Spiritual Formation Interview #2 – Dr. Molly T. Marshall

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This is the second in a series of interviews about spiritual formation (from a variety of Christian perspectives). Today’s thoughts come from Rev. Dr. Molly T. Marshall, President and Professor of Theology and Spiritual Formation at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, KS, and a member at Prairie Baptist Church in Prairie Village, KS. She blogs at Trinitarian Soundings and writes a bi-weekly column for ABP News at Thinking Theologically. Her faculty bio can be found here.

Why you should listen: There are some who bemoan theologians, suggesting they are somehow problematic for those of us who would live a life of faith and devotion. Thanks be to God for theologians like Molly T. Marshall, who point out the lies in such a wrong idea! Jennifer (my wife) says about Dr. Marshall, “She’s both the most encouraging and the most intimidating person I know!” Said another way, Dr. Marshall is “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). She has been influential in my life by just such an example, exhibiting grace in a way that occasionally brings forth whatever God-given excellence might dwell inside me. I know of no person more Trinitarian in her theology or actions. (See, theology is important, because it affects how we live and, thus, who we are!) She has gifts of discernment (seeing the great potential/reality in people that many of us overlook), tenacity, humor, grace, leadership, courage – I could go on, but …

On to the interview!

How do you define spiritual formation?

Christian Spirituality is the capacity to respond to the movement of God’s Spirit; and spiritual formation is an intentional process of opening oneself to the presence of God’s transforming Spirit.

Spiritual Formation is a life-long process of becoming fully oneself and fully God’s.

What sorts of practices or disciplines are a part of your spiritual formation?

The four lectionary texts provide material for prayer and reflection each week.  I start each morning by reading one of them and then writing a prayer that grows out of the Scripture’s guidance.  I have kept a prayer journal for about 35 years; including the lectionary readings in those written prayers has been a discipline for the past 15 years.

I also listen to good choral music as a form of prayer.  The longing for beauty expressed in lovely music is akin to longing for God.

I continue to read the great spiritual classics as well as contemporary writers; the wisdom gleaned from these sources calls me to greater depth.

How do corporate and personal practices relate to one another in your own practice?

Although I read the Bible in solitude, I also study the Bible in community.  I am a regular participant in an adult Sunday School class at Prairie Baptist Church.  Reading the Bible in community sharpens one’s hermeneutics, for the perspective of others challenges my assumptions about texts.

Praying in community also requires a de-centering of self.  Although I regularly intercede for others in private prayer, praying with others allows a deeper sense of the pathos others carry.  The “prayers of the people” at our church genuinely reflect an expansive array of concerns, albeit too often insular—praying for those within the community.  Pastoral prayers can voice concern for the larger world, which helps bring balance.

How do churches fare at helping their members better engage in spiritual formation?

Of course churches can do better in teaching practices that invite spiritual formation.  Some churches are teaching lectio divina, a key starting point for the practice of attentive listening to Scripture.  Silence is essential to spiritual formation, but many congregations fear it and fill up every space with words.

Churches often sponsor retreats focused on spiritual formation, but usually these are too brief to imbed new practices.  An effective way of teaching, however, is offering testimony (by laypersons) of their own spiritual practices.  This tends to get a larger hearing than when ministers interpret their own practices, although this can be instructive.

Churches that highlight small group ministries provide effective contexts for spiritual formation—especially if an action/reflection model is pursued.  It is important to remember the rhythms of ora et labora.

How can church leaders better help members with these sorts of issues?

Everything a church does should contribute to age-appropriate spiritual formation.  Curricula, ministry-projects, worship, and fellowship should be measured by the goal of spiritual formation.  For example, church leaders could focus on Christian maturity as a congregational theme for a year, or Lent could be devoted to learning spiritual practices.

It is also important to remember that members of the congregation have different temperaments, so planning varied elements for corporate worship is essential for the purpose of spiritual formation.

What would you say to a person who asked your advice as a sort of spiritual director?

I would seek to be a mirror to them in helping discern the ways the Spirit is at work in their lives.  The Holy Spirit is the director; I can only serve as a companion to the one seeking advice.  As a midwife of grace, I would encourage what I see struggling to be born.

As a reminder: I’ve asked each person the same seven questions. As I receive their responses, I hope to post them here every few days (not doing well so far). You are invited to add your own comments along the way. My hope is that these interviews will inspire all of us to approach the tasks of spiritual formation/discipleship with more thoughtful intention, that they will improve our ministries, that they will enhance the ways we talk and think about how our faith can progress from milk to meat (or from strained bananas to brussels sprouts, if you’re vegan!).

Next conversation: Rev. Gary F. Green, II – Orange Bowl Champion!



Spiritual Formation Interview #1 – Dr. David May

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This is the first in a series of interviews about spiritual formation (from a variety of Christian perspectives). Today’s thoughts come from Rev. Dr. David M. May, Professor of New Testament at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, KS, and a member at Englewood Baptist Church in Kansas City, MO. He blogs at NTStudies. His faculty bio can be found here.

Why you should listen: Dr. May can keep two 8-hour class days interesting, perhaps the best classroom teaching presence we’ve had at Central – high praise among good competition. He combines child-like delight, pastoral sensitivity, and scholarly intellect with a bow-tie-wearing, tennis player’s body (and I hope you and he appreciate these qualities as much as I do). His course on Johannine and Pauline writings transformed my hesitance about them into a true and lasting affection, and I know I am not alone in this. He makes ancient coins interesting. Few can help Jesus’ parables breathe as deeply or live as brightly as he; if you can find his sermon on the parable of the talents, read it.

On to the interview!

How do you define spiritual formation?

I like to use the term askesis for understanding and defining spiritual formation. Askesis is the Greek word for exercise or training. Practice exercises the spiritual muscles. All areas of life can be utilized as an exercise for spiritual formation. C. S. Lewis perhaps captures it best when he writes, “I think every natural thing which is not in itself sinful can become servant of the spiritual life, but none is automatically so . . . . the test of music or religion or even visions if one has them—is always the same—do they make one more obedient, more God-centered and neighbor-centered and less self-centered?” *1

Importantly in this definition is that spiritual formation is conscious and intentional. One works toward formation. Also, the criteria for a healthy spiritual formation, as Lewis notes, are based on Jesus’ response to a scribal question: “30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31).

What sorts of practices or disciplines are part of your spiritual formation?

(1) Reading
(2) Writing
(3) Engagement with Creation

How do corporate and personal practices relate to one another in your own practice?

Ideally corporate and personal practices overlap. As the British poet John Donne eloquently wrote “no man [or woman] is an island unto himself.” Actually, only with great difficulty and great harm can one separate the personal from the corporate.

How do churches fare at helping their members better engage in spiritual formation?

Each church is different in how it assists its members in engaging spiritual formation. Some are more attentive and proactive with members, some definite spiritual formation in a narrow way and only encourage a particular type of formation, and others do not consciously focus on this aspect.

How can church leaders better help members with these sorts of issues?

Allow space for individuals to practice spiritual formation.
Provide models.
Provide resources that assist in the process of spiritual formation.

What would you say to a person who asked your advice as a sort of spiritual director?

You must read and write. Add to that advice the adjective “well.” You must read well and write well.

Two significant areas of spiritual askesis that will influence personal and also corporate identity as a Christian are reading and writing. While these disciplines may not seem specifically directed towards the spiritual, they are foundation for developing and maintaining one’s spiritual formation. To read is to engage with and learn from the great cloud of witnesses (and models) that have gone before. To write is to engage in a tactile experience of letting the reflections of one’s mind find an outlet in a concrete and tangible form. The written word is one which can be reviewed, revised, and revelatory, not only for the self, but also for others.

*1 W. H. Lewish, ed. Letters of C. S. Lewis (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966), 268-69.

As a reminder: I’ve asked each person the same seven questions. As I receive their responses, I’ll post them here every few days. You are invited to add your own comments along the way. My hope is that these interviews will inspire all of us to approach the tasks of spiritual formation/discipleship with more thoughtful intention, that they will improve our ministries, that they will enhance the ways we talk and think about how our faith can progress from milk to meat (or from strained bananas to brussels sprouts, if you’re vegan!).


A New Project!

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One of the pleasures of being in several different places lately (St. Louis, Kansas City, Lawrence, Belleville; Baptist, Methodist, Mennonite congregations; inner cities, suburbs, and corn fields; compact cars, tow trucks, Corvettes; coffee shops, restaurants, parks, churches, libraries, baseball stadiums, skeeball leagues – I could go on and on) is that I get to interact with lots of different people. While this doesn’t make up for the pervading sense of dislocation the last few years have brought, it does bring opportunities to expand the ways I think about issues that are important to me. All of us can easily “groove” ourselves into listening only to people who think like we do; such a life is simpler and more stable, though it lacks a certain robust quality (like the difference between store-brand ketchup and a five-star pasta sauce).

Spiritual formation has long been an interest of mine. While most other believers asked questions about how many people “walked the aisle” or “made professions,” during my childhood I kept wondering: What are we doing with folks AFTER they join the movement? Or, like Shane Claiborne puts it – In addition to life after death, does Christianity have anything to say about life BEFORE death? People I’ve worked with in ministry settings have pointed out that many churches know how to give an invitation at the close of a service, or lead people in “The Sinner’s Prayer” (current controversies notwithstanding), but relatively few churches/Christians are confident or consistent in their preparations for disciple-making ministries. It sometimes feels like we expect spiritual formation to take care of itself because of some holy blessing from the Lord.

How can we talk more (or at least better) about spiritual formation in our congregations? What kinds of practices benefit people in their spiritual development? Is practicing our faith about more than weekly worship attendance and a daily quiet time? These are the kinds of questions I asked of several people I’ve gotten to know over the past few years, people who are leaders in their faith communities, people whose robust faiths have inspired my own in various ways, people who represent different faith traditions and races and age brackets and roles and experiences – but who all share a commitment to Christian faith and have something to add to a conversation about these issues.

I’ve asked each person the same seven questions. As I receive their responses, I’ll post them here every few days. You are invited to add your own comments along the way. After the initial batch (perhaps seven different interviews?), you’re welcome to submit your own answers to me through e-mail for future inclusion on the blog. My hope is that these interviews will inspire all of us to approach the tasks of spiritual formation/discipleship with more thoughtful intention, that they will improve our ministries, that they will enhance the ways we talk and think about how our faith can progress from milk to meat (or from strained bananas to brussels sprouts, if you’re vegan!).


Another Boring Easter Sermon

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Christ is risen from the dead, Trampling over death by death. Come awake, Come awake, Come and rise up from the grave.// Christ is risen from the dead, We are one with him again. Come awake, come awake, Come and rise up from the grave.// Oh death, where is your sting? Oh hell, where is your victory? Oh church, come stand in the light! The glory of God has defeated the night!// Oh death, where is your sting? Oh hell, where is your victory? Oh church, come stand in the light! Our God is not dead, He’s alive, He’s alive!

I don’t know what you all think, but those words from Matt Maher’s song, “Christ is Risen,” are some of my favorites from Christian radio because they make me want to dance and shout and cry and praise and do all kinds of crazy things. That’s some serious stuff there. If it weren’t for all those lessons about self-control we learn growing up, I would be a slobbery mess up here just thinking about them. It’s happened before.

The words of that song tell the Easter story from so many directions. They proclaim the historical truth of the resurrection, that our God was dead and is now alive. They point out the irony in this whole situation, that death, which is the only undefeatable force in the universe, proved how strong it was by killing God, and that was its very undoing. The words from this song tell us that the Church is united to Christ and is united in Christ. And then it calls us to wake up, because the time for sleep is over. You’ve been dead, Church, but it’s time to get up and stand in the light. You’ve been quiet for way too long, and it’s time to make some noise!

(Note for readers: If you’re not cheering at this point, you’re probably not alone. But you should be. This story should make you cheer. For reference’s sake, on a 1-10 scale measuring audible excitement, I expected a 2 or 3 from “the average church” and FBC-Marissa was at about a 6. They’ve got some spunk in them. 🙂 )

But we don’t know what to do with that kind of excitement, which probably goes a long way to explaining why the American church is overall pretty stagnant in its membership and missions outreach. We were the dominant cultural force in our country for so long, and we relied on the power it gave us to assimilate people into our midst, but now we’ve lost that position and that power and so we’re waiting on someone to tell us what to do next because we don’t understand what’s going on and how all this happened and what it all means. Even on Easter Sunday.

Not much has changed in 2000 years, because that first Easter Sunday, Jesus’ followers had that same uncertainty. Their world had been dramatically altered because their teacher, their leader was dead – had been arrested, tried, convicted, sentenced, killed, buried, and sealed in a tomb. Turn with me in your Bibles to the Gospel of John, chapter 20, where we’ll pick up the story at this point and read verses 1-18.


There’s a lot of uncertainty in this text. It was still dark when Mary got to the tomb, but she could see the stone had been moved away from the tomb, so she ran to tell two of the disciples that Jesus’ body was missing. When they arrive, they’re apparently confused. We don’t get much commentary on Peter’s reaction, and we’re told the other disciple saw and believed, but still didn’t understand about the resurrection, so I’m not sure what it was that he believed. All we know is that they went home, which sounds like they were disappointed. Silly boys.

At this point the story switches back to focus on Mary Magdalene. She is crying outside the tomb,still wondering where Jesus’ body could be. She looks inside the tomb to find two angels sitting where Jesus’ body had been. When they ask what’s wrong, she tells them. Then, all of a sudden, Jesus enters the scene. Well, Mary doesn’t know it’s Jesus, but we do. She thinks he’s the gardener until the Good Shepherd calls one of the sheep by name. He sends her off to tell the disciples what she now knows, and she becomes the first apostle, the first person sent to bear witness to the resurrected Christ.

Mary’s message is simple, just five words – “I have seen the Lord.” This is the heart of the Easter message, not because it should surprise us that God has power over death, but, as Gail O’Day writes, “The heart of the Easter proclamation resides in the moment when we are claimed by the truth of the resurrection” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, p. 379). For Mary, that moment happened when Jesus called her by name. Until that point, we knew what Mary did not; in that moment, we rejoice with her as she realizes what’s been there the whole time. Jesus has been present with her all along, but now she knows it. The truth is revealed to her, a truth that was previously unknown. Her uncertainty was real; so was the resolution of that uncertainty.

There is no real drama in this story for us, though. We know how it ends because we’ve read it so many times before. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to get excited about the Easter story. But what if we could? What if we got so excited about Easter that we couldn’t contain ourselves, that we felt like we were about to explode out of our skin the way grace exploded into the world that first Resurrection Sunday? What if our lives reflected the reality of the resurrection in the way we lived, day in, day out? What would that look like? How would we be different people? If the resurrection of Jesus totally changed the course of the world, how might our lives reflect a total change?

I’m sorry to tell you that I have a lot more questions for you today than I have answers. This is only my second Sunday at FBC-Marissa, and it would be presumptive of me to think I could tell you where your lives fall short and where they measure well. All I can tell you is that the process starts for each of us like it did for Mary – “I have seen the Lord.” Something about that encounter, when Jesus called her by name, changed her from a fearful and confused person into a certain witness. She knew who called her, and that was enough. This is where it starts for each one of us, by knowing the Jesus who calls our names and who commands us to go tell others what we know.

Today we celebrate this command because it comes from a risen Savior. We have divine permission to party it up today, and for the next few weeks of the Easter Season. The rest of John’s Gospel is full of liberating stories that move the disciples from being timid folks hiding behind locked doors to a restored, rejuvenated community inspired to do great things because of great hope. Many years later, a similar kind of community would rejoice in the good news of that first Easter Sunday with several praise offerings that spoke to Jesus’ exalted status. Today, and for the next few weeks, may we be able to understand with Mary the true nature of the one who calls us. May we be able to pray the following words from the Book of Revelation, a book that tells the story of another community who, in the face of great uncertainty, were captivated by the power of the resurrection and who were transformed by its promise of new life for all who believe:

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing! … To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever! … Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb! … Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

What do you get when you combine a Delorean, palm branches, and an old piece of rock? A Palm Sunday Sermon!

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Below is the prepared manuscript of a sermon I preached at First Baptist Church-Marissa, IL on April 1, 2012. Naturally, the moment of delivery is never identical to the moment of conception, so discrepancies exist between the text of this sermon and the sermon those in attendance heard (moreso in this case than seems normal for me).

Has anyone else here ever wanted to travel through time? It fascinated me when I was younger. I would think about returning to the day when I met a friend of mine just to observe our first interactions, or going way back in time to some historic era like when dinosaurs were still on the earth. Maybe some of you would go back to the day when your first child was born, or to a birthday party that was really special – just so you could feel that excitement over and over again.

But despite our best wishes and the dozens of movies made about time travel, no Delorean is going to get us back to the future – or the past. The best we can currently do is to imagine what it would be like. I wonder if we could try to visit a couple of places in the past, together. This is a little risky for the first time you preach somewhere; somebody might end up stuck on a remote island back in the Dark Ages with no one around to bring you back. If that happens, we’ll make sure to send a Great Rivers Region Area Minister to scour the annals of history for someone with amazingly good dental work for the time period so that we can try and bring you back.  Think we can handle that?

First, imagine yourself in the city of Jerusalem, around the year 30 AD. If you’re having trouble getting there, open your Bibles to Mark 11:1-11. Amazingly, this happens to be our scripture passage for today, Mark’s account of Jesus entering Jerusalem just a few days before he was crucified. —

Mark 11:1-11 – “When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” just say this, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.” ’ They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’ They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”

See, time-travel’s not so bad. It’s like you never even left the room!

The words of this scripture passage are probably familiar to most of us, though there is always more we might understand when we read the Bible. We’ll come back to this place soon. Next, though, go back about 40 more years, from AD 30 to 9 BC, about five years before Jesus was born. This time we’ll end up in modern-day Turkey. Quick history quiz – Anyone know who was Emperor when Jesus was born? (A: Caesar Augustus). What I’m about to read is not from the Bible, but was written on an ancient piece of rock that archaeologists found and translated. I think it can help us understand the meaning of the passage about Palm Sunday. See if you hear any words that sound like they’re describing someone we talk about in church a lot.

Priene Inscription Excerpt: “‘Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance [excelled even our anticipations], surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him,’” (emphasis mine)

This is kind of amazing, isn’t it? Five years before Jesus is born, this inscription is talking about one given by Providence to benefit humankind, calling him savior for us and our descendants, that he might end war (we might call him a prince of peace?). Caesar Augustus, according to what’s written on this piece of rock, was better than all the people who came before him with no hope of being better than him. “And since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings of the world that came [through] him.” That is so much of what we say about Jesus, written about somebody else – Augustus, the emperor, the king. This kind of thing didn’t stop when Augustus died, either. Later Roman emperors claimed these same kinds of divine titles for themselves. I don’t think humility was part of the application requirement.

So we have this piece of rock that calls Caesar Augustus a savior, says that the king’s birthday was the beginning of good tidings for the world. And some of you are thinking, “Yeah, sounds like Jesus. So what?! Why are we talking about some old piece of rock in church?” Anybody thinking that? You can be honest, it’s ok. If you can’t be honest in church, where can you? Anybody thinking that?

Now look back at Mark 11. Notice in verse 2, Jesus tells the disciples where to go and what they’ll find and what to say, and it happens. Jesus is the one making this story happen. Jesus is in control; what he wants, happens.

What are the people saying to Jesus when he comes into town?

“Hosanna!” – Save us!

“Coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” – They’re referencing another king, one of their own kind who they hope will rule again. The thing about having a king, is that usually only one person can be the king at any given time. If Caesar is already the king, how can there be another one? What do you think Caesar would think about this kind of talk? Jesus, the one making this story happen, hears people talking about David’s coming kingdom when he arrives. Hmmmmm….

And what does this man who controls the story ride in on? Jesus wants to ride on a donkey, so he does. In those days, the donkey was the animal princes and kings would ride when they wanted to signal peace to the place they were entering. There’s probably also a reference here to Zechariah 9:9 – “Lo, your king comes to you;//triumphant and victorious is he,//humble and riding on a donkey.” Jesus rides on the animal mentioned in Zechariah when talking about a victorious and humble king coming. Jesus is putting this story together and riding the animal that signals peace to the townspeople.

Now add to all of this what some scholars believe about that particular day. It was the beginning of the week before Passover, when some of the Roman authorities would come into Jerusalem as security forces. How many of you know that when big crowds gather, it can be more dangerous for people who are there? When big crowds gather, some folks might get ideas of trying to start some trouble. Trouble had happened before in Jerusalem during Passover week, so the Roman authorities probably came in that very day to keep the people in line. When you want to do that, you don’t ride in on donkeys; you bring the war horses to make sure everyone can see your power. Fear is a powerful motivator, after all.

So on one hand, we have a powerful empire that rides in on warhorses, striking fear into people who are gathered. Their allegiance is to Caesar and no one else. Caesar claims divinity for himself – and no one outside the royal family. The Romans say Caesar is Lord, and Caesar is in control.

The Gospel of Mark says something very different. In Mark, we have a group ruled by a man who’s about to die, riding in on a peace donkey, birthing hope in people who have been waiting for someone to free them from the fear they feel under the Romans. Mark’s allegiance is to Jesus, and Mark hopes our allegiance is to Jesus – and no one else. Mark claims divinity for Jesus – and no one else. Mark says Jesus is Lord, and remember what we said before – Jesus is in control of this story. Now you see why that old piece of rock was worth talking about.

Palm Sunday makes very clear that we have a choice to make. There are two powers that are part of this story. One is Rome – it leads by fear and war and intimidation. It says Caesar is Lord. It is the easy way to fit in, and it will live for at least another 400 years.

The other power is Jesus – he leads by love and peace and invitation. Mark says Jesus is Lord. Following Jesus makes it hard to fit in, and to make things harder, Jesus is going to die in five days. Mark knew this when he wrote, and Mark’s readers knew it when they read.

So our choice is simple and hard at the same time. Do we live for 400 years through fear and intimidation, or do we live for five days through love and peace? Do we “go along to get along” or are we “All to Jesus I Surrender” kind of people? Are we like the crowds of Palm Sunday who by Good Friday have changed their cry from “Hosanna” to “Crucify”? I am here to tell you; there are no time machines to help with this question, and it is complex. You are not left to your own ways to decide; you have the Spirit and the church to help you. But you have a choice in the matter. Your choice is always, “Now which way will I go?”