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African Violet

On Mum’s window sill in her Jaffa orange kitchen sat a colourful array of African violets.  The flowers would thrive with Mum’s attentive care, just the right amount of gentle sunlight and not too much watering.  I remember calling in for a cup of tea after work and seeing the row of pretty little flowers, bright and cheerful and always in bloom.

A couple of years ago I received an African violet as a gift and sat it on my kitchen bench.  The sight of it sitting there reminded me of Mum and her pretty window sill.

I kept the African violet, moving it around from bench to packing box to table as we recently renovated our home and somehow it made it through all the dust and chaos.  However, the little flowers soon disappeared and the leaves lost most of their green hue. When the building works were finally complete the little plant sat forlornly in the corner of our new kitchen bench and I wondered if it was time to throw it away.

Mother’s Day in my house is rich with all the best parts of family life:  breakfast in bed, laughter, gifts and precious time spent together.  I love being a Mum, but despite my thankful heart, I still miss my Mum.  This Mother’s Day was no exception.

Yet something happened this year which brought Mum a little closer.  A tentative shoot emerged from the bedraggled African violet for the first time in so long, and a small purple flower raised its vibrant face to the sun, bright and bold, greeting me on Mother’s Day morning.  Despite its haphazard care, its lack of watering and being abandoned to a dusty corner, the plant bloomed right on cue, a small reminder of another time, of a small kitchen with the Jaffa coloured bench tops and the banter of mother and daughter, chatting over numerous cups of tea.  That little purple flower brought back so many memories, of the complex mother and daughter bond, of laughter and of tears, but mostly the knowledge that I had been loved.

Sometimes it’s the little things that bring the past alive for us – allowing us to reach back and embrace the ones we’ve lost.  More than anything it reminded me that despite all obstacles in its path, even the depths of grief and loss, a mother’s love endures.

 

 

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I haven’t always been Kerry Osborne.  Once upon a time I was Kerry Sims.  I’ve also been known by some of my slightly-less-than-charming acquaintances as Dim Sims and Waddles. Those names have a cute and whimsical ring to them these days, when I view them from the comfort of middle age, but back in my school days they felt anything but cute.  They stung, they hurt and left me burning with shame.

“Dim Sims” was flung around in my primary school days – an ‘amusing’ adjustment to my surname which left me feeling like I was stupid.  Ironically, the boys calling me this were regularly failing their tests and getting the cane for their bad behaviour, while I was the “good girl” getting straight A’s.  But the irony was lost on me in those days.

“Waddles” emerged in high school and had a more vicious undertone, as it was a reference to my awkward gait and slight limp due to a then-undiagnosed hip problem.  I remember one day being circled by a group of boys, imitating my walk, thinking it was quite hilarious.  I don’t even remember who they were, but I do remember the burning shame I felt, the tears in my eyes and the heavy feeling of worthlessness.

I was almost forty when I was ready to face my hip problem.  Chronic pain and a concerned partner finally forced me into a corner.  When the orthopaedic surgeon told me that I had severe hip dysplasia from birth and my hip sockets hadn’t formed properly I was shocked.  It was also a gigantic “Aha!” moment when the truth finally hit me. Apparently I had done an amazing job getting around all of those years but now it was time for surgery.  The shame I’d locked inside all of those years, trapped like a big block of ice, began to melt away.  In the café at St Vincent’s Hospital the tears flowed hot and fast, the ice melting at last, as the shame that had shut down parts of my emotions finally washed away. As St Vincent’s Café sees many tears, I was able to cry without interruption.

Thankfully over the years a culture has emerged where bullying is no longer the norm and mentioning it isn’t treated with scorn.  I work these days in a school vigilant in finding ways to empower students and protect them from bullying.

But sadly in our society bullies continue to persist, despite our enlightenment. Bullying may begin in the school-yard but it continues in the workplace and sometimes, sadly, in our homes.  The bullying child may have endearing qualities with his cheeky smile and grubby knees, but the vicious boss who verbally strips staff of their self-worth, or the violent husband who humiliates and damages his wife with his fists and his controlling ways are just plain ugly.

When I was in my twenties I met one of the old school bullies at a party.  My life was full and fabulous and I was about to head off overseas to work and travel the world.  My old classmate was unemployed and just out of hospital for treatment of his mental health and drug dependency issues.  One of the first things he said to me was how sorry he was for the way he had treated me at school. He seemed to be struggling under the heaviness of guilt.  I smiled at his heartfelt apology and told him not to worry.  One look into his eyes told me he had already paid for the way he had lived his life thus far.

Comedian, Jerry Seinfeld  puts it well in his advice to those surviving a break-up:  “The best revenge is living well”.  Now I’m not an advocate for revenge, but there is certainly wisdom in those words.  For a time we may feel belittled by the bullies in our lives, but the scales will turn one day.  The key is to hang in there, and wait and watch.

So if you are being bullied or have been bullied, please take heart.  Don’t believe what you are hearing about yourself. It isn’t true.  Just as I’m not dim, and my disability wasn’t my fault, the same is true of you. If you don’t believe those damning words and hang in there, one day the tide will turn. Walk away, smile to yourself, and believe that you are valuable, gifted and full of potential.

So to my old bullies I say this:  I forgive you all – you were young, silly and thoughtless, and perhaps someone was bullying you too.  But I do believe you reap what you sow and Someone has my back who is far more powerful than all of us.  I pray that you will confess, apologise and take an honest look at yourself, and learn to live a life that brings joy to others rather than despair.

There is no room in this vast and beautiful world for bullies, and there is no room in my heart to listen to them anymore.  Kindness and love are far more interesting.

Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.”   Romans 12:17-19 (MSG)

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Holidays are over and my boys headed back to school this week filled to the brim with adolescent reluctance.  Now they are in high school there is less drama and screaming in getting back into routine, but there’s certainly a whole lot more sighing and rolling of the eyes.

Just as they have grown taller over time, so too have their questions evolved. It can be daunting as a parent to be asked certain questions.  When they were very young, the questions about sex were difficult, but at least they had their funny side – “Mum are those lions on TV fighting?” (son 1) – “No, they are just playing!” (son 2).  Phew, that time I didn’t need to say anything at all, just quickly change the channel!  But I have found the theological questions are often the hardest to answer.  As little guys, there was the “So who is God?”  This one was easy enough.  But then came the brutal follow up question: “But who made God?” and things started to go downhill from then on.

Recently another theological question arose during a car trip to the local shops.  “Why do Christians believe different things, and why do they disagree so much?”  Now where do you begin answering a question like that?

The first thing that came to my mind was a day long ago when I was home alone as a fifteen year old.  A sweet looking elderly lady with a woolen skirt, sensible shoes and a wide welcoming smile came to the front door.  She was clutching a booklet with what looked like happy people in a tropical garden on the cover and began talking animatedly about paradise on earth and God’s kingdom.  She seemed friendly and harmless enough so I told her I had recently become a Christian myself and shared with her how happy I was with my new-found faith.  Strangely, my enthusiasm for God seemed to dial down the radiant smile on her face.  She continued with her heaven on earth spiel and I continued telling her about my discoveries about God.  As we talked, it became glaringly obvious that we were both coming at this Christian thing from a very different angle.  I was willing to accept our differences and call it a day, but she continued relentlessly, becoming less friendly and more red in the face as she went on.  Eventually, when open hostility took over and the sweet-looking lady turned very sour, I shoved her back out the front door, closed it with a thud and stood feeling stunned, confused and shaken. A few minutes later the tears came.

That was the day I discovered that not everyone professing to be a Christian is full of the unconditional love and acceptance we expect, and that beneath certain inviting smiles lurks a whole truckload of secret agendas and control issues.

Recently I attended a Christian Women’s Conference in Sydney. The keynote speaker was an entertaining and intelligent woman and I enjoyed listening to her words of wisdom.  But towards the end of her final talk, she made a comment that jarred against my spirit.  Describing how we listen to God and are guided by Him, she encouraged us to read God’s Word, but to guard against such things as listening for his voice in other ways, seeing him at work in circumstances, or of taking notice of mystical things such as dreams and visions. Now I’m sure we have all met people who have gone a bit too far down the “mystical” path and have left reality far behind, but her tone was verging on mocking and allowed no room for those who may have had genuine mystical encounters.  As she spoke I recalled the heavy sprinkling of mystical experiences throughout the Bible  – for example the promises in Acts 2:17 that: ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams’.

I sat squirming at this point as I just happen to be one of those slightly weird Christians who do have the occasional mystical encounter – a sentence may pop into my mind at just the right moment to steer me out of trouble, or a dream predicts a pivotal event which is ahead and prepares me for it, or I meet a new person and inexplicably know about a secret battle in their life which helps me treat them with an extra dose of sensitivity.  During times of illness, stress and grief, these “mystical” experiences have given me the strength and hope to keep on going. I know not everyone experiences God the way I do, but I suspect some of you reading this will relate to what I’m describing. We all have our own stories to tell and it’s captivating to listen to each story with an open mind and a gracious and humble heart.  Our stories are as diverse as we are –  and are uniquely ours.  To listen to a well educated and well meaning woman of faith denounce these experiences as silly in a room of a few thousand left me feeling utterly deflated.   I half expected everyone sitting around me to hear the undignified slow squeak of a balloon losing its air.

So I gazed at my son with his important question, sharing his concern for the confusion and pain that arises between those of us who profess to share a common faith.  I answered along these lines:

“You know when we go out together, we head down to the bookstore and buy a book each and then go and chat in the café?”

“Yes” he replied.

“And you know how your brother hates bookshops, and when we get together we go for a walk in the bush and look at all the different types of birds, and take some photos?”

“Mmm”

“Well I think it’s like that with God too.  Each of us are different.  He loves us all, and he knows exactly how to communicate with each of us.  Some of us are academic, logical and structured  – others are emotional, creative and messy.  He relates to each of us where we’re at.  Different churches reflect these different ways of relating with God.  The problems start when people of one style of faith begin to judge and criticize people of the other types.  If we could only accept our differences, get on with our own journey (or as I read in Romans recently “tend to your knitting”) and leave others to tend to theirs, we would fully express what it is to be a Christian.”

It was the most honest answer I could come up with on the hop and I hope it reflects some of the truth around this complex issue.  He seemed satisfied with that for now. I’m sure another question will come up soon and I will try to answer.  In the meantime, I will keep on listening for the answers, which I know will arrive in their own unique, quirky and God-inspired way.

So where does that leave you when you criticize a brother? And where does that leave you when you condescend to a sister? I’d say it leaves you looking pretty silly—or worse. Eventually, we’re all going to end up kneeling side by side in the place of judgment, facing God. Your critical and condescending ways aren’t going to improve your position there one bit…  So tend to your knitting. You’ve got your hands full just taking care of your own life before God.  Romans 14:10-12 (The Message)

 

 

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echidna-visitorHave you ever had a day of good intentions and set plans that goes horribly wrong? Last Tuesday was ‘one of those days’ for me.  I was the mad woman, disheveled hair, bulging eyes, trying to juggle all the pieces of her life.  Flying in the air were all my roles: mother, wife, sister, nurse maid, house cleaner, PA, friend spinning dangerously out of control.  About to collide in the muddle were the to-do lists, my daily work calendar brimming with tasks and my sick son who needed me to take him to the doctor straight away.   I shut my eyes breathlessly hoping that somehow it would all miraculously fall into place  – but instead it all came tumbling down with what felt like an almighty crash.  It felt so quiet and still after all the juggling stopped.

So I sent some emails and made some calls to excuse myself from life. I convinced the doctor’s receptionist that it was urgent and after the dash to the surgery I quietened the noise in my head and cared for my son. As I checked emails throughout the day I was surprised to see the world functioning quite happily without me.

But amidst the peace and quiet was  a gnawing feeling that I had failed somehow, and that all my heroic efforts in juggling my life had resulted in nothing more than a mess. I hadn’t even managed to get to work. That little voice inside was telling me what a hopeless failure I was.

Late in the afternoon  I heard my husband arrive home and call out to me. ‘What now?’ I thought…  But as I trudged out the door I saw that he wasn’t alone.  We had a visitor – very small, very spiky and quite amazing.  An Echidna had waddled up our driveway from the bushland across the road, right up to our front door, as if to drop by for some afternoon tea. He tolerated our cooing and rude staring as we introduced ourselves and  carefully carried him across the road back to his bush home, gloves protecting fingers from spikes poised ready for a stabbing.  His pointy nose and beady eyes gazed at us as he curled his impressive spiky self, long claws waving in the air.

dropping-by

Despite his threatening spikes, I was awestruck. Something about a random visit from this exquisite creature – so unique and striking – filled me with that crazy joy that bubbles up and is far more common in young children than the middle aged.  Along with the sense of joy came a sense of freedom.  So what if I couldn’t  control my day.  Perhaps my little friend hadn’t controlled his day too well either, misjudging his afternoon stroll in the bush on the hunt for some ants.  The need to control, to stress, to rush, to worry, to get everything done, no longer mattered.  Something about the wonder of our visitor allowed the chains of being human to slip away.

So if you’re having a bad day too, can I recommend spending some time with a four legged friend? Tell your dog or cat all about it and they’ll understand. Or take a walk in the bush and tell the gum trees and the lorikeets about your dreams and disappointments. Escape your electronic devices and reality shows and get outside to where nature is.  God’s fingerprints are all over the natural world.  It has a beauty that speaks joy to us and shows us a compassion so lacking in concrete and steel.  Nature teaches us the art of freedom – without the need for any words.

“But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this? In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.”  –  Job 12: 7-10

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orchid

I hold my breath as our son carries the wobbly breakfast tray down the hall, as my other son approaches menacingly with his plastic gun drawn ready to ‘wake Dad up’ .  This could end badly. An array of unique gifts, chosen with enthusiasm and wrapped with haste, follow in bulging Hot Wheels gift bags.  Another stubbie holder to add to the growing collection – and another musky air freshener to instill ambience to the work truck.  There is nothing like watching kids with their Dad on Fathers Day.

But once or twice I sense a chilly shadow.   Even in the lead up, choosing just the right card, my gaze pauses on the trout fishing cards and for a moment I forget and instinctively grab one.  Dad loved the trout streams with white water cascading into the deep blue pools, the thrill of the hunt and the skill of the cast.  But then I remember that the card is no longer needed.  The years of plastic golf balls became the years of smart going out shirts, and eventually led to the days of new pyjamas and elastic waist trousers.  Yet even in the difficult later days, Dad was always thrilled with his gift. It was always something he had always wanted.

For those of us who have lost our Dads, Fathers Day can have a bittersweet flavour.  It is another of those special days which brings back the memories, the regrets and the sadness.

When we emptied our family home over six years ago and had a garage sale, a few old potplants were left unsold.  A friend noticed a floundering orchid and asked if he could take it and try to nurse it back to life.  He named it ‘Arthur’ after my Dad and over the years he has mentioned it  from time to time:  he had repotted it;  fertilised it or moved it to a new spot.  The orchid stayed much the same.  However, a few weeks ago our friend announced very proudly that Arthur had just produced its first bud.  After all these years of nurture, the orchid is finally about to flower.

I thought of Arthur over the weekend, the orchid and my Dad. On Saturday I watched my sons hanging out with their cousins, and I saw a glimpse of their grandfather in each of their expressions and gestures, in their smiles and warmth to one another. Our sons often tell people that their granddad invented traffic light systems.  They know it is possible to do impossible things because Granddad did it.  Even  though we can’t see him anymore, Dad is still around us, his influence continues and the essence of him lives on in us.  And just as the orchid has endured in the background for all of these years, silent and inactive, one day a bud appeared, and soon there will be a flower.   We may be separated for now, but love doesn’t end with death, nor does the influence of a life well lived.  I suspect it doesn’t end there either, and one day death will no longer hold us captive and keep us apart. My excitement at hearing about Arthur’s first bud reminds me of an even greater joy:  the joy we will feel on that day when we meet again.

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.    Revelation 21:4

Arthur Sims

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Trust men and they will be true to you; treat them greatly and they will show themselves great.   Ralph Waldo Emerson

I was overwhelmed recently by three little words.   They weren’t the three little words that usually capture our attention, but they were refreshing, inspiring and uplifting just the same.   The three little words were:  ‘I trust you’.

Trust can be difficult to find and easy to lose. From a young age we are warned not to trust strangers.  It’s confusing knowing who we can trust.  Sometimes it’s easier to trust no-one.  We are told that people must earn our trust, but how do we work out the price to win us over?  Even when we avoid those with shifty eyes, bad reputations or recent convictions, often it’s a close friend or family member who lets us down.   Perhaps the only loyal companion we will ever have is our pet dog, yet ever he has his snappy days.

It seems to me that a general lack of trust and the need to protect ourselves from hurt and betrayal is a normal way of existing in our culture.  Our workplaces and relationships are infected with a vague but persistent hint of suspicion.   We use paperwork as a buffer against deceit:  forms, policies and agreements are put in place to shield and protect us.   Hollywood movie-stars are beset with cheating partners despite their stunning looks and sparkling personalities.   If it happens to them, what hope is there for the rest of us? Mistrust can be infectious too.  As Harold MacMillan observes:    “A man who trusts nobody is apt to be the kind of man nobody trusts.”

Since starting my new job I’ve been reminded of the value of trust.   Nervous and uncertain, I arrived in a community of kind and gracious people.   It’s early days yet, but I am overwhelmed by a lingering sense of trust.  Being trusted is affirming and life-giving.   Trust is like sunlight and oxygen to a crushed spirit.  It is a catalyst for growth in self-confidence, motivation and enthusiasm.

Not being trusted does the opposite. Have you ever been in a relationship where your partner doesn’t trust you?  I once had a boyfriend who flew into a jealous rage if I arrived home half an hour late from work, couldn’t cope with me going out with my girlfriends and questioned my every move.  The crazy thing was, I was trustworthy.  Yet by the end of the relationship I was so exasperated there seemed little point in remaining faithful and I began to doubt my own integrity.

What a relief it was to meet my husband who never questioned me when I was late and told me to have fun every time I went out with my friends.  There were never any questions or accusations.   I felt trusted and so I could be trustworthy.

To grow up without trust and belief from your caregivers is to grow up believing that you are not to be trusted and perhaps even that you are inexplicably flawed.   It is no surprise that children who grow up in dysfunctional families find it hard to trust.   If there is no intervention from outside the home, how are they to escape the mindset they grew up with?   Children need trust to grow up whole and functioning.  To trust your child is to weave self-confidence and joy into their life so they will grow up feeling that they are valued and have something to offer the world. 

But trusting is hard.  Trusting leaves us vulnerable.  Yet to live without trust is to miss out on so much and to suffer both personally and as a society.  As Jonathan Tame puts it:

With any loss of trust, relational capital diminishes. Society becomes poorer as more time is taken drawing up detailed contracts and regulations, more funds are spent on security, surveillance and policing, and health declines because people grow more anxious.   

The Christian faith is built on trust.  Whatever you make of it, the story of God sending Jesus to demonstrate his great love for us is a story of daring to trust.  While we didn’t want to know him, God could see our potential goodness.   We ignore him, deny his existence and ridicule him, he doesn’t give up on us.   When we finally recognise the extent of his love and graciousness, our own trust naturally follows:

Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge…  Psalm 62:8

When I look at the times I’ve trusted and been disappointed I no longer feel ashamed.   If we put our faith in a philanderer or confide in a friend who gossips behind our back, have we failed or have they?   If we dare to trust we have acted with bravery and integrity.   The betrayal is a reflection of the flaws of the other person and we can walk away knowing we tried our best and that next time may be different. 

So if you want to extend the ultimate compliment and offer a life-line of hope to someone, just say three little words.   “I trust you“.   You never know, those words may be the seeds that transform a life and the boomerang of grace that will one day return to you.

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The other night at dinner one of my sons said to the other:  “It was so funny, we were playing on-line with a six-year-old and he was saying – ‘Stop stabbing me’ and we just kept on stabbing him!”

Now I don’t know about you, but this isn’t the sort of table conversation that appeals to me.   It did, however, lead to a discussion about some of the Playstation 3  games they had been playing that day at a friend’s house.   One of the games in question was ‘Call of Duty Black OPs’ (rated MA) which I’ve had a look at and banned from our home as I found the realism, graphic violence and the general grimy feel of the game a little disturbing and inappropriate for my boys who are 10 and 11.

Another game I’ve encountered is ‘Grand Theft Auto’ where all sorts of adventure unfolds.  I was, of course, expecting them to steal cars, but I wasn’t expecting them to  pick up prostitutes, have sex with them and then kill them.   Lovely stuff.  Just the type of behaviour we all want our little boys to learn, hey girls?   I was horrified to discover that another friend had her teenage sons playing this game when my boys visited when they were only 5 and 6.   It no doubt went over their heads, but it’s still not something I want them exposed to.

But according to my sons I’m ‘over-protective’ and ‘every other kid at school is allowed to play MA games, even the Year 3 kids’.   It seems I’ve earnt the reputation of being the old fuddy duddy.  My boys also tell me that shooting games are vitally important to them and I’m preventing them from a normal part of their development.  Where do they hear this stuff?

But I guess  they do have a point in part.   Even when I ban the games, I find them engaged in armed warfare in the backyard, with their plastic guns ‘blazing’.   At first I banned toy guns as well, but gave in when I realised they just grabbed sticks and used them instead.  

Perhaps violent play is engraved in the genetic makeup of boys and trying to stop it is like trying to stop puberty.  But somehow seeing them running around in the fresh air pretending to conquer Osborne County isn’t as disturbing as watching them choose a particular gun and shoot a life-like person on-screen in a depressing alleyway with screaming, swearing and blood.   It seems to me that their imagination is enough to fan the flames of violence, without allowing Hollywood into my home to make it more real for them and to lead them even further down the slippery path.

Technology offers our kids a lot but it also robs them of a lot.  Sure it offers them easy adventure, new worlds and excellent computer skills, but it robs them of their imagination, the real world, exercise and knowing how to relate to real people.   One thing’s for sure, my boys are way ahead of me in the technology race.   I’m one of the few people left who doesn’t possess an I-phone and I watch in awe as they tap away on their I-pods.   Even though we have blocks in place to protect them from watching inappropriate stuff, I still catch them at times watching some dodgy things.  It is so difficult to police what they are doing.

I write this as a parent who is struggling to know how rigid our boundaries need to be.   This generation is using technology like no other so we are indeed the guinea pigs of the parenting world.    We are yet to discover the long-term impact of growing up in a world of fantasy where social networking, texting, gaming and U-tubing dominate a child’s attention.    I wonder if what is at stake here is far more significant than many of us realise.  

After the ‘Black Ops’ discussion at dinner the other night, I went for a late night walk around the block, tears streaming down my face as I felt myself losing my sons to the clutches of these faceless computer game lords.   I also berated myself for being so emotional about it all, as I know many other mums who don’t seem concerned about these issues at all.   The next day I went down to my favourite bookshop at Cronulla and stumbled upon a book by Maggie Hamilton:  ‘What’s Happening to Our Boys’.    I’ve been reading it ever since and it is a thought-provoking, well researched and confronting account of the way technology and the media are impacting our boys.  Reading it has been fascinating and has confirmed in my mind that my tears the other night weren’t foolish, but were a true indicator of the gravity of the situation.

As with all aspects of parenting, we can talk to our kids and do our best to teach them the right way to live their lives but ultimately they will make their own decisions. But while they are young, vulnerable and under my care I will do all I can to protect them and keep our home as nurturing, loving and free of violence as possible.   I cannot condone behaviour which I find repulsive and I don’t care if it’s encased in a trendy game that everyone plays.  I’ve seen the damage violent men can do and I am regularly sickened by the stories of physical and emotional abuse suffered by women and kids in a local refuge where I do some voluntary work.    Violence may sell games and provide hours of entertainment, but it also destroys lives and creates the most unimaginable horrors.  So I will remain the old fuddy duddy, stand my ground and pray hard for two little guys growing up in a crazy world.

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