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Christian Doctrines, Omniscience, Open Theism, philosophy, theology

Against Open Theism: Scrooge and God’s knowledge of the Future

I was listening to William Lane Craig’s Defenders podcast (Doctrine of God: Part 13) and he brought up an interesting analogy about omniscience. He discussed Scrooge in Dickens’ “Christmas Carol.” The last spirit to appear to Scrooge is the ghost of Christmas to come. He takes Scrooge around and shows him all sorts of disturbing imagery that will happen. Scrooge asks the ghost whether these are things that must happen, or whether he can stop them. The spirit remains silent.

Craig pointed out the spirit would have to remain silent to have any sort of effect. For suppose the spirit knows what will happen: that Scrooge will repent and so these awful things won’t happen. But then if he tells Scrooge what he knows, Scrooge will feel little remorse about not acting to prevent them. Yet if the spirit told Scrooge these things would happen, then Scrooge has no reason to modify his behavior, for he cannot prevent the events from happening.

Craig suggests, then, that we should look at omniscience and instances of God “changing his mind” in the same fashion. This has some interesting applications in the case of Open Theism, because it undermines one of the core exegetical arguments for the position: cases of God “repenting” or “changing his mind.”

God, on classical theism, knows what will happen in every circumstance. He comprehensively knows the future (contra Open Theism). If this is so, then God would have to withhold some of his knowledge in order to bring things about, despite his knowledge that it would occur. Like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, God would know the answer to Scrooge’s question, but would not answer him, so that he could bring it about that Scrooge would repent.

Consider Jonah. Open Theists often point to the story of Nineveh as an example of God not comprehensively knowing the future. Because God sends Jonah with the message that Nineveh will be destroyed, but then, when Nineveh repents, he shows mercy, many people say that God did not know the Ninevites would have such a reaction. Yet why should this be the case? Isn’t it plausible that God did know they would repent and that God sent the message that they would be destroyed because that is the only way Nineveh would be led to repentance? This is, in fact, hinted at later in the book, when Jonah says to God, “Isn’t this what I said, LORD, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (4:2).

But if God had told the Ninevites “I will not destroy you” because he knew that he would not, would not the impetus of Jonah’s message lose its strength. With the threat of destruction, the Ninevites repented. Without, would they have done so? Imagine Jonah’s message going through the streets “Forty more days and Nineveh will not be destroyed!” I think it obvious that this would probably not have the same effect that the initial message was.

So it seems quite plausible that God, like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (in our analogous case), may refrain from telling all he knows at many points throughout Scripture. For if he told people everything he knew, he would know that they would not repent, turn aside from their evil ways, or bring about the actions he desired. The instances wherein God ‘changes his mind’ or ‘repents’ are instances of this: rather than revealing his knowledge, God withholds it, in order to bring about the ends that he desires to (and knows will) happen. We, like Scrooge, would not respond to calls for repentance if we felt it didn’t make a difference in the end.

Final note: the above account implicitly assumes molinism to be the case. So much the better for it, I say!

SDG.

This is part of a series I’ve written against the doctrine of Open Theism. If you’d like to read more, check out the original post for discussion and links.

——

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Discussion

17 thoughts on “Against Open Theism: Scrooge and God’s knowledge of the Future

  1. This is a reasonable defense of classical theism in relation to the verses about God “changing His mind”. I have no direct refutation to present against it. It does raise some questions, however, which I will address after a brief prelude.

    When providing an ad hoc explanation for parts of Scripture which seem to conflict with one’s viewpoint, there are what I would call “sufficient” and “compelling” explanations. Compelling explanations are of the reductio ad absurdum variety — they use premises and principles of logic to expose either a fallacy in the thought or a failure in the facts. Most rational individuals will see it, see the truth of it, and be forced to accommodate this into their theophanies. There really is no way out of a compelling explanation: if one denies it, then one denies principles of logic. The best one can do in the face of such is to say that this is an “irresolvable tension” or a “mystery” or an “antimony” and beg the Eschaton. This is similar to justification in traditional Foundationalist epistemology.

    Sufficient explanations, on the other hand, are such that we may understand how the facts in question can be accounted for on a particular model without inviting outright contradiction. They answer the immediate question, while remaining silent on others. When presented with a sufficient explanation, one’s debating partner may rationally acknowledge the sense in it and still disagree that this provides either refutation of their position or foundational support in favor of the yours. It is a “minimum standard”, so to speak. In common parlance, we might say that we “understand, but disagree”. This is similar to Plantinga’s warrant in his Reformed epistemology.

    I myself have never presented open theism as being THE sole rational option on the market, or THE only way to make sense of the Biblical narrative. I have found that the large majority of open theists are of a similar mind. I tend to think that there are logical contradictions inherent in classical theism (e.g., divine timelessness), but I will not accuse the classical theist of contradiction here. I consider Craig’s response to be a sufficient explanation, but not a compelling one.

    Why isn’t it compelling? For one, because the open theist explanation of the same verses is at least equally compelling and arguably less artificial (i.e., the open theist can reasonably lay claim to a “straightforward” interpretation, without having to “explain away”) Second, because I have no internal compulsion to see people who disagree with me as irrational I am free to acknowledge the sensible points in their position and go on my merry way. Third, because I find the weight of Scripture to be in favor of “open” language in reference to God, which means that the explanation feels like it is explaining away the majority of Scripture. Fourth, because I wonder how this Dickensian hermeneutic fits into times when God actually does reveal the future. If it is true that in Ninevah God is withholding His knowledge of future events “in order to bring about the ends that he desires to (and knows will) happen,” then why does He reveal it, say, to Israel? If knowledge of the future would interfere with Ninevah’s actions, then won’t it equally interfere with Israel’s? Fifth, because I have deeper concerns regarding the ability of simple foreknowledge to provide a providential advantage for God over presentism. Finally, because of the other unrelated ramifications of the classical theist position which I find unpalatable/untenable.

    Posted by Spencer | June 18, 2011, 12:05 PM
    • Spencer,

      Thanks for the insightful comment. I agree that I’ve only provided a “sufficient” explanation here. The key, I think, is whether Open Theists can explain passages like Psalm 139. The Psalmist specifically says things like “Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely.” Open Theists argue God only knows future actions which He brings about unilaterally. Yet that verse alone points towards God knowing explicitly what we are going to say before we say it. Examples like this could be multiplied almost indefinitely.

      However, the point of this post was to undermine what I see as the best (only?) argument for Open Theism. If I’ve provided a sufficient reason to rebut it, then I’m satisfied.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | June 19, 2011, 10:40 PM
      • I appreciate your willingness to dialogue here. This is your forum and not mine, so I hope I continue to come across as genuinely following the spirit of 1 Thes. 5:21 (“Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good”) and not trying to be antagonistic or argumentative for its own sake.

        I also don’t want to hijack the post by going into a verse-by-verse accounting of closed/open Scriptures. If you haven’t already, I would highly recommend reading The God Who Risks by John Sanders. It is a nearly comprehensive presentation of openness theology and relies heavily on Scriptural support to make its case. Even better, it has a verse index in the back so if you want to know one way an open theist might respond to a particular verse of Scripture, you can look it up and see the treatment. Of course, it is just one of the several perspectives out there, but I have found it to be the best place to start for someone who is already fairly steeped in Biblcial/theological concepts.

        One of the most salient insights I took away from that book (and others on OT) is just how many times God is described in “open” terms. That is why my third point indicated that I believe the weight of Scripture to be in favor of openness language, which means that while the explanation Craig provides may indeed be a “way out” I think one finds that it must be used far more than one is initially aware of and (in the end) than is advisable. Furthermore, this way out tends to raise a few more problematic questions (i.e., the relationship of prophecy to future actions in cases when God does reveal the future; the ability of foreknowledge to direct divine providence) that similarly undercut its usefulness to the classical theist. In short, while I find no outright contradiction in Craig’s hermeneutic, I doubt that it is a road Christians should go down.

        One last note to finish: I would caution against the claim that your/Craig’s explanation provides “sufficient reason to rebut” the open theist position. I think you’re implicitly structuring an argument similar to this form: IF [CT cannot answer re: divine repentance], THEN [OT is true]; NOT [CT cannot answer re: divine repentance]; THEREFORE NOT [OT is true]. This, of course, is the fallacy of denying the antecedent. I would deny the first “If P then Q” premise (or, if you wish to structure the above as a modus tollens, then I would similarly deny its converse “If Q then P”).

        I can’t speak for other open theists, but I do not wish to claim that the classical theist has NO response to divine repentance — it is that the open theist position makes the best sense of those verses and indeed of the entirety of Scripture. It is a “best explanation” argument, not a charge of incoherence. Therefore, providing a “way out” really doesn’t address the issue, for I do not claim that the classical theist has no “way out”. I would claim that the classical theist’s interpretation of these verses has less explanatory power (on several fronts) than the open theists’ interpretation. As such (and as I stated when discussing the nature of a sufficient explanation), proving the coherence of classical theism in the face of divine repentance does not entail rebuttal of the open theist position.

        Posted by Spencer | June 20, 2011, 9:53 AM
      • Were I to lay out the argument, I’d put it like this:
        Open Theists’ Argument against Classical Theism
        1) If God changes his mind, then OT is true (obviously the consequent is generalized–OTs would argue that God would therefore not know the future free actions of other persons, etc,etc.)
        2) God changes his mind
        3) OT is true

        I am arguing that this argument is unsound because 2 is false. I did not argue that because I deny 2, 3 is false, which would be denying the antecedent. OT could still be true even if 2 is false, but I think 2 is false, which was the point of my post.

        Of course OTs may present the argument more inductively/probabilistically, but that would then be reduced to a verse-to-verse comparison or something of the sort.

        I respect your opinion about the way the evidence leans in Scirpture, but I cannot read many verses in the Bible without seeing God knowing comprehensively the future. He knows how many days I’ll live, he uses his foreknowledge as a test for divinity, etc. But again, I don’t particularly want to get into a verse-by-verse argument because it would take far, far too long. In my next post on the topic I’ll write my argument against OT which I think is most persuasive, because it challenges the logical coherence of the position. And if OT is incoherent, it wouldn’t matter how many verses could be brought to support it, it would be false.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | June 21, 2011, 11:32 AM
      • You’re exactly right that I would lean to the inductive/probabilistic presentation. I might reword Premise 1 to: “If God changes His mind, then this provides good reason to believe open theism true”. The deductive process then leads us to “We have good reason to believe open theism true”.

        Actually, thinking about it further I would prefer to place the whole “God changing His mind” discussion as an argument AGAINST classical theism, rather than strictly speaking an argument FOR open theism. I see the divine repentance verses as evidence for open theism, but not deductive/direct “proof”. The situation is flipped for classical theism, however: by postulating that YHWH is (strongly)immutable, (strongly) impassable, and timeless, the divine repentance verses are a serious problem which must be dealt with. Failure to do so constitutes concession of Biblical support.

        Craig’s response is a good step toward that end, but I still think it raises more problems than it solves. While I have no desire to charge the classical theist with incoherence by claiming it, I think that she is still compelled to answer the questions I raised connected to it. Specifically, I would challenge the exact relationship of prophetic words to future free actions and the overall ability of foreknowledge to inform divine providence.

        But that is another discussion for another post, no? 🙂

        Posted by Spencer | June 23, 2011, 9:17 PM
  2. Sorry if I left our previous discussion hanging on your previous posts on the subject. Maybe I should do a series of blog posts in which I attempt to debunk yours. (In the spirit of christian charity, of course) Hah. Throw in a Calvinist and a Molinist, and we could have our own blog version of the Four Views of Divine Providence.

    Regarding your post, I suppose that is one way to look at it, but it certainly does appear to me to be quite ad hoc, not to mention anachronistic. I mean, from my point of view, we are saying that we are in the “know” and that Moses, Jonah, Isaiah and Jeremiah were ignorant, or they themselves were in the know but thought their audience was too dim to understand. But that seems silly. I think all too often what we are doing is trying to read our view into the text based upon our philosophical presuppositions. Yet we see that God tells us in the plainest possible terms that he intended on thing and then changed his mind and did something else.

    For instance, by all appearances, God really did regret making Saul king, because we see he undid what he had done. The prophet Samuel said to Saul that “the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever”. Was Samuel being insincere here? Was the prophet of God speaking out of turn?

    God clearly intended for King Hezekiah to die. You can’t add something that was eternally known. Otherwise, it is pointless to say you added it. Doesn’t that make the text misleading. And wasn’t God being duplicitous when he initially told Hezekiah that he would not recover?

    Suppose for the sake of argument God wanted to tell us that he really does change his mind, that he really does change his intentions in response to the decisions of free creatures. How could God make it any more evident to us in terms clearer than is indicated throughout scripture?

    Or take for instance 1 Chronicles 21:15.

    “And God sent an angel to destroy Jerusalem. But as the angel was doing so, the LORD saw it and relented concerning the disaster and said to the angel who was destroying the people, “Enough! Withdraw your hand.” The angel of the LORD was then standing at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. ”

    It raises the question that could God have genuinely intended to destroy Jerusalem to the point that he actually sent a destroying angel to “do the job” if he eternally knew that he wouldn’t destroy the city? Is the bible wrong in saying God sent an angel to destroy it?

    Or what about 1 Sam. 2:27-31 where God says to Eli “Therefore the LORD, the God of Israel, declares: ‘I promised that members of your family would minister before me forever.’ But now the LORD declares: ‘Far be it from me! Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained” Could God have authentically promise Eli something he eternally knew wouldn’t ever happen?

    These are just a small sampling of the amount of scriptures that demonstrate divine repentance. As they accumulate, I submit that it remains difficult to reinterpret these texts in such strained fashion; texts that seem indicate the openness of the future.

    Posted by erik | June 18, 2011, 2:39 PM
    • Erik,

      I officially hate wordpress. Had a nice comment drawn up and it decided to refresh, thus undoing my work. Grr.

      Okay, anyway. I am a molinist, by the way ;). I think we can both agree against the Calvinist thoughts on this matter, however.

      I think that in the principle of charity Open Theists would have to admit (as Spencer does) that this kind of account provides a “way out” if you will against the argument Open Theists bring up. Perhaps the principles would have to be explicated case by case, but that doesn’t undermine the account.

      Looking at it philosophically, the Open Theist is charging that the classical theist has an account which is incoherent. But if that’s the case, the classical theist need only provide a possible answer–it doesn’t even have to be true–in order to rebut the charge. Scrooge, as it were, provides such a possibility. This kind of logic can be seen in a “defense” of theism from the problem of evil–as distinguished from a theodicy (cf. Plantinga).

      So I don’t think that the case for Open Theism, which largely rests on this argument, is very strong. I’ll address another implicit assumption Open Theists make in my next post, but the key here is that the verses Open Theists employ most in their argumentation have possible alternative interpretations.

      A case-by-case rebuttal would get tedious quickly, and I think it would be fair to say I could equally bring up a nearly unlimited supply of troubling verses for the Open Theist (cf. Psalm 139 as I pointed out to Spencer–God knows our words before we speak them, he knows the days we will live, he knows our very thoughts; Isaiah 45 in context is really troubling, because God sets up knowledge of the future as a test of divinity “Gather together and come; assemble, you fugitives from the nations. Ignorant are those who carry about idols of wood, who pray to gods that cannot save. Declare what is to be, present it—let them take counsel together. Who foretold this long ago, who declared it from the distant past? Was it not I, the LORD? And there is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none but me” (45:20ff), so it seems Open Theism would remove from God this test of his own divinity, etc., etc.).

      The point of this post is to rebut the claim that Open Theists make that classical theism is incoherent. I believe I have provided a sufficient defense–or at least a framework on which to build. I think it would be possible to structure a rebuttal for each of your verses, but then I would call on you to do the same for every verse I could find. I am here seeking to simply provide a “way out,” as it were, for classical theists. I agree with Spencer that it doesn’t prove the other side incoherent–but it at least saves classical theism from the charges levied against it.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | June 19, 2011, 11:02 PM
  3. Doesn’t the explanation provided in the post make God out to be a liar? If He said He’d destroy Nineveh while knowing all along that they’d repent and He’d let them live, it seems He was lying.

    We know that God cannot lie, so how do Molinists explain this?

    Posted by Peter | October 26, 2011, 8:12 AM
    • Thanks for your comment, Peter. You’ve touched on a really thoughtful critique of the molinist position.

      Allow me a brief aside. I translated Jonah from Hebrew in my undergraduate studies, and it was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life. It taught me many wonderful things about God’s word I hadn’t noticed before. The class was phenomenal, I wish I could take it again. Anyway, part of the difficulty is that a lot of the ambiguity in Hebrew is lost in English. For example, the word “to” (Hebrew: ad) can also mean “against.” So there are points in the Bible where God is coming “to” the Israelites…. but in Hebrew there is an intentional ambiguity there which leaves the reader wondering whether perhaps God is coming “against” them because of their sin.

      One can observe some of this ambiguity in the very passage you mention. But here the ambiguity is shown a little bit in the English as well. You see that in 3:4, Jonah preaches what is purported to be God’s message to the people of Nineveh. No mention of a counterfactual. But in 3:10, we see that God had “threatened” (NIV) them with the disaster, not guaranteed it. The expression in Hebrew is idiomatic, so the ESV translation is more literal, and still true to the text. It does not imply that there was a counterfactual. One of the journal articles we had to read for this class argued that Jonah didn’t express the full message of God–he was still in a state of rebellion. The reason is because he didn’t express the counterfactual “IF you do not repent.” He concludes this because of the idiom in 3:10, which suggests God did not pronounce certain discussion. Alternatively, the article argued that the King’s conjecture may show that Jonah preached a couple different messages–he in fact had to walk across the whole city, which the text says would take three full days.

      Either of these options respect the text and indeed pay special attention to what is written. Thus, when you ask “how do Molinists explain this” I answer: They explain it with careful exegesis, rather than a face-value only reading of the text.

      I’ve found throughout my study of the Bible that once one makes the effort to see the language, read the articles, etc, such questions can find very compelling answers. In fact, I think the molinist argument here would show that molinism is even more likely the case: God sent Jonah to preach the message, knowing the people would repent. He sent Jonah to a people that were not his chosen people–which certainly aggravated Jonah (see Chapter 4!). Their repentance really peeved Jonah. He “Knew” God would spare them. Again, I think this shows that molinism has the correct exegesis close at hand. God knew that Nineveh had gotten to the point where if he sent a prophet to preach of destruction, they’d repent.

      Here we have 2 possibilities: He told Jonah to preach a counterfactual “Nineveh will be destroyed… UNLESS” and Jonah kept up his rebellion–suggested by the Hebrew idiom and his reaction in chapter 4. Possibility 2 is that Jonah did preach a counterfactual, but it wasn’t recorded. This has support from the King’s response to the message and, again, Jonah’s reaction.

      Hope that answers your question!

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | October 27, 2011, 12:38 AM
  4. So what you are really saying is that God lied in order to force all the Ninivites to repent, and that, contrary to what the Bible says, God did not change His mind at all. So either we see that our God…

    1. Lied about what He was planning to do and lied about the fact that He changed His mind
    or
    2. Expresses His honest intention to destroy Ninivah, and was moved by their expression of repentance to the extent that He changed His mind.

    I choose 2. God answers our prayers, and rewards a humble repentant heart, or hearts, in the case of Ninivah

    2. Expressed His real intention to destroy the city

    Posted by Vince Capobianco | August 20, 2012, 11:48 AM
    • Uh no, I’m obviously not suggesting God lied. I already explained this in the comment directly above this.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 20, 2012, 4:52 PM
      • The only problem is that it also says God changed His mind. If God only intended to destroy Nineveh if they did not repent, they why would His decision to allow it to remain reflect a “change of mind”? While it may not be clear that Jonah only said certain things, it is clear, because of the need for God to have a change of mind in order to spare Nineveh, that it was His definite intention to destroy Nineveh, right?

        Posted by Vince Capobianco | August 23, 2012, 6:37 AM
      • The Bible is written from human perspective. It also very very clearly says that God does not change his mind. Period. Micah 3:6a “I the Lord do not change.”

        God is talking about His nature. Now that doesn’t mean God can’t change how He acts with people, which we would perceive (and write) as changing His mind. If God clearly tells us He does not change, and then the human author elsewhere says God changed his mind, I’m going to go with what God says about Himself as the clear passage with which to interpret others. From a human perspective, it may look like God changes His mind, and it would be acceptable to write it that way (anthropomorphism), but God has clearly told us His nature.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 23, 2012, 8:16 AM
      • Sorry, that should read “The Bible is ‘largely’ written from a human perspective.”

        I’m trying to emphasize here that when God speaks Himself it is very clear.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 23, 2012, 8:44 AM
  5. I read Malachi 3:6. I looked at the word change, but it is not the same word used in Jonah 3:10, or Exodus 32:12 (where Moses asks God to change his mind), and 32:14 (where God changes His mind).

    It seems that it would make more sense (in light of the clear examples that we can see where God purposes to act in one way, then, through prayer, is persuaded to change His mind) to believe that God’s description of Himself in Malachi 3:6 is addressing His own character. Who He is, not what He does. In other words, He’s saying: “I’m God. I will always be God. My character does not change.” So: God’s character does not change. God can be persuaded by prayer to change His mind. God has been, and always will be open to change His mind when we ask Him to in prayer.

    Why wouldn’t this make more sense. Why is it so important to try to make it look like He didn’t change His mind, when, in many examples, He did. What is the big deal. Is it a character flaw to be moved to compassion through prayer? Why would that be viewed as a character flaw?

    Posted by Vince Capobianco | August 28, 2012, 7:10 AM
    • Vince,

      Thanks for your response.

      First, regarding Malachi 3:6. I note that rather than dealing with my argument, you merely point out that it is not the same word. Clearly, that has some importance, but it does not at all address the point I made. When speaking of God’s nature, the Bible affirms He is changeless. So I think you’ve failed to provide an adequate response here.

      Now you wrote:

      Why is it so important to try to make it look like He didn’t change His mind, when, in many examples, He did. What is the big deal. Is it a character flaw to be moved to compassion through prayer? Why would that be viewed as a character flaw?

      Unfortunately, I think this response is exactly the kind which exacerbates this debate needlessly. Too many non-open theists fail to address open theists on their own ground, but then too many defending open theism play emotional games and word twisting to make their case. Let’s focus on actual arguments here. The questions here are leading and very clearly are trying to emotionally tug on anyone reading them to lean towards open theism. I’ll briefly address the main point.

      “Is it a character flaw to be moved to compassion through prayer?”

      Implicitly begs the question against my position. Molinists hold that God is indeed moved by prayer through His middle knowledge. This question is leading and emotionally charged. Let’s be more fair to each other. The way the question is written suggests others argue God is not moved by compassion. Let’s be honest with each other: either you know better and are just playing emotional arguments to try to sway others, or you simply haven’t studied the other positions enough to acknowledge that they hold God is compassionate and moved by prayer as well.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 28, 2012, 4:42 PM

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