Turning up the lamp – finding a convergence

In much of the incendiary debate (a generous term, frankly) surrounding matters of human Rainbow crosssexuality in the church, one is often led to believe that there is now and has always been a single view with which all faithful souls must immediately and consistently adhere. This is an unfortunate proclivity for the prevailing church, to make assumptions out of a majority view and, on that basis, unquestioningly consider it biblical.

When my wife and I first moved to the U.S. from Canada almost fourteen years ago. I recall numerous conversations that went something like this, “oh, you’re a Christian. So, you must be pretty happy about getting a Republican in office then, huh?” Now, given that we are not American citizens and cannot vote, and wouldn’t automatically vote one way or the other dependent on a party name, this still strikes me as disingenuous at best, dangerously misinformed at worst.

The Church has disagreed on almost everything since Pentecost. Even the big stuff. The great Councils helped build a consensus, not a unanimity on matters of deepest concern to the gospel. Even the very scriptures from whence we derive our most treasured theology was a canon of strife and woe until well into the fourth century C.E. There is not even universal agreement to this day on what books even belong in the canon!

Perhaps the most diverse “rag-tag fugitive fleet” of souls ever assembled were the original twelve. Levi/Matthew, a materialistic, corporate yes man on one end and Simon, the Zealot, a leftist revolutionary on the other. It certainly was not ideology that united these two apprentices of Jesus! It was their Rabbi, and the self-giving love he exemplified that cut through to the core of all matters. 

Since the Reformation, something I see increasingly as The Giant Overreaction, the church has fractured into 40,000 denominations, more or less, most claiming sola scriptura of one form or another. Hence for me, the question becomes not if sola scriptura but whose? It leads us to ask the yet bigger questions related to the spirit in which we disagree on secondary matters. Is there room for loving disagreement, or “faithful dissent” as my colleague would say?

Despite the fact I’ve spent my entire Christian experience in that narrow hallway of Protestant enterprise, in at least one of those 40,000 denominations, the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC), I’m finding hope that, in the LGBTQ discussion at least, there may be room for such faithful dissent. And it is here where Dr. Clifton-Soderstrom is at her best, bringing home her point within that shared context where we both live, move and have our being.

This has been a threefold exercise for me in stretching my spiritual legs a bit. It is a rarity for me to engage in these, shall we say delicate, matters on a blog designed more to journal my journey than document my ideas. That said, I can think of few better to assist me as I stick my head out of my cell long enough to sniff around and discover places suited to engage the world with what I’m learning down there. 

You can find her final installment here. I did, and Dr. M…it’s been an honor.  

MichelleCliftonSoderstromTallDr. Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom is Professor of Theology & Ethics at North Park University in Chicago, Illinois where she has served since 2002. 




Rainbow pic found here

Turning up the lamp – when head and heart collide

My first contribution in this short series suggested that we, as the church of Jesus Christ, are in an ongoing cycle of retuning; a self-correction, sometimes almost subconscious, that reverses excesses and unhealthy trends. Further, I hinted at a kind of misgiving in posting a series of this kind, given the nature of Innerwoven as primarily a place for reflection and growth in Christian spirituality, not a clearing house for theological hot-topic-du-jour.

This is how I’ve come to terms with this: sometimes we must rouse ourselves from the beautiful silence and push out into the dark once more with light gained from those quiet spaces most abuzz in the presence of God. For me right now, this is that.

If we are willing to be completely honest, it is common, especially in all things theological/existential, to suffer a certain degree of cognitive dissonance; a rift so to speak between what we think we know, what we actually know, and what we want to know. Our heads and our hearts, like pieces of a broken mirror, struggle to find their place such that a pretty picture may emerge.

For example, if one can say with clear conscience, (or for that matter, a straight face) that one understands the incarnation, the trinity, or the hypostatic union, then there exists more self-induced deception than any real desire for broader understanding through a willing “unknowing” – a fancy way of saying, humility. Such a one is not even ready for this discussion. They have far too many ‘answers’ when in fact a truer posture before such numinous matters should produce more ‘questions,’ questions that often remain ‘answer-less.’

The LGBTQ issue as it relates to Christian formation, a faithfully biblical exegesis, and equally faithful local church ministry (specifically in the Evangelical Covenant Church, the denomination I share with my guest contributor) is one of those cognitive dissonance issues for me. Years of teaching and background in one direction have collided with more years of rethinking, spiritual formation, and reconsidering this issue, coupled with my actual experiences with beloved LGBTQ sisters and brothers, have left me torn and looking for fresh thinking and a way forward.

Dr. Clifton-Soderstrom is helping me in this regard. I believe she can help you as well. As she encourages, “When we are in over our hearts and over our heads, the habit of befriending and the exercise of freedom around God’s word can only take us where the Spirit leads — toward renewal.” If you trust her as I do, go here.


Dr. Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom is Professor of Theology & Ethics at North Park University in Chicago, Illinois where she has served since 2002. 


Turning up the lamp – the joys and dangers of self-correction

It is a relatively common occurrence for self-correctives to follow the theological-ethical-liturgical life of the Church. Such things have been part of our corporate spiritual journey since Pentecost. What’s more challenging to pin down is what exactly is being “corrected,” why and into what. And, more importantly, whether any current push toward that correction is considered right, wrong, or even advisable by those on opposing sides. 

For example, one of the greatest “correctives” in Church history was of course the Reformation. Arguably, it brought some of the most central tenets of our contemporary Christian faith into sharp relief against the abuses of a Catholic church, run amok. Protestants celebrate this corrective. Catholics decry it. Those like me who straddle it, do both.

As I make my way forward with this blog, it has often been challenging how best to engage with the topics most at the head of our ecclesiastical-cultural parade. Since Innerwoven is intended primarily as a place of reflection and consideration of the inner life – the life of God in me and others – does this mean I should remain silent on hot topic matters? Wouldn’t it be best to keep things more corralled for the purposes of our own solitude? In the interest of attaining a sense of inner balance and proximity with God, is it more advisable to avoid the stress of incendiary and divisive talk that denies such balance? Is that always to be the case? When does interest only in contemplation without its corollary of redemptive justice become an exercise in narcissistic stasis birthed of fear?

Paul, in addressing the Romans offers the following advice: “Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (14:19 NRSV). He advises an avoidance of matters most poisonous to the fellowship of believers and the common life of faith. Jesus, too, makes clear time and again that it is not our ideas that matter as much as the end and reason for those ideas (for example, see his 7 woes to the Pharisees in Matthew 23). He blesses the peacemakers who themselves are blessed. But he also tells Peter that, in faithfully following the Way, a time is coming when he will be taken where he does not want to go. It is now and has always been more about who we are becoming than what we should be thinking; about righteousness more than rightness.

About love.

With such a long set up, here’s my punchline: sometimes we must rouse ourselves from the beautiful silence and push out into the dark once more with light gained from those places. Armed with the Christian spiritual tradition that in every corner teaches an active contemplation along with the hermeneutic of Jesus: love the Lord your God utterly and others as oneself, let us set out into that dark night and with hope and faith begin a conversation about…gulp, human sexuality and the Christian Way.

To help me do that is a wonderful new friend, colleague, and a rather formidable academic, Dr. Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom. Dr. M as I’ll call her has written a series of close-to-the-vest pieces on this very topic published at Sojourners online. She writes not from behind a professor’s desk. She writes as a faithful follower of Christ who happens to be a scholar about her personal struggle with our present lock-horns topic of “LGBTQ inclusion,” specifically as it relates to faithful Church ministry, and unity in diversity. The context is also of commissioned and blessed involvement under present Evangelical Covenant Church protocols (a denomination we both share and love) on the subject and what “faithful dissent” might look like. Her first submission is my starting place. As such, I leave you in her more capable hands. 

With this hornet’s nest awhirl around us, are we in a time of ecclesial self-correction? Just sparring over the issue-du-jour? Both or neither? This reblogged series is evidence of my own yearning for a place of love and commonality wherein all might land and still call one another sister, brother, friend. To that end, I send you here. I humbly encourage you to engage her there and me here, or both. Either way, let’s seek to engage for the purpose of common understanding and love. Why? Because out of the deepest inner silence come the most convincing voices of compassion. Even so, come Lord Jesus.

MichelleCliftonSoderstromTallDr. Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom is Professor of Theology & Ethics at North Park University in Chicago, Illinois where she has served since 2002. 



For Uncle Tom

There are precious few in every generation to whom the forces of transformation and awareness may credit their shifting and change. Women and men whose singular focus, ideological clarity and personal courage helped guide them to be the salmon spawning upstream. They inspired us to become who we already are, to shine more brightly, think more rigorously, love more passionately, die more readily.

For me and countless others, Thomas Merton was one such person. Today marks the one hundredth anniversary of his birth. Rather than offer biography, retrospective or ideological dialogue, I’ll let him speak in the language he knew best: prayer.


“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

Uncle Tom, for this and so much more, thank you.

Signed, a disciple

The bricks in our walls, chapter 5


Polio had left him a garbled mess, wheelchair-borne, twisted and gnarled. But those ropy hands pushed faders, gain controls, EQ settings, among other things for a band I toured with in the mid-eighties, wait for it…Sonshine. Yup. No metaphor here. Just git ‘r done with classic cheesie Christianeasy. We spent most weekends traveling among the tiny wheat and cattle, grain elevator towns that dot the Alberta prairies. A dozen songs, a thousand laughs, and one almighty potluck at a time, Gerry guided us, gear and all, to wherever was next. He and his wife, Rose, hosted my fiancee and I for dinner, fellowship, Bible study, and prayer once a week. As is my pattern in everything I took copious notes, which I have to this day. I lost touch with Gerry many years ago.

I could use his voice these days.

1979. Halifax, Nova Scotia. I was on tour with Clan MacBain Pipe Band of Calgary. I’d been the youngest member in the band’s history, taking my place among the ranks at age twelve. My stage-parents, ever eager to secure my quickly expanding horizons, thought it a fine idea to let a twelve year old kid who looked nineteen sit among hardened whiskey ‘n beer maniacs in places too dark to see clearly the shenanigans of such ne’er do wells. Although unwise for personal reasons, it was one of the best opportunities afforded this pre-teen bagpiper for, on this particular day (I was then sixteen) I participated with the massed pipes and drums put in place to appropriately welcome Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother as she presented the colors to Canada’s Maritime Command. She later opened the International Gathering of the Clans of which our less than stellar collective proudly represented the MacBain Clan. I was barely sober enough to remember.

But I was there.

Later that same year I was on staff as bagpipe instructor for the Fort San Summer School of the Arts in Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan. The Fort as it is called is the closest thing Saskatchewan might boast as a “resort” village. It was my seventh consecutive summer at the camp and my second as instructor, the youngest they’d ever had (illegally so, since I was too young to receive a “salary”). What made this year so unique was that I had the honor to sit under the tutelage of one of the greatest bagpipers in history, the late Donald MacLeod, M.B.E. It was like taking voice lessons from Freddy Mercury but someone half his height and twice his age. A two pack a day guy and hard drinker, Donald was also a man of genteel demeanor and humble affectation, despite his cosmic reputation among highland bagpipers. To sit in the audience and listen to this little giant perform for us was akin to sitting on Santa’s lap as a kid.

But with much deeper rewards.

Even before we’d been married a year, my wife Rae and I spent a few months living and working among a hearty and devoted group of Scottish Baptists in Edinburgh, Scotland. The year was 1989. We had barely managed to figure out how to live together under one roof let alone successfully navigate the complexities of hormone-crazed teenagers beside a large body of water. For, on this cool, blustery afternoon we decided it would be fun to be outside rather than stuffed in our flat. A couple of suburban Calgary kids who grew up in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains were no match for the beloved hooligans now under our charge. Things fell apart quickly as a deplorable lack of communication between Rae and I regarding game rules left us shouting “fuck you” at each other. So, while half of them refused to follow the confusing rules of a made up game, the other half were tossing each other into the ocean. What started as a delightful Baptist youth event quickly became a free for all wet t-shirt contest. Bouts of seawater-induced lung infections, allegations of inappropriate boy-girl interactions, and numerous angry phone calls later and…lesson learned.

I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

3 Core Values of a Future Christian Faith


In this excellent post, Mr. Dooley addresses some foundational thoughts I’ve been wrestling with for years now, many of those here on this blog. However, I do it with more ostentation, presumption and perhaps a touch of self-deception! He does so succinctly and with simplicity. I share his thoughts here.

Originally posted on jessedooley:


I had a conversation the other day with a friend of mine who happens to be an Episcopal priest. We discussed the importance of social justice within the Church but we also discussed the need for a more mystical dimension as well. While it is important to reach out to help “the other”, it is equally important for religious faith to have an individual, contemplative aspect. After our conversation, I also came to the conclusion that there was a third aspect that I believed deserved equal importance: an appreciation for diversity.

In his book,”The Wounded Healer,” Henry Nouwen says the future of the Church will need to be revolutionary and mystical. Also, Father Richard Rohr’s community in Albuquerque, NM is called “The Center for Action and Contemplation,” and he often says the most important word in that title is the word “and.” I believe Nouwen and Rohr are right. We…

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2014 in review

I got one of these per blog. Thought I’d post ‘em just for fun.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 6,700 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

In defense of perfectionism

imagesIn these busy-ness hangover days post-Advent/Christmas, I can finally undo my symbolic top button and let the layers of fatigue – built up over weeks of ridiculous work schedules – begin to flake away. It’s surprising just how exhausted one can become doing things one loves to do. It is equally alarming how many hours it is possible to clock in pursuit of what one believes to be satisfaction of job demands when the truth is far more complicated than that.

In my present fog of lassitude I at least have the presence of mind to bring a few considerations to the page since, in so doing, I am led to consider more deeply my calling to this anomalous gig.

December. With nervous sighs and low-decibel groans I prepare for it every year. Advent candle-lighters, extra scripture readers, extra rehearsals for extra ensembles on extra days, Christmas concert with the accompanying P.R., advertising and follow-up, children’s and youth Christmas presentations, pre-school Christmas parties requiring musical and technical support, sick soloists, regular Sunday worship planning mindful of exhausted musicians, Christmas Eve candlelight and carols (2 Traditional, 1 Celtic) that required dozens of arrangements, sketching out post-Christmas services easily executable enough for a skeleton crew of volunteers not still on vacation where I will be once all of the above is neatly tied up. Oh, and a few scattered, but nervous moments spent nodding your head in the direction of those with whom you live and for whom you do all of the above.

For that rare reader not already painfully aware of the fact, I am a local church music director. It is a career I’ve pursued, faithfully for the most part, for much of my adult life. And, were it not for this job I do, I struggle to see any another scenario in which a complicated, non-risk-taking, overly worried, perfectionist, artsy-fartsy like me might even make a living, let alone a relatively stable one. The uneasy combination of squishy self-confidence issues with rabid artistic needs make for poor bedfellows. Translation: I’m not good at much else.

Christmas Eve 2014

Christmas Eve Celtic candlelight service, 2014

Frustratingly, after all these years, I’ve never even come close to mastering the slippery skills generally considered normal, advisable even, for those in my craft: prioritization, time management, delegation, and especially unseen pitfalls prediction – viz a viz, troubleshooting. Make no mistake, when a local church comes looking for jaw-dropping artistic talent (that’s how we market ourselves) to bless the flock and fill the pews, they’re often after a glorified music secretary who happens to sing or play instruments. Make the music trains run on time and make sure my kids are getting free music lessons. One can be the best musician ever heard. But, forget too many clerical details too often and it becomes quickly apparent how “stable” the job really is. It’s the comfort of a well-oiled machine with better than average music that maintains a level of constituent satisfaction, and puts food on our table.

But alas, I wax cynical. It is the tiredness talking. I’ve asked frequently and loudly of God and those close to me, why is someone like me even called to work in a local church? I’ve almost always felt more comfortable anywhere but there. I’m rough around the edges at the best of times and can guarantee inopportunely-timed, off-color humor, and promise at least one offended person within half an hour of meeting me. My job is “Christian music” (whatever THAT is) and you couldn’t pay me enough to listen to it on the radio. I doubt I could name the top five Christian artists right now and haven’t darkened the door of *gasp* a “Christian bookstore” (again, unsure as to the meaning of that) for more years than I can count.

And yet, here I am. Any whining I do surrounding my detail heavy job is generally self-induced. Why? you ask.

An attempted explanation: Probably for good reason perfectionism gets a bad rap these days. Under church roofs it has led to lonely, broken, discouraged souls. People like me, in our rabid pursuit of the perfect performance of the carefully chosen song at the pristine moment in a stellar setting, have often left, burned out and bitter because of it. Those we sometimes ride like donkeys to help us provide the aforementioned often leave for similar reasons, blaming us on the way out (justifiable in most cases).

But, beside its potential for damage, it has also led to some of the world’s most stellar, awe-inspiring art. Those artists credited, directly or indirectly, with everyone else’s inspiration weren’t necessarily those who got the trophy just for showing up or sat in kumbaya drum circles (neither of which are problematic on their own!). Their music is great because it had to be. The inner compulsion, dare I say divine imperative, to produce the highest achievable work to present to the High and Lofty One, asks for nothing less. I can hardly imagine Bach having a lot of B-list instrumentalists in his sacred ensembles. His relentless pursuit of the perfect music for the perfect occasion probably made him many enemies.

But it also made him great.

I am now convinced that the very day I succumb to mastery in the lesser skills of prioritization, time management, leadership team coagulation, etc., will be the same day my muse will flee. My perfectionism has forced me down some dark hallways. It has left me bedraggled, barely able to stand at times. It has forced me to be tweaking song arrangements at 1:00 am…while on vacation. It has taken many hostages. It has kicked my ass, and others’ as well, in pursuit of some crazy ideal, held aloft in my own prideful head. But, in pursuit of the most beautiful art possible wrapped in the most transforming theology possible, that same pride disallows overly simplistic, soul-less, derivative, mass-producible pablum. Then, I’ll be only too happy to say, along with so many other dear souls, “with or without frappe?”

So then, I am tired primarily because I’ve been chasing whatever ideal my own perfectionism has placed before me. This aging treadmill donkey hasn’t quite nabbed his carrot, adangle before his hungry mouth and crossed eyes. If I ever do actually reach said carrot, it will be the day I am discovered, dead, in a pool of my own anxiety. And, after all is said and done, my choir still loves me.

And that alone is worth it.

One picture found here, the other is credited to Piper Renee-Richmond, who sings in my band and was in fact doing so at the time!

The bricks in our walls, chapter 4

brickwall1She was slightly chubby with a pinkish, round face, and dancing eyes that squinted a bit when she smiled. She had a way about her that was at once bracing and dangerous while at the same time hospitable and kind. She felt…comfortable. Our afternoons were often spent talking about all manner of shared interests: music, art, nature, beauty – often while lying side by side under our crabapple tree in the backyard gazing at the summer sky. It was heavenly. We held hands. We kissed. Often.


We were ten.


I was elated. It was summer. It was hot, and I was slicing through cool, choppy wake churned up by the boat behind which I was waterskiing – upright – for the first time in my life. My friend Darrin was driving, his dad beside him, and his younger brother watching me in case I came into difficulty. Silly, thought I. What could possibly go wrong? As is often the case with cocky, self-assured fourteen year olds, with over-confidence I over-compensated for over-reaching and found myself suddenly bouncing headlong over waves (surprisingly hard while cheese-grating along their ragged tops at forty miles an hour). By the time I finally pulled myself up from under the smug water, I was out of breath, bleeding from my side and completely naked.


It was exhilarating.


I saw my ever stoic and unyielding father cry only three times. Once during a heated exchange with my younger brother in which he loudly proclaimed that dad was an imposter (all three of us were adopted). Once, when my mother screamed at me so violently it made me cry out all manner of things I now wish I hadn’t. His hand, placed over mine at the kitchen table, is etched forever in the not-to-forget section of my memories. And once when he got back his biopsy results. I had driven him to Rockyview Hospital so that someone was with him should the news not be good. It wasn’t. At all. He came out of the room, face a pall of grey, and trembled out a few words in his roughneck Saskatchewan farm boy manner, “well, looks like I got a touch of the cancer.”


I miss him still.


I looked out the airplane window to a sight I’d waited seventeen years to see. The tightly woven, ancient and ragged hills of Scotland, huddled together in green beyond imagination danced a jig before me. If there’d been a seat on the wing, I’d have taken it in a heartbeat just to be that much closer to the land of my soul. Although Canadian born and raised, I have always been Celt to the core. My genes are kilted, my blood tartan, and my chromosomes play bagpipes proudly, up and down the hallways of my DNA. Best of all, I was there with my Welsh-Canadian wife of less than a year. Two Celts touched ground in Prestwick on a chill April day in 1989 and have never been the same.


“O flower of Scotland…”


The din was almost deafening. Bagpipes everywhere. It was August, 1991. Bellahouston Park in Glasgow. It was a “second first” related to this place. A bagpiper from the age of eight, I’d dreamed of making my way there to compete with the world’s finest since barely in double digits. Now, as head instructor for an up and coming junior pipe band, I was again on old country soil. This time, for the World Pipe Band Championships. To say it was dreamlike would be understatement akin to calling Mt. Everest a quaint, country bump. We were called up to the line. The pipe major barked his command, “by the right, quick march!” Two three-stroke rolls from the snare drums, drones, chanters, then – seven minutes of music, practiced and polished for two years.


Ask a bagpiper to define heaven.

Advent – God’s gift of longing

Undue significance a starving man attaches

To food

Far off; he sighs, and therefore hopeless,

And therefore good.


Partaken, it relieves indeed, but proves us

That spices fly

In the receipt. It was the distance

Was savory.

These words of Emily Dickinson remind us that the longing for someone or something is often an experience even richer than the person or object of that longing. The college-age love affair forced to endure the insufferable distance of educational geography. The retired man or woman lost in a fog of non-identity yearn for earlier times when it was more clear who they were and why they were here. 

My mom used to tell me that as kids we were “full of piss and vinegar” around Christmas time. Although the exact nature of this chemical mixture is unknown to me, I think I get her point. Those of us fortunate enough to have access to Christmas morning consumer delights may recall the unbearable pangs of waiting for it when that certain item we’ve been harping about might just be waiting to greet us.  We go through the motions of “being good boys and girls” so as to maximize our chances for a successful haul under the tree. And, frankly, many of us, well into adulthood, remain as babes – our littlest ones, whose needs, immediate and pressing, are always loudly trumpeted if unmet.

Advent is the liturgical equivalent of communal yearning. It is a time when, together, we enter into the much deeper waiting experienced by our forebears in faith for the fulfillment of a promise; a promise made to those long dead and far removed from our present reality.

There really is no better time than Advent to talk about the mystery of waiting. If we are willing, our connection with the Divine throbs most insistently at such times. Waiting can be nothing more than a feat of drudgery, accompanying oneself on the frustrating journey of unsatisfied desire. Or, it can be the mist-heavy pond upon which float, blindly but lightly, our lilies of longing. One leads to fear, hatred, anger, destruction. The other to patience, quiet devotion to duty and persons, to the delicate wonders of the unremarkable that grace our days.

lily-padsAdvent acts as a centuries long foreplay to the main event through which sweet relief is found. In that long foreplay we learn to live, move and have our being while often blind-folded or lost altogether. In it we learn to trust our silent dance partner whose subtleties on the dance floor leave us breathless but a little baffled at times. Advent forces a kind of slowness to things. As it becomes clear that immediate satisfaction is nowhere on the horizon, we learn the joys of nuanced living; of faith in a person rather than facts and plans and possible outcomes. We learn journey more than destination.

With the advent of Jesus we learn that God remains annoyingly carefree in his use of timelines. They belong to God alone. However, in that same advent we learn just how good it can be to wait with the intentionality of longing – spiritual foreplay – than pacing the floors of our constantly incomplete lives. For, to miss even the tiniest detail of all the manger meant is to miss everything else as well.