Portrait of A.J. Swoboda

A.J. Swoboda

  • Pastor
  • Professor
  • Speaker
  • Writer
  • Community Architect

Location: Portland, Oregon | USA

Apr 9, 2015

The Grand Paradox—An Interview with Ken Wytsma

I recently had the privilege of doing a short interview with my friend Ken Wytsma, pastor of Antioch Church in Bend, Oregon. Ken is also the founder of the Justice Conference which has had a tremendous impact on the church. He recently wrote The Grand Paradox, a phenomenally helpful book on the messiness and paradoxes of following Jesus. I thought I'd reach out and ask him a little about the book.

Here's the interview. Enjoy...

Ken, why did you write this book? Or, what was the moment you conceived it in your mind?

The Grand Paradox is, in some way, a conversation on everything I wish someone had told me when I was wrestling through what it looked like to be a Christian. There are so many confusing ways we either misunderstand or misapply Christian teaching that it’s easy to end up with a distorted view of things. These distorted views are usually complex, confusing and not at all satisfying.

The truth, however, I believe is biblical, comprehensive, simple and beautiful—although incredibly difficult.

My wife, Tamara, asked me one night when the book released what it was I was hoping for. I think my answer went something like, “I really believe so much more is possible in people’s relationship with God and I want them to know and experience it.”

Describe the person you had in mind when you wrote this?

I’d say I probably had a lot of people in mind. Maybe different folks for different chapters. The overarching theme—what a lived and obedient faith looks like—was probably something aimed at everyone who feels in their gut that many who claim to believe in God casually don’t really understand biblical faith.

The chapters on happiness were for those people who have been confused by the church into thinking God is against our satisfaction or joy. The heaven chapter was a reminder for everyone that heaven is a necessary part of the equation if we are to understand faith. The chapter on doubt, maybe the most popular in the book, is a paradigm-altering message I hoped most every man and woman would be able to encounter and find freedom through.

As the sticker on the cover suggests, I think this book aims to be a contemporary guide on the pursuit of God (much like AW Tozer’s The Pursuit of God was years ago.)

You discuss paradox throughout the text. When, how, and why did you get turned on to this idea?

When I became a Christian at age 22, I remember being confronted with the illogical or counter-intuitive side of the faith, but for the first time realizing in the upside-down, there was logic and in the illogical, there was truth. 

Die to live. The first shall be last. Humble yourself to be exalted. Pray for your enemies.

All of these are kingdom principles, not things that make sense according to the world. But in the paradox, in the counter-intuitive, we find the beauty and power of the gospel.

Living the Christian life is a grand paradox. But it is also the language of truth and the heart of faith.

Briefly describe the cost of ignoring paradox in the Christian faith? What do we lose?

I think we have a curious habit in the American church of trying to sanitize, simplify or formulize Christian faith. When we do, we come to the subtle belief that everything in life should work out or be fixable if I am a good Christian. 

Embracing the paradox of Christian faith allows us to begin with the messiness of life and not come to think or have the illusions that life will somehow be cleaner than it is or God more clear and forthright than he will be.

Biblical faith extends through time—it walks—in the tension between the messiness of life on the one hand and the mystery of God on the other.

You quote Nietzsche as the key to intimacy with God: “a long obedience in the same direction.” What is the biggest thing that gets in the way of this kind of path?

I guess quoting Nietzsche there is a bit ironic since he wants nothing to do with God, but I love the vivid picture his words evoke: a long obedience in the same direction. 

Faith and obedience are two sides of the same coin. In Abraham, the archetype of faith, we see the word “obey” used for the first time in all of scripture. Not in Adam and Eve, not in Noah, but in Abraham’s story the word “obey” shows up for the first time and in conjunction with Abraham’s faith or trust in God.

Faith doesn’t mean believing that God exists. Faith means that we’re willing to follow and obey the God who exists.

This means something incredible for my life and my future. It means that I am called to walk by faith and trust that, somehow, in doing so, God will bless and hold me. My greatest happiness comes in my greatest surrender to God. Or, as Aquinas put it, “God along constitutes man’s happiness.” 

Believing, as many American’s do, that faith just means responding to an altar call or claiming to believe God exists, is far from the biblical picture of a radical and lived out discipleship.

What will be the thing about the message of this book that you know Christians will struggle most with?

I think Eugene Cho hits on this in his foreword to the book. I believe people will sense in their guts the truth of much of what I’m arguing, but will want a formula or quick steps that will help them become what they are sensing or reading.

The reality of faith, however, is that it’s not something we control, but rather something that happens when we lay down control. Faith isn’t easy or quick. It doesn’t find its power in clichés or formulas, but rather in mystery and obedience.

The tension most people will sense when they read the book is, in my estimation, the point of the book in the first place. Faith and tension go hand in hand.

Are hope and certainty the same thing?

This is a great question. Here is a section from the book that may prove helpful:

Faith is the Answer

Faith isn’t destroyed or diminished by doubt. The opposite is true: faith is the answer to doubt.

When you are in the desert and are dying of thirst, collapsing in the sand won’t take you to water. When you are drowning in the ocean, becoming motionless won’t save your life. Why when we are doubting do we often believe that bringing our Christian walk to a halt will provide us with answers? We get hung up by our doubt, refusing to move forward until we have answers.

Sometimes we inadvertently or even deliberately hit the brakes to create distance between us and God. That’s why turning to sin in the midst of doubt is such a bad idea. The progression often goes like this: we get hurt and say something like, “I am really struggling with my faith. I need a break from church for a while.” Usually that also means a break from prayer, a break from the Bible, and a general break from our Christian community and even our moral code.

But if we were to be honest and say what’s really going on, it might sound more like, “I’m not sure God exists or loves me. So I’m going to isolate myself from Him, His Word, and all the people I know who believe in Him. Instead, I’ll turn to the things I know will give me satisfaction and pleasure until I feel happy enough to believe in God again.”

How can we expect to find God by deliberately pushing Him away? We all understand that cheating on your spouse isn’t going to solve marital problems. It may bring satisfaction for a while, but it certainly won’t fix any problems. Instead, it will most likely be catalytic in the ultimate destruction of the marriage. Our relationship with God is no different.

Throughout Scripture, God never challenges whether doubt should exist. It is the one point of unity between us and God—the recognition that we struggle with faith, belief, and trust. Where we differ from God is what we think should follow doubt. We think the burden rests on God to erase our doubt. God knows that the burden rests on us to continue to trust and wait on Him, even in our doubt.

Our programmed response to confusion is doubt, while the Psalms teach us to respond to confusion with faith. We think doubt demands an answer. God thinks doubt demands faith.

We look at doubt and think it needs an urgent resolution. God looks at doubt and thinks we need patience and endurance.

It could be said that when we think doubt is the problem between us and God, the reality is that an absence of faith or trust might be the real problem.

Ken's book can be found at your favorite, local bookstore. Or, you can find it here

 

 

 

 

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Mar 16, 2015

Like it or not: Being a Christian in a “like” culture

If Facebook allowed a “like” button for Christianity (perhaps it does?), I suspect the likes wouldn’t be as common today as they would have been in years past.

If Facebook had a “dislike” button for Christianity, I fear we’d be shocked at how many would click it.

Those Odious Christians

Let’s be honest: Christianity doesn’t seem to be thriving in this “like” culture. Recently, a widely circulated op-ed piece in a well-known national online publication came my way wherein the author—discussing his disapproval of Christian views of certain moral issues—made clear his disdain for the general Christian community. Visceral dislike for the Christian community, such as this, has become particularly pronounced in recent years for (I would guess) a constellation of reasons (which I will not tackle here). Still, one thing remains certain—one doesn’t get much “street cred” these days for identifying as a Christian.

Theologically, personally—but perhaps mostly, pastorally—I’ve reflected a great deal on what seems like a swelling, fever-pitch dislike of Christians in our time. What makes a Christian so odious, I’ve pondered? Why are Christians so disliked? Why do so many feel such anger toward Christians? As a Christian, I admit that the perceived disdain can not only hurt, but remains somewhat perplexing.

These questions are not only important to ask, they are important to answer.

To begin, I’ve resolved to cease appealing to this popular notion that any of this is actually new. Nothing about it is new. Christians have always been cultural outsiders to some degree or another. Still, for some funky reason, we appeal to some mythical time in the not-so-distant past when Christians were supposedly liked and well-received by the general public. But such times have never really existed. Nobody has ever really liked Christians.

Christians Have Always Been Disliked

Historically speaking, Christians have almost always been odious to outsiders. Christians have only been “liked,” so to speak, when they were in power—when people are forced to like them by virtue of the power structures of the time. But elsewise, they weren’t. Michael Green’s ever-illuminating volume Evangelism in the Early Church reminds us that the church of Jesus has always been one that’s been on the margins of cultural approval. What’s unique, however, is how the earliest Christians learned to embrace being disliked. “The capacity of Christians,” writes Green, “to face criticism, hatred…and death…with joy must have had a tremendous impact…You could mow these Christians down, you could throw them to the lions, but you could not make them deny their Lord or hate their persecutors.

The call for Christians to be rejected—yet resisting the urge to reject others in return—is an ever-pressing need for the Christian of our time. We must quickly learn to be hated without mirroring such hatred. We must freshly re-embrace that whole “bless those who persecute you” idea. (Rom. 12:14) Although I am cautious to even bring up the word persecution. because Western Christianity doesn’t really know what persecution is like. It is beyond silly to believe that someone looking funny at you for reading your Bible at Starbucks is persecution. Trust me: that isn’t persecution.

Still, it might feel like persecution—emotional persecution. In experiencing these feelings, the historical tendency for most Christians is to jab back and persecute those who persecute them. Such a move has been a lurking temptation for all time—a temptation that must be resisted at all costs. Such hate mirroring isn’t the way of Jesus. As Judas would have told us, the way of Jesus is to wash the feet of those who have categorically rejected you.

With that, the story of Stephen should come to mind. In the story of Acts, Stephen becomes the church’s first martyr (after Jesus himself). In Acts 7, Stephen offers a death speech before religious authorities that includes the entire history of Israel and the good news of Jesus. It’s the most epic death speech ever.

Then Stephen dies. But just before he does, he looks up to heaven and sees “Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” Immediately, without hesitation, the religious leaders watching him “gnash their teeth” at Stephen, the text narrates. Of course, that language of the “gnashing of teeth” was is important for understanding their feelings toward Stephen. In the non-canonical text of 1 Sirach, the phrase is attributed to beasts that “gnash their teeth” as they feed upon their prey. Grating one’s teeth, in the Old Testament, was eventually used as an expression of pure anger that was to be doled out upon one’s enemies and the wicked (e.g. Job 16:9, Ps. 35:16; Lam. 2:16) Similarly, in the New Testament, it was an expression that was connected with a place where future punishment would soon take place (Matt. 8:12). One commentator writes: “There the gnashing of teeth is perhaps an expression of the futility of the wicked before God’s judgment or else a demonstration of their continuing refusal to repent and acknowledge the justness of God’s judgment (cp. Rev. 16:9, 11).”

What was it that made those religious leaders “gnash their teeth?” What caused them to grate their teeth in anguish at this man? In Stephen, they saw something that drove, that hit, that meddled with their hearts to such a degree they gnash their teeth in judgmental anger. Why?

Stephen had direct access.

This direct access that Christian claim to have is fundamentally offensive to general culture because to claim access is to simultaneously claim a certain version of truth. Look at what they didn’t gnash their teeth at. Stephen didn’t claim moral superiority. He didn’t claim to know what was right or wrong. He didn’t claim others were wrong. Stephen simply claimed he saw Jesus “standing at the right hand of the father”—Stephen had access. He had access to something the religious leaders didn’t.

This, to me, brings up a pressing truth: true Christianity—the kind embodied by Stephen—was not only disliked by the crowds but also by the religiously-minded. Authentic Christianity will always be resisted (if not rejected) on both sides: by culture and institutional religion. It has never really fit into either snugly.

They killed Stephen just as they killed Jesus. They’d kill them again if they were around. And probably some Christians would stand there giving their approval. True Christianity causes just about everyone to grate their teeth in some shape or form. The lesson is simple: we judge true godliness by the wrong things, then, when we see it standing before us, we do anything to kill it. Godliness just doesn’t play well in the world. But then again, it never really has. Godliness, in the end, virtually always ends up on a cross.

Learning to be Disliked

This brings us back to being disliked. I’m learning a few things about this whole thing—about learning how to be disliked.

First, being liked is over-rated—it never really got anyone anywhere. The most liked are usually those who have tasted the status quo and gone along. Going along is the quickest way to be liked. The truth is, only living fish can swim upstream.

I suspect people have come to “like” Christianity for all the wrong reasons and have come do “dislike” Christianity for all the right reasons. The familiar trump card is often played—“My atheist/agnostic/non-Christian friends are far nicer than my Christian friends”; to which our emotional response is to try and defend the church. But Jesus was not right because he was the nicest. Nor is Christianity. I think such an argument as profoundly silly on various fronts.

Just because someone is nicer doesn’t make someone more right. How many racists are nice? How many serial murderers can be sweet sounding? How many Nazi’s had a nice veneer. Niceness isn’t the mark of authentic godliness nor a universal sign of religious correctness. To argue against the validity of Christianity by saying that one knows there are far more nice non-Christian than Christians is as nonsensical as saying one knows more sober people outside of Alcoholics Anonymous than they do within. Indeed! This is the mark of a culture that has disliked Christianity for all the wrong reasons—namely, that Christians aren’t the nicest. We’ve done a terrific disservice to the identity of the church by equating it to a congregation of the morally superior. The church isn’t morally superior. The church is a community of saved sinners. The morally superior, I guess, don’t need a doctor. So they often aren’t drawn to the church.

Only a pragmatist would say that truth is true so long as it comes through nice tongues. The very truthfulness of the gospel is not found in how nice Christians are. Nay, it is found among sinners who are loved by God.

Still, the very implication of such an argument (the “Christians are not nice” argument) is that being nice does not demand one to be a Christian. Indeed, this is the case. My atheist friends can be way nicer than my Christian friends. However, the Kingdom of God established by Jesus is not mediated through “niceness.” The Kingdom is one of sick sinners who are desperate for a God of grace to love them.

The church isn’t a cloistered club of nice people who have their act together. The church is a gathering of sinners, saved, redeemed, in the grace and blood of Christ who approach God confidently for the grace in which they swim. This is probably why Christians can be the biggest grumps in the world—they’ve acknowledged their inescapable need for a doctor. 

Not to mention that Jesus wasn’t right because he was nice. At least I don’t think he was nice. People who turn over tables and call people sinners and argue theology aren’t nice. Let’s stop making that our sole litmus test for religious validity.

Secondly, we must resist the urge to add offense to the gospel. Please, by all accounts, don’t try to be disliked. Being disliked isn’t always the sign that you are right, either—too often Christians have taken the reality that they are disliked as the sign they are on the right track. In the end, being liked or disliked isn’t the endgame for the Christian. And, if we’re honesty, if we are disliked, it is almost always for the wrong things.

The gospel is offensive enough; we’re really good at adding the silliest offenses to it.

Third, and most importantly, neither “like” or “dislike” are categories the Bible choses to employ. Nor shouldn’t ever aim for them. We shouldn’t lose sleep over them. They simply aren’t important in one iota for the God of Scripture.

Love and like are worlds apart. I love God, but I don’t always like Him. So even if Facebook did put a “dislike” button in place, or even if fewer people would “like” Facebook, or the church isn’t growing in a “like” culture, it really doesn’t matter in the end. We aren’t invited to like God, or like people; nor are we told God likes us, or that people should like us.

By way of conclusion—go on clicking “like” here and there for our favorite persona or band or organization we appreciate and value. But do remember that the Kingdom of God is not manifested in “likes.”

We are called to love others because we were loved first.

The Kingdom of God isn’t to be liked. It is to be entered into with a passionate, loving abandon. Do know that you are invited in. I can tell you, I have been. And I am in. More than ever.

Frankly, whether anyone likes it or not.

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Jan 30, 2015

Propped: Three laws on being a creative but not a self-promoter

Lessons always hit hard in the world of self-promotion.

In a good way, of course. Turns out, there are all these secret tricks on Twitter. By sheer happenstance, I had discovered that by placing a tiny “period” ( . ) before a reply to someone, the reply would be translated as a Tweet itself. And, as such, every one of my followers would see it for themselves.

Revolutionary, I thought at the time. As we all do when we uncover some new trick on social media that can expand or amplify your voice, I went to work trying out the new trick. My first “reply-as-Tweet” was sent when a friend—a rather famous friend, I should add—posted a reply to one of my Tweets earlier that day (the content was meaningless as I recall nothing about its substance). But—knowing I very well could catch a wave of attention by doing the “period trick” in front of my reply to him—everyone would become aware that a famous, cool, brilliant theologian was talking directly to me.

So I used the period.

In about one minute, I got a response. Without skipping a beat, one of my Twitter buddies reached out almost immediately and asked; “Hey, why did you put that period in there?” He didn’t know about the trick, I thought. I thought I was going to teach a novice the ways of Twitter. Again, he pushed back, “No, why did you do put that period in there?”

I knew I’d been caught. After a brutally honest phone call, I learned a lesson. My friend told me I should be careful about doing the “period thing” (his words). It looked dirty, he said. It was true: I’d been caught in the shameless economy of social media self-promotion—a dark world where every post becomes about the creative’s own self. In what turned out to be one of the most helpful lessons of my young social media career, I discovered, first, that it really doesn’t make you look good to be a constant self-promoter. And, secondly, that I am in desperate need for a community of people in my life who have the guts to direct message me at a moment’s notice out when I’m being a narcissistic self-promoter. I’ve since learned my lesson, thanks to a truth-telling Twitter buddy. 

This puts me (and others like me) in a conundrum. I write stuff. Lots of stuff. And I want to share it with others. Mostly because I believe what I say to be true. There’s the rub: how can we learn to boldly share our voice without being constant self-promoters?

Well, it’s tricky. And I think the answer is closer to home than we’d like to admit. One of our biggest problems, at the end of the day, is that we often lack a true belief in our hearts that if nobody ever read our stuff, Jesus would still be our friend. And that notion—I see you rolling your eyes—is a bare minimum to any creative who has a public vocation in writing, blogging, preaching, teaching, or anything else demanding you to put your ideas out there. Gospel is necessary for the creative. And the gospel is essential because it becomes our constant reminder that we don’t live according to the competition-based economy ruling our world. We are loved “just as.”

Competition rules my mind; always has. What I’m describing here as the “competition-based economy” is one, I believe, virtually none of us have escaped. Competition is in our bones. And in Cain-like fashion, we spend most of our energies jealously examining what everyone else has and how we can come close to their attainment.

Most of us were raised in a culture that set the framework for—in the timely words of David Brooks—“the professionalization of childhood.” His On Paradise Drive illuminates for us the kinds of Egypt-like pressures of performance we put upon children’s backs in their earliest years of their formative development. As soon as they’re old enough, we place children in teams that force them to compete against their peers, we give unnecessarily heightened attention to their grades, and we demand constant attempts by them to excel in all they do. In short, we’re burdening our children to live their lives like we live our lives—in break-neck, “survival of the fittest,” capitalistic, competition.

And we almost never escape it. Perhaps the sickest dimension of competition is when we actually win. For when we do win, we sit proudly, high, boastfully on our ladders of success looking down on the pitifully unsuccessful below. Yet such a way of looking upon others is not only harmful, it is simply ungodly. Paul, in writing to his young friend Timothy, reminds him to speak respectfully toward those above him and treat “younger men as brothers.” (1 Tim. 5:1-2). The irony of Paul’s direction was that that Timothy—pastoring the church in Ephesus—was permitted only to look up at, or, eye-to-eye toward others; Timothy could never peer down upon anybody. And that as the leading Christian in his town.

Paul’s thinking on the subject couldn’t be more succinct than when he writes that a Christ-follower should never “Lord over anybody.” One can’t help but assume that in saying this, Paul is putting a no-compete clause between brothers and sisters of the family of God. Competition, the kind we see in our world and the kind that we teach our kids to live within, is not a Kingdom ethic.

As I’ve pulled together my own thoughts, read the Scriptures, and talked with others, I’ve come to the firm conclusion that the most important roads of maturity that we can walk down is to refuse to play the competition game as we’ve been handed it. We must experience, personally, intimately, emotionally, physically, and spiritually God’s incessant plea to us in the gospel that we are loved in the state we are in. The economy of the gospel entirely undermines our economy of the “survival of the fittest” that orients us toward break-neck competition toward one another.

How can we be creative without being competitive self-promoters?

That is the question for me. I really struggle when social media becomes an unchecked, wild, boundary-less environment for self-promotion and personal self-interests. It just feels dirty when every one of my Tweets is about me. Every time I post something about a book I’ve written, or something I’ve done, I feel almost guilty; and I’ve come to believe part of that is a healthy response of the Holy Spirit. The Christ follower isn’t intended to live a life propping themselves up for the world.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t boldly put our ideas or work out there. We must, if it is in our bones. My friend Joshua Butler really helped me think through. Recently, he reminded me that social media should become a place of service to help life others’ voices, as a place to lend or own timeline to other’s work, to let your Tweets be redemptively sacrificial. That really freed me. I can use social media to serve. I don’t need it to be all about me.

Does that mean I’m going to stop sharing my own work? No. I believe in what I do. And I believe others should see it. If I didn’t believe it, I wouldn’t speak it. And hopefully a few people are helped. But I guess I’m coming to believe the days of having a Twitter account or Facebook timeline that is merely my own publicity department is coming to an end.

Here are my three new rules. They’re just mine. Don’t feel oppressed by my rules. Pick and choose as you want:

1. I seek to leverage my own voice disproportionately for the sake of others’ voices.

2. I seek to invite “truth-tellers” to call me out for any waft of narcissism or constant self-promotion.

3. I choose to live in the gracious love of Jesus, being okay with the little voice I have while  not trying to make it louder than God is letting it be.

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Sep 10, 2014

Words and Shovels: Where are the Prophets? (V3 Article)

Prophets are the church’s immune system.

Without prophets, we are left to the mercy of whatever sicknesses we’re exposed to from season to season. The prophet, like an oncologist, inflicts a kind of communal pain which, when received, brings healing. Their hard words bring a better world. Perhaps more than ever, prophets are in great need to revitalize the American church. For truth-telling is the language of a Christ who so proudly spoke of Himself as “…the Truth.” (John 14:6)

Yet, in recent times, I’ve lamented a growing trend...

[Read the full article at V3 here]

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Womanizers and Nazis (Christianity Today Article)

It would be impossible to count the number of times a new member to our church community has entered our fellowship with that line. Countless, indeed. And, in most cases, the pain is still throbbing. In many conversations, I hear them talk about leaving ministries with wonderful leaders, inspiring histories, and profound impact. Of course, I’ve learned to be quick to press into that pain—there’s always an important story there. Healing, after all, was (and is) a central aspect of Jesus’ ministry. I am always careful.

How do we learn and grow after churches, pastors, spiritual authorities, or organizations have hurt or deeply disappointed us?

So, how do we learn and grow after churches, pastors, spiritual authorities, or organizations have hurt or deeply disappointed us?...

[Read the full article at Christianity Today's website here]

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