Primeval – Stories from the beginning

Primeval---Title

Prompted by the soon released film Noah, Echo High School just finished a 4 week conversation on the first 11 chapters of the book of Genesis, a section often referred to as the “primeval prologue.” The book of Genesis is well named. Genesis means “origin,” and it is a book about beginnings. It addresses questions about the origins of the universe, life, human culture, evil, pain, and suffering. This section of scripture is a lightning rod for interpretive differences and passionate debate, and I think all the attention might serve to confuse the intended message instead of clarifying it.

The powerful message of Genesis’ early chapters is often obscured by modern debates regarding issues the text does not address and questions the text cannot answer. It is common today to debate what the book has to say about the origin of matter in terms of science, cosmology, evolutionary biology, and so on. People try to make the primeval prologue of Genesis into an alternative theory of origins, and the debate about whether or not to take Genesis literally or whether evolution or creation is behind the complexity and uniqueness of human beings.

We might be guilty here of reading modern questions into an ancient context, and in doing so missing the point. One of the keys to interpreting scripture is to allow the Bible to say what it wants to say, not what we wish it said. We have to avoid the temptation to let questions the Bible cannot answer distract us from the questions it is answering. Genesis is not a book about biology or cosmology. It is a book about theology. The tragic reality for many people is that they will miss the theology of Genesis because they are forcing on the text their questions about origin of species and creation vs. evolution. We can’t afford to miss the point, because the point is too important to miss!

Genesis IS NOT – a science book or a history book in the modern sense. Forcing modern questions and modern categories on this ancient narrative is futile and might actually lead to missing the point. It cannot answer questions that were not being asked (or even imagined) by its original audience.

Genesis IS – a story, or a collection of stories. It is sometimes poetic, sometimes narrative, and sometimes parabolic. Genesis certainly communicates to its ancient audience in the language and style of other such stories from the ancient world, yet it is unique. I think the question of whether or not Genesis is “literal” is the wrong question. The question is whether or not Genesis is true, and that answer is yes. It is beautifully and wonderfully TRUE, in that it is jam-packed full of TRUTH. Yet it does not need to be literal to be true.

I think we obsess in excess over the issue of literal vs. symbolic, as if truth can only be communicated in objective, modern, non-fiction styles. I think the idea of anything being truly “objective” even in the modern world is also silly. Even documentaries and modern journalism betray their bias. This attitude also underestimates how narrative was used to communicate value and truth in the ancient world. God seems to be more concerned with the heart than with the head, and stories and songs are the language of the heart and so they make up much of the language of scripture. Scripture actually gives us an example about how story can communicate truth without being literal. Look at the parable Nathan employs when he confronts King David about his sin with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 12:1-7.

The Lord sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, 3 but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.

4 “Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”

5 David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! 6 He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”

7 Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man!…”

What we have here is a story designed to communicate truth best received by the heart and not the head. Nathan has the unenviable task of confronting and correcting a king that though himself above the law. He doesn’t do this with direct, didactic communication style. Instead, he uses the power of story to communicate the truth of David’s sin in a powerful and disarming way. Is Nathan’s parable TRUE? Yes! It might not be literal, but it is true. The rich man is David, the sheep is Bathsheba, the poor man that was wronged and abused is Uriah. In this case, we have both the parabolic story and the more “historical” story of David’s sin against Bathsheba detailed in the preceding chapters. How would we make sense of the story if we only had the parabole form? Would we be debating what color the fleece of the lamb was, or what town the man was from, or who the guest was that required the meal? All these questions are irrelevant to the point of Nathan’s parable.

For people that cannot wrap their head around the magic fruit and the talking snake and the flaming swords of Genesis’ primeval prologue, at least don’t miss the point of these stories because the details distract you. The fantastic and mythic quality of the stories fits well with the other such stories circulating at the time these were originally told. The question remains: does the primeval prologue of Genesis belong to the genre of parable or theological story or should it be read more literally? I tend to lean toward the side of “parabolic” history for several reasons. The narrative itself seems to suggest it with poetic structures and symbolic names. Adam means something like “humanity.” Eve means something like “mother of all.” The trees seem like symbols. There are parallelisms and chiasmus and other forms of poetic structures throughout the narrative.

Whether you read them literally or not, the theological point doesn’t change. These stories were first told to answer the question: “Why are things the way they are?” Why are we filled with spiritual curiosity? Why do we look into the mysteries of the universe and wonder? Why do we long to be more than we are? Why do we crave to be connected to God? Why have we been cast out of Eden? These questions need to be answered whether you view these stories literally or not. Whether or not they are literal is actually not the most important issue. The most important issue is the theology of these stories, what do they teach us about the nature of humanity and our relation to God? How would the ancient audience have understood these stories? What story does the Primeval Prologue of Genesis tell? It tells a story of something beautifully made and tragically marred. A story of paradise created and paradise lost.

When the movie Noah comes out, maybe you should watch it with your teen and have a lively discussion on parable, truth, history, and ultimate origins.

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MTV’s Bully Beatdown – Jesus and Violence

In our current high school series, our students have been engaging MTV’s shows in a redemptive conversation. One of the shows we tackled is called Bully Beatdown. Our Middle Schoolers had a similar conversation around the release of the new film The Karate Kid.

The show’s promo statement says this: Ever wanted help getting a bully to back off? When it’s time to even the odds, it’s time for Bully Beatdown. In each episode of Bully Beatdown, victims reach out to the host, professional mixed martial arts fighter Jason “Mayhem” Miller, to enlist his help. After learning why this guy needs a beatdown, Mayhem will “ambush” the bully. Calling him out in front of others, Mayhem will give him a choice: accept the challenge of fighting a MMA fighter or look like a coward.

What seems to be the case here is that bullies are corrected by being bullied themselves. This sounds okay, almost like “giving them a taste of their own medicine.” However, I wonder if Jesus would provide another way. This is a slippery slope and is dangerous. This is the question – Does might make right?

The problem of bullying is getting a lot of attention right now. 2 girls in Minnesota just hung themselves at a sleepover in response to bullying. Millions of people have seen the viral video of a 15 year old named Casey body slamming his bully. George St. Pierre, the UFC fighter, talks openly about how badly he was bullied as a kid. This isn’t just a physical issue; it is a social issue as well. The psychological torment we inflict on each other is a serious thing.

Bullying is a complex problem without an easy solution. The standard answer from youth workers and school officials is that a bullied person should “go get help” or “tell someone.” Certainly safety is an issue and school officials and other adults want to protect kids and teens. At the same time, this approach oversimplifies the problem. This is a complex issue, because sometimes what you need back is not just your safety but also your dignity. Sometimes “telling” just makes the problem so much worse. If your mom ends up trying to fight the battle for you, it doesn’t help you get back your dignity. Bullies know this and it gives them power. It is also not always realistic solution to just stand up to some bullies. There is always a bigger dog on the block, but you might not be that dog. In the movies, you stand up to the bully and they back down or you gloriously win because you get trained by an old Japanese handy man/karate expert. In real life, sometimes standing up means you end up getting pounded.

This issue becomes especially volatile because of the mixed messages teens here from people in authority. Some argue that Jesus was a pacifist, and that the only God-honoring response to bullying would be passive submission. Others advocate fighting back, an action that can lead to more violence and serious consequences (like being expelled from school). Is there such a thing as “redemptive violence,” or is any act of violence abhorrent?

Many people have heard the famous teaching of Jesus about “turning the other cheek.” This is found in Matthew 5:38-48. Some people argue that Jesus was a pacifist, and to follow Jesus means that you have no right to self-defense or resistance. The troubling phrase is: “Do not resist an evil person.” Does following Jesus mean a person cannot or should not engage in self-defense? A better translation of this phrase, one more faithful to the common use of the Greek words would be: “Do not react violently against the one who is evil.” We certainly are to resist evil. Jesus is not saying we should lie down and do nothing. A passive response would not accomplish anything but to embolden the bully and maintain the power imbalance. Jesus is not encouraging submission to evil; that would run contrary to everything he did and said. He is, rather, warning against responding to evil in kind by letting the oppressor set the terms of our opposition. I do not think Jesus is teaching people to do nothing. To do nothing when you see someone else getting bullied or mistreated is also far from the heart of Jesus. This is the root of the problem with a lot of bullying. Bullies have power not just because they are big or strong, but often because they have been given social power by the crowd. Unchecked and unrestrained evil just leads to more evil. We understand this when it comes to governments, police forces, authority figures and so on, but what about the average person? What responsibility do the powerful have to protect the weak? Jesus’ goal here is introducing a different way of handling violence, offense, and mistreatment. He is talking to Jews in occupied Roman territory, people that were very familiar with being bullied by someone much more powerful than them. He uses three examples that illustrate his point, all of which would have been understood and maybe even experienced by his audience. Jesus is introducing a different perspective on the problem.

Others argue that the true meaning of Jesus’ teaching has been lost because of historical distance. The original audience would have understood Jesus differently than we do now. To them, all of Jesus’ examples are not examples of passive submission, but of resistance. Jesus gives an alternative to passivity and violence. For example: Jesus instruction to “turn the other cheek” might actually be a creative way to turn the tables on your attacker. Think about the physics of striking someone on the left cheek. Most people, now and then, are right handed. The only way to strike the left cheek would be with a back-handed slap. In the ancient world, this act was less about inflicting injury and more about insult. It was the way a man slapped a woman, or a slave (prejudice that betrays the backwards thinking of the ancient world, not of this author!). It was a way that social inequality was communicated and enforced. The goal of such a slap is to humiliate and degrade. If a Roman punched another Roman, the fine was equivalent to about $40. If a Roman back-handed another Roman, the fine was $4000. The backhand slap was that offensive. (There is no fine for a Roman to backhand a non-Roman, like a Jew, which is the point.) Of course, you could always slap someone with your left hand on the left cheek, but that would be an insult as well because the left hand was used for toilet purposes. By turning the other cheek, you are taking away the ability of the other person to insult you. Yes, they could punch you – but a punch has a different meaning. If they do punch, the oppressor has been forced against his will to regard this subordinate as an equal human being. The act of turning the other cheek denies the aggressor the power to humiliate. It is an act of defiance, one that says: “I will not cower in the face of evil, but I will not accept your insult. I refuse to let you demeans me.”

This all goes beyond fight or flight. It is about meeting force with ridicule or humor, asserting humanity, and exposing injustice. Responding in this way, you are forcing the oppressor to see you in a new light and to think about their actions. The goal here is to defeat a bully not by destroying him or her. Your true enemy is not the person; it is the evil present in their actions and attitudes. To seek the destruction of your true enemy is to seek the transformation of the person. Remember that this teaching of Jesus is delivered in the context of the command to love your enemies.

That being said, the hard reality is that we live in a world filled with evil, where people can dominate, exploit, and take advantage of one another. It is a world where the strong deprive the weak of dignity and justice, where the powerful rule over the powerless with violence and oppression. The problem with violence is when only the evil or unrestrained people are capable of it. I am not convinced that Jesus would never support or recommend any kind of violence. Should you not restrain a violent person from harming others because you are afraid of violence yourself? If everyone took that attitude, evil would run unrestrained. In my opinion, there is a certain kind of evil that you cannot reason with. It needs to be brought to heel, even if this means some show of force. Again, the goal is always the disarming end of violence, the restoration of dignity, and the transformation of the other. Could this ever require violent resistance to achieve?

*Questions for discussion:
-Do you think bullying is a serious problem? Why or why not?
-What do you think about Casey, the 15 year old that body-slammed his bully to the ground? Do you think he should have reacted differently? What would you do if you witnessed this event in the hallway of your school? What do you think your parents woudl expect you to do?
-When, if ever, is violence justified?

Thank God for Summer – Echo Middle School Series

Our Middle Schoolers are preparing for the welcome relief of summer vacation, so we thought we would address what is already on everyone’s mind and see what we can learn about God in the process. Summer vacation is an American institution, at least for now. Summertime is the season for pool parties, camping, fireworks, backyard BBQ’s, camp, sleeping in, and more.

One of the best (if not the best) parts of summer is that there is NO SCHOOL. Freedom and fun are measured not in days, but in months. Where you normally have to give 7 hours of your day to sitting in class and learning, you now have those hours back! Think about the possibilities: you could read a good book, have a movie marathon with friends, get a summer job, or serve your church and community. Having time to recharge is something very much in line with the heart of God.

In Genesis 2:1-3 –, we find the story of God resting after the work of creation. After God created the heavens, the earth, and all the creatures that inhabit it, He took a break! Get this picture: God working hard, then kicking back and enjoying what He created, even delighting in it.

In Exodus 16:21-30, Moses is trying to teach people about the importance of taking a break. Six days a week, they can work and gather and toil. The seventh day, their work should be done so they can be with God and relax. They are having a hard time understanding this; so God reminds Moses that the idea is a gift, not a burden. Jesus makes the same argument in Mark 2:23-28 .

So how do we follow the command of God to rest? How do we make “sabbath” a reality in our busy lives?

Learn the power of the word “no.” What a powerful word! This is a lesson that I am not sure people teach much around this area. You cannot do everything. You cannot accept every invitation, join every club, play every sport, be a part of every activity. Human beings are not meant to run all the time. We are meant to have downtime and to recharge. We can easily get so busy and our schedules can become so complicated that we miss out on opportunities to meet with God. The only way to simplify our lives is to stop doing so much. Between homework, sports, dance, karate, FBLA, Odyssey of the Mind, Future Problem Solving, and babysitting jobs, you will have no time for family and no time for God. Saying “no” should also apply to setting boundaries on certain things. For instance, just because your phone is ringing, it doesn’t mean you need to answer it. Don’t become a slave to your phone, calling, texting, and chatting until you are tired and worn out.

Learn to slow down. The pace we live it is just too fast. We have all this technology that is designed to save us time. We can travel much faster, communicate with anyone anywhere instantly, and we have a huge number of gizmos at our disposal to make life easier and save us time – yet we are very “time poor.” We live at a faster pace than at any other point in human history. We spend less time with family, and less time with God. This pace is not good for our soul, it makes us stressed out and fatigued. The only answer to this is to deliberately slow down. If that means doing less, then we need to seriously consider it. You might say: “But I am in middle school, my life is not that crazy!” I would disagree. I have had enough conversations with students trying to find time to live and not being able to fit it in. This summer, slow down a bit.

Learn to take a break. This sounds like something that is nice, but not really that important. This idea is very important to God. The idea of “Sabbath” even made it into the Ten Commandments, right next to commandments about murder and adultery. In God’s eyes, practicing Sabbath is something very moral. This is not hard to udnerstand: think of how much better we could treat others if we were well rested? Think how much better our world would be if everyone was well rested? Sabbath is important because it is closely tied to our ability to embody key virtues like patience, temperance, prudence, and justice.

How do we apply this “Sabbath” idea today? Go get ice cream, have a movie night, take a nap, play a board game with your family. Since we all have busy families and busy lives and busy schedules, focus on finding “Sabbath moments.” Remember: the heart of this law is to allow us to reconnect with God and to recharge. So, what about taking advantage of drive time, or maybe instead of crashing in front of the TV or Xbox, you can spend some time with the Bible or listen to some worship music? What if you did something special as a family this summer, and started a family Bible study?

*Questions for discussion with your teenager:
-How do you feel about the pace of your life?
-Why is it hard to say “no” to good things?
-What do you notice about my character or behavior when I don’t have enough “down time?”
-What are some creative ideas for our family to better practice “sabbath?”

What I learned watching MTV

MTV and I were both born in 1981. I was born with little fanfare in a Detroit hospital: a baby too big for a momma too small that required an emergency c-section. MTV on the other hand, was born when they prophetically aired “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Back then, all you could see on MTV were music videos. The concept of a channel devoted to showing commercials 24/7 was brilliant. A music video is basically a commercial for the song and artist, and they interrupt these commercials with other commercials on their commercial breaks. We are suckers! Now, MTV rarely if ever shows music videos; it is in the business of creating culture.

Our high school students are engaged in a series right now that I like to repeat every few years called MTV and the Truth. The idea is to confront the worldview behind some of the shows on MTV with a critical and redemptive eye. We have engaged classic shows like Pimp my Ride, Room Raiders, Punked, The Real World, Made, My Super Sweet 16, and many more. This year, we are tackling Bully Beatdown, The Buried Life, Skins, and 16 and Pregnant. This year is by far my favorite!

I will put up some thoughts from the series in the coming week.

Praxis

Praxis is the practical application of a theory. When it comes to faith, praxis is faith in practice. It refers to what you live out, not just what you believe. It is one thing to know something, but it is another thing to live it. It is something remarkable that our culture has such a profound disconnection between knowledge and practice. For example: I know all about physical health. I know about eating healthy and exercising. I know how to get into “fighting shape.” That theoretical knowledge actually does nothing for my actual physical health unless I put into practice. People for the most part understand good financial planning. They know that if they spend more than they make, they will go into debt. They know that it is bad idea to live beyond their means. They know that if they do not save any money for retirement, they will not have any money with which to retire. All of this knowledge does them nothing, because the average American household has thousands in consumer debt and nothing saved for retirement. It doesn’t really matter what you know if that knowledge does not translate into action. Your theoretical knowledge might be impressive, but it is worthless, practically speaking. This is especially true in the area of faith. People come to church to learn more about Jesus, who He is, what He did, and what He asks of us. Yet for all this knowledge, sometimes it seems like nothing actually changes. We know that God asks us to love others, but do we love them? We know he asks us to be just, but do we practice justice? We know God asks us to worship Him above everything, but do we do it?

Series Graphic for PraxisJames is a book of the Bible all about praxis. James teaches that faith is something that needs to be lived out. The only kind of faith that matters is faith that is practiced: faith that you can see “evidence” of. Faith is an internal reality, a change from the inside out – starting in the heart and surfacing in changed priorities, affections, attitudes, and actions. James argues that if people cannot see a change in action, your faith probably doesn’t exist.

This month, our Echo High School students will be exploring the book of James and examining where our lives need line up with our beliefs. We will look at practical expressions of our faith in areas like social justice, our handling of money, and what comes out when we open our mouths. We no longer want to miss the path between knowledge and action, faith and charity, piety and moral proof.

Questions for you and your teenager:
*What does “praxis” mean to you – how do you put your faith into practice?
*Some people would say that Christians have a reputation for being hypocrites. What do you think James might say about this, based on what you read, heard, and discussed at Echo?
*Do you think people that “practice what they preach” are rare? Why or why not?
*What are some beliefs you hold that are tough to practice?

From Cooties to Booties

One of the clear requests from parents at our Echo Parent Summits last spring was for some age appropriate teaching on sexuality and God’s plan for our Middle School students. This is something we talk about often in Echo High School, but it is not something we openly address in Echo Middle School. Consistently, the parents of our Middle Schoolers asked us to rethink that approach.

So, starting this Sunday, we will begin a two week teaching series on God’s plan for sexuality for Echo Middle School. The series is called “From Cooties to Booties.” We are going to be careful to be age-appropriate, focusing on God’s plan for sexuality in a funny and light hearted way. This is not going to a “health class” talk, it is not going to be a “birds and the bees” talk, and it will not replace what should happen early and often at home with mom and dad. We will focus on what the Bible says and what Christ-following young teen should think and practice on this subject.

August 8th – From Cooties to Booties – Justin will teach with guys and gals together. This message will address some of the negative/false messages that are sent every day to our students from a sex-obsessed and misinformed culture. We will talk about what God has to say about it and see what our response to the truth should be. You can be sure that we will talk about these issues with honesty and grace, never guilt.

August 15th – Guy Talk/Girl Talk – The guys and gals will meet in separate groups to talk about some gender specific issues. Justin will teach the guys and Jamie will teach the ladies. Here we talk about treating the opposite sex with immeasurable value, as well as recognizing our own immeasurable value in the eyes of God.

Topics we will include: Crushes and middle school romances, the hurry some students are in to grow up or to appear “mature,” the best places to go when you have questions, the dangers of pornography, what is appropriate affection for a middle schooler and what is not, etc. God’s plan in a sentence: God gave us sex as something wonderful that build intimacy between a husband and a wife: purity now paves the way to intimacy later, while experimenting now erodes and damages that intimacy someday.

If you are not comfortable with your student attending these services, please feel free to hold them out (you know your child better than anyone). If you have any questions for me, feel free to email me or call me this week or next.

One last thing: this is a great opportunity to bring up some tough topics that parents often find uncomfortable. Leverage this at home! Talk about this with your kids, even if it isn’t comfortable.

The Game of Life – Prudence

This series we have been talking about how morality has more to do with becoming the right sort of person than it does being a person that follows all the rules. People sometimes assume that if they can do “good” things more and “bad” things less, they will somehow put God in their debt or gain his approval. This attitude fails to consider the level of transformation that is available in Jesus. In Christ, there is the possibility of New Life, where an internal transformation occurs supernaturally. This is not based on our moral performance, but on Christ’s work on our behalf. This is how we are to become the “right sort of person.”

What is the right kind of person? In this series, we are looking at morality in terms of “virtues:” internal characteristics that define who a person is or is becoming instead of external rules that define what they do or do not do. The 4 classic virtues (sometimes called the “Cardinal Virtues”) are Temperance, Prudence, Justice, and Fortitude.

Let’s talk about Prudence. This is one of those words that has lost its meaning over time. What I mean by prudence is the correct knowledge of things to be done or avoided, or the ability to make the right choice. Prudence is first among the virtues because it guides the others by setting the course of life and helps in applying moral principles to particular cases.

Know-the-Game-Title-3

Remember the Game of Life? You make your choices, and depending on how well you choose, you either end up living in “Millionaire Acres” or as some dead beat. I don’t know about ending up in “Millionaire Acres,” but I do think that the Game of Life has a lot to do with Prudence. Prudence, like Life, is all about making choices.

The bible gives us a great conversation throughout the book of Proverbs that sets “Wisdom” against “Folly.” Wisdom is personified by in a noble and beautiful young woman. She is the kind of girl every young man dreams of marrying. Folly on the other hand, takes the form of a woman with “questionable character.” If wisdom is the ability to make good choices, folly is the opposite. Folly is impulse, empty promises, misplaced desire, reckless affection, and self-destruction. She is sneaky and seductive, but in the end she is disaster. She represents all the choices that seem like a good idea only to end in unbearable consequences.

When it comes to virtues, Prudence is not on the top of the teenage list. They tend to make decisions based on feeling, considering only the most immediate impact and ignoring long term consequences. Being prudent means having the ability to forecast the long term impact of our decision. Our culture struggles with this idea, as evidenced by the “credit card philosophy” by which many people live. Play now, pay later is a slogan that would sum up the average student’s attitude toward life. Prudence means taking the time to stop and think, weigh each option for pro’s and con’s, and proceed with the logical choice. Jesus warned about “counting the cost” before beginning any endeavor.

Prudence also means knowing where to find wisdom when you need it. When they are at an impasse, most teenagers naturally look for advice from their friends. This is a bit like asking another drowning person to help you out of the pool. One of the marks of maturity is when a young person starts seeking advice in the right places. Very often, when people say they are looking for advice, what they are actually looking for is someone to agree with what they have already decided. Proverbs 12:15 says it just right: “Fools think they need no advice, but the wise listen to others.” Teens need to be challenged and reminded that teachers, coaches, pastors, youth leaders, and (gasp) even their parents are MUCH better sources of advice than other teenagers.

ORANGE MOMENT: Of course, there are plenty of topics in the teenage universe that they are not comfortable talking to mom and pop about. This is where youth ministry can offer families a great tool. In youth ministry, we have adults (that are not mom and dad) that have taken the time to enter the teenage world and earn enough relational currency to matter. These adults have established a platform to say the same kinds of things that mom and dad would say. This is why we work so hard to create environments that are conducive to deepening the relationship between youth leaders and students. This way parents have a resource they can turn to when another adult is needed to “echo” the wisdom that our students should be hearing at home. Now we are thinking orange!

Questions for you and your teenager:

*How do you make decisions? What is your thought process like? What kinds of things do you consider before making a big decision? Why?
*Who can you go to for advice on something important? Should you trust these people to give you good advice? Why or why not?
*How should the Bible play into our decision making? What role should God have in our choices?