated that I didn’t answer right away. I really had to think about it. Finally, after forcing myself to remember the story of how I came to faith (which was quite powerful, and for another place and time), I answered, “Yes, I believe in Jesus.”

For months after that I felt as if Jesus was all I believed in. And because all the other extraneous “stuff” was flying out the window, I really didn’t get a lot of joy from “church”, by which I mean Sunday morning services as we practice them typically in our culture today. I was so unhappy with church life that I began to question God about that too:

Q: What is this thing we call attending church anyway? Where in the Bible does it say I have to “attend church”.

A: This is what it says:

“Do not forsake the assembling of yourselves together…” (Hebrews 10:25)
Wow! What a simple statement. I began to study Hebrews 10:25 with passion. What first hit me was what it did not say:
  • It didn’t say be sure to go to church every Sunday
  • It didn’t say be sure that you gather in a specially designed building
  • It didn’t say be sure you join an institution
  • It didn’t say gather in one place around one primary leader
  • It didn’t say make sure you hear a 1-hour sermon every week (or a 40-minute one, or a 30-minute one)
  • It didn’t even say how often to meet.

I began to view “church” differently. Sometimes, I would be really tired on Sunday mornings, and would not feel up for going. I would feel the old indoctrination pulling at me saying: you really should go.

(Funny, I didn’t even grow up in church, I became a Christian as an adult – grew up agnostic/pagan/New Age – and yet I still felt indoctrinated! How did that happen???)

Anyway, when the “should” came into my mind, a simple question would come each time in response: “Have you forsaken gathering together with other people of faith?” Each time I heard this question, I realized I had, in fact, not forsaken Christian community (usually I was so tired because I had been to numerous gatherings with other believers all week). Further the question itself revealed to me that it wasn’t the joy of community that was drawing me to the Sunday morning service, but a sense of religious obligation.

Please understand, I am not “anti-Sunday-morning”. I am only saying that whatever day we meet together our purpose should be to encourage and strengthen each other, and if we are doing something that doesn’t do that, then we’re not really doing “church” (which means “gathering”) according to Hebrews 10:25. I’m also saying there really is nothing sacred about meeting on Sunday morning per se, unless it’s sacred to you.

There’s a lot more to say about this. Most importantly, what does Hebrew 10:25 (and the rest of the book of Hebrews) have to say about our purpose in gathering together? I’ve hinted at it so far. In a future post, I hope to speak to this in depth.

“Alternative Church… Organic Church… what?”

I wasn’t sure what to name this blog. I had other names that stuck out at me more than Alternative Church, but they were already taken. My favorite is Organic Church, a term I coined for myself, but found someone else also coined the same term for themselves. I think I like that term because it paints a picture of what I want to be rather than what I don’t want to be. The word “Alternative” indicates there is something that one is reacting against — that is, an alternative is always an alternative to something. There has to be something you don’t want to have an alternative.

Organic on the other hand speaks of a vision of something that is as natural as breathing. Nothing artificial, nothing man-made. Growing naturally, being tended not cultivated. Not manipulated, but allowing it to be what it is naturally.

Still, alternative has some positive connotations for me, and most “alternatives” I have been exposed to came from a desire to have something more authentic, more “organic”, if the truth be told. Growing up, I spent more half my school years in what were called alternative schools. These schools were born out of trying to find methods of education that worked more effectively than the traditional methods. During what would have been considered grades 1-4, I was enrolled in free schools, except for 1 year when I was home schooled. No we were not Christians, which is what most today associate the home school movement, we were hippies. My Dad was an atheist, and my mother agnostic. The home schooling occurred because there were no good alternative schools available where we were living for that year. I have fond memories of trying to dodge the truant officer (we were certainly ahead of our time)!

The Free Schools you can read about at the link (but it’s wikipedia, so take it with a grain of salt), but to summarize, they were schools with very few rules or expectations. The idea was to give freedom to kids to learn in their own way at their own pace. Though the schools themselves had age ranges, they did not separate the children into grades, give grades, or have traditional classrooms. Teachers all went by their first names (yes, you could say it was a “hippie school”).

I can honestly say there were some major drawbacks to this method of schooling, though some aspects of it worked well for me personally. Being naturally inquisitive, I sought out opportunities to learn. I remember when I was 8, I had a math teacher named Lou Fabrizio. All the students loved him. We all thought he was “super cool” – long hair he wore in a pony tail, and an easy teasing manner that went over well with everyone. One day, he happened to mention Algebra, and I asked him what it was. He explained it to me in such a way that I understood and actually found fascinating. So at the age 8 I had my first exposure to algebraic equations. It was only years later in the public school system that I found out that Algebra was not typically introduced until 7th or 8th grade at least (I don’t know if that’s still true, but it was then).

I also believe the schools were very positive for fostering creativity. I wrote and bound my first book during that period. It was called “The Cat Who Had Too Many Kittens”, and was about a cat that had an astronomically large number of kittens, and all the trouble it caused her. My best friend and I wrote and starred in a musical that we performed for our families. I also wrote poetry, many short stories, and was apprenticed for a time to the improvisational theater group Living Stage. Where we did “miss it” was that we went to the far extreme in the other direction. Believing structure was the enemy, we had almost no structure. For me that worked okay, since I am fairly self-directed, and thrive in that kind of atmosphere, but for other students not so well. Structure was not the enemy. Killing the human spirit and the natural exuberance of the children was.

After that, from 5th to 9th grades I went into the normal public school system. Talk about culture shock! To make matters worse it was a public school system in a rural area, which had been largely untouched by the social movements my family had been so much a part of. I instinctively knew that my past life did not fit into the frame of reference of those around me, and for most of my public school years hid my previous school experience from even my closest friends. Nonetheless, I did well academically. My brother not so well. However, not fitting in with the “brainy” crowd, who all thought I was a little weird, I soon was hanging with “The Outsiders” (S.E. Hinton was a novelist I and a number of my friends read back then, and we all related to “the Outsiders”. We didn’t call ourselves that really, but remembering I find the term and the mindset fits us well).

My mother seeing that I was languishing in the public schools suggested private school, but I didn’t want to go to a school with a bunch of “preppies” (the word at that time was a term of contempt among my crowd). Thank God for the “alternative” that presented itself, which was an alternative school I ended up attending for grades 10-12. This school had taken the best ideas of the free schools and yet added necessary structure. It was far from “preppie” (though we did have one or two token preppies in our student body, but they too were part of our community).

We had classrooms, but they were small, and had round tables at which everyone sat instead of desks in rows. We had grades, but the entire community of the school had daily and weekly interactions with each other across grade levels through school meetings at which everyone, student and teacher alike had a voice. Our classes emphasized traditional subjects of math, English, history, literature, and foreign language, but also gave equal importance to philosophy, art, music, drama and environmental studies. We had no “study halls” instead students all had several “free periods” each day which we could use as we saw fit — hanging out, studying, working in the art studio, playing music, or debating philosophy on the back porch (my personal favorite). And, as in the free schools, all the teachers were known on a first name basis (to this day some teachers I can only remember by their first names: Roger my English teacher, Tom my biology teacher, etc). I honestly believe that school changed my life. Instead of languishing, I thrived, and my heart came to life again.

What does all this have to do with church? Am I saying that we should have “hippie churches”. No, not exactly. Wouldn’t exactly work since the hippie movement is by and large gone. It’s really kind of a parable of church life today. Maybe we can learn lessons from these folks who went before us who were looking for more authentic and organic in models for educating children, in the same way that many today are looking for more authentic models of Christianity and Christian community. Can we learn from their mistakes as well as their successes? The free schools made the mistake of seeing “structure” as the enemy. Today I think sometimes we in the “alternative” Christian community are making the mistake of seeing “institutions” or “programs” as the enemy. In fact, neither is the problem. You may beg to differ, but actually it is possible to experience true community in an institution. I did at my alternative high school (yes, isn’t a high school an “institution”).

We run the risk of thinking the answer lies in finding the right model. We also run the risk of becoming reactionary. The free school movement didn’t keep kids from getting damaged, we just got damaged in different ways from what happened in the public schools (just as we did also in fact thrive in different ways).

In the same way, if we develop new models of church life, new models of Christian community only as a reaction to what we see not working we may find ourselves throwing out necessary components which in our minds we attach to what didn’t work, but may in themselves be neutral, just like the free schools threw out all structure because they saw certain school structures stifled natural childhood creativity and exuberance. History is full of many more examples. Instead we may need to see structures as subservient to function, just as the alternative high school I went to embraced the structures that helped them while throwing off the ones that did not. The catch is we’ve gotta know what we are for, and not just what we are against.

So what are we for? I’m still learning myself, but I believe Hebrews 10 hold as clue. I’ll write about that next time. I’ve rambled enough for now.