The Culture of Blur

transgenderAccording to the Washington Post, On April 15, 2015, Sweden will add a gender-neutral pronoun to its official dictionary . That pronoun is “hen.” It turns out that the Swedish pronoun for males is “han” and for females is “hon.” So, while it’s unfortunate that it sounds like the english word for a female chicken, “hen” is not that far out there, if you’re speaking Swedish. The Washington Post reports that according to linguistic expert Sofia Malmgård,

“…the gender-neutral term can be used in two ways. “First, if the gender is unknown or not relevant (as in: “If anyone needs to smoke, ‘hen’ may do so outside”). Second, it can be used as a pronoun for inter-gender people (as in: “Kim is neither boy or girl, ‘hen’ is inter-gender”).”

We live in what I call a culture of blur, and this is an example. The culture of blur is an effort to erase boundaries and redefine reality. And this effort targets basic societal structures such as marriage, family, and gender. For example, when a child is born, most people across time and culture have been able to quickly and easily determine the “sex” or “gender” of the child. In the past, a doctor would happily announce the baby’s gender: “It’s a girl!”

Not anymore.

The culture of blur is a shift away from the vision of those who see the world in more  “either/or” terms. Those who inhabit the culture of blur, on the positive side, are often able to see invisible things others cannot see. On the downside, they are often unable to see distinctions visible to others.

In common usage, these two words (“sex” and “gender”) are practical synonyms, but in certain circles, these two words have come to have distinct connotations.  For many, the former is about biology and physiology and the latter is about social constructs and expectations.

In the culture of blur, this happy pronouncement of gender is withheld, even though the biological and physiological distinctions are clear. To announce a child’s gender limits the child’s future possibilities. After all, the pronouncement of physiological truth brings with it too many societal expectations which we are trying to rework.

If by “erasing gender” we mean an attempt to end discrimination against the female of the human species, this is a good thing. Will adding a gender-neutral pronoun work to reshape the human imagination about gender roles? Probably not much. Turkey, according to the Post, also has a gender-neutral pronoun. Nevertheless, the country was only ranked 125th in the 2014 gender equality report of the World Economic Forum. So it may not be effective, but it has good intentions.

But if by “erasing gender” we mean, an attempt to mask difference, then it may be well intentioned but evil. It may make some adults feel better but confuse everyone else (worst of all children). Yes, gender expressions can be varied. Females can be “masculine” and males can be “feminine”. But are not the vast majority of these expressions that run along the spectrum of “feminine to masculine” launched from the basic binary platform of male and female? When we begin our human experience, we are either male or female and that should be celebrated.*

The Shift: from distinguish to blur

Have you heard of the old book Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus?  It came out in 1992,  sold some 50 million copies, and remained on the bestseller’s lists for over two years. The book’s premise is that most relationship problems between men and women are a result of fundamental psychological differences between the genders.

Key word here: difference.

This book signifies the formerly and widely held point of view: men and women, boys and girls are different. The content of most marriage conferences and seminars I’ve attended have been based on the same premise.*

Not in the culture of blur. strongwoman

Rather than basic difference, blur sees a spectrum of possibilities for each person. So, rather than categorize a child at birth according to the visible biological truth, let’s let them develop apart from the gender biases that are part of the world and allow them to explore how they fit into the world in a more neutral environment. It prioritizes potential gender “expressions” over the existing binary physiological gender. It underplays physiological gender to the point of making it invisible.

But is propagating an untruth the best way to raise awareness of a truth?

In the past, the basic differences were assumed. Today, in 2015, if you’re going to lead a seminar on dating or marriage, before you can begin to unpack the differences between men and women, you may need to make a case that there is, in fact, such a thing as men and women. If, in fact, there is. I recognize that gender-neutral language is about more than societal expectations for women, but that is where I want to begin. I’ll touch on other issues in a later post.

Sweden and the hen

In Makers of Fire, I include a list of descriptors that point to things that are happening in our world right now. One descriptor, already mentioned above is ERASURE. Another descriptor of the present is SPEED. The Washington Post article tell us,

“Over the last few years, the word ‘hen’ has more and more found its way into the Swedish language,” Malmgård told The Washington Post.

Five years ago, barely anyone in Sweden was aware of the word. The decision to now include ‘hen’ in the authoritative SAOL dictionary is expected to facilitate an even more frequent use of it in everyday conversations. 

Five years. How did this happen so quickly? Again, according to the Washington Post article:

According to experts, the ‘hen’-revolution in Sweden has two primary origins: LGBT groups have promoted the pronoun as a way to raise awareness for their cause. However, support for the idea has also come from a more unexpected side: Nurseries, kindergartens and preschools such as Egalia increasingly argue that the pronoun’s usage allows children to grow up without feeling the impact of gender biases. “The public debate over the pronoun actually only started after the publication of the country’s first gender-neutral children’s book”, Lann Hornscheidt, an professor of Scandinavian languages and gender studies at Berlin’s Humboldt University explained.

In terms of speed, I anticipate that the rate of social change, say for example in the concept of marriage, will move quickly from traditional marriage, to 20th century love-based marriage, to gay marriage, to polygynous marriage, to communal marriage, to interspecies marriage, to organic and robotic marriage. Once romantic love became the basis of marriage within a culture, there is very little, aside from some radical disruption, to stop these developments. (Some of you will think, relationships with robots? But, if we are losing the ability to see the distinguish between male and female, why do you believe that we will be able to maintain a distinction between the organic and the synthetic?)

  ARE WE A BINARY SPECIES? 

And here we reach a point of tension. The Washington Post reports:

To Hornscheidt, the popularity of ‘hen’ has not come as a surprise. “The introduction of a pronoun which challenges binary gender norms has been an important step, following a more thorough debate over the construction of gender within the last 10 years,” he said.

The Berlin-based researcher nevertheless cautions that simply introducing a gender-neutral pronoun in other countries may not be sufficient to fight sexism or gender-biases. 

owlyingandyangBe sure to take note: this pronoun challenges binary gender norms. These binary gender norms come from at least two sources.

A basic description of binary reality given to us in the poetic truth of scripture is that God created humankind male and female. I am not saying that binary gender norm is true because the Bible says so. I’m saying exactly the opposite. The Bible has this description because that is what we see out there. This leads us to the second source.

The evolutionary wisdom of natural selection brought us to this point. The binary coupling of male and female is how our species survives in nature. Any other couplings are evolutionary deadends. That’s a binary model of human kind.

How important is this? It depends on whether you want clear vision or not. We must challenge and topple ideologies that depreciate the value of the female.

After all, this is the most startling thing about the binary description of humankind in the Genesis chapter one. The male and the female are both essential to the image of God in humankind. There is no hierarchy in this image. If this is what we mean by a binary “gender” norm, then we must champion these kinds of changes in language. Must. This is a global battle and, I am convinced, it is the trajectory of the biblical narrative. This means using language, as in Sweden’s case, to highlight how our social constructs and cultural assumptions may limit the possibilities of women worldwide.

In other words, the difference between men and women may not be the differences we have created. Many of these socially constructed expectations limit the full potential of our girls. At the same time, we must not mask the reality of difference in the binary or we will create an unhealthy future.

Rather than erase the biological platforms we each receive, we must celebrate them.

At the same time, we must recognize the ways in which our assumptions, language, culture, and even biology often create systems that depreciate women, human uniqueness, and radical otherness. The question becomes how do we BOTH topple the global oppression of women and champion their value as women, AND still recognize and celebrate the distinction.

Gender-neutral pronouns are an attempt (however futile) to remove the invisible limitations of expectations, social constructs, and cultural morays, but may be prove just as harmful to our ability to see the reality that is visible.

Strange, isn’t it? We live in a culture that wants us to see invisible realities clearly and at the same time seeks to blind us to visible realities. I wonder if we can be open-eyed to both. My question is, Will Sweden’s experimentation with our children one day be considered abusive, irresponsible, or just a harmless eccentricity? My bigger question is, Will the global human community one day so recognize the valuable and indispensable treasure of the female that it will loudly, proudly, and happily announce, “It’s a girl!”, without suppressing anything and everything that a girl could become?

What do you think?

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*I recognize that there are rare cases in which the gender is observably ambiguous. This is the exception that proves the point. *While it’s important, I think, to maintain the difference (singular) between the female and the male and sustain the binary and complementary image of the Genesis narrative (and of nature with regard to the evolution of our species), it is also necessary to acknowledge that the differences (plural) we often see are social constructs. Men and women are not equal in the sense that they are interchangeable. But both are necessary to the image of God in humankind.

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Sundays – a stunning short film

Mischa Rozema released his stunning 14-minute science fiction short film last Monday and created a three-studio bidding war between Warner, Sony, and Fox. By Friday Rozema had closed a deal with Warner. I find it visually compelling.

This narrated short film has to me the feel of the Matrix, The Adjustment Bureau, and Inception. Enjoy this short and let it feed your imagination. When the feature film comes out, you’re going to want to refer to it because a lot of the people in your audience will have seen it. Enjoy.

SUNDAYS from PostPanic on Vimeo.

Three Aspects of 21st Century Leadership

Leadership in the 21st century has three aspects:

  1. Fearlessly DEFINING Reality
  2. Mindfully DISCERNING the Meaning in the Mix
  3. Creatively DISCOVERING New Paths Forward

In my new book, Makers of Fire, I layer this TRIAD of defining, discerning, and discovering on two others. The triangle of combustion and the triangle of social change.

DEFINING   |  DISCERNING   |  DISCOVERING     =LEADERSHIP

ARTIFACTS   |     MEANING       |   CREATIVTY         =CHANGE

FUEL            |       OXYGEN        |    HEAT                    = FIRE

(1) DEFINING

Leaders have to stare reality in the eye. What’s out there? What’s really happening? If I had to give a one line description of reality I would say that we live in a time of “redefinition.”

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“If I had to give a one line description of today’s reality
I would say that we live in a time of “redefinition.”
 

(Click to tweet)
____________________________________________

Marriage is being redefined. Gender is being redefined. History is being redefined. Identity is being redefined. Nation States are being redefined. Right and wrong, good and evil are being redefined. In this time of redefinition, sources of authority are challenged. Standing on the Bible, the Constitution, an interpretation of history, a tradition, or even on “what works” are no longer credible supports for what is good, right, and true.

All of these are “Artifacts,” things humans make, ways humans think, patterns in which human organize themselves. They are future artifacts. Future archaeologists will study the things we make today and try to understand us. We can also study them as a way of studying the potential futures we are making possible.

(2) DISCERNING

I wrote Makers of Fire to help reorient the church towards the future that it might better influence the present. Preorder your copy today.

I wrote Makers of Fire to help reorient the church towards the future that it might better influence the present. Preorder your copy today.

To make our time of redefinition even more complex, media keeps everyone alert to the fact that there are contrasting “redefinitions” emerging. Not everyone agrees on what marriage means, whether the United States is right or wrong, whether murdering infants in the womb is good or evil. Not everyone even agrees that there is such a thing as good and evil.

Leaders must look for meaning and purpose within this chaos. They must create compelling narratives, which give context and meaning to human existence, in which others can see themselves fitting and belonging and becoming the people they desire.

For Church leaders this means learning to be comfortable in a setting in which their narrative is not the narrative of the majority, but of a niche. But “narrative” doesn’t mean just a tagline. It means telling a story one deeply believes and believing the story one tells enough to inhabit it.

(3) DISCOVERING

Leaders must nurture new communities which will create new ways forward. For church leaders and churches this will mean “living out” their story with daring and risk. Rather than seeing the Bible or tradition as a limiting factor, it needs to see these as launching pads for improvisation. There’s an old joke that if, while playing a guitar, you hit a bad note, it’s a mistake. If you hit two bad notes, again, it’s a mistake. But of you hit three bad notes, it’s jazz.

Well, no. It’s not.

Improvisation is not just hitting any random note, as if anyone can do it. Improvisation is best accomplished by those who know the fret board best. When you know how a line is supposed to go and you deviate from it in search of something new and fresh, then you’re improvising.

Our season of “redefinition” is not always one of improvisation. We’re often just hitting bad notes.

Leaders and communities who know their story well, believe it, and live it out, will need to improvise… will want to improvise …even if we hit a bad note here and again, in the pursuit of their mission.

To make gains in the public sphere, leaders will need to become media savvy because “social” is the new campfire around which the stories that shape us are being told. Story telling and story tellers will open up possibilities for the future. Communities that live out the future they prefer will redefine the world. (Click to tweet)

4 Trends for Churches to Consider

When I first saw Ed Stetzer’s original article titled, MissionTrends: 4 Trends for Churches to Consider, I had some points of difference. But I wasn’t sufficiently motivated to write about them because, overall, I think we should all think more about the future.

But the article crossed my sights again in “Charisma News” post titled, 4 Trends in Christianity That Could Scare You, According to Ed Stetzer.

I don’t know why this was in my feed, but there it was. So, I decided to look at the article again. I think what tipped me over was that Charisma News added “That Could Scare You” in the title.

We should not be scared.
We should seize our moment.

For those of you who did not read Stetzer’s blogpost, here are his “4 trends”:

1. The word “Christian” will become less used and more clear”
2. The nominals will increasingly become “nones”
3. Christians Will Increasingly Change Cultural Tactics
4. More Robust Churches will Result from the Death of Nominalism

Here are some of the ways my take differs from Stetzer’s “4 Trends”.

images-1

1. The word “Christian” will become less used and more clear”

The first trend, according to Stetzer, is “less people are calling themselves Christians and those who are will take it more seriously.”

A trend can be described as a change in a variable over time. In this sense, I’m not sure I would classify any of these 4 as “trends.”  These “4 trends” seem more like forecasts based on experience (or hopes)  rather than extrapolations based on data. Ok, too nit-picky and this isn’t my point anyway. Let’s move on to the good stuff.

Stetzer goes on to say, “In the future, the word Christian will mean more to those who would be considered convictional Christians. However, it will mean-and be used-less to those who were nominal Christians in the first place. The word will be less used and more clear.”

In contrast, I think, that in the future, the word Christian may also be used less by those to whom it means more. In other words, those who follow Christ out of conviction, rather than simply because of culture, may use Christian less as a self designation because they recognize the cultural, political, economic acculturation of Christianity with modern culture.

In other words, they will use the word Christian less

  • in an attempt to be less syncretistic in their faith
  • in an attempt to be able to express their faith with less baggage
  • and because they honestly sense that their experience of faith is not represented well by the word

Those believers who are more attached to the status quo, who have less cognitive dissonance between the Modern era, America, and Christianity will be more likely to use the word Christian.

So, it may be Stetzer’s “squishy middle” —those who, according to Ed, were “nominal in the first place” — along with the keepers of the status quo who will actually more frequently use “Christian” as a self designation.

2. The nominals will increasingly become nones

Stetzer’s second “trend” is “The nominals will increasingly become nones.”

Stetzer argues that nominal Christians — those who are Christian in name only but not out of conviction — are becoming the “nones.” For those of you who may not be familiar with term, the “nones” are those who do not identify with any religion.

Ed notes that 30% among college students now count themselves among the “nones.” It’s true that many thoughtful and motivated young people are choosing against Christianity. In some cases it is because they have failed to be convinced by the evidence and by experience. In other cases, it’s because they can’t distinguish between the Christ following faith and the Christian religion as represented by some cultural artifact such as the political right wing or left wing. In yet other cases, the young may be leaving Christianity in a sincere attempt to follow Christ. So here I totally agree with Stetzer, but even more emphatically, when he writes, “we should change the way we think about engaging culture.”

However, the “nones” is not the new designation for nominal Christians. In contrast, I think that the “nones” may also be the new designation for the most zealous Christ followers. (For my post on the “Nones” click here.) I think the “nones” may include precisely those believers who are changing the ways they “think about engaging culture.” And, it’s not just about engagement, it’s about authentically feeling their way forward towards a new way of following Christ beyond Christianity.

I know many devout believers who would say they are a “none” when asked about their religious preferences because they do not believe their relationship to Christ is a religion.

Others refrain from using Christian as a self designation because being Christian is often perceived (depending on the listener) as belonging to a certain political party, or being anti-science, or having a particular attitude, etc. Perhaps we should consider returning —and perhaps will— to the days when others accused us of being Christians, rather than us resorting to self proclamation.

cover

3. Christians Will Increasingly Change Cultural Tactics

I agree with Ed here. He argues that “convictional” Christians will advocate less for the legislation of traditional values and be more focused on protecting religious liberty.” Again, while this may not yet be a trend, this is a good tactical suggestion, as Ed states.

But focusing on “religious liberty,” as tactically correct as this might be, is not the gospel. We must focus on embodying Christ in the context of community as a way of announcing that in Christ God will make all things thrive. To exercise religious liberty will mean to live out, in our own faith communities, a new politic, economy, and society.

Stetzer argues that we must “hold the Word of God in high authority” and that “we should also wisely discern the present culture…”

I would say it this way: we must know our story and live in it and we must know the competing narratives that surround us.

I would add that we must start new communities of faith that embody this story. Starting new communities of faith is a way of creating the future. And these new communities are the greatest evidence of the trustworthiness of our story.

4. More Robust Churches will Result from the Death of Nominalism

Again, this is not a trend based on data, but something akin to “hope” and more along the lines of “prophesying the way forward.” Stetzer argues that “Churches that are preaching the gospel and are focusing on biblical truths are going to become more clearly distinct from the culture around them.”

Well, first, I think nominalism will survive. There have always be those who say, “Lord, Lord…” (Matthew 7) and I don’t see that changing. And, if more robust churches emerge, it won’t be because of the death of nominalism. It will be because robust churches continually choose to die to themselves and give birth to new communities of faith. If this happens, the spirit may move, regardless of what happens to nominal churches and christians.

I do agree that new unique and distinct communities of faith will arise. But I also think that many new communities will both embody Christ’s resurrection and meld with culture as opposed to “be distinct from” culture, if by this we mean separated/ isolated from culture.

So What is the Way Forward?

There will be the stream that seeks to accommodate the new culture. They will lose a large part of their narrative. There will be the stream that runs counter to culture. They will disappear into antagonistic irrelevance. There will be the stream that retreats from culture. They will have no impact. There will be the stream that tries to educate the new culture. They will leave the will untransformed. There will be the stream that seeks to become the new culture, the future culture, the culture that follows wholeheartedly after Christ. And they will create the future.

Two Mysterious Human Behaviors

Bobo_women_carrying_children
Every now and then we hear reports of whales stranding themselves on shore. Why they do this is a mystery.

Moving from whales to humans, two human behaviors seem to me to be equally mysterious. First, the loss of a desire to have children. This is not too common but it is more and more visible, especially among the more affluent. Second, the loss (among the young) of a desire to have sex.

Our world is full of children and explorations of sexuality run rampant and often destructively among us. The desire to have children and to have sex (with or without thought of children) are biologically embedded instincts. Would not the loss of these desires run counter to our biologically derived instincts? If these attitudes and behaviors continued and expanded, what kind of future would we create?

THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN

What is the future of children? I don’t mean the future of the children in the world. I mean the future of having children.

One of my favorite movies is Children of Men. The premise of the movie is that couples, for some unexplained reason, stopped having children. It is a dystopian vision of a future with no children and, thus, no hope. (For an interesting take on this thought – http://nyti.ms/1c0HoEp).

An essay I read in the New York Times, Opting out of Parenthood with Finances in Mind, made me wonder if the reverse is also true. Is the loss of hope tied to loss of a desire to have children?

The essayist, a married, affluent, and urban young woman, writes about the economic sacrifices of having children. According to her, when she explained the article she was writing to other mothers, their words to her were: “good for you”. Not exactly the kind of mothers I’m used to.

What stands out to me from her essay is not the economics of having children. What stands out to me is that she could find no good reasons for having a child. Ironically, I could not escape the deep sense of poverty in her view of life.

I’m sure the essayist is a fine, loving, and healthy person, but this article made me ask a dark, dark question about the worldview it suggests. I have to ask, What if children were free, a dime a dozen? Would she and her husband (who is very concerned with the way humans tax the planet) find a reason or the space in their lives for a child?

I wonder, how similar is the worldview of this essay to that of Toni Vernelli who aborted her child to save the planet and about whom I wrote in an earlier post?

This question is not about the authors of the articles in particular. I’m sure there’s a world of difference between them as individuals. But there seems to be larger cultural questions here. After all, there is a culture wide decline in births. Somewhere around midcentury, the world’s population will plateau and then decline.

children_of_men

Demographically speaking, the single most important measurement of humankind is the Total Fertility Rate (TFR). The magic number in measuring TFR is 2.1. That’s how many births per household a population needs to replace itself.

Many of the western democracies are experiencing birth rates lower than 2.1. In other words, our whole culture seems to be stepping into a worldview similar to the one mentioned above. Is our culture concluding that having children just isn’t worth it?

If demography is destiny, then is it the destiny of the west to disappear? Are we having our very own “Children of Men” moment?

Earlier generations delighted in the birth of a child. I wonder, has the loss of a religious view of life so disoriented us that we cannot be bothered with even the most basic evolutionary compulsions? (The irony of that last sentence does not escape me.)

Or, do the young somehow intuit that they live at the twilight of their society and from this deep lack of hope feel nothing worth sharing and passing on to a new generation?

Is it a good thing now to not have children? Since we seem to have lost the natural instinct of it, perhaps it is better to stop. At least until we discover a reason to live, to enjoy life, and to love it enough to want to be part of expanding the experience.

This is HUGE.

THE FUTURE OF PROCREATION
Here’s another even more mysterious symptom of the same malaise. Not only did Japan have fewer births in 2012 than any previous year, young people in Japan have stopped having sex.  Just in case you read what your brain thought should appear in the text, let me put an emphasis on the key word: “Stopped.”  You can’t even get to the question of should we or should we not have children, if you despise physical contact.
Japanese man and woman lean away from each other

Just when you thought the impossible never happened. Here it is.
The article stated: “A survey earlier this year by the Japan Family Planning Association (JFPA) found that 45% of women aged 16-24 ‘were not interested in or despised sexual contact’. More than a quarter of men felt the same way.”
It feels weird to ask this but, is not having sex becoming an epidemic in Japan?

What’s going on here? Is it a positive? Are we finally gaining mastery over our naturally evolved instincts?

Or, Is this a surrender to the meaninglessness of it all? Are these attitudes symptoms of the dis-ease of hopelessness that can attack all humans anywhere at anytime? Both situations mentioned here are a manifestation of their own context and culture. At very least, we can say that not having children and not having sex are, biologically, dead ends. Are they the human equivalent of diseased whales beaching themselves on the shore? Something about life stops working. And we run counter to the most basic drives within us.

In the negative, we can postulate that human societies start by dismissing Spirit or Meaning which leads to hating life and evolves to despising each other. In the positive, we can experiment by breathing faith, hope, and love into a culture that can’t seem to figure out why humans are worth saving, worth bringing into the world, or even worth touching.

What do you think?

See you in the mystic…

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Creativity, Spirituality, and the Future

Creativity is a clue that we are not locked into a purely predetermined system of cause and effect.  While all human choice is preceded by causes and followed by effects,  and the variety of choices may be limited, there is still room for surprise.

I once asked someone if they believed God had the capacity to laugh at a joke. I added that if God knows everything then he could not be surprised. And surprise is what makes a joke funny. If this is true, and God cannot laugh at a joke, then God is poor. To not be able to laugh is poverty.

But I think God can laugh… and be surprised.

God has made man, like himself, creative. Since the early days of our species when we domesticated fire, we have continued to master the world. We have released the power of the atom. We suck the world dry of its energy. We create robots that will go to war for us. We topple trees and the natural habitats of many other of the Earth’s creatures. We have created a technological environment that is changing faster than our ability to adapt. That’s a prescription for extinction.

Mark Twain wrote, If stupidity got us into this mess, then why can’t it get us out?”

It has been said, “The level of thinking which got us into the problems we face is not the level of thinking that will be able to get us out.”

If our technological powers continue to grow, and if we continue to try to master each other and the world, we may destroy the earth, our womb. In this next century, our species will need to reach a whole new dimension of creativity and spirituality. New ways of thinking, being, and living are essential if we are to overcome the problems we’ve caused and if we’re to create a human future.

I think God has designed a universe that has both stability and chaos, predetermined cause-effect and randomness. One of the biggest variables in the cosmos may be us. How will we choose to use our ever growing technological power?

We have entered the era of DIY genetics. Natural selection is not the only driver of evolutionary change anymore. There’s a new kid on the block that can reach into the fundamental fibers of life and create new forms of life.  That new kid is us and the possibilities are unimaginable.

This could be a disaster about to happen. But we could also be in for a surprise. I would like to think that we still have time to do something so wonderfully startling that it would make God laugh a deep laugh from the stomach.

What do you think?