Every Day Naturally I Praise the Lord

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I will extol You, my God, O King;
And I will bless Your name forever and ever.
Every day I will bless You,
And I will praise Your name forever and ever.

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Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised;
And His greatness is unsearchable.
One generation shall praise Your works to another,
And shall declare Your mighty acts.

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I will meditate on the glorious splendor of Your majesty,
And on Your wondrous works.

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All Your works shall praise You, O LORD,
And Your saints shall bless You.
They shall speak of the glory of Your kingdom,
And talk of Your power,
To make known to the sons of men His mighty acts,
And the glorious majesty of His kingdom.

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The eyes of all look expectantly to You,
And You give them their food in due season.
You open Your hand
And satisfy the desire of every living thing.

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(select verses from Psalm 145)

God as Lord of our Lives

We do speak, metaphorically, about feeling or being closer to God or further away from God.  The imagery does describe an awareness we may have at times, but cannot really describe our relationship to God since God is not limited to any one place in the entirety of existence, for God is everywhere present and fills all things.

The Creator always relates to all creation.

It is also true that we live and move and have our being in God.  As the Fathers often note there is no front and back to God, no closer or further away.  Such ways of referring to our relationship with God are purely human attempts to describe what we experience, but do not in any way describe our relationship to God who exists beyond space and time.  Language is the way we communicate our ideas and feelings, but language is sometimes inadequate to the text of describing reality, especially when it comes to portraying our relationship to God.   Fr. Meletios Webber notes:

“One of the paradoxes of human existence is that there is nowhere where God is not. Even though we naturally assume that He is more concerned with certain parts of our lives than with others, God is not nearly as restrictive as we are.” ( Steps of Transformation, p 147)

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall fall* on me,”
Even the night shall be light about me;
Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You,
But the night shines as the day;
The darkness and the light are both alike to You.

(Psalm 139:7-12)

God and the Christian

“In the fear of God, with faith and with love, draw near.”

There is no doubt that obedience to God is a virtue.  However, it is also true that the sense of obedience is highly nuanced in the Scriptural Tradition of the Church.  For it is God’s will that we might choose to love God and one another.  God gives us free will, and allows us to exercise that free will.  He does not compel us to love Him, rather inviting us to accept His love.  We have to cooperate with God for our salvation.  We are not merely cogs in the machinery God has created.  We are machine operators, cooperating with our Creator.

As Frederica Matthewes Green observes:

“God doesn’t use us as tools. His goal is not a tidy world, but healed and transformed people.” ( First Fruits of Prayer: A Forty Day Journey Through the Canon of St. Andrew, p xxi)

We are not mere tools which God uses and discards as His purposes are fulfilled.  Rather we are the goal and fruit of God’s love.  God created us to work with Him for our salvation and for the salvation of the world.  The Church is a living temple, not made with inanimate stones shaped by the Creator.  Christ didn’t leave in the world a bunch of literature for us to read, rather He called us to be disciples and to go into the world to do His will and work.

Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  (1 Peter 2:4-5)

Weeping in Babylon

By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!

Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, “Rase it, rase it! Down to its foundations!” O daughter of Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall he be who requites you with what you have done to us! Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!   (Psalm 137)

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Through much of Orthodox Christian history, believers have been taught to pray the Psalms.  Many have done so faithfully, and so frequently that some were noted for having memorized the Psalter.  Such love for the Psalms was even at one point seen as a good sign in choosing a bishop – a man who so frequently prayed the Psalms that he had them memorized was thought to be a holy man and worthy of consideration for the episcopacy.

But the Psalms have also perplexed Christians through the centuries. For while they can be read for personal spiritual guidance andinspiration, for praising God, for discovering the mind of Christ, and for finding Christ in the Old Testament, the Psalms also contain verses whose sentiments cannot be easily reconciled with Christian morality.  Psalm 137 above, a favorite of Christians for expressing lament and exile as we sojourn through this world, also contains verses of such vile violence that some will not read them.  Even knowing that the literal interpretation was not the most common reading among ancient church luminaries, doesn’t always make it easy for the modern reader to apprehend how to pray some of these verses.

St. Methodius, Bishop of Patara, was martyred in 312AD.  He sees in Psalm 137 praise of the celibate and virginal life.  With interpretations like his, it is easy to see why the monastics made Psalmody central to their meditative life.  Indeed, virginity  became the sign of godliness, holiness and purity for the monastic movement.

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So for those who struggle with some of the verses of Psalm 137 and are not reconciled to the idea that the Pslam wants to dash sins not babies’ heads against the rocks, consider what St. Methodius found in Psalm 137.  If you don’t like the violence advocated in the Psalm, can you see it as a praise of those who deny themselves in order to serve God?

But not to pass away from our subject, come, let us take in our hands and examine this psalm, which the pure and stainless souls sing to God, saying:

“By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down; yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof,

clearly giving the name of harps to their bodies which they hung upon the branches of chastity, fastening them to the wood that they might not be snatched away and dragged along again by the stream of incontinence. For Babylon, which is interpreted “disturbance “or” confusion,” signifies this life around which the water flows, while we sit in the midst of which the water flows round us, as long as we are in the world, the rivers of evil always beating upon us. Wherefore, also, we are always fearful, and we groan and cry with weeping to God, that our harps may not be snatched off by the waves of pleasure, and slip down from the tree of chastity. For everywhere the divine writings take the willow as the type of chastity, because, when its flower is steeped in water, if it be drunk, it extinguishes whatever kindles sensual desires and passions within us, until it entirely renders barren, and makes every inclination to the begetting of children without effect, as also Homer indicated, for this reason calling the willows destructive of fruit. And in Isaiah the righteous are said to “spring up as willows by the water courses.” Surely, then, the shoot of virginity is raised to a great and glorious height, when the righteous, and he to whom it is given to preserve it and to cultivate it, bedewing it with wisdom, is watered by the gentlest streams of Christ. For as it is the nature of this tree to bud and grow through water, so it is the nature of virginity to blossom and grow to maturity when enriched by words, so that one can hang his body upon it.

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If, then, the rivers of Babylon are the streams of voluptuousness, as wise men say, which confuse and disturb the soul, then the willows must be chastity, to which we may suspend and draw up the organs of lust which overbalance and weigh down the mind, so that they may not be borne down by the torrents of incontinence, and be drawn like worms to impurity and corruption. For God has bestowed upon us virginity as a most useful and a serviceable help towards incorruption, sending it as an ally to those who are contending for and longing after Zion, as the psalm shows, which is resplendent charity and the commandment respecting it, for Zion is interpreted “The commandment of the watchtower.” Now, let us here enumerate the points which follow. For why do the souls declare that they were asked by those who led them captive to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? Surely because the Gospel teaches a holy and secret song, which sinners and adulterers sing to the Evil One. For they insult the commandments, accomplishing the will of the spirits of evil, and cast holy things to dogs, and pearls before swine, in the same manner as those of whom the prophet says with indignation, “They read the law without; ” for the Jews were not to read the law going forth out of the gates of Jerusalem or out of their houses; and for this reason the prophet blames them strongly, and cries that they were liable to condemnation, because, while they were transgressing the commandments, and acting impiously towards God, they were pretentiously reading the law, as if, forsooth, they were piously observing its precepts; but they did not receive it in their souls, holding it firmly with faith, but rejected it, denying it by their works. And hence they sing the Lord’s song in a strange land, explaining the law by distorting and degrading it, expecting a sensual kingdom, and setting their hopes on this alien world, which the Word says will pass away, where those who carry them captive entice them with pleasures, lying in wait to deceive them.

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Now, those who sing the Gospel to senseless people seem to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land, of which Christ is not the husbandman; but those who have put on and shone in the most pure and bright, and unmingled and pious and becoming, ornament of virginity, and are found barren and unproductive of unsettled and grievous passions, do not sing the song in a strange land; because they are not borne thither by their hopes, nor do they stick fast in the lusts of their mortal bodies, nor do they take a low view of the meaning of the commandments, but well and nobly, with a lofty disposition, they have regard to the promises which are above, thirsting for heaven as a congenial abode, whence God, approving their dispositions, promises with an oath to give them choice honours, appointing and establishing them “above His chief joy; “for He says thus: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy; “meaning by Jerusalem, as I said, these very undefiled and incorrupt souls, which, having with self-denial drawn in the pure draught of virginity with unpolluted lips, are “espoused to one husband,” to be presented “as a chaste virgin to Christ” in heaven, “having gotten the victory, striving for undefiled rewards.”  Hence also the prophet Isaiah proclaims, saying, “Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.” Now these promises, it is evident to every one, will be fulfilled after the resurrection. For the Holy Spirit does not speak of that well-known town in Judea; but truly of that heavenly city, the blessed Jerusalem, which He declares to be the assembly of the souls which God plainly promises to place first, “above His chief joy,” in the new dispensation, settling those who are clothed in the most white robe of virginity in the pure dwelling of unapproachable light; because they had it not in mind to put off their wedding garment-that is, to relax their minds by wandering thoughts.

(The Sacred Writings of Saint Methodius, Kindle Location 808- 873)

Evangelism, Skepticism and Miracles

Plato & Aristotle
Plato & Aristotle

One way that the modern world differs from the ancients – the ancients often felt that a great teacher is to be believed simply by their reputation.  Moderns rely more on a scientific method of evaluation – test and verify.  It is not the reputation of the claimant that determines the validity of the truth, test the truth itself.  Thus ancients tended to accept Aristotle’s science largely based on his reputation and repeated his ideas for many centuries, apparently disregarding observation at times because the evidence didn’t agree with Aristotle’s thinking.

Similarly, we also see the Patristic authors accepting, for example, the wisdom of Solomon based on Solomon’s reputation in tradition and the scriptures.  Because he was viewed as the wisest of men based on the claims of Scripture, Solomon’s writings were given added weight, accepted as irrefutable truth.  If Solomon said something, it must be true, though we might have to discover in what way is it true.    St. Basil the Great writing in the 4th Century says:

“After all, when a teacher has a trustworthy reputation, it makes his lessons easier to accept and his students more attentive.”  (ON CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE AND PRACTICES, p 54)

EinsteinObviously, on one level St. Basil’s words are as true today as they were 1600 years ago: if a person has an established reputation we do take their words more seriously and give them added weight (think  Albert Einstein, for example).  But, today the reputation itself is built upon the person’s ideas being tested and proven true.  And for us, the test is based on a scientific method where a person’s ideas can actually be proven false and only if they survive rigorous testing are they held to be true.  Again one can think of Albert Einstein’s theories – despite his great reputation and a great track recorded of his ideas being upheld by scientific scrutiny, 100 years after his ideas were expressed, they are still being tested against the known evidence and not accepted until proven true, or at least as long as the evidence doesn’t prove them wrong.

St. Basil writes about the evidence that would convince him ideas are to be accepted.  So he says of the wisdom literature of Solomon:

“Now the very fact that a king wrote this book greatly contributes to the acceptance of its exhortations.  For if kingship is a legitimate authority, it is clear that the counsels given by a king – at least if he is truly worthy of this designation – have great legal force…” (ON CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE AND PRACTICES, p 55)

For St. Basil the fact that Solomon was a king adds weight to what he says – a king has a special authority and his words are more trustworthy than others because of the office he holds.  This sense that by virtue of one’s office, one’s words are more trustworthy is also an idea held more by ancients than modern people.   Today, there is a great amount of distrust of political authority, so much so that we have popular wisdom which says: “How can you tell if a politician is lying? . . .   If his mouth his moving.”

reaganJust think of the words of President Ronald Reagan:  “Trust but verify.”  That certainly is the more modern attitude.  We are much more skeptical of ideas, even if they come from kings because scientific thinking enshrines skepticism as wisdom.  Just because a king or even a saint says something doesn’t necessarily make it true – the ideas have to be tested against the evidence to be verified.  Great thinkers of the past may be well known, but their ideas are given regard only if they are proven to be true.  Aristotle is of great historic interest but he is no longer read or taught as offering real science.

This skepticism is part of what makes trusting religion so difficult for many modern people.  It is why modern believers if desiring to witness to the truth to non-believers must be so careful in what we say or do.  Every word and action of ours will be examined and efforts will be made to verify them.  If they can’t be verified that will lead to even more skepticism and disbelief.  We would be wise to remember the words of Christ: “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:36-37)

Thus it doesn’t help our cause in witnessing to the world to make dubious claims, or to point to miracles, real or imagined, as they won’t necessarily convince the skeptic.  At best they may cause them to seek verifying evidence, but more likely it will cause further skepticism and even distrust of Christians.  In an age of skepticism, witnessing to the truth comes to mean something different than it did for ancients who might more readily appeal to the reputation of saints and kings as proof of the claimed truths.  Probably our best witness is the lives we live,  not the miracles we claim.

If, therefore, the whole church assembles and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.  (1 Corinthians 14:20-25)

 

 

The Wages of Sin

            

For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life.

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.     (Romans 6:21-23)

St. Gregory Palamas comments:

“In the beginning, as you all know, the serpent which originated evil stung man through sin, made him mortal, threw him out of paradise and brought him into this fleeting, painful world. Now, unless we hasten though repentance to heal the wounds he has inflicted, he will dispatch us to everlasting punishment and hell-fire.” (St. Gregory Palamas: The Homilies, pp 259-260)

The end result of the sin of Adam and Eve was mortality, death.  St. Gregory certainly sees hell not as the result of sin, not even what awaits the sinner.  Rather, hell is something that awaits the unrepentant sinner.  It is something we can avoid through repentance.  Sin is not framed by St. Gregory as the breaking of some law which requires retributive justice to punish us.  Rather sin is a wound inflicted on us which needs to be healed.  The healing balm available to us comes through baptism and chrismation, given to us when we first begin our spiritual life.  Repentance and the spiritual life for Christians mean removing all the obstacles to our healing, and then Christ heals us and receives us into the eternal rest of His heavenly Kingdom.   In Orthodoxy, even holy unction, the sacrament of healing, is about the forgiveness of sins.

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.  (1 Peter 2:24)

The Faith of the Centurion

As he entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him,    beseeching him and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress.” And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion answered him, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard him, he marveled, and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.”  And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; be it done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment.  (Matthew 8:5-13)

In this Gospel lesson we encounter a man of faith, even though he is not a Jew, not of the chosen people, but one who is able to recognize the power of God at work in the life, ministry and work of Jesus Christ.

“A Roman officer whose servant was seriously ill asked Jesus to heal him. Jesus agreed to come to the sick man. But the officer said that He need not trouble Himself: ‘I am not worthy to have You come under my roof….But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I am a  man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes; and to another “Come”,  and he comes; and I say to my slave, “Do this”, and he does it.’ This pagan officer felt the power of God in the person of Jesus, and his words filled Jesus with admiration: ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ And the servant was healed in that same hour. The centurion’s confidence was such that he understood that Jesus’ power was that of the Creator Himself.  This, too, is what Simon Peter recognized when he answered Jesus’ question, ‘But whom  do you say that I am?’ by replying: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.’ (Matt. 16:15-16) ” (The Living God: A Catechism, pp 138-139)

 

How God Speaks to Us in Scripture

EphremSt. Ephrem of Syria offers us some insight regarding how Scriptures might be the Word of God.  The question is how can God who is invisible, incomprehensible, inconceivable and ineffable still be able to communicate with us creatures? Isn’t God so transcendent as to be beyond our capabilities for communicating with the Divine?  For Ephrem the answer is that “God speaks to humanity through the biblical text, allowing himself, as it were, to become incarnated into human language.”  As the Evangelist John tells, “The Word became flesh” (J0hn 1:14). The incarnation of God is the key – creation is capable of bearing God, thus God can become incarnate in ways which make divinity accessible to us.  The biblical text is one such way in which God chooses to reveal Himself to us.

“God, stirred by love for his creation, has himself crossed this gap and entered the created world, allowing himself to be described in human terms and in human language in the Bible. Thus, before becoming incarnate in the human body, he first became incarnate in human language, or, in Ephrem’s own homely metaphor or clothing, God put on names.’ or metaphors, in the Old Testament, just as subsequently he ‘put on a body’ at the incarnation. Of great importance for Ephrem in all this is the fact that God is not forcing himself on humanity; rather, he is deliberately encouraging the use of his gift to humanity of free will. …

Christ the Wisdom of God

The very fact that the biblical text moves from on metaphor for God to another should be a sufficient warning against any such misconception. Thus, instead of fixing one’s mind on the literal meaning of the metaphors, one should allow these metaphors to act as pointers upwards, as it were, towards the hiddenness of God, whose true nature cannot be described by, let alone contained in, human language.” (Sebastian Brock & George A. Kiraz, Ephrem the Syrian: Select Poems, pp 16-17) 

 

Signs of Faith

“Persistence in prayer and worship is one of the signs of effective faith. If faith represents the columns on which the temple of spiritual life stands, perseverance represents the stones by which the whole edifice is constructed.

But to assess the value of the spirit of persistence in prayer, we should first consider the spirit of despondency.  Despondency is the folly of pride and stiffness of neck. The desperate man follows his own stubborn counsel and chooses the torment of everlasting hell. He does not wish to yield to God or accept from his hand the sweetness and the bitterness of this life. By doing so, he refuses the crown of eternal life. The spirit of perseverance, on the other hand, is a sign of humility and surrender. The man who persists in prayer and worship does not think himself worthy of anything; his self is not dear to him. He persists in submission and obedience because he cannot cease from persistence and submission. On what else can he rely if his self is powerless and worthless in his eyes?

Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”’ [Jn 6.67, 68]. The spirit of persistence springs from an inward conviction that life is but one single way that leads to the kingdom of heaven. Persistence in walking along that way is then the only means of arrival, the only means of overcoming difficulties. Those who stop on the way, for whatever reason, have fallen into Satan’s snares: ‘Walk while you have the light, lest the darkness overtake you’ [Jn 12.35].

That is, so long as you walk the light attends you and leads you, but if you stop, darkness – that is, the enemy – will overtake you at once. Regression is a kind of miscarriage of the soul, a failure, and a fall into its deadly pride and its strange desire for perdition: ‘No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God’ [Lk. 9.62].

It is really amazing that for those traveling along the way of prayer and worship, rest lies only in doubling their pace and increasing their struggle!” (Matthew the Poor, Orthodox Prayer Life, p 164)

Lies, Lies, Lies

nprI found pretty fascinating a show from the NPR program “On the Media“:  “Lies, Lies, Lies“.  I’m recommending it if you have about 50 minutes to ponder the truth about lies, and lying about the truth.

Inspired by this year’s presidential presidential campaign, it covers recent American history related to lies and truth, politicians and the press.  Though we hate when politicians lie to us (or maybe, more truthfully we just hate when those we oppose lie, we are more tolerant when the candidates we favor lie), the fact is politicians often say things they think that people want to hear.  As Psychologist Maria Hartwig comments:  “People want the truth if it fits with what they want to hear.”  So politicians are tempted by us and what we want to hear.  We like the truth if we agree with it, otherwise we are willing to dispense with it; so too, politicians.  Additionally, as the program points out, truth can become fashionable, or go out of fashion – I found that segment of the show to be fascinating – how the political process treats truthfulness and truthiness.   Politicians are willing to use truth when it is convenient and ignore it when it isn’t, and to twist it when that serves their purpose.  Politicians also know they can be punished for telling the truth as people don’t always appreciate the candor when they want to hear what agrees with their own preconceived ideas.

Is truth self-evident? Or, does the self not rely on the evidence when it comes to the truth?

One referenced quote in the program, I had to look up because it seemed such a classic political twisting of phrases.  The master communicator President Ronald Reagan speaking from the Oval Office:

“Let’s start with the part that is the most controversial. A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not. As the Tower board reported, what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages. This runs counter to my own beliefs, to administration policy, and to the original strategy we had in mind. There are reasons why it happened, but no excuses. It was a mistake.”  (March 4, 1987)

reaganHis heart and best intentions told him it wasn’t true even though the facts and evidence told him it was true.   A classic case of “never let the facts get in the way of what you want to believe.”  or “Don’t believe everything you think.”   He so interestingly phrased it:  the facts and evidence aren’t giving him the truth, they are telling him what isn’t true.  Not a case that he couldn’t handle the truth, he handled it very well.   Douglas Adams described it well: “I don’t believe it. Prove it to me and I still won’t believe it.”

Reagan masterfully admits, “It was a mistake” which avoids any admission of intentional wrong behavior and also allows him to avoid having to admit he lied.

President Reagan was not the first president to handle truth, facts and evidence, as if it were modeling clay needing to be shaped by the artist.  This year’s presidential campaign shows he won’t be the last either.

“It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”  (Mark Twain)