Alpha Course: Reviewed

by Stephen Butterfield

WEEK 9: “Does God Heal Today?”

The long-standing male member is back for this evening’s session. I’m happy about that because we get along well and he’s always good value for a quote or two.

As a group we sit chatting about our recent holidays. Lady Two serves me two glasses of cold water, which was very nice of her. I never eat any of the food on offer, even though I’m quite partial to the odd slice of cheesecake now and again, so perhaps Lady Two is making sure that I’m well stocked up with at least something. It’s no secret that I find her views on God to be somewhat bizarre, but I do actually like Lady Two a great deal. She’s a nice lady.

We have three sessions left of the Alpha Course, but, says the pastor, “we have potentially four talks to cover”. It would appear that one talk is going to have to bite the dust. The pastor continues, “So we need to decide which three we are going to do. I personally suggest that the session entitled, “Why And How Should I tell Others?”, is probably not relevant, so I recommend we do “Does God Heal Today?”, “What About The Church?” and finally “How Can I make The Most Of The Rest Of My Life?”. So if you’re happy that those are the three that I suggest we do, then let’s proceed.”

We all nod in approval.

So, off we go with week 9, with a presentation entitled, “Does God Heal Today?”

Gumbel begins by telling us of the time, almost thirty years ago, when a charismatic evangelical preacher from the USA, by the name of John Wimber, came to visit his church. Ever the sceptic (of course!), Gumbel tells us how he felt about this American gentleman: “When I saw [him] I was deeply cynical about him”, and “I was deeply suspicious”.

Gumbel continues, “He came and spoke here on the subject of the Holy Spirit, and healing, and wonderful things. But I still left deeply cynical”

The next night Mr Wimber came to speak again, and Gumbel arrived still “very, very cynical”. Wimber spoke primarily on the subject of healing that night, and during his speech he announced to the group, “After a coffee break we’re going to DO some healing”

Gumbel admits to being quite nervous at the prospect of such a thing happening in the church, and tells us that most of the congregation, in typifying the “British reserve”, weren’t too keen to get involved. All that showbiz/razzmatazz kind of stuff might appeal to an American audience, but not for the shy, retiring, self-deprecating British equivalent, intimates Gumbel.

After the coffee break the preacher told the audience that he and his team had been praying, and that they had been granted a few “words of knowledge”. Gumbel tells us that Mr Wimber then defined ‘words of knowledge’ as: “A supernatural revelation of facts about a person or situation, which is not learned by the efforts of the natural mind but is made known by the Spirit of God. This may be in the form of a picture, or words seen or heard in the mind, or a feeling experienced physically.”

Gumbel tells us that no one in the room expected anything special to happen. No one had high hopes for Mr Wimber’s routine to succeed. All of them were sceptical. In fact, admits Gumbel, some of them wanted to see the flamboyant preacher fail miserably.

The preacher stood at the front, thought deeply about the ‘words of knowledge’ he’d received from God during the coffee break, and then declared to the audience, “The first person is a man who injured his back aged fourteen, chopping wood.” To Gumbel’s surprise a gentleman from the audience stood up and identified himself as that very person. Gumbel then tells us several more people came forward after Wimber mentioned “back problems”. The preacher went through his divinely inspired list of personal information, and people came out of their seats “one after another after another after another” in response. Gumbel beams as he states, “we could feel the level of faith in the room rising!”

Gumbel then tells us that there was in fact ONE ‘word of knowledge’ that wasn’t responded to by any of the audience members. God hadn’t got it wrong, though, nor had the preacher misinterpreted the information from God. In fact the information was absolutely correct. The problem was that the person in the audience didn’t respond to the call because the information was of a delicate nature. It concerned a lady who was apparently barren. Allegedly she was unable to have children, and was understandably embarrassed to bring attention to herself. Gumbel sympathises with the lady in question by saying, “We’re British, we don’t even talk about things like that, let alone come forward in response to a word like that!”

The preacher waited. And he waited. Eventually the lady got out of her seat and bravely came forward. Gumbel tells us that the preacher “had no idea that she’d been trying for children for some time and that [she was] unable to conceive”. He also had no idea that the lady and her partner had been “having various tests” in the hope of identifying, and solving, the problem. Gumbel states that the preacher then, “prayed for her”.

You may be wondering what happened to that lady. I’ll let Gumbel break the news, “Nine months later she gave birth to a little baby boy!”

Even after the immensely successful healing and ‘words of knowledge’ demonstration, Gumbel says that for some reason he was still sceptical about the whole affair. So when he got home that night he “started to re-read the Bible, to see what it said on this whole subject of healing”

He continues, “Of course, God heals with the cooperation of doctors, nurses and the medical profession, but the more I look the more convinced I am that we should expect that God would also heal miraculously. Today!”

What does “God heals with the cooperation of doctors, nurses and the medical profession” supposed to mean? This is something that was mentioned last week. If doctors and nurses are trained to help people recover from illness and injury, and all this is done through natural means, then why the need to shoehorn a supernatural God into the equation? The simple fact of the matter is that “God” offers no explanatory power here at all.

“If you look in the Old Testament God promises healing for his people. It’s [in] his character to heal. He says, “I am the Lord that heals you” It’s part of his love for us!” exclaims Gumbel.

He then gives us an example of when a certain person was healed by God in the Bible. This is quickly followed by Gumbel assuring us that, “If God acted like that in the Old Testament, when there were only glimpses of the Kingdom of God and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, we can confidently expect that he will do so even more now that Jesus has inaugurated the Kingdom of God. And the fact that we live now in the Age of the Spirit!”

Yes, we know all too well how God acted in the Old Testament! I’d have thought that Gumbel would have wanted to have kept that quiet!

He then tells us of the alleged “first recorded words of Jesus” which can be found in Mark 1:15, “The time has come. The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news”

Gumbel then passionately enthuses, “The first time Jesus came he came in weakness”, but we shouldn’t worry about that because “When he comes back he’ll come with power and great glory. History is moving towards this glorious climax”

I must say, if he were reading this straight from a comic book it wouldn’t sound any more childish. Supposedly sometime soon a powerful, invisible, cloud-hopping sky-deity is going to materialise from the ether and wave his magic wand to make everything better. I wonder if Mr Gumbel is willing to place a wager on that? If so, I’ll gladly act as his bookmaker.

Gumbel continues, “When Jesus returns it will be obvious to EVERYONE

Let’s hope so, because it wasn’t so obvious to everyone the first time he put in an appearance on earth! Remember this fact: NOT A SINGLE SOURCE OUTSIDE OF THE BIBLE MADE ANY MENTION OF HIM DURING HIS SUPPOSED LIFETIME. That’s right, not a single one. So, like I say, let’s hope Jesus does a better job of convincing people the second time around.

More comic-book style claims follow from Gumbel, “There will be a new heaven and a new earth. Jesus himself will be there together with all those who love and obey him. It will be a place of intense happiness, which goes on forever. And we will all have new resurrection bodies that will never die!”

Even as I’m typing up this transcript I have to stop and make myself a cup of coffee. I have to have a break while I think to myself how it can be possible for seemingly intelligent, educated and mature adults to believe such obvious nonsense.

Gumbel then assures that “this future Kingdom is coming. It’s near!”. He tells us that Jesus told his disciples to go and spread the word and to heal the sick. “Healing is one of the signs of the Kingdom”, he adds.

Gumbel reveals more about the process of healing: “It’s God that heals, not us. There’s no technique involved. We pray with love and simplicity”.

Does God heal people because we pray? Or would he have healed them anyway? If it’s the former then he obviously wants us to beg before he acts. If it’s the latter then prayer achieves nothing, it’s merely an exercise in futility.

Gumbel then turns his attention to ‘words of knowledge’. “We have found that words of knowledge can be very helpful. It’s one of the ways in which God speaks” he says.

He then tells us of the time he had knee-cartilage surgery about four years ago. But the surgery wasn’t a success, as his knee problems started again shortly afterwards. One night at church someone had a ‘word of knowledge’ for “a right knee” and within no time three other people had received similar messages from God relating to a “right knee”.

Something tells me that perhaps the sight of Gumbel hobbling into church that evening may have had something to do with it. Not to mention the fact that Gumbel is well known in church circles, and many would have been already aware of his knee surgery anyway.

Gumbel eventually came forward and told the group that he did indeed have an injured right knee (much to their surprise?), and that God must have been referring to him in these ‘words of knowledge’. The church group then prayed for his knee. “And I’ve had no problems with it since then”, boasts Gumbel, proudly.

Like I said last week, this talented bunch of churchgoers should pay a visit to their local children’s hospital and set to work on curing some poor, pain-riddled, terminally ill youngsters. Sadly, though, God doesn’t seem keen for them to do their work in such places.

I often wonder, too, why such prayers never work on amputees? We always hear of people that are supposedly “miraculously healed” of headaches, sore throats, knee pains and back pains, but I don’t know of anyone having an arm or leg grow back after a prayer to the omnipotent God. That’s something to think about.

“It’s important to persist” with prayers, states Gumbel. We mustn’t “get discouraged if we don’t see immediate and dramatic results.”

How long do amputees have to wait, I wonder?

“The reason I go on praying is not so much that I’ve seen masses of people healed, but because Jesus commanded us to do it. And that’s why I would go on doing it even if NO ONE was healed”

How incredibly revealing.

Gumbel then finishes his presentation with, “God is a God that healed in the past and still heals today!”

The lights are switched on and the bowls of fruit salad are passed around. As the group are eating, the pastor says, “If anybody wants a prayer for healing, we can pray tonight”

Hopefully it will have more success than the last time they prayed for God to reveal himself to me. Like those amputees, I’m still waiting.

Lady Three mentions that she’s been having trouble with her knee recently, due to the fact that she’s just taken up cycling. The pastor says that he’ll pray for a healing later on. I’m looking forward to that. Hopefully she doesn’t jump out of her seat and start tap-dancing or body-popping immediately afterwards. I’ve managed to keep a straight face for eight weeks, and I’m hoping to keep it that way.

“So, any questions, reflections, or thoughts about tonight’s presentation before we pray for people?” asks the pastor.

Unsurprisingly I have a few questions for the group, but I keep quiet in the hope that someone else will offer something. But no one else does. The pastor shuffles his chair closer to the troubled knee of Lady Three. He’s warming up his hands and looks as though he’s about to summon God into the offending area. At this point the long-standing male member turns to me and says, “Go on, ask your question, Stephen”

Well, I suppose it would be rude not to…

Me: [I turn towards the pastor] “I’m just curious about this ‘healing’ thing. I asked [Lady Two] a similar question last week, so I’ll ask you something along the same lines. If I were to now offer up a prayer to Lord Vishnu in the hope that he would heal her problematic knee [the knee of Lady Three], what are you going to do if her knee gets better? Will I have offered you sufficient proof that Lord Vishnu answers prayers, or are you going to dismiss it out of hand?”
Pastor: [Long pause] “Errr…”
Lady Two: “It would just be coincidence”
Pastor: [In response to Lady Two] “Yeah, probably”
Me: “So why would you expect me to think any differently about the prayer you’re about to offer? What good reason would I have for believing that your prayer made her knee better? Surely the best explanation would be that it was “just a coincidence”, yes?”
Pastor: [Embarrassingly long pause] “Because…. of…. continued experience… of… of… healing, and… the belief that… Jesus told us to do that”

The pastor looks completely flummoxed by my simple question. His face is red and he looks noticeably uncomfortable. Maybe he’s just about had enough of my pesky questions…

The long-standing male member jumps in confidently, as if to rubbish my question:

Long-Standing Male Member: “Do you believe in any of those religions, Steve?”
Me: “No, of course not”
Long-Standing Male Member: “So if you say you’re praying to Vishnu then you’re not doing it in faith”
Me: “But the thing is I could do. And if I did you’d dismiss it, wouldn’t you?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “No”
Me: [Surprised] “Really? Then I’ll offer a genuine prayer to Vishnu tonight. Let’s see what happens.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Look, the devil counterfeits. When Nicky Gumbel talks about ‘words of knowledge’ and ‘healing’, the devil does the same.”
Me: “So if [Lady Three’s] knee gets better after your prayer could I say that the Christian God wasn’t responsible because he is nothing but one of the devil’s counterfeits? Could I say it was actually Vishnu who answered the prayer instead?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Nicky Gumbel pointed out that the motive for prayer has got to be love. It’s not how eloquent I am or how many big words I use. It’s none of that. It’s done in faith, and for the person we’re praying for it’s done with love. I don’t have to be a minister or a special person. It’s nothing to do with me. I’m just a channel that God uses.”
Me: “People of other religions pray in love and faith. They’re just as sincere as you are.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Yeah”
Me: “But you wouldn’t accept their accounts of having prayers answered. You’d dismiss every single one of them”
Pastor: “Jesus never saw healing as a means to convincing people”
Me: “I’m not saying that he did. What I am saying, though, is that you would not be convinced by an identical account given by a Hindu, who claimed that his prayer was responsible for the healing of an individual’s knee. You wouldn’t see a causal link between that Hindu’s prayer and the recovery of an injured knee.”
Pastor: “No, I wouldn’t”
Me: “So, with respect, why would you expect us to believe that there’s a causal link between your prayer and [Lady Three’s] knee getting better?”

There’s another excruciatingly long pause as the pastor digs deep to think of an answer. Lady Three breaks the silence:

Lady Three: “The Christian faith works together with salvation. The Bible says that Jesus took upon himself our infirmities, our sorrows, and our sins. I can’t speak for the other faiths because I‘ve not really studied them. I don’t know what these other gods say about themselves but, for me, Jesus is there. He’s the author of creation, the king of creation.”
Me: “I don’t doubt that is what you believe, but, in all fairness, that’s got nothing to do with the question I’m asking.”
Lady Three: “Well, I can’t answer for the other gods because I don’t know enough about them. I only know what Jesus says about himself”
Me: “That’s all well and good. And by the way I hope your knee does get better. Now, we all know that I don’t actually believe in Vishnu, but I could take that “leap of faith” and offer up a genuine prayer tonight in the hope that it will result in your knee getting better. And, like I say, if it does get better have I proved that Vishnu answers prayers? If not, why would you expect me to believe that the pastor’s prayers will result in a recovered knee?”
Lady Three: “I believe that if God wants us to receive a blessing from him then we should receive it. It’s in the Bible, you see. [She then looks at me sympathetically] You’ve not got to that point yet where you’re persuaded that any of this is true, have you?”
Me: “I think the reason why I’m not persuaded is because all of the “evidence” that has been offered here, and the arguments that have been given, are exactly the same sorts of “evidence” and arguments that people of other religions offer. But you don’t believe any of them. You don’t find those arguments in the least bit convincing, yet you use them yourself. You use methods that you don’t trust.”

Out of the corner of my eye I can see that Lady Two is in a deep, contemplative mood. She’s looking at me, thinking deeply, trying to figure me out. I’m sure she’s in the process of diagnosing the reason for my scepticism, again. Suddenly she speaks, and so begins my therapy session. She’s going to get to the root of my problem through a process of elimination:

Lady Two: “You know when you were a child at school, during morning assembly did you ever say the Lord’s Prayer?”
Me: “Yes. Every morning, I think”
Lady Two: “When you were in your bed at night did you ever used to say your prayers to God?”
Me: “Yes. In fact my mother had placed a crucifix on my bedroom wall, and many nights before I got into bed I would kneel and offer up a prayer”
Lady Two: “And did you used to pray the Lord’s Prayer?”
Me: “Sometimes. But mainly they were prayers of my own. Having said the Lord’s Prayer at school on the morning, I didn’t feel it necessary to say the same thing again”
Lady Two: “Did you feel anything warm and comforting when you were praying?”
Me: “I suppose looking back it was more of a feeling of deep contemplation”
Lady Two: “Did you ever feel you were praying to your maker?”
Me: “Yes, of course”
Lady Two: “Were you unburdening yourself and being close with your spirit? Did you feel that?”
Me: “I should imagine so, yes”
Lady Two: “Did you ever relate to God with emotion? With… you know… your needs. Something you were afraid of, or an insecurity. Did you ever reach him and say “Can you help me with this? I’m struggling with this. Can you help me with this?” Perhaps a vulnerability within you or something”
Me: “No, I don’t think so. I was quite carefree when I was a child. I didn’t have any problems or things to worry about, thankfully”
Lady Two: [Feels she’s onto something] “So there’s nothing “deep” that you were appealing for from within your soul from your maker?”
Me: “Not for me, no. As I seem to remember, most, if not all, of my prayers were on behalf of other people”
Lady Two: “You must have had – because we all have – insecurities”
Me: “No. But I’ve got plenty of those nowadays” [laughs]
Lady Two: “We all have things that we’re nervous about and uncomfortable about. That’s where I get my sort of real soul with God. Where I am literally being like a child to him. And I’m looking at him and I’m saying in my heart, “I don’t know how to handle this, I don’t know what to do, but I’m just going to keep doing my best. I love you”. It’s that sort of unburdening yourself, appealing to him as your maker. Have you ever been able to be emotional and vulnerable with him, and seen him as your maker who wants to make everything really nice for you?”
Me: “I’ve seen him as my maker, yes, but I don’t think I’ve gone as deep as you have”
Lady Two: [As though she’s cracked the case] “Ahhh, I think that might be a key that’s missing, then. [Getting excited] Yes, that might be the key that’s missing! That childlike quality where you come to him as his child, and you’re looking at him in your spirit.”
Me: “Maybe”
Lady Two: “Yes, maybe you’re going home from here every week and saying to God, “I’d LOVE to have this faith that they’ve got. I’d LOVE to have this relationship with you. I’d LOVE to feel the Holy Spirit like [Lady Two] did, and feel it come on me and be washed clean like she was”
Me: “There’s none of that, unfortunately”
Lady Two: “Don’t you have the THIRST for the reassurance that he’s come into your life?”
Me: “I’ll have to be honest with you. No I don’t have that thirst”
Lady Two: “You don’t have that great NEED?”
Me: “No. In the same way that you don’t have the great need to know Vishnu, Allah or Zeus. What I do want to know, though, is if there is a god. I haven’t got this great need for your God. I have a need to have answers to the big questions in life. One such question is, “Is there a god?” But I don’t see answers coming for that particular question, unfortunately. Even when I ask people with deep-rooted beliefs such as yourselves. I’m not getting the answers”
Lady Two: “I think it’s the emotion that’s missing.”
Me: “Wouldn’t it be a good idea for God to tell me that, rather than you?”
Lady Two: “Well maybe he’s speaking through me and I’ve discerned it. I think it’s a problem with men. I really do. Women are very sensitive. Men have got to be strong. They’re seen as people in society who go and fight wars and be strong. I think that if you could just REALLY think, “Heck, I’m missing out on all this relationship with you, where I feel the touch of your spirit, to feel that closeness with you, God. It must be absolutely wonderful. I THIRST for it and I YEARN for it”. If you could unburden yourself like that with him, but REALLY MEAN IT. You see, you’ve come here [to the Alpha Course] so you MUST want it. The fact that you’re coming means you must WANT it.”
Me: “I’m here because there’s some big questions in life and there are lots of people saying that they have the answers. The makers of this course for instance. So that’s the reason why I’m here. But I don’t see any such answers”
Lady Two: “I think you’ve got to start talking to God deeply. But you must do it EMOTIONALLY. Look at your insecurities, the things that you’re nervous about, look at the things you’re frightened about, and start to talk to God as your FATHER who knows you. And before you speak it BELIEVE it. God is actually there with you anyway, but you haven’t opened yourself up to him”
Me: “I spent many a night praying to him. But I didn’t get even the slightest response. Nothing”

The rest of the group join the conversation and within no time the subject changes and we come to discuss morality and God’s law. The pastor intimates that if God hadn’t given us the Ten Commandments then society would have destroyed itself by now. The group agree that we only know that it’s wrong to kill because God said so.

That’s right, before Moses came down the mountain carrying those stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments everyone thought it was perfectly fine to slit the throat of a friend or family member. Pushing someone off of a cliff? Top fun. Beheading someone? Great. Disembowelling your grandmother with a blunt trowel? Lovely. All these things were “ok” up until the Christian God decided to make it officially illegal about 3,500 years ago.

Yeah, right.

Lady Three: “When you come across a religion that says it is ok to kill then I would really hesitate to give that religion any serious consideration”
Me: “You can find lots of passages in the Old Testament where God and/or his prophets openly command people to go and kill others.”
Lady Three: “I can’t say such verses aren’t there because they are. Yes, I’ve struggled with that.”
Me: “I know of one particular verse where Moses’ conquering army are commanded to kill every man among the enemy captives, but are ordered to save the virgin females for themselves as spoil”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Flabbergasted] “IT DOESN’T SAY THAT”
Me: “It does”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Adamant that I’m wrong] “Where does it say to keep all the virgins?”
Me: “I don’t know the verse off the top of my head but I’ll get it for you for next week. [I turn to the pastor and ask] You’ll know of that verse, surely?”
Pastor: “No”
Me: “It definitely says something like that”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Totally dismissing my claim] “I think I would have remembered that if it did”
Lady Three: “I remember them saying to kill everything, and to spare nothing, but I’m sure it doesn’t say what you’re suggesting”

I suppose we’ll have to wait while next week, then.

Lady Two wants to tell me about the love of Jesus:

Lady Two: “What Jesus was preaching was all about LOVE, and all about the fruits of the Spirit. And how he would send the Holy Spirit to come upon us, and how we would be able to do great things in his name. It’s all about walking in the light with Jesus. It was all healing. It was all teaching the lovely way to live. That’s what Jesus was on about. And having love in your heart for people, and having kindness. But also it was about obeying the living God and following his commandments as well.”

Lady Three joins in:

Lady Three: “As Christians we believe that Jesus is the exact representation of God. That’s what the Bible says. I believe that Jesus is who he said he was.”

She then opens up her Bible and reads from John 5:19-23:

“I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, to your amazement he will show him even greater things than these. For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it. Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honour the Son just as they honour the Father. He who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father, who sent him.”

Lady Three: “It’s that last little bit that is the crucial difference between Christianity and all other religions. Jesus IS the one and only Son of God.”
Me: “According to the Bible, yes. But there were numerous ‘sons of god’ in antiquity. Christianity isn’t unique when it comes to that particular claim”
Pastor: “You keep saying that. Who were they, then?”
Me: “Well, off the top of my head there’s Perseus, Hercules, Mithras, and Dionysus. And there’s lots more.”

Lady Three dips into her handbag and pulls out a pen and paper. She wants to know the names of the deities I’ve just mentioned. I don’t think she trusts what I’ve just said. She’s going to look them up. Good for her.

My fellow sceptic turns to her and jokes, “I want a 20-page report on each one for next week”

Actually I admire Lady Three’s approach because all of us should be eager to examine claims that we find hard to believe. That’s the right way to go about it. I do find it strange, though, why these Christians aren’t as keen to examine the claims made in their own holy book.

The pastor is about to offer a closing prayer when Lady Two interjects:

Lady Two: “Before we end I just want to ask Stephen something. [She turns to me] In real terms, Stephen, how DEARLY do you want to find the answer?” [to the question of “Does God exist?”]
Me: “100%”
Lady Two: “Your heart is 100% wanting to find the answer?”
Me: “Yes”
Lady Two: “And are you depressed that you haven’t got it?”
Me: “No. Actually it fascinates me to look for the answers to such questions. The more I learn about existence the better. It gives my life meaning and purpose. I have one chance at life and I’m going to enjoy the search while I’m here”
Lady Two: “Yes, you want direction in your life; to know that your life has a point, and that there’s a place for you with the Father in heaven. Presumably that’s what you’d like for your loved ones? Wouldn’t you like the story to be true for everyone that you love?”
Me: “To be honest with you I wouldn’t want the story to be true if a hell exists. I couldn’t live an eternity of happiness when full in the knowledge that other people were frying in hell.”
Lady Two: “God doesn’t want anyone to fry in hell”
Me: “But people are going to be there if your story is true. I couldn’t live content while being in the presence of a God who tortures people for an eternity. So hopefully the story isn’t true.”

The pastor intervenes: “On that point we’ll pray for [Lady Three’s] knee”

He stands in front of Lady Three, closes his eyes and places his right hand on her knee. He starts to pray, “Father we thank you for all we’ve heard tonight about your desire to bring the healing of God onto this earth, including seeing people saved and set free from sin, sickness and illness. We come now in the name of Jesus and ask, Lord, that you will heal [Lady Three’s] knee so she can carry on cycling. Lord God, we pray that you will give her strength and take away the pain. We ask this in Jesus’ name, amen”

There follows a chorus of amen’s from the group before silence. Everyone sits quietly, eyes closed, apparently summoning God to act. The pastor’s hand remains on Lady Three’s knee, his head bowed and his lips muttering an inaudible and brief prayer. There’s complete silence for about fifteen seconds.

The long-standing male member starts to pray. He says his thanks to God and then asks for him to heal Lady Three’s knee and also to ease the pastor’s nasal problems.

There’s more silence before Lady Three offers up a prayer, which is also for the pastor’s [what I think must be sinus] problems, and reminds God that the pastor is “missing out on all the fragrances that you’ve created”. Another chorus of amen’s follows.

Lady Two then has a go. She thanks God for bringing my fellow sceptic and I to the course. “Thank you that they come every week. They are longing for answers for what’s been a burning question for them for a long time. I do pray, Lord, that you would remind them of who you are and of that all the good things that have happened to them in their lives you were responsible. Lord, you’ve wanted their lives to be close to you and for them to know you as a God of love. I just pray, Lord, that as they go home to their beds tonight and they look to you, Lord, that they imagine you as the Lord of their lives. That they just see you as a loving father who wants all good things for them, and wants them to have the security of knowing that they are walking with you, and that they are secure with you, and that they are at one with you, and that their spirit is in tune with you, and that they are your sons. Lord I pray that you want them as your children, and for them to acknowledge you as their loving father. Just soak away all the stuff that is keeping them from being able to rest in you, and to just be your child, Lord. I pray that they will recognise you as their Lord and saviour. I pray, Lord, that you will break down the barriers and they will tonight go home to their beds and just see you above them, and just see you wanting all the good things for them. You’ve wanted that love, Lord. You’ve wanted relationships with them. You’ve wanted them to have peace. You’ve wanted them to have the fruits of the Spirit in their hearts, minds and souls. You’ve wanted them to be surrounded by people who love you and who are also walking with you, Lord. I just pray all these things in Jesus’ name. Amen”

More amen’s follow.

It’s turning into a prayer-a-thon as Lady Three has another go. She too thanks God for bringing my fellow sceptic and I to the course. “I thank you for their honesty”, she says.

She continues:

Lady Three: “There are so many questions, particularly that Stephen has, that maybe we haven’t got convincing answers for. I just pray, Lord, that you will meet with them and prove yourself to them, Lord.”
Pastor: “Yes!”
Lady Three: “Prove yourself, Lord. Prove yourself”
The Group As A Whole: “Amen!”
Lady Two: “I pray, Lord, that they will ask for the Holy Spirit to come into their hearts and minds. And I pray, Lord, that you will reveal yourself. We know that you know, Lord. We know that you know when people need you. Stephen has said tonight that he wants you 100% [did I?], just like I did that night. I wanted you 100% and didn’t think I could get it. And all I’ve wanted ever since that night is to let other people know about my experience so that it might help them to find you. I pray that you will come in to their hearts and minds and souls. I pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen”
The Group As A Whole: “Amen”

Ooooh, so close! I thought we were going to see out a session without Lady Two mentioning her testimony, but she managed to slip it in right at the very end. She’s certainly persistent! Joking aside, she’s a nice enough lady. She’s absolutely filled to bursting point with religion – she’s got it bad – but she’s a harmless sort.

We all slowly rise from our seats and pack our booklets and pens away. As I’m fastening up my jacket the group remind me to bring the Bible verse, which I claimed existed, to next week’s session. I smile and joke, “If I cant find it I’ll give you a pound”. The long-standing male member laughs and replies, “We’re going to give it to charity!”. Everyone laughs and we all wish each other a good night.

Splendid.

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November 8, 2008 - Posted by | Alpha Course, Atheism, Christianity, God, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

49 Comments »

  1. Great post, as usual.

    It’s Numbers 31 you want. After becoming angry with his army for not killing everyone, Moses says (v.17-18): “Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.”

    Possibly the most outrageous part of the OT, but there’s so much like this to choose from…

    Comment by Ian Edmond | November 8, 2008

  2. Probably this passage you’re thinking of. Numbers 31:15-18, but read from verse 1 if you want full details of the slaughter.

    =============

    15And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive?

    16Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the LORD.

    17Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.

    18But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.

    Comment by snafu | November 8, 2008

  3. Aargh…beaten to it by milliseconds.

    Stephen – Of course, Ian could be Satan in disguise…best stick to my comment. 😉

    Comment by snafu | November 8, 2008

  4. Stephen…I hope you will not object to my responding here to an important comment posted by Steven Carr on the week 8 thread. I wouldn’t want a response to such a massively important issue to be lost on an old & unread thread.

    Steven [Carr] engages me on the subject of Maitreya, a personage he correctly states as being little known today but that (in Steven’s words) “in 2,000 years (Maitreya’s) existence …will be considered axiomatic and anybody who questions whether such a person lived will be called irrational and living in a fantasy land”

    Sounds like someone we ought to find out more about, particularly when we see this said about him on the share-international website:

    “Who is Maitreya? He has been expected for generations by all of the major religions. Christians know him as the Christ, and expect his imminent return. Jews await him as the Messiah; Hindus look for the coming of Krishna; Buddhists expect him as Maitreya Buddha; and Muslims anticipate the Imam Mahdi or Messiah.”

    Why do we know nothing about this man? In fact, although few people are aware of Maitreya, those who are tend to occupy very high positions in government, industry. Benjamin Creme (who Steven mentions…more on in a moment) claims that Maitreya met on a yacht in Malta with Bush, Gorbatchev etc. I’ve been unable to find corroborating evidence for this, but am prepared to accept Creme’s claim at face value

    So who IS Maitreya…a delusional crackpot, the real deal or something else? When is this great guru going to put in an appearance. Again, the website advises:

    “Day of Declaration…Maitreya will be invited by the international media to speak directly to the entire world through the television networks linked together by satellites.

    On this Day of Declaration, we will see his face on the television screen wherever we have access. The biblical statement, “All eyes will see him,” will be fulfilled, in the only way in which it can be fulfilled. We will see his face, but he will not speak. His thoughts, his ideas, his call to humanity for justice, sharing, right relationships and peace, will take place silently, telepathically. Each of us will hear him inwardly in our own language. In this way, he will re-enact on a worldwide scale the true happenings of Pentecost 2,000 years ago.”
    ————————————————-

    At this stage, I would like to quote key parts of Steven Carr’s comment:

    “Antony talks about the Maitreya…What could have caused Benjamin Creme to start to say that such a person lives, and is a real, historical person?

    Surely the simplest explanation for Creme preaching a Maitreya is that there is a charismatic figure living and teaching today…Of course, the fame of this person has not spread beyond a small circle , which is why nobody else writes about him.

    Here are just some of the miracles worked by Maitreya, whose miracle-working is evident in every strata of writing about him by his followers :-

    ‘Such wells have been created by Maitreya all over the world — one in Germany, a place called Nordenau where thousands of people have taken the water, and one north of New Delhi where suddenly an empty well gushed this water, which was found to have miraculous healing properties.’

    Maitreya appeared to not just 12 people or 500 people, but 12 TIMES 500 people, or 6000 people.

    ‘He appeared ‘out of the blue’ on the 11th of June, 1988, in Nairobi, Kenya, before 6,000 people. One moment he wasn’t there, the next moment he was standing beside the woman dressed in blue. Her name is Mary Akatsa.’

    Gosh, Christians would kill for evidence like this!”

    ——————————————–
    Here are astonishing claims indeed and yet Maitreya seems to prefer to stay in the shadow for now until, as Creme says, the day of declaration.

    Would Christians really kill (even figuratively) for evidence like this? Well, I am prepared to accept that the ‘miracles’ as Steven Carr and Creme described them actually happened. As I stated in my original post, the anti-christ will be someone who does perform miracles..we know from scripture that the anti-christ will appear (at first) as a man of peace and will therefore deceive many people through miracles. We know from Jesus’s words in Matthew 24: 4-5 that THIS EXACT scenario would happen:

    “And Jesus answered and said unto them, Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many.”

    So, Steven Carr, the evidence you mention only serves to prove that Jesus’s prophecy was true. The blasphemies of Creme & Maitreya support the Christian position.

    Finally, it is interesting that the share-international webside should refer directly to and RELY on the works of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Who is Blavatsky? No less a figure than the mother of the New Age movement and a key leader of the occult movement and a worshipper of Satan. Fro more info: http://www.crossroad.to/articles2/2002/carl-teichrib/lucifer.htm

    The important point is to remember the name MAITREYA just in case Creme’s prediction of the “Day of Declaration” happens.

    Comment by Anthony | November 8, 2008

  5. Anthony is the very image of a closed-minded person, who accepts miracles that are allegedly performed, but refuses to change his beliefs , even when he believes that miracles are happening.

    Of course, Christians project their own beliefs on to atheists, and claim it is atheists who would not believe , even if miracles happened.

    But it is Christians who proudly declare that they accept that other religious people work miracles, but they will not change their beliefs one jot or iota, no matter what miracles happen.

    They are closed-minded, and happy and proud to admit that no miracles will affect their beliefs.

    Comment by Steven Carr | November 8, 2008

  6. Steven Carr…if, by “closed-minded”, you mean firm in my beliefs, I am happy to accept the charge. I don’t ask people to believe what I have written now, only to remember the name MAITREYA. As you say, it is a name likely to become well known though it isn’t yet.

    I sense I have touched a raw nerve though as you don’t engage me on the key points I raise in my post, namely (i) Jesus’s prophecy of false prophets calling themselves ‘the Christ’ as Maitreya does; and (ii) Blavastky. I could just as easily mention Alice Bailey, the founder of the Lucifer Press (now Lucis Press) which is the official publisher for the United Nations – she is of the same pedigree as Blavatsky, no? Or of Ouspensky, Gurdjieff…all false prophets.

    Comment by Anthony | November 8, 2008

  7. Hi Stephen

    I enjoyed this weeks post as usual, laughing in a couple of places (in a nice way). And your observations are sometimes valuable and would serve as good moral lessons that apply to many circumstances.

    “Like I said last week, this talented bunch of churchgoers should pay a visit to their local children’s hospital and set to work on curing some poor, pain-riddled, terminally ill youngsters. Sadly, though, God doesn’t seem keen for them to do their work in such places.”

    ..great stuff 🙂

    I have to pick you up on this statement though…

    S.B>:- “Does God heal people because we pray? Or would he have healed them anyway? If it’s the former then he obviously wants us to beg before he acts. If it’s the latter then prayer achieves nothing, it’s merely an exercise in futility.”

    That’s one way to look at it, but your conclusion suggests authority, which it doesn’t have. Other equally valid conclusions hold true, for example full free will and an omnipotent deity co-existing. In fairness you should present the balanced view, and not a biased one.

    I liked the Lady Three’s knee story. Did you skim over the Long Standing Member’s answer that miraculous healing is possible by supernatural forces other than the Christian God? Because that is what the Bible claims. Spiritual forces are supposedly many and varied; so a prayer to Vishnu may well produce results, and it’s up to you to discern the sovereignty of that force. Not that the subject interests me personally in the slightest ! 😉

    Lady Two starts to scare me in that Hannibal Lecter way with her questioning LOL, Although she ends being completely sweet. I can see why you like her. How do you record these sessions BTW? Is it using a concealed recorder? ..and are you going to tell them of this site’s existence at the end of the course?

    In your last discourse with Lady Two, you do know that you’re justifying Prosyletism with your statement “I couldn’t live an eternity of happiness when full in the knowledge that other people were frying in hell”? 🙂

    You also counter her statement that “God doesn’t want anyone to fry in hell” by saying that there is “a God who tortures people for an eternity”. From her assertion it appears that it is people that condemn themselves, it’s the last thing that God wants. And I concur.

    Thanks for another weeks entertainment!

    Mark

    Comment by Mark | November 9, 2008

  8. ANTONY
    I sense I have touched a raw nerve though as you don’t engage me on the key points I raise in my post, namely (i) Jesus’s prophecy of false prophets calling themselves ‘the Christ’ as Maitreya does;

    CARR
    Jesus is clearly a false prophet, as the Maitreya does not exist.

    Although some people claim he does.

    I wonder if there was any other Messiah who didn’t exist, but who was believed by his enemies to have been a real person?

    What sort of ‘prophecy’ was it that somebody , at some time, would call himself the Messiah?

    I could prophesy that!

    Comment by Steven Carr | November 9, 2008

  9. Did Wimber really do lots of healings?

    How come he died aged 63, which is lower than the national average?

    Comment by Steven Carr | November 9, 2008

  10. Hi, Mark

    I agree with your assertion that it is people who condemn themselves to hell. If God is love, and incapable of anything but love, then this surely means God would not and could not send people ‘to torture for all eternity’

    (NB: the question of God seemingly acting in a non-loving way in the Old Testament is an important issue to address at a later time. It is a key issue that has always bothered me but I think I have found some very interesting writings on this subject I will share when I am through and satisfied with their conclusions)

    By no means do I agree with everything this site (http://www.near-death.com/experiences/research14.html) states but the experiences of those who had NDEs (e.g. trying to commit suicide) does I think add a great deal more to the concept of hell than mere ‘flames/ fire/ brimstone’ etc. Of course, NDEs is a further piece of evidence of the existence of ‘something else’ after our earthly lives are finished…if one still needs such evidence.

    Comment by Anthony | November 9, 2008

  11. G’day Stephen,

    Thanks once again for a thoroughly engaging post. There’s much to engage with here, but for now I’ll offer two comments:

    Firstly, I commend your attitude towards seeking truth on the question of God’s existence. I’m constantly impressed by the level of time you are investing in exploring the question, and I can’t commend your approach highly enough! (btw, drop me a line if you ever stop by Melbourne, Australia! 🙂

    What I’d certainly encourage you to do is to consider the Alpha course a mere subset of your investigative efforts. If you can find the time (possibly after the Alpha course finishes 🙂 then I would heartily recommend the following podcasts/resources as being extremely helpful in exploring the positive case for theism in general (as opposed to Christianity in particular). I hope that you find them helpful, and I commend them to you:

    1. Bruce Little – Does Belief Require Warrant? (Audio)
    http://www.bethinking.org/truth-tolerance/advanced/what-is-faith-does-belief-require-warrant.htm

    2. John Polkinghorne – Quarks and Creation (Audio)
    http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/quarks/

    3. Peter Kreeft – The Existence of God (Audio)
    http://www.peterkreeft.com/audio/18_god-existence.htm

    4. George Ellis – Faith, Hope and Doubt in Times of Uncertainty (PDF)
    http://www.quakers.org.au/associations/7464/files/FaithHopeDoubt_2008.pdf

    Secondly, regarding the question of why healings don’t follow a more precise and predictable pattern, I’ve alluded to this issue in a previous post that I’ll briefly summarize again.

    It seems to me that such events can best be viewed as ‘hints of transcendence’ – glimpses of a greater reality that serve to remind us that more – much more – than what is necessary is actually present in the world in which we live. This seems to me to cry out for an explanation, and the notion of a transcendent creator has much explanatory power in this regard.

    Further, I see no reason why the fact that such events do not occur with precise regularity or repeatability should in any way constitute evidence that would invalidate those instances if and when they actually DID occur.

    My suggestion would be that following up such events and seeking detailed first-hand testimonies is a very worthwhile practice. Several years ago I went through just such a phase where I effectively gave ‘the inquisition’ to anyone in my church who actually dared to suggest that God had intervened in a certain specific way, ie. imparting specific knowledge or healing a specific ailment, etc.

    I restricted myself to first-hand, face-to-face testimonies. Under investigation, roughly half of them turned out to be events that were rather underwhelming, coincidental or possibly even wishful thinking. But the other half turned out to be VERY interesting indeed. I summarized these in a Word document (which I continually update) which makes for some compelling reading. Of note are several testimonies of people experiencing overpowering ‘liquid heat’ within specific theistic healing contexts, people suddenly gaining the ability to be conversant in rich and fluent glossolalia, impartation of specific information (such as a stranger’s name, in a prophetic context) and so forth.

    Finally, as a random sample from the public domain, I offer the following piece of evidence from the respected Christian author Philip Yancey. [refer to “Disappointment with God”, under the sub-heading ‘Two Wagers’, pp305 – look it up on Google Books]

    Out of interest, how would you seek to explain Yancey’s experience?

    Or what do you think is the ‘best explanation’ for my own rather interesting and unexpected religious experience? (which I’ve posted – ironically and bizarrely – on the Dawkins Forum: http://www.richarddawkins.net/forum/viewtopic.php?f=8&t=9371

    These are such wonderful topics to explore!

    cheers,
    James

    Comment by James Garth | November 10, 2008

  12. Anyway… back to the bible. I know we could spend ages picking out highlights to subject to the scrutiny of the group, but I wonder if it would be worth running with Deuteronomy 13, v.6-10: “If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers; Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth; Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him: But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die; because he hath sought to thrust thee away from the LORD thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.”

    Comment by Ian Edmond | November 10, 2008

  13. To explain Numbers 31: The Killings of Numbers 31 by A.P. Staff

    Comment by Mark | November 10, 2008

  14. From that page you reference, Mark: “Complaining about Jehovah’s order to destroy innocent children is a vain gesture when one realizes that the children were spared an even worse fate of being reared as slaves under the domination of sin. Instead of having to endure the scourge of a life of immorality and wickedness, these innocents were ushered early into the bliss of Paradise.”

    You don’t really believe this, do you Mark?

    Comment by Ian Edmond | November 10, 2008

  15. Does Mark really believe that abortion is such a great good, when these ‘innocents were ushered early into the bliss of Paradise?’

    From the same page ‘If the male children had been allowed to mature, they most likely would have followed the pagan ways of their forefathers, and eventually would have taken vengeance on the Israelites.’

    Gosh, they were killed because they WOULD have sinned!

    I guess God couldn’t be bothered to wait to see if people would repent of their sins.

    God couldn’t even be bothered to wait to see if people would sin.

    He killed them before they sinned, so that they would go to Heaven.

    Comment by Steven Carr | November 11, 2008

  16. Except the girls, of course.

    The virgins were spared the bliss of Paradise, and were kept as servants by the Israelites.

    Comment by Steven Carr | November 11, 2008

  17. Ian,

    I think the question that you’ve raised concerning certain passages from the Old Testament deserves a thoughtful and honest response.

    I’d be happy to take up this challenge and try to address this vexing question, especially given that this appears to be an issue which deters many people from this blog from following Christianity.

    I’m pretty busy right now but will aim to drop back in the next couple of days to make a response.

    cheers,
    James

    Comment by James Garth | November 11, 2008

  18. James,

    It might well be interesting to see some of these passages addressed, but speaking purely for myself, I wouldn’t want you to do this on the basis that I will consequently become a christian. I don’t have a resistance to christianity because parts of the bible are objectionable. I have a resistance to it because it is not true. I think that it is interesting to adress the objectionable parts because they are so at odds with the idea of a loving, caring god, and the idea that god is actually more caring when he authorises the slaughter of children, rather than let them grow up and decide for themselves how they should live, is bizarre.

    Comment by Ian Edmond | November 11, 2008

  19. Ian Edmond: “From that page you reference, Mark: “Complaining about Jehovah’s order to destroy innocent children is a vain gesture when one realizes that the children were spared an even worse fate of being reared as slaves under the domination of sin. Instead of having to endure the scourge of a life of immorality and wickedness, these innocents were ushered early into the bliss of Paradise.”

    You don’t really believe this, do you Mark?”

    I think it would be egotistical for me to judge if a person would be more complete dying young rather than old. It seems we’re talking here about a people corrupt in God’s eyes and not ours. God thought things were so bad that such extreme measures were necessary. To us it seems unimaginable. It exists as a story in the Bible to serve a purpose. I have no problem with that, no.

    Steven Carr: “Does Mark really believe that abortion is such a great good, when these ‘innocents were ushered early into the bliss of Paradise?’

    From the same page ‘If the male children had been allowed to mature, they most likely would have followed the pagan ways of their forefathers, and eventually would have taken vengeance on the Israelites.’

    Gosh, they were killed because they WOULD have sinned!

    I guess God couldn’t be bothered to wait to see if people would repent of their sins.

    God couldn’t even be bothered to wait to see if people would sin.

    He killed them before they sinned, so that they would go to Heaven”

    Seems contrary to the New Testament wisdom that states that anyone can be saved, no matter what their crime. But this is God talking, who knew already what would become of these people, and said that their destruction was the only answer.

    Like the author of that article says, God does condone killing. It’s a facet of God, stated in the Bible. This is what God is like, yes. It’s there for anyone to read. To me this makes God more perfect. This God isn’t one that serves our own purposes. He’s a God that isn’t fake.

    Comment by Mark | November 11, 2008

  20. Mark, what you are saying seems like complete madness to me. You have bought into the idea of the bible as absolute truth to such an extent that you are prepared to justify and excuse anything. Really… “God does condone killing… To me this makes God more perfect.” This is dangerous fundamentalism.

    Comment by Ian Edmond | November 11, 2008

  21. It’s hardly excusing anything Ian. It’s a poignant illustration that describes the entity. Unfortunately, It’s not the thoughtless violence or depraved behaviour you’d like to attribute to it. That would be an illogical conclusion read accurately and in context. No, you’re going to have to come up with a stronger argument.

    Comment by Mark | November 11, 2008

  22. Numbers 31

    The best explanation you are likely to find on this tragic account, providing the appropriate historical and social context appears here:http://www.christian-thinktank.com/midian.html (by the way, I find this an excellent site for future reference)

    I have copied and pasted below the summary from excellent account below. It makes far more sense to me than the reasoning someone else posted from an apologetics site.

    Summary:

    The judgment scene in Numbers 31 has nothing to do with lewd ‘tests for virginity’

    The judgment scene in Numbers 31 has nothing to do with ‘sex slaves’ or even slavery in the sense of New World Slavery

    The judgment scene in Numbers 31 has nothing to do with a religious war against the Midianites, “because they worshipped a different god than Israel”

    The Midianites were a tribal league of generally nomadic peoples, with a wide variation in orientation, ethics, and practices.

    They were known to engage in kidnapping and international slave trading, as well as raiding and pillage of sedentary peoples/villages.

    The Moabites, who start the chain of events leading to Numbers 31, are under no danger or threat from Israel, but nonetheless begin unprovoked attempts to vanquish the unsuspecting Israelites

    After the Mesopotamian diviner/sorcerer/prophet Balaam fails to curse Israel, he nevertheless advises the Midianite leadership on how to overcome Israel—by a sexual deception of a massive scale.

    Moab transports women into the area en masse, and Midian moves into the territory east of Shittim, to begin this initiative. Some 6,000-12,000 married women aggressively offer sex to the Israelite men (most of whom are married), and after having sex/adultery, convince then to participate in further acts (involving both sex and disloyalty to the Lord).

    Israel ‘falls for it’, and likely makes a ‘covenant’ with a Canaanite fertility god of vegetation (Baal Peor), and are judged by God (at least 24,000 Israelites die of a plague, most of which are males)

    The Moabite and Midianite women retreat out of the area, having successfully used their sex as a weapon (with full knowledge, consent, support, and encouragement from their husbands, fathers, and civic leaders).

    For this atrocity, God orders Israel to attack this specific group of Midianites (not the Moabites) and eliminate them.

    The Israelite force of 12,000 men travel east/southeast to where the Midianite sub-group is camping, and engage in combat. (They are NOT instructed to hunt “all the Midianites in the world down and kill them”—just this group that did the treachery at Baal Peor.) They kill almost all of the males in this battle, but return to the Israelite camp with the herds and property of the Midianites, as well as with the women and (mostly girl) children.

    Moses is shocked to find out that they spared the very women who used the sex-weapon against them, and even brought these women back to the Israelite camp! He orders them to execute the women, who had been involved in the treachery (but only the Midianite women—the Moabite women are spared), and any remaining males among the children.
    The remaining young girls—with an average age of 5 years—were spared and distributed throughout the people, into families. They would eventually be assimilated into Israel families, but from this moment on, they would care for them, feed them, train them, etc. for family life in Palestine.

    The 32,000 young girls could be assimilated into Israel, largely because of the death of the 24,000 adult Israelites.

    The judgment for the atrocity at Baal Peor fell both on Israel and Midian—both would have lost around 24,000 adult members of the population, and the consequences on the Midianite children (especially the boys) would have been a direct result of the choices of their parents and leaders.
    The realities of life in the ANE precluded absorption of the residual boys into the people—in keeping with realities of the time.

    This action/atrocity by the Midianites is an intensely sordid and depressing tale, of greater scale than even that of Sodom and Gomorrah, and of greater anti-Hebrew malice and calculating treachery than even that of the Amalekites…The removal of this exact sub-culture (without impacting the Moabites or the rest of the Midianites—for good or ill), while mercifully sparing a very large number of innocent young girls, yet without sparing the guilty Israelites, seems neither cruel nor unfair nor unwarranted, given the horrendously dehumanizing character of this crime, and given the unavoidable consequences of conflict upon children in the ancient world…

    Glenn Miller

    May 2001

    Comment by Anthony | November 12, 2008

  23. Ian,

    Rest assured, I certainly have no misapprehensions about trying to change your opinion on these metaphysical issues based on providing a carefully selected tidbit of information or by crafting a cogent response to your post.

    To be honest, I’m not really into proselytizing, and I certainly am not on a quest to ‘convert’ anyone. I don’t really think that ‘convert’ is even a constructive term; since the only person who can make any such decision is oneself.

    But there may be those who read this blog who are as yet undecided or still in the process of gathering information concerning the truth claims of theism in general and Christianity in particular.

    I only ask that a fair, balanced and reasoned case be made for both sides of the argument, and that’s where I hope to make some sort of contribution, limited though that may be.

    I think these themes are more complex than many people imagine, particularly concerning issues of violence in the OT. In short, I submit that if we reflect honestly on things we will find that the supreme arbiter of morality must be one’s conscience, not any slavish subscription to commandments of a contextually unusual nature.

    Commandments of the sort portrayed in Deut 13 can quite reasonably be determined to be exceptions rather than the rule, a temporary suspension of the regular moral norms that would otherwise apply in ordinary life. In this instance, the context being that a rejection of Yahweh within a such a profoundly revelatory environment (with miraculous interventions occurring, it is claimed, on a daily basis) – constitutes a far more grave and serious matter than may be first apparent. Thus, the severe punishment is potentially merited if the level of human responsibility increases proportionally to the level of self-revelation that proceeds from God.

    But to those who would seek to generalize this commandment and apply it in this day and age, I would strongly caution them to think long and hard about whether they possess the necessary specific divine mandate to do so.

    Consider Elijah, and the instance of the slaughter of the prophets of Baal. If this event indeed took place, then quite simply, Elijah will be asked to give an account of this action to his Maker. Whether or not God did in fact condone this action will then become apparent at that point.

    So therefore, in lieu of such specific divine direction, I submit that there is indeed a rule that should apply, and that is the Golden Rule – epitomized by many including Christ himself, who, as it must be stressed, did violence to no-one. It is through this interpretive prism that all moral judgments ought to pass as a natural default. I believe both the Christian and the humanist can be in agreement on this matter.

    Finally, your comment “I have a resistance to it [Christianity] because it is not true” intrigues me and makes me wish to seek further clarification on your position.

    Would it not be better to say “I have a resistance to it, because based on the evidence that I have received to date, it does not seem to have any explanatory power, lacks internal consistency and has much negative evidence against it; hence I do not believe it to be true and shall live my life on that basis.”

    That’s a position I would at least respect. Would that be a fair appraisal of your worldview?

    Sorry if it seems like I’m nit-picking, but I’m just gauging the strength of your convictions and your willingness to evaluate new or additional evidence on its merits.

    I wouldn’t want to prematurely accuse you of the sort of atheist fundamentalism that these days runs as an unfortunate corollary to the excesses of religious fundamentalism, since you seem like a reasonable enough person from your posts.

    cheers,
    James

    Comment by James Garth | November 12, 2008

  24. James, what you say about my position is of course correct. Using the Dawkins 1-7 theist-atheist scale, I sit (along with Dawkins himself) at around the 6.7 mark. Technically, that makes me agnostic, as indeed Dawkins confirms himself to be. I would also say that this is true of the vast majority (if not all) of the atheists that I know, and I am always suspicious of the term “fundamental atheism” – what does this even mean? There is no holy text of atheism, no creed to slavishly adhere to. Atheism is not a blind faith in the lack of god, it is based on the lack of evidence. I would, of course, revise my opinion in the face of convincing evidence.

    In practice, though, I am quite happy to say that christianity (to pick just one example, please don’t think that I’m singling it out) is false, in the same way that I would say that astrology is false, that there are no fairies, that there is no tooth fairy. I could be wrong. These things are not technically impossible. But the probability of them being true is vanishingly small. I would contend that you use “true” and “false” in exactly this manner in your everyday life, and I do rather tire of having to trot out this argument with the alarming regularity that it is required.

    So very much in keeping with Steve’s observations as he progresses through the Alpha Course, I see no evidence that even gives me pause for thought. I also find it very interesting that, as he notes, all of the evidence he is offered is evidence that people of one religion would reject if made by proponents of another.

    Comment by Ian Edmond | November 12, 2008

  25. Hi Stephen,

    I wanted to address your question:
    What does “God heals with the cooperation of doctors, nurses and the medical profession” supposed to mean?
    Doctors and nurses are not “healers” in the sense that they control the healing process. For example suppose I receive a cut that requires stitches. The doctors can clean the wound, sew up the wound and provide a bandage, but the actual healing is done by our bodies as it was designed to. Just as a TV repairman can diagnose a problem with a TV, fix the problem and then the TV displays a picture again. However the TV repairman is not responsible for creating the picture on the screen, he only fixed the TV so it could operate the way it was designed to. So from the Christian perspective doctors are the repairmen, but God designed our bodies with the ability to heal itself. I hope this simple illustration answers your question.

    Thanks,
    Frank

    Comment by Frank W. | November 12, 2008

  26. Hi Stephen,

    Just got done reading your entire post for this week. Enjoyable as ususal. A couple of obversations. I noticed that you keep saying that you are waiting for God to “reveal himself” to you. From the Christian perspective, God has already revealed himself to you in the person of Jesus and through the Bible. I wouldn’t hold my breath if you’re waiting for something else. Secondly it seems that you need to be convinced that there is spiritual world outside of the natural world we can see unless I am mistaken. So do you believe we are just a bunch of walking and talking chemical reactions without a soul or spirit?

    Thanks,
    Frank

    Comment by Frank W. | November 13, 2008

  27. Ian,

    Excellent, your response is as I had hoped. I think productive dialogue can be had between us. Dawkins’ scale is quite a constructive one, both for gauging theistic belief and for establishing the strength of belief for anything in general.

    (btw, I used to use my own scale of +10 to -10 until Dawkins’ published his one; since his is in wide use let’s use that as our default)

    Regarding the ‘God hypothesis’, I would place myself at around a 2 on the scale, as you would probably predict. I, like you, also consider myself open to revising my opinion on this, or any other question.

    If you would indulge me for a moment, would you mind then letting me know where you would sit on the Dawkins scale for these following questions?

    A. That a multitude of other universes exists beyond our own, belonging to what could be called a ‘megaverse’.

    B. That quarks exist.

    C. That other intelligent civilizations exist within the known universe.

    (FYI, I would sit at 5.5, 2 and 4 respectively on the above questions, and am very much open to movement either up or down the scale regarding them)

    The reason I wish to probe you on these questions is that they may perhaps challenge your definition of what constitutes “evidence”.

    Strictly speaking, it would seem, we have no hard evidence that any universe other than our own actually exists.

    And regarding quarks, no one has ever in fact seen a quark or isolated a single quark in the lab.

    And the amount of evidence that we have at this stage confirming the existence of intelligent life outside our own biosphere is precisely zero.

    So, then, should you not class yourself as laying somewhere between between a 6 and a 7 on the above questions? I bet you’re not.

    The reason that I suspect that you’re probably not is that despite there being no hard, tangible evidence for any of the above hypothesis, nonetheless they are plausible hypotheses which have great explanatory power. Consider quarks for instance – by assuming that they are there makes great sense of huge swathes of experience, observations, mathematical models, etc.

    I submit that precisely the same is true of God.

    The reason I’m not an atheist is I think that as a belief system atheism is only capable of explaining part of the data which we find actually presents itself within this world. For other parts, it’s very inadequate indeed.

    I find it very weak in explaining the question of the so-called fine-tuning of physical, chemical and biological laws that underlie our ordered universe, let alone the existence of a universal mathematical reality (and, I propose, a moral reality). I find its critique of profound religious experiences which occur within specific theistic contexts to be incomplete at best and lame at worst. (atheism of the gaps, if you will)

    Finally, I’m a little tired of analogies which suggest theism is like believing in the tooth fairy or Santa Claus. No sane grown-up comes to believe in these entities; in fact we all come to dis-believe in them because strong evidence comes to the fore which provides good reasons for not believing in them (widespread testimonial evidence by parents and friends, for example).

    Yet when it comes to God, intelligent atheists (Collins, McGrath, Flew, etc.) do in fact change their minds on this question and become theists (and vice versa). These are all people of intellectual integrity, not those prone to suddenly coming to believe in the tooth fairy. Even Bertrand Russell was convinced by the ontological argument for a short period of his lifetime and thought it credible.

    So please, let’s not continue to trot out and propagate this inaccurate and unhelpful analogy.

    cheers,
    James

    Comment by James Garth | November 13, 2008

  28. James,

    In answer to your “belief scale” questions:

    A – I’ve read a fair bit about this, and I still don’t know. I’m not opposed to the multiverse theory in principal, but it seems more of a convenience than a straightforward explanation. So, for now, I can’t call on that one at all.

    B – around 1.5, I guess. The predictions that flow from this are so testable (and have held up so well) that the balance of probability is heavily weighed in favour of it being true.

    C – “it depends” is about the best I can say on this, but I suspect it’s nearer to “likely” than “unlikely”.

    But in any case, I can see that you’re not particularly concerned with the specific answers to these questions, but are making the point that one doesn’t have to directly see or experience something in order to be pretty certain that that thing is true or does exist. I don’t think that you have to go as far as quarks – I don’t believe that anyone has “seen” an atom. But considering the things that logically follow from the atomic theory of matter, testable things that accord with every experiment that has been done to test it, we can be as certain as certain can be that it is correct. We don’t have “faith” in theories like this – we have evidence. So far, I think we pretty much agree.

    Where we differ is in your assertion that belief in god is something that we have evidence for in a similar way. All the things you mention – the laws of the universe and the fact that there is a universal reality at all – could be explained by there being a god. But I can see nothing to make this necessary, or even helpful. Indeed, it seems like nothing but a huge sidestep, a helpless throwing up of the hands as if to say “This is too big a problem to solve, god must have done it.” There are, indeed, many things we don’t know, many of which are huge and difficult problems. I hope we never stop trying to crack them.

    I would say (following Dawkins) that the problem of the diversity of life is a good example to keep in the back of one’s mind. Until Darwin cracked it, the idea that all life must have been designed was a compelling one. But we now know how it really happened, and the explanation turns out to be simple and elegant. Now, I don’t know why the universe appears to be fine tuned for life, but I’m far more inclined to suspect that this is something we can work towards discovering. Perhaps, in some sense, the universe had no choice – perhaps there is only one way for a universe to be. Perhaps the multiverse theory has some validity. I don’t know. But “god did it” gets us nowhere.

    It is also worth pointing out that even granting your argument in terms of universal fine tuning, etc., only gives you the existence of a deist god. Nothing in that argument leads to the existence of a thought-hearing, prayer-answering, miracle-working, or even “good” god.

    I’m afraid that I stick by the tooth fairy analogy, in that I think that it succinctly sums up my perspective with respect to belief and evidence, and is a useful argument to counter the “you’re not a real atheist!” claim.

    Comment by Ian Edmond | November 13, 2008

  29. Hi Ian,

    I agree with you that the fine tuning of the universe does not prove the existance of God. However, the probability that such forces are so perfectly aligned to allow for organic life to grow is infinitely small. I’m not saying it is not a statistical improbability, but like as you mention in a previous post the probability is vanishingly small that it requires a large amount of faith. So I’m afraid your tooth fairy analogy applies to your belief system as well.
    Here is a video of a speaker who was invited to Google who touches on many of the topics in this blog:
    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=Kxup3OS5ZhQ

    Thanks,
    Frank

    Comment by Frank W. | November 14, 2008

  30. Ian,

    I welcome your response. You have certainly grasped the intent of my arguments and understood them properly, as well as presented your own view consistently and clearly.

    Epistemologically, we probably have more in common than we have differences. So when I take issue to a number of your points, please bear in mind that this is against a larger epistemological backdrop to which we both essentially agree.

    Firstly, you say that the hypothesis of “god did it” gets us nowhere. Respectfully, I beg to differ. In point of fact, it gets us a plausible explanation – ie. agent causation – that is simple, coherent, internally consistent and has significant explanatory power.

    We regularly invoke top-down causation as an explanatory process in many fields from archaeology to psychology, and I see no reason to exclude it from the playing field when it comes to questions of cosmology.

    I dispute that proposing divine causation is a cop-out, analogous to throwing our hands in the air and shouting “I give up!”.

    In previous times, human beings certainly did err by invoking “god-of-the-gaps” explanations where regular natural processes were actually at play. Seeking to explain the weather is probably an even better historical example to give than neo-Darwinian theory in this regard. Various weather gods which initially seemed plausible were later deemed to be unnecessary when the underlying meteorological processes were understood, and hence these deities were dispensed with. And a good thing, too!

    But I’m somewhat intrigued by the approach which you (and most other modern atheists) advocate when it comes to unpacking and explaining the broader and deeper universal ‘big questions’ (such as fine-tuning), which are embedded into the very fabric of the universe and the nature of reality itself.

    If I understand correctly, you seem to think that we should strive to seek for nontheistic explanations at all costs, even if we must be incredibly creative and wait indefinitely for such an explanation to present itself. With respect, is not that approach merely “atheism of the gaps?”. Would not “agnosticism of the gaps” be the better path?

    Secondly, I agree with your statement that a fine-tuned universe leads one only to deism, not full-blown theism. (actually, it gets you a little further than that – it gets you to a purposeful mind that is bio-centric and values emergent intelligence, but I won’t push this point). Arguments from such a category can by definition only get us so far.

    Like Dallas Willard, I advocate what can broadly be termed a three-stage approach to providing theistic evidences. Firstly, the theist can contend that ‘something else’ other than the physical world exists, secondly, that this ‘something else’ is a mind, possessing purpose and intelligence, and thirdly, that this ‘mind’ has sought to make itself known and intervene in human affairs in some way.

    It is to this last category that the thought-hearing, prayer answering, miracle working God properly belongs. I think that revealed religions operate almost exclusively in this domain, as they ought, since this is the domain that is really the most interesting for the common man, and far less abstract than the previous two stages.

    Speaking of which, would you be able to provide a plausible explanation for the reported miraculous testimonies that I referred to in my earlier post on this page? Say, for example, Philip Yancey’s experience? Or those chronicled in William James’ classic text “The Varieties of Religious Experience”? Or my own? I’m itching to get into the specifics here.

    Finally, with regards to your tooth fairy analogy, you are welcome to stick with it, however I note that you have not sought to refute the argument that I made in my final paragraph concerning how intelligent people openly change their minds on the theistic question. If you wish to continue to stick with your analogy in your own mind you are free to choose to, but I still think the point that I made ought to provide pause against doing so.

    cheers,
    James

    Comment by James Garth | November 14, 2008

  31. Loved the video Frank. A great speaker who seems to address the subject very responsibly. Thanks.

    Comment by Mark | November 14, 2008

  32. Agreed, a big thumbs up for the video Frank! Thanks for posting it.

    Comment by James Garth | November 15, 2008

  33. Forgive me for coming late to this party, but I just discovered Stephen’s excellent accounts of his experiences.

    Addressing Ian Edmond, James Garth wrote

    “Secondly, I agree with your statement that a fine-tuned universe leads one only to deism, not full-blown theism. (actually, it gets you a little further than that – it gets you to a purposeful mind that is bio-centric and values emergent intelligence, but I won’t push this point). Arguments from such a category can by definition only get us so far.”

    Good that you didn’t push that point, I think. In fact the ‘fine tuning’ argument does not get one to a ‘purposeful mind that is bio-centric,’ etc. That claim depends on the presupposition that all that is in the universe is an intended component of what is in the universe. It ignores the very real possibility that the bio-world on earth is an unintended (and very minor) by-product of a universe that was built for some quite different purpose. For example, one can easily imagine that some supernatural agency made the universe as it is, with all the fine-tuned parameters of physics as they are, solely in order to generate supernovas to amuse that agency’s offspring with the fireworks. A by-product of supernovas is heavy elements, which in virtue of the values of those tuned parameters coalesce into new stars with dust clouds that gravity clumps into planets with the organics necessary to generate life that is subject to evolution by natural selection which in turn produces intelligent beings. Those intelligent beings then (somewhat arrogantly) imagine that they are the goal of the exercise, when in fact they are only accidental by-products.

    RBH

    Comment by RBH | November 23, 2008

  34. I should have added that a theist acquaintance calls that proposal “dysteleological theism.” 🙂

    Comment by RBH | November 23, 2008

  35. “NOT A SINGLE SOURCE OUTSIDE OF THE BIBLE MADE ANY MENTION OF HIM DURING HIS SUPPOSED LIFETIME. That’s right, not a single one. So, like I say, let’s hope Jesus does a better job of convincing people the second time around.”

    WHAT AN EXTRAVAGANT CLAIM – but inaccurate.
    You obviously dismiss the references to the existance of JESUS in the writings of Josephus the Jewish historian JOSEPHUS Antiquities XVIII 63f and also references by the Roman authors Tacitus and Suetonius who wre certainly no friends of Jesus.

    Comment by RCM | February 9, 2009

  36. Hello RCM,

    Either you’ve misunderstood/misread my point, or you’re unaware of the dates when those historians actually lived and wrote.

    Of Jesus I stated, quite clearly, that “not a single source outside of the Bible made any mention of him during his supposed lifetime.”. Your response to that was to offer the names of Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius.

    So let’s have a look at those 3 historians…

    Starting with the first, Josephus, his Antiquities was written in 93AD (that’s about 60 years AFTER Jesus’ supposed lifetime.) The second name you mentioned, Tacitus, wrote his Annals in approximately 116AD (that’s about 85 years AFTER Jesus’ supposed lifetime). And the final name you offered, Suetonius, wrote his The Lives of the Caesars in approximately 120AD (that’s about 90 years AFTER Jesus’ supposed lifetime).

    So, as you can see, my claim wasn’t “inaccurate“ after all. You were simply mistaken.

    All the best,

    Stephen Butterfield

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | February 9, 2009

  37. Hi Stephen,

    It’s been a while since we last conversed. I’m glad to see your blog still up and running and stirring up people’s thoughts. I see the issue of the historicity of Jesus is still tripping you up. Your arugment seems to based on the logic that if Jesus was the most significant person in history, then why didn’t more historians write about him? To help answer this question, you need to understand the purpose of Jesus coming to earth. As accurately predicted in the Old Testament a Messiah would come to deliver the people from their sins. But His purpose in coming was to be a sacrifice, the Lamb of God and die. Why? In order for our sins to be forgiven, God’s justice must be satisfied, someone must pay. God Himself paid for our sins. However he also promises to come again and this time as a Lion and not a Lamb. At that time no historian or person can or will deny His presence or existance. If it was Jesus’ goal (during His first coming) to tell as many people as He could about who He was, he could have just written it in the sky. But His purpose was to go to the cross so that we may be forgiven. His audience was the meek and lowly, not the proud and powerful. You will face Him one day, either as Savior or Judge. He leaves that decision for you to choose.

    -Frank

    Comment by Frank W. | March 3, 2009

  38. I don’t know If I said it already but …this blog rocks! I gotta say, I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part people lack substance, but I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, 🙂

    A definite great read.

    Jim Bean

    Comment by JimmyBean | October 1, 2009

  39. Great blog. I did a debunk on the healing anecdote in Nicky Gumbel’s book. It’s here if you’d like a look: http://inspirationdebunked.wordpress.com/2011/01/02/skin-deep/

    Comment by inspirationdebunked | January 3, 2011

  40. Have not read the comments here but just to say as a newly ordained minister in the Church of England, about to deliver the alpha course, it has been very helpful to read your blog as I prepare so that I am more conscious of the things I say and how they are received.

    Keep asking intelligent questions – God wants us to ask things and can deal with it.

    Comment by Rachel | November 16, 2011

  41. Thanks Rachel. I’m glad my write-up has been of some assistance to you.

    All the best,

    Stephen

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | November 16, 2011

  42. I don’t know where you get your information but there is much information about Jesus/Christ/Christus (whatever you want to call him) outside the Bible.The most important reference to Jesus outside the Bible is written by Tacitus…..
    Reporting on Emperor Nero’s decision to blame the Christians for the fire that had destroyed Rome in A.D. 64, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote:
    Nero fastened the guilt . . . on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of . . . Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome. . .

    And there are a lot more if you care to really research it.

    Comment by Kelly | November 27, 2011

  43. Hello Kelly,

    I think you’ve misunderstood. No-one is claiming that there isn’t any information about Jesus outside of the Bible. What I said was, quite clearly, that there isn’t any mention of him from contemporaneous sources outside of the Bible.

    Perhaps you didn’t read “Week 1b: Who is Jesus?” because I listed several sources that DID mention Jesus outside of the Bible (though obviously not contemporaneous), including Tacitus.

    Anyway, thanks for posting.

    Best wishes,

    Stephen

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | November 27, 2011

  44. the guy leading my group on the course, has seen many healings, an old ladys wonky leg actually growing level before his eyes !
    if this is so, they could win a cool million dollars from the james randi foundation !
    imagine what that could do for the ministry !
    i am really enjoying my course. some nice people, a very nice fellow non believer, some great questions, some lack-lustre answers !
    they only have a few more weeks left to convince me !

    Comment by Gav | June 15, 2012

  45. I am surprised that none of the articulate people responding here have mentioned the work of C. S. Lewis. He was a Christian Intellectual who made a very good attempt at proving the existence of God in his book ‘Mere Christianity’. I consider this a must read for anyone genuinely trying to find the truth about the God of the bible.

    Comment by Bob | June 27, 2013

  46. Hi Bob,

    I remember reading ‘Mere Christianity’ many years ago on the recommendation of a Christian friend. I also remember being rather disappointed with it, to be honest.

    I may give it another whirl sometime though.

    Thanks

    Stephen

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | June 28, 2013

  47. I would like to ask all the believers here just why many Christians condemn gays just because of the reference to them in Leviticus. To those believers I would ask, why are you selective about the scriptures, you either believe them all or don’t. You can’t pick and choose. If you condemn gays, do you also belive then that we should still stone to death….. Troublesome teenagers/adulterers/people who work on Sundays? Because that’s what the bible instructs us to do.
    Fabulous blog Stephen

    Comment by Lynn | October 12, 2013

  48. Stephen,

    I find it interesting that throughout your article, you refer to God with a capital “G”. Why do you do that?

    Comment by Max | November 13, 2013

  49. Hi Max,

    Christians tend to use the capital “G”, so, seeing as I was attending a Christian course, I used it also.

    All the best,

    Steve

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | November 13, 2013


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