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Spiritual Orienteering

Recently, my pastor spoke on the topic of prayer, with Jesus’ introduction of the prayer we now call The Lord’s Prayer as the scriptural basis for his sermon.During the sermon, he brought up a very important aspect of prayer as it pertains to God’s nature.

God, being quite a bit smarter than us, more than a little wiser than us, and just darn better than us in about every way, is not the kind of guy who needs us to tell him how things are. He knows how things are. He knows what we need. Whether or not you believe that the future is pre-ordained, no matter how you wrap your head around the idea that God exists outside of time as we know it, it’s (hopefully) not a very controversial statement to say that God does not need status reports from us in order to work in our lives.

So why do we sometimes treat prayer like meeting minutes? Often, when we pray (alone or together) we end up having very informational prayers. Have you ever been in this situation at the end of a church meeting?

“Alright, do we have any prayer concerns?”
“Well, uh…my niece is sick.”
“I’m traveling this weekend.”
“Oh yeah — I’m job hunting. Interview on Friday.”
“Alright, let’s pray. Lord, heal her sick niece, watch over his travel, and help her find a job. Amen. Good meeting everyone, see you later.”

Sound familiar? I bet it does.
Sound like spiritually formative prayer? I hope it doesn’t.

Getting our Bearings

Now, before I go on, I want to make it clear that I’m not really criticizing this kind of prayer as part of the full experience of faith. Sharing our concerns with one another and lifting them up to God is not only completely legitimate but it’s also something I’ve seen God respond to over and over again in my life. God clearly does answer prayers of supplication, and I’m not at all suggesting that we should stop asking him for help.

Instead, I’m challenging two ideas: first, that prayers of supplication should be little more than checklists, and second, that such prayers by themselves make up a healthy life of prayer. Prayer is much, much more than that!

North

Here’s what really struck me during that sermon: We often treat prayer like meeting minutes, and we also often treat prayer like a shopping list. But that’s not what prayer’s meant to be like. Instead, prayer is like a compass.

Let’s think about a compass. The most obvious similarity to prayer is that it’s meant to help you navigate; prayer is often the most powerful when you’re lost and need to get out of trouble. But it goes further, into the nature of the thing.

A compass doesn’t tell you where to go, or how to get there, and it doesn’t magically take you where you’re going. Instead, a compass points north. It always points north. When you use a compass, you don’t orient the compass to you; you orient yourself to the compass. And then, having figured out which way is up. you can work out the direction you’re meant to go and continue toward your destination.

North is a constant*, and no amount of selfishness, ignorance, or impatience on your part will change it. You may lose track of which way north is, but north will still be north, and the compass will always bring realign you. Just this way, God is still God no matter how much or how little attention you pay him, but you can always find him when you align yourself with his magnetism.

Section

A message from Sunder Krishnan, presented at Urbana 2009, left an indelible impact on me in this idea. Some key ideas that he expressed concisely:

So much of our praying is simply repeating back to God what he already knows, as if he needs us to tell him.

And later:

One of the most important things I’ve learned in a life of 30 years of prayer, surprising though it may seem, is fundamentally not about getting answers…circumstances outside of you may not seem to change, but you will be unrecognizably changed.

You should definitely watch his whole message. It’s full of powerful ideas.

Another little note – Pope Francis has been quoted as saying:

You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.

Conclusion

Again, my purpose in writing this is not to criticize or object to the “bookend” prayers that are so common in church meetings and similar settings. Rather, I want to share how beautiful prayer has been for me, how transforming it has been in my life, and how much deeper and richer it is than one might think if one’s only exposure to prayer is limited and formulaic.

I would love to know what prayer means to you.


* I know that, scientifically, magnetic north is not actually completely constant. But for the purposes of the metaphor, that’s not important.

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A short note on moderation

 
To some, I might not seem like I’m politically moderate because I lean enough to the left that, especially with our current national government leaders, I often end up supporting Democrats and liberal/progressive sides in public issues.
 
But for a long time I’ve identified as a moderate because my hope, my heart, lies with seeking a solution that will benefit all, that will extend love to all, and that recognizes the inherent danger in extremes. Most extremes (not necessarily all, but certainly most) tend not to benefit every person, but instead to favor one group or another.
 
That said, I think this graphic illustrates a really important point about moderation, balance, and seeking middle grounds. I believe all ideas have a right to be heard, but that doesn’t mean all ideas have a right to be treated equally. I believe everyone has a right to defend their point of view, but it’s important to recognize that sometimes a perspective is so wrong that the most compassionate, generous response which is still valid is “No, simply no.”
 
It’s incredibly difficult to figure out when that is. I know I’ve screwed it up before and I know I’ll screw it up again. But I will still always seek balance, love, compassion, and good, and I still believe that so long as most of us are genuinely doing that, we’ll keep getting better.

InterVarsity Blog: Why We Don’t Need to Fear the Paradoxes of Our Faith

I have another post to share with you that I wrote for work! This time, I’m actually on the National InterVarsity blog, writing about perhaps the best book I’ve read this year, Paradoxology by Krish Kandiah.

I’ve written before about the fact that Christianity is hard and complicated – and I hope to write more about that soon, so hopefully the fact that I loved this book will come as no surprise to you.

You can read the full post over on the InterVarsity blog, but here’s an excerpt:

I was in love with Paradoxology: Why Christianity Was Never Meant to Be Simple before I’d even finished the introduction. In a few simple sentences, author Krish Kandiah not only reassures us that it’s okay to have questions, but he also hints at a deeper truth: it’s important to have questions.

Facing up to hard questions about God can be disconcerting. Believers may feel we are letting the side down if we dare to admit we still have questions. Perhaps we fear that in admitting to unresolved questions in our faith, we might lead other people into doubt and destabilize, or even destroy, their faith. Often we are taught—or at least we pick up by osmosis—that Christian maturity means giving confident, slick answers without a hint of uncertainty. But this is simply wrong. False assurance is no assurance at all, and taking time to tackle the difficult passages of the Bible head on may in fact be exactly what we need to help strengthen and life-proof our faith. If what we believe is true, it will stand up to questioning.

In Paradoxology, Kandiah takes this idea of embracing questions seriously by looking at 13 themes from Scripture that seem, on the surface, to be paradoxes we can’t resolve. Most importantly, he doesn’t just offer some clever mental gymnastics to make the paradox go away. Instead, he invites us to embrace the beauty of a God who’s big enough, wise enough, and creative enough to stretch our powers of reasoning and exercise our faith.

Give it a read, let me know what you think!

Jesus Came to Party

This past weekend, I was in Whippany, New Jersey at GameChurch Academy East. GameChurch‘s ministry exists, in their own words, to bridge the gap between the Gospel and the gamer.

You may have noticed that I have a modest amount of interest in that gap, myself.

Sunday morning, we didn’t go to church, but Drew Dixon (GameChurch’s Editor-in-Chief) took us to church anyway with a powerful message. I won’t try to emulate him, because I don’t think I’m quite that good with words, and I don’t have a seminary degree, but I want to share the crux of the message he brought, because it was huge for me. It’s something I’d contemplated before, but it clicked for me in a new way thanks to Drew.

Jesus came to party. That’s not an exaggeration. It might not mean what you picture when you first imagine someone partying, and it definitely doesn’t mean a lot of things that could be implied if you wanted to give it a bad spin. Nonetheless, Jesus came to party.

Wait, really?

First things first: Jesus dined with all manner of social outcasts, from tax collectors to prostitutes, and he deliberately, intentionally, preferentially spent his time with people that his culture (and ours) would tell you are unworthy, unwelcome, and unclean. He didn’t just tolerate them; he built his plan around that time. He planned to stop and dine with Zacchaeus (Luke 19:5). He chose to travel through Samaria (John 4) instead of going the long way round. He stopped (Luke 8:45-48) when the sick woman touched his cloak.

The gospels say that Jesus came eating and drinking, and that his detractors called him a glutton and a drunkard (Matthew 11:19). Now, I suppose its possible that they leveled this accusation against him because of the company Jesus kept, and that Jesus never let a bad bite or suspect sip past his lips. Personally, I’m skeptical about this. What kind of man would invite himself over for dinner and then say “no thanks” to everything you offered him?

We know that Jesus never sinned, but we can also be pretty confident that he ate and drank with his unclean, unwelcome hosts in a way that made the self-righteous social elites of his day accuse him of sinful excess. That’s important. Why? Because Jesus always, always, met the people who needed him the most where he found them, not where he wanted them to go.

So what?

As a religion, Christianity has a pretty shameful track record. In the past two thousand years, although we’ve done wonderful, beautiful things for one another, for science, for art, for every discipline and aspect of human life you can name, we’ve also been responsible for a heartbreaking amount of abuse and hurt. There are dozens of valuable resources to help illuminate this truth, so I won’t belabor the point here. The important thing for us to recognize is that in every generation, there are huge proportions of people who, though they’ve never been rejected by God, have been hurt, attacked, and neglected by the Church.

These people existed in Jesus’ day, too, and those were the people he favored above all others. There is a perfect inverse correlation between how important someone was to the church of Jesus’ day and how important they were to Jesus’ ministry.

What I really loved about Drew’s message was how he related this to how we should behave as followers of Christ. All too often, the attitude of Christian communities is one that tells others, “In this group, we’ve figured out how to live. We’re good people, and if you’re not one of us, you probably aren’t that great.” Occasionally, these communities are proud of that attitude, haughtily celebrating their own excellence. More often, though, we do it by accident. What we intend as a celebration, an expression of our gratitude that God has saved unworthy souls like us, crashes like waves of arrogance against the ears of those who have been hurt by us or other Christian groups.

What does that mean for me?

I won’t pretend this isn’t a tricky needle to thread; as a follower of Jesus, I believe that his Grace has saved me from things I couldn’t escape any other way. I believe there is something unique and powerful about following him. And, at the end of the day, I have to admit that believing that requires believing people who don’t follow Jesus are missing out. But it doesn’t require that I think less of them, that I treat them like dirt, or even that I believe I’m better than they are. I don’t believe that at all. And I don’t want to convey that, even by accident.

Jesus was God incarnate. Unlike me, he was better than the people he met with. But he still met with them, the way they met. He still joined them in their own world and invited them to something beautiful. He didn’t stand in the temple and yell “Sinners, come here!”

I want to share the Gospel with everyone I can. I want people to experience the incredible love of Jesus the way I have. But I’m not out to fix people. If we’re friends and you don’t party with Jesus, I’m not going to pretend I don’t wish you did. But never for one second will I suggest that you don’t deserve love, friendship, and happiness until then. Instead, I’m here to party with you. I love you already. So does Jesus. And he’s ready to party, too.

MDS Blog: Finding Frenemies

Our team in InterVarsity’s Ministry in Digital Spaces crew recently put together a series of blog posts on engaging with social media, and you should check it out right here.

For my part, I wrote a post called Finding Frenemies. It’s important to make sure your social media feed includes some voices that challenge you. Here’s a small excerpt:

It can be scary and challenging to discuss different points of view. We might not feel like we know enough to back up what we believe. We might be afraid that the other person will outwit us. We might be afraid to find out if we were wrong about something! But that’s also why it’s so important to seek out these opportunities: if we’re wrong about something, it may hurt to admit it, but we get correction and can go forward with better understanding. And if we’re right, we come away from the exchange even better prepared to defend the truth.

I hope you’ll head over and give the whole series a read! We don’t currently have comments enabled on the MDS blog so feel free to comment here or come say hi on Facebook or Twitter.

MDS Blog: Technology, Empire, and Authority

I have a new blog post over on InterVarsity’s Ministry in Digital Spaces Blog, reflecting on a talk given by Andy Crouch at this year’s InterVarsity Staff Conference. He gave a great talk, and I had some thoughts on digging deeper into one of the topics he covered.

A snippet:

No one, if they’re honest, wants to be vulnerable. Christ teaches the importance of it, and the richness of life that comes when we embrace this truth, but we all have hearts that want to get rich quick, and High Authority, High Vulnerability life is a get rich slow scheme. Technology lays no special claim on the earnest pursuit of a more comfortable, less demanding way of living.

Check out the full post, and the rest of the great stuff our team has written!

A Psalm for a Digital Age

I wrote this psalm last August during a team retreat for MDS. I just found it again while looking through old notes. It seemed good to share it. Forgive the plagiarism of the first line.

How lovely is your dwelling place, oh Lord Almighty
And how vast its storehouses, full of food for the feast.
You invite us to sit and dine with you,
to sample the treasures you have prepared just for us.
We ask you, selfishly, to tell us the price of admission,
for we fear that the cost is too great

And you tell us,
smilingly,
“Love me”

And we say to ourselves,
“is a feast of infinite richness
worth so high a price?”

Lord, though you have given us so much already,
we need you ever more to fix our broken scales
Which regard the unburdening lightness of your fee
heavier than our hardened hearts

Father God, be gracious to your children,
and in every room and hall and avenue
and help us weigh your grace with more honest scales
and bring our appetites to embrace your bounty

Amen.

Believing in Equality

Recently, I shared an article on Facebook detailing how two coworkers – one male and one female – had very different experiences dealing with clients, and they proved sexism was involved by swapping email signatures for two weeks. That resulted in a torturous week for him and an incredibly productive week for her. Read the article for the rest of that story; the rest of this post isn’t really about that article.

When I shared the link, my dear friend Laura spoke up, first commenting on my post and then later composing her own post about this story (and others like it).

Here’s what she said:

Hey, you know what would be cool? If everyone just BELIEVED WOMEN WHEN THEY SAID THEY ARE TREATED UNFAIRLY AND IN A SEXIST MANNER instead of only noticing their complaints when it *gasp* happens to a man!

I guarantee she had mentioned it before and he (and the other boss) just dismissed it.

Just believe women when we talk about our experiences, for the love of god, and stop acting like there’s some sort of giant revelation when a man realizes we’re actually, really serious.

She has an excellent point, and I support her entirely. I want to encourage everyone to err on the side of believing people’s stories, especially when it’s about the lived experience of being different from you (I’ll talk about men believing women for this post, but the theme can also apply to race, sexuality, gender identity, and a host of others).

In order to contribute to this goal, I want to share some thoughts on why it might be that men often struggle to believe women when they learn things like this, why I’ve failed to do so in the past. Let me be absolutely clear, before I begin, none of the following is meant as an excuse or justification for mistreating or marginalizing anyone. I’m not trying to get myself off the hook or excuse any lapses in judgment. But I think looking at why we struggle to empathize with one another is an important step in bridging the gap.

My Experience

Let me lay out my entirely unearned credentials: I’m a straight, white, cisgender Protestant American male. Quite by accident, I won privilege bingo; the only possible claim I have on being marginalized is that I’m left-handed, which means I had a rough time with scissors in elementary school.

So in context of this discussion, that means I struggle to relate my own experience to the majority of stories I hear about women being mistreated, marginalized, or harmed in a sexist incident. Sure, I’ve had my share of people insulting or mistreating me, but never because I’m male. So when I hear of this kind of treatment, I’ve learned that I can’t rely on instinct or experience to respond.

I’ve also started to understand one reason it’s hard for many men to believe women when they hear accounts like this. No reason justifies or excuses it, and this needs to be confronted and overcome, but understanding it helped me start doing that in my own life. It has little to do with facts and much to do with perspective.

Perspective

Have you ever heard someone say they’ve never watched your favorite movie and reacted in shock? “You’re kidding, right? Everyone’s seen Star Wars!”

Have you ever seen someone freak out when they hear of another culture’s delicacies? “Wait, people actually eat that?”

Those are examples of culture shock, and the kind of disbelief men express when women share their stories behaves similarly. In short, we doubt stories more when they conflict with our expectations of how people treat one another. We react with disbelief because we don’t expect what we hear – not because we mistrust the person telling us, but because we aren’t prepared for the story to be true. And, being privileged in the ways that we are, men are more likely to doubt stories of sexist abuse and mistreatment precisely because we’re less likely to be victims of that very abuse.

I suspect (and hope) that the majority of these cases are accidental, automatic responses. New information doesn’t fit into our picture of the world until we make room for it; the more a piece of information conflicts with our preconceptions, more effort it takes to make room for it, so we’re more likely to resist it. For men who have never experienced sexism firsthand, being mistreated because of one’s sex can honestly feel like a huge paradigm shift.

Now, at this point, we could say “See, there’s a reason for the doubt, it’s justified!” and use that as an excuse to remain comfortably oblivious.

Or, perhaps worse, we could say, “See, men and women both deal with challenges when it comes to this sort of thing,” and use that as an excuse to feel like we’re helping without actually helping.

But neither of those responses are actually worth anything. Yes, there is a reason for the doubt, but upon realizing it, we now have an obstacle to overcome, not a cushion to settle in. Yes, men have challenges to face when it comes to embracing and establishing true, lasting equality, but no sane person should claim that being oblivious to harm is just as bad as being a victim of that harm.

What To Do

So here’s some practical advice.

First, a statement I made earlier: err on the side of believing. When someone tells you about something they’re personally experiencing, grant them the grace and trust to treat it seriously, even if it sounds strange to you – maybe even especially then. Give them a chance to tell you more and include you before drawing any conclusions. Importantly, I’m not saying that you need to believe everything everyone says, always. People do lie and exaggerate, for lots of different reasons. That will come out if it’s the case; but frankly I’d rather believe someone and try to help them, only to be deceived, than deny help to someone who really needed it.

“Help me understand” – The best advice I’ve heard on bridging a gap like this involves inviting people to share. If a woman tells you she’s being treated unfairly and in a sexist way, and it’s shocking, your instinct may be to disbelieve because it’s unlike anything you’ve experienced. Tell her so, and ask her to help you understand better. It’s not her job to help you understand, but at the same time, letting someone know that you’re willing to help but not sure you have the tools is a much better starting point than saying “I don’t believe you.”

When in doubt, be vulnerable. Acknowledge that your perspective is incomplete. I’ll start: Friends, I’m writing this post with very good intentions, but I recognize that I am still a novice in this area. I don’t want to sound like an expert telling you what to do, and if anything I’ve said here sounds wrong to you, please let me know, so that I can be a better support to all my friends and neighbors.

At the end of the day, we only know what it’s like to be us. Life consists of constant exposure to the unfamiliar. The best person any of us can be embraces that strangeness and says “I don’t know what’s going on here, but I want to, so that I can use every scrap of knowledge to make the world a better place for everyone.”

What do you think? Can we do that?

Christianity is Hard: Sacrifice, Risk, and Trust

Christianity is supposed to be hard.

It is challenging and taxing and heart-wrenching.

It is also, undoubtedly, beautiful and life-giving and affirming.

These things are not at odds with one another.

Christianity is holistic, and how could something to cover all of life without both pleasure and pain, both hardship and comfort, both joy and sorrow?

Clarity

When I say that it is meant to be hard, perhaps I should start with what I don’t mean by that.

I don’t mean that Christianity is designed to be unpleasant, unrewarding, joyless, boring, stressful, guilt-ridden, shaming, or unsatisfying. God is not a tyrant who demands that we not have any fun. God derives no pleasure from our pain. His will is not for us to despise our earthly lives. A certain legalistic, puritanical interpretation of the Bible has led some throughout history to believe, essentially, that if something feels good in any way, it must be a sin. This is not the world the Bible teaches.

What, then, do I mean when I say that Christianity is supposed to be hard? I mean many things, but today I want to focus on sacrifice, risk, and trust.

Sacrifice, Risk, and Trust

My incredible friend Mark Weber once preached on this topic, and it’s from him that I gleaned the triad “sacrifice, risk, and trust.” He helped me see the significance of Abraham’s willingness to trust God and sacrifice Isaac; of Moses’ willingness to trust God and be the voice for Israel despite his doubt in his own abilities; of the dozens of risks Jesus took during his life, and the hundreds of risks his apostles took  after his ascension.

The theme is constant in the Bible; for brevity, I’m only posting one reference for each.

Sacrifice

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans 12:1-2 (ESV)

Risk

Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.

John 15:13 (ESV)

Trust

When I am afraid,
    I put my trust in you.
In God, whose word I praise,
    in God I trust; I shall not be afraid.
    What can flesh do to me?

Psalm 56:3-4 (ESV)

God promises great rewards to his faithful; this is essential. But God, equally essentially, also promises that this reward comes at a cost. Jesus was crucified, and he told those following him that to serve him was to take up their own cross and follow. To an extent, Jesus was speaking metaphorically; he was not saying that every Christian should or would be literally crucified. He was, however, making plain that following him came at the risk of very painful burdens. I remind myself that crucifixion is where we get the word “excruciating.”

There’s a common pattern in the Bible:

God gives a command that puts His servants in dangerous, difficult situations.
They obey.
They succeed only by God’s help.
God rewards them.

Importantly, the reward comes after the obedience.

This is not a simple equation, where risk in yields reward out in some one-to-one equivalence. Rather, this is a challenge to the idea that Christianity is as simple as praying the Sinner’s Prayer, asking God to fix you, and life being painless and stress-free from there on out. Life stays hard, and may even get harder. The point is this: a hard life as a Christian is not at odds with Scripture.

Many, if not all, of the most beautiful moments in my life would have been impossible without pain preceding them. There’s an extent to which that’s really frustrating, but a much greater extent to which it is exactly what makes life worthwhile. If you’ve ever been dissatisfied because the version of Christianity you’ve heard seems too simple and easy and rose-tinted, fear not: the truth is much, much more complicated, and infinitely more beautiful.


I have at least two more posts in mind on this topic, but this was enough for one entry. As always, I welcome any feedback, questions, or outlandish ridiculous comments you have. Leave it here, on social media, or whatever method suits you.

Oh, That’s Easy

“Oh, that’s easy – just wget the tarball, unzip it, chmod 0744 the shell script and ./install.”

“Oh, that’s easy – it’s a 4 chord song in the key of C, just follow along, you’ll pick it up really quick.”

“Oh, that’s easy – just dice some onions, brown the beef, and mix these spices, then sautee the whole thing with a few cloves of garlic.”

One of the most powerful, fascinating skills the human brain has is the ability to take fascinating, wonderful, complicated things and make us feel like they’re simple. We assimilate, absorb, consume the essence of an activity so that we transform from bumbling creatures unable to lift our own heads into multitasking heroes, performing incredible feats of coordination, calculation, and dexterity – and be unimpressed. When’s the last time you brushed your teeth and thought, “Wow, I’m really getting good at this!” or patted yourself on the back for having the coordination required to pat yourself on the back?

Okay, I got weird there for a second. Bringing it back:

This is a terribly important skill for us to have. If we, as a species, were unable to acclimate and develop new norms, we’d still be emotionally overwhelmed every time we saw fire – to say nothing of electricity, chemistry, music, and everything else we take for granted most days. It is vital to progress, invention, learning, and it’s a beautiful thing.

However, like everything else, we take this skill – our ability to take incredible things and normalize them – and we normalize it. This, too, is good, but it can have some consequences. The most significant is this: after we learn something, we quickly forget what it was like to not know it. We forget how to empathize with people who don’t know, and we rapidly begin assuming that most people also know everything we do, even though we had no idea what we’ve learned was a thing, not so long ago.

Here’s a trivial example: When I was in third grade, I was pretty good at arithmetic. I was always one of the first ones done multiplication table challenges, I got A’s on my test, and I was doing stuff in double digits (a big deal for a third grader!). One day, my teacher asked me to help another student who was struggling with multiplication. I went over to help, and after a few false starts, trying to explain how multiplication worked, I broke down in tears. I didn’t know how to explain arithmetic to my friend — I just did it. Four times three didn’t make twelve because I’d followed a sequence of steps to arrive at that answer. It just was twelve.

There are plenty of more complicated examples, like those I’ve listed at the beginning. As we develop mastery over a topic, especially one in our career or favorite hobby, we transition from “how do I” to “I bet I can” to “Oh, so that’s how” to “Oh, that’s easy.”

The important thing, which I’ve only learned much more recently, is how this affects the way we share our knowledge with others. It is good and important for each of us to develop mastery in skills, and be able to regard as easy things which were once mysteries. It is not so great to greet a new learner in that same skill with “Oh, that’s easy.” It is important to remember that some things are not inherently easy, but instead have been made easy by much practice, during which that same task was hard.

This is just a simple reminder. It’s not a clickbait-y, “here’s one thing everyone needs to stop doing” admonition. It’s not finger-pointing. I’m passing no judgment. But it’s worth remembering, from time to time, that many of the things you’re really, really good at today are things you used to be unable to do, and think about that when you get a chance to share it with someone.

How about you? What’s your “oh, that’s easy” from your profession or hobby? Have you done that to people before? Had it done to you? Let me know.