Caught in the act of atonement

fordgeMy thanks to Fr Aidan for sharing a wonderful article by Gerhard Forde (d. 2005) of Lutheran Seminary (St. Paul) with me this morning. The article, “Caught in the Act: Reflections on the Work of Christ” (World in World 3/1 1983), is a short but very helpful meditation on the Cross, certainly relevant to my reading through Rutledge’s The Crucifixion. I’m reluctant to confess it, but ten minutes of Forde was more refreshing, freeing, and enlightening than the whole mountain of atonement monographs I’ve been sifting through for weeks. Parts of Forde’s piece were so simply helpful and clarifying, I wanted to share some of it. For those of you familiar with Girard, you’ll see the compatibility.

After summarizing the ‘objective’ vs ‘subjective’ views of the atonement, along with the insights of the Christus Victor model, he recommends that we sidestep these theories and deal with the “brute facts” as we observe them “bottom up.” He writes:

If we are to get anywhere with these questions today, we shall have to begin by paying closer attention to the “brute facts” of the case, looking at the actual events as they have been mediated to us in the narrative itself to see what we can make of them. Perhaps this is to say, to use a distinction employed for the person of Christ, we should begin our consideration of the work of Christ “from below” (from our point of view) as much as possible before we proceed to discuss it “from above” (from “God’s point of view”) – realizing the problematic nature of such distinctions. The reason for insisting on such a beginning is not to invest theological capital in the distinctions as such, but simply to suggest that we have tended in the past to hurry by what actually happened here “below,” with us and to us, to get to the theory, the perspective “from above.” The theory has overrun the event. If we begin “from below” perhaps the impact of the work of Christ will emerge more naturally and directly from the narrative itself and we will find ourselves “caught in the act” in more ways than one: caught at it and at the same time caught by it. If we can begin in this fashion we might be better prepared, I think, to get some glimpses “from above,” some indications (a posteriori, of course!) of why God could not or at least would not do it any other way.

Why could not God just up and forgive? Let us start there. If we look at the narrative about Jesus, the actual events themselves, the “brute facts” as they have come down to us, the answer is quite simple. He did! Jesus came preaching repentance and forgiveness, declaring the bounty and mercy of his “Father.” The problem, however, is that we could not buy that. And so we killed him. And just so we are caught in the act. Every mouth is stopped once and for all. All the pious talk about our yearning and desire for reconciliation and forgiveness, etc., all our complaint against God is simply shut up. He came to forgive and we killed him for it; we would not have it. It is as simple as that…

Why was Jesus killed? It would seem from the actual narrative that we should be much more careful about saying that Jesus had to die because God, at the outset, was angry with us. There is indeed a sense in which we must say that Christ’s work is to “satisfy” the divine wrath. But it is surely a mistake to say, to begin with, that Jesus was killed because God’s honor or justice or wrath was the obstacle to reconciliation which had first to be “satisfied” before mercy could be shown. Surely the truth is that Jesus was killed because he forgave sins and claimed either explicitly or implicitly to do it in the name of God, his Father. When we skip over the actual event to deal first with the problem of the divine justice or wrath, we miss the point that we are the obstacles to reconciliation, not God. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Matt 23:37) We are caught in the act. We have first to come to grips with the fact that we did it. The victory motif also errs in this regard when it allows us more or less to drop out of the “drama” in favor of the demonic forces. Surely the view must be deepened to say (at the very least) that the demonic powers operate through us, their quite willing lackeys. As it was put in a Pogo comic strip, “We has met the enemy and they is us!” We did it…

But why did we kill him? It was, I expect we must say, a matter of “self-defense.” Jesus came not just to teach about the mercy and forgiveness of God but actually to do it, to have mercy and to forgive unconditionally. It is an act, not an idea. That is his “work.” That is the New Testament. He came to do “what he sees the Father doing” (John 5:19). Now we are, no doubt, quite open, generally, to the idea of mercy and forgiveness in God and his “heaven,” but actually doing it here for God is quite another matter—especially if it is the absolutely free and unconditional having mercy and forgiving of the sovereign God who ups and has mercy on whom he will have mercy! How can one actually do that here? How can this world survive, how can we survive if mercy and forgiveness are just given unconditionally? The idea is nice, but what shall we do with one who actually eats with traitors, whores, outcasts, and riff-raff of every sort and just blows away our protests by saying, “They that are whole need not a physician. But they that are sick”? Actually doing it, giving it unconditionally just seems to us terribly reckless and dangerous. It shatters the “order” by which we must run things here.

We should make no mistake about it. One who comes actually to have mercy and to forgive in God’s name is just an absolute and total threat to the way we have decided we must run things here. So either Jesus must go or we must. But how can we—mere dying beings—surrender all our plans and gains to him? So Jesus is “wasted” as an intruder. He is crucified between two other rebels against the order of the age, a thief and an insurrectionist. But Jesus is ultimately the most dangerous because his opposition is total; he gives unconditional forgiveness. He has the crazy conviction that such unconditional saving mercy is what God and his “Kingdom” are all about, and that it is the true destiny of human beings which will make them new and pure and whole and won’t ultimately hurt them at all. He seems to think that there actually is “a river, the streams whereof make glad the city of God”! In short, Jesus is most dangerous because he actually believes in God and his Kingdom, and because he himself realizes it, does it among us. To consent to that would mean (just as he said) for us to lose the life we have so carefully hoarded. So he must go. It is a matter of self-defense.

If we can approach the work of Christ in some such fashion “from below,” perhaps we can begin to see that it is a matter of being caught in the act—caught, in the first place, in the act of being ourselves, our “old” selves. God is not the obstacle to reconciliation, we are. Those who advocated the “subjective” view of the atonement were at least right in that, I expect. God is, indeed, sheer unconditional love. They were wrong, however, in thinking that we would in any way be open to one who actually came to do that among us. Consequently, the idea that Christ’s work is to effect a mere alteration in the “subject” by the example of his dedication is just another defense mechanism against the act, the doing of the divine love. It is translated into an idea or an ideal which serves ultimately just to reinforce the way we run things. The fact that we had to kill the Jesus who came to forgive exposes us for who we are. No mere subjective alteration will do for the likes of us. If we are to be saved by him, we must somehow be ready to receive what it is he comes to give. But that will take some dying. And that is the point. Not only are we caught in the act; we will have to be caught by the act.

But why then must Jesus die? Bearing in mind that this “must” is always a posteriori, not a priori, not an abstract, logical “must” determined beforehand but one which flows out of what the act itself accomplishes, perhaps we can say something about how it might look “from God’s point of view.” If what we have been saying about the murder of Jesus by us is at all the case, then God’s “problem” comes more immediately into view. God’s “problem” is not that he can’t be merciful until he has been satisfied but rather that he won’t be satisfied until he succeeds in actually having mercy on whom he will have mercy. God, that is, won’t be satisfied until he succeeds in actually giving the concrete, unconditional forgiving he intends. As we can see from Jesus, God’s problem is how actually to have mercy on a world which will not have it. The question for God is whether he can really succeed in getting through to a people which likes the idea of forgiveness but doesn’t want an actual forgiver, a world which turns everything God purposes to do into a theory with which to protect itself from him. God’s problem is just how actually to have mercy, how to get through to us.

If that is the case, then at least a couple of considerations follow. As long as God is not “satisfied,” we exist under his “wrath.” But he is not satisfied because we will not let him be who he wants to be: the one who actually forgives, does it unconditionally, has mercy on whom he will have mercy. His wrath is therefore his “jealousy,” the obverse side of his intention to have mercy, to be who he will be. We are under his wrath not because of something so abstract as his “honor” or his “justice” to which “payment” must be made, but because we will not let him be who he will be for us: unconditional love and mercy.

The second consideration is that if this is the problem, God can do nothing about it in the abstract. Here is at least the beginning of the answer, it would seem, to why God could not do it in any other way. He cannot have mercy on us in the abstract. As abstraction he is always a terror to us, hidden, wrathful. The idea that he has mercy on whom he will have mercy is, as idea, the most frightening thing of all. We may twist and turn to change the idea, but all we will come up with then is that he has mercy on those who fulfill the necessary requirements. We just go out of the frying pan into the fire. The problem is simply that as abstraction God is absent from us and we are inexorably “under wrath.” Even God can do nothing about that—except to come to us. If the problem is absence, the only solution is presence. The only solution to the terror of the idea of one who has mercy on whom he will have mercy is actually to come and have mercy. The act must actually be done. The only solution to the problem of the absolute, we might say, is actual absolution!…

Why does God abandon Jesus to be murdered by us? The answer, it would seem, must lie in that very unconditional love and mercy he intends to carry out in act. God, I would think we can assume, knows full well that he is a problem for us. He knows that unconditional love and mercy is “the end” of us, our conditional world. He knows that to have mercy on whom he will have mercy can only appear as frightening, as wrath, to such a world. He knows we would have to die to all we are before we could accept it. But he also knows that that is our only hope, our only salvation. So he refuses to be wrath for us. He refuses to be the wrath that is resident in all our conditionalism. He can indeed be that, and is that apart from the work of Christ. But he refuses ultimately to be that. Thus, precisely so as not to be the wrathful God we seem bent on having, he dies for us, “gets out of the way” for us. Unconditional love has no levers in a conditional world. He is obedient unto death, the last barrier, the last condition we cannot avoid, “that the scriptures might be fulfilled”—that God will have mercy on whom he will have mercy. As “God of wrath” he submits to death for us; he knows he must die for us. That is the only way he can be for us absolutely, unconditionally. But then, of course, there must be resurrection to defeat that death, lest our conditionalism have the last word. Or we can put it another way. Jesus came to forgive sin unconditionally for God. Our sin, our unbelief, consists precisely in the fact that we cannot and will not tolerate such forgiveness.

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26 comments on “Caught in the act of atonement

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Reblogged this on Eclectic Orthodoxy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Tom, you may be interested to know that Forde wrote the locus on atonement in Christian Dogmatics (vol. 2).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Tom, while atonement is not a point of emphasis in Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, I have found that his succinct statements on the cross are among the most powerful I have ever read. His primary motif is Christus Victor, however he blends this seamlessly with a protological satisfaction motif as well that is echoed in Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo. I wouldn’t say that Athanasius goes into the overcooked notion of penal substitution that is developed in the confessional Reformed tradition, but it is certainly there with a level of balance and nuance that is missing in many modern discussions. That said, I genuinely love Rutledge’s work.

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    • Tom says:

      Hi Jed. Totally agree re: Athanasius.

      Re: Rutledge, she’s awesome. What a writer. Straight from the heart. And all the “motifs” she takes up in Part 2 of her book are legit biblical motifs (substitution, blood sacrifice, recapitulation, passover/exodus, etc.). Those themes really are in the text and they’re what we have to work with. My (meaningless, I suppose) beef with her (meaningless ’cause I’m a nobody and she’s huge – just look at the endorsements!) is how she understands them, i.e., how she reads the texts that employ these motifs to describe the Cross. I like her emphasis on justice as rectification. There’s definitely “something wrong that needs to be set right.” I just disagree what what she believes is actually happening on the Cross for the Cross to set things right (i.e., her reading of 2Cor 5.21 and Gal 3.13 and, from there, the cry of dereliction and her view that Jesus actually suffers the Second Death, Rev. 21.8, that Jesus suffers the actual consequences of our sin, “exchanges God for godlessness,” etc.). I’m slowing working on the next post on her (and am quite intimidated I must say).

      Unless I’m desperately misreading her, her view is not what Gerhard Forde describes (though she references that paper of his, she goes on to basically argue something else).

      Liked by 2 people

      • I haven’t finished Rutledge’s work yet, but I track with you. I’m probably inclined to agree with her on the cry of dereliction – it is reminiscent of Barth’s view. But, I often find that she will set up a concept and fail to really drive the point home, seeming content to let the sources in her footnotes (which are great) do the talking for her. Some of that may be the fact that she isn’t writing a scholarly work and her primary audience might not demand precision to that degree. Her views are essentially Reformed, and while I am sympathetic there, I would like to see more synthesis with both Orthodoxy and some of the leading lights of 20th Century Catholic scholars. But, the multi-faceted approach is sorely needed in Protestant circles, and on the whole I love her work, in spite of what I perceive as flaws.

        Where I think my own perspective goes in a different direction is partly owing to the fact that my primary love is Old Testament theology, and while my Hebrew has deteriorated over the years, I do think that there is much that a fuller elaboration of the OT context strengthens the substitutionary/blood sacrifice motifs especially. There is no doubt that the kippur (atonement) word group means expiation or to wipe away – the substitution through the blood sacrifice is the instrument of that expiation. So when we get to the cross Jesus is offering himself, and in a sense holding the sins of the world in his outstretched arms so that the Father would wipe them away. Even when Paul speaks of Him becoming sin on our behalf, he clearly isn’t making an ontological statement, but in the rhetorical context that Jesus so identified with our sins (of his own free will as the Pauline kenosis motif elucidates) that he became united with them in such a way that he could bear them. The wrath of God fell upon sin, not his Son – Jesus wasn’t punished, he was bearing it so we wouldn’t have to.

        I think that if we take the canonical approach that is typical of Biblical Theology (as opposed to Systematic) the rhetorical thrust of Christ’s atoning work bears out the compelling truth that everything he is doing he is accomplishing of his own free will. His love for us and for the Father is bound up in the atonement. So also is the Harrowing of Hell (I’ll be dealing with this over at my site this week) is a free act on his part, so whatever he is bearing on the cross and proclaiming among the dead arises out of his free choice to obey the Father and bear the shameful cross for the joy set before him – namely the restoration of all things as he sums them up in himself. But I am content to leave the cry of dereliction and the parsing of what exactly he is bearing in any comprehensive way to mystery. Our response needn’t be comprehension, rather worship and awe and gratitude.

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  4. Truly awesome.
    Yes!! We must be prepared to accept God’s unconditional forgiveness.
    Stripping ourselves of the seperatedness we cling to by seeing ourselves and others, truly, through contemplation helps to reduce our transactional paradigm.
    Seperatedness and the feeling that we need to be self sufficient leads us to try to defend ourselves- to justify our bad actions and thoughts.
    This opens the door to tribalism and hate just as it slams the door on receiving forgiveness from God.

    But just to go back to objections mainstream Christians would have to what you shared above:
    They would say Jesus was murdered because he claimed to be God and the leaders didn’t expect God as a man so didn’t believe it and thought he was blasphemous. Also they sensed that he was stirring rebellion which could lead to Roman retribution (plus, of course power was being taken from them due to Jesus’ popularity.)
    All of this is to say that people may assert that these were the reasons, not our lack of ability to accept forgiveness.
    They further would say that though the leaders were responsible they were merely behaving consistent with the way that the original sin, present in us all, would predispose to.
    They would then argue that that sin (which is shared by all of us) in them, at that time, expressed as misunderstanding of God’s purposes, concern that unrest would be caused and the desire for prestige and influence, was what led to the crucifixion.
    All this sin had to be paid for (BECAUSE GOD IS A JUST AND HOLY GOD!) and no one apart from Jesus could pay that price and furthermore numerous parts of the Bible eg Isaiah 53:10 seem to (CLEARLY) support this thinking.
    I emphatically oppose this theology but I wonder how it can best be challenged?
    I’d value anyone’s thoughts.

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    • Ps Richard Rohr seems to be addressing some of this in today’s meditation.

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    • Tom says:

      It’s a slow, step-by-step process. The first and biggest obstacle is going to be whether someone is willing to view something as widespread and definitive of Israel’s faith as “blood sacrifice” as deeply unwanted and unintended by God in spite of being described in OT texts as instituted by God – because if God wants blood sacrifice and God institutes/asks for it, then it becomes truth-bearing in ways (we know from Christ that) it isn’t. I’m OK assigning the entire sacrificial economy to Israel’s simply getting God wrong and then doing what ancient religions all did – uploading their worldview and assumptions into their texts by attributing those views and practices to God.

      If one can’t say this about the entire economy of blood sacrifice in the OT, it’s gonna be impossible to dissociate that whole economy from God in fundamental ways that shape our understanding of what’s happening on the Cross; Jesus qua sacrifice will remain within that overarching economy of blood sacrifice and sacred violence as its grandest instantiation, not its judge. I’m guessing David Hart has already reconciled himself to this reading (the one I’m suggesting) of the OT since he says the cross of Christ should not be seen simply as ‘a’ sacrifice, but “as the convergence of two radically opposed orders of sacrifice.” That whole OT economy is radically opposed to the new and living way.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Matthew Hryniewicz says:

    “When we skip over the actual event to deal first with the problem of the divine justice or wrath, we miss the point that we are the obstacles to reconciliation, not God.”

    What a powerful and helpful reminder. That statement alone sheds light on where so much modern theology has gone wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Mike H says:

    Wow. This is really really good stuff.

    —“God’s “problem” is not that he can’t be merciful until he has been satisfied but rather that he won’t be satisfied until he succeeds in actually having mercy on whom he will have mercy. God, that is, won’t be satisfied until he succeeds in actually giving the concrete, unconditional forgiving he intends.”

    And he’s so right about liking the idea of this. The reality of it though, the substantive act of it, not as much. Truly from another place, another kingdom.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Bilbo Baggins says:

    I think there are two aspects to the Atonement: To cure us of the disease of sin and to free us from the devil. God can and does forgive us, but until we are cured of the disease of sin, we are still beings fit only for destruction. By having faith in and being baptized into Jesus, we are united with him in his death to the disease of sin and raised in him to newness of life.

    Second, it seems that the devil has a legal claim of some kind on us. It’s not completely clear what that claim is, but I think it originates in our listening to the devil instead of to God. Thus, we came under the devil’s domain. I think that by inspiring the rulers of this age to murder Jesus – put him to death illegally – the devil forfeited his legal claim on us. If all humanity had refused to murder Jesus, then the devil himself would have done so, and his claim on us would be null and void.

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    • Tom says:

      Bilbo! Thank you for taking time out of your journey to visit here!

      I agree that sin and death have to be engaged and defeated. I’m less sure about ‘rights’ or ‘claims’ the Devil may have. I do think our enslavement and despair are the ‘just’ consequences of our choices and that our freedom from that enslavement has to proceed in terms as just and objective as are the realities to which we’re enslaved.

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      • Bilbo Baggins says:

        But there is nothing just about the death of Jesus. So if his unjust death fulfills justice somehow, it must be because the one who justly claimed us can no longer do so, because of his own unjust act.

        By the way, I came up with this idea by meditating on Leviticus 16, which is about the Day of Atonement. There are two goats sacrificed, indicating two aspects to the Atonement. One is for the LORD, who cleans the Temple and the people by his innocent (righteous). The other is for Azazel, to whom the sins of the people are sent, which are the original property of Azazel.

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      • Tom says:

        Bilbo: There is nothing just about the death of Jesus. So if his unjust death fulfills justice somehow…

        Tom: The fulfillment of justice present in the Cross is the justice of love’s letting itself be crucified. In other words, it is just and good and beautiful that love would submit to the injustice of the Cross and forgive the guilty.

        There’s no other “just claim” out there that Jesus has to satisfy by actually entering into that spiritually derelict state of godforsakeness and estrangement from God that each of us justly experiences when we sin. WE already suffer that. The just wrath of God is always/already being served so long as we refuse God’s mercy. That’s Forde’s point. So while Jesus suffers “in consequence of” or “as a consequence of” our sin, that’s not to say he suffers “the consequences of” our sin.

        Bilbo: I came up with this idea by meditating on Leviticus 16, which is about the Day of Atonement. There are two goats sacrificed, indicating two aspects to the Atonement. One is for the LORD, who cleans the Temple and the people by his innocent (righteous). The other is for Azazel, to whom the sins of the people are sent, which are the original property of Azazel.

        Tom: Thank you Bilbo. Appreciate the thoughts. However, it’s precisely this whole OT sacrificial/scapegoating economy that I’m suggesting is the problem. That economy is an embodiment of the mythologies that enslave us, not a key to the solution. Look at my response to lewispwordpress a couple of comments up this section. I’m guessing you’ll disagree. That’s OK. But just so that you understand where we’re coming from.

        Blessings.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Bilbo Baggins says:

    Hi Tom,

    I think the problem is misunderstanding the meaning of the blood sacrifice. Leviticus 17:11 explains it:

    “For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.”

    The innocent life of the animal was in its blood. It was the blood that cleansed the Temple of sin. So it is the innocent life of the animal that cleansed the Temple.

    The life of Jesus is in his blood. By having faith in and being baptized into him, we are incorporated into his life. Thus, when he dies to the disease of sin, we die to the disease of sin. When he rises into new life, we rise into new life.

    What we call the “scapegoat” was sent by the high priest out into the wilderness to the demon Azazel. The sins of the people were being returned to their source – the evil one. Thus, he would no longer have any claim on the people.

    We live in a world where all the kingdoms have been delivered to the devil, and where he has the power of death over us. Why? As far as I can tell, it is because he has legal authority over us. Why? I think it’s because we gave him that authority when we listened to him, instead of to God. But now that he has illegally put Jesus to death, he no longer has a legal claim on us.

    So the problem isn’t the Old Testament sacrificial system. The problem is misunderstanding it. The problem isn’t that God can’t forgive us without a sacrifice. The problem is that we need to be cured of the disease of sin, and that we needed to be freed from the power of the devil. That is what the sacrificial system foreshadowed.

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    • Tom says:

      Thanks Bilbo. I’m appreciate the Christus Victor motif at work there, and while victory over “the powers” definitely shapes the NT discussion of the Cross, the explanation you’re offering for clarity’s sake remains the same economy of sacred violence. I appreciate the appeal it has. It’s a very powerful narrative that’s been around a long time. I just think it’s false.

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  9. Bilbo Baggins says:

    Okay, as long as you realize that the view you consider to be false belongs not only to the OT but to the NT as well, we understand each other.

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    • Tom says:

      Yes. That Israel’s sacrificial economy belongs to the Old and New Testaments is crucial, because the Bible is where the truth about that economy gets finally exposed and shown to be the false and failing thing it is.

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  10. Bilbo Baggins says:

    Hi Tom,

    I sense that you have a lot of hostility toward the Biblical view of the Atonement. I’m not sure why. I have a lot of hostility toward the penal substitution view of the Atonement, but I don’t think that view is Biblical. I find the idea of Jesus incorporating us into his life in order to rescue us from demonic powers and to cure us of sin to be a deep source of overwhelming good news. So I don’t understand your hostility.

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    • Tom says:

      No hostility here Bilbo. Quite the contrary, God’s atoning work in Christ is a reason for celebration. When you say “the idea of Jesus incorporating us into his life in order to rescue us from demonic powers and to cure us of sin to be a deep source of overwhelming good news,” I say Amen.

      Where we disagree, I think, is how to understand Israel’s sacrificial economy relative to God’s saving work in Christ on our behalf. You seem to see the Cross as an instance, the greatest and most perfect instance, of that OT sacrificial economy, a blood sacrifice that accomplishes what all the other blood sacrifices couldn’t accomplish. If that’s not how you see it, excellent. But in any case, I don’t locate Christ within that economy at all. His death is not one of a species of sacrifice within Israel’s sacrificial economy. Jesus doesn’t step into an OT economy of sacrifice of God’s making. Rather, God steps into an economy of sacrifice of our making and lets that whole economy exhaust its resources on him, and in so doing exposes and defeats it. So the OT sacrificial economy didn’t pass away because it found just the right sacrifice in Jesus and finally worked. It passed away because in sacrificing Jesus it finally failed.

      Hope that helps.

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  11. Bilbo Baggins says:

    Hi Tom,

    I’m not sure if we agree or disagree, nor whether it is important. I think that regardless of whether the sacrificial system of Israel (including the Passover sacrifice) was instituted by men or by God, it was imbued with the proper meaning by God. I do not think that God meant for animal sacrifices to actually clean people of sin. I do think He meant them as a foreshadowing of the sacrificial death of the Messiah. In that sense, they did not fail, but succeeded and offered the Jewish believers a way of understanding what Jesus accomplished. I think that it is significant that forty years later the Temple was destroyed, not just as a sign of punishment, but also as a declaration that animal sacrifices were no longer needed. The Real had come. The shadows had fulfilled their purpose.

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