Taking Care of the Poor: The Most Ignored Command in the Bible?

By Tyler Huckabee

From cover to cover, a few consistent themes arise in the Bible. The idea of a creator God, the Messiah, and the afterlife are just a few of the Bible’s more frequently revisited topics. But any list of the Bible’s most commonly discussed subject must include this: the persistent, passionate, unwavering stance on the poor.

Whatever else the Bible may remain mysterious on — whatever its other intricacies and tensions — it could not be clearer on how to treat those in poverty. God loves the poor and commands us to give to them. It is as simple as that.

This is true of both Testaments.

“If there is a poor man among you, one of your brothers, in any of the towns of the land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand to your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks.” (Deut. 15:7-8)

“He who is gracious to a poor man lends to the LORD, and He will repay him for his good deed.” (Prov. 19:17)

“But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” (Luke 14:13-14)

“If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:17-18)

Here’s the thing. I doubt many people reading this are terribly surprised by this. Chances are, you’re well aware of what the Bible says about the poor. You know the Bible says we should be generous in how we treat them. Very few Christians would argue that God wants us to be stingy around poor people or suspicious of them.

So here’s the question: why don’t we obey?

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EXCUSES, EXCUSES

A study last year by the Kaiser Institute and the Washington Post found that 46 percent of Christians are likely to blame poor people for their own poverty, as compared to just 29 percent of non-Christians. The divide is even stronger when you single out white evangelicals, 53 percent of whom blame poverty on “a lack of effort.”

In contrast, atheists, agnostics and “unaffiliated” persons are more likely to say difficult circumstances are to blame for poverty by a margin of nearly two to one.

So what gives? Why are Christians, whose own Bible is stuffed to the binding with instructions to care for and be gracious to the poor, so much likelier to consider them lazy?

Helen Rhee, a historian who studies wealth and poverty in Christianity, told the Washington Post that she thinks it has something to do with Christian eschatology. That is, as premillennialism — the theology that holds that Jesus could return at any moment — became the dominant end times theory in American evangelicalism, Christians grew less concerned with making the world a better place. From this perspective, Rhee told the Post, “the world is already lost. Things are going to get worse and worse …You’ve got to just focus on what is important – that is, salvation of the soul.”

This has led to an attitude that implicitly ties poverty to morality. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, described this attitude to the Post this way: “There’s a rightful Christian impulse to consider poverty a moral issue …[but] I think conservative Christians often have a very inadequate understanding of the structural dimension of sin.”

In other words, sin is the cause of all poverty, but not all poverty is because of individual sin. There is also communal sin that results in widespread poverty: greed and corruption that leave innocent people poor.

You can see this in the Bible, where the authors – far from condemning the poor — repeatedly identify them as blessed, even Christlike. Beyond Jesus’ famous “Blessed are the poor,” there are verses like Proverbs 19:17, which says, “He who is gracious to a poor man lends to the LORD, and He will repay him for his good deed.”

And then Matthew 25, where Jesus says that “the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

In these verses and many more, it’s entirely clear that God Himself identifies with the poor. Far from holding them responsible for their current state, He Himself is manifested in them.

GRACE

“They did this to themselves.”

“If I give to them, how do I know they won’t abuse it?”

“I’m going to wait until a better time to give.”

These are the excuses we often use for not being generous with the poor, but the more you look at the Bible, the lamer they sound. What if God dispensed His grace with the same cautious frugality we use in giving our money? “She did this to herself. If I’m gracious to him, how do I know he won’t abuse it?”

No. In God, we have a perfect picture of what generosity looks like, and it’s one we ought to follow. Perhaps there is some wisdom in making sure we’re not using our money to enable unhealthy addictions, but at this point, many of us have poisoned our generous spirit with so much suspicion that we tend to assume anyone who’s poor is just going to misuse whatever money we give instead of being giving to them the way God told us to: as if we were giving to God Himself. Do we really want to spend our lives suspecting God of being someone who will misuse our money on drugs and alcohol?

The Bible is clear. The need is clear. The mission is clear. And it’s also clear that the excuses Christians have invented to protect themselves from financial generosity don’t stand up to the slightest bit of scrutiny. Commands about the poor may not be the most discussed subject in the Bible, but they could very well be the most ignored. It’s time to turn that around.

This article was originally published at: Relevant Magazine

Why Ash Wednesday Matters

By Caryn Rivadeneira

If you want a faith worth celebrating, it has to start here.

This year’s Ash Wednesday presents a bit of a problem—it’s also my son’s sixth birthday. So, somehow, we have to figure out a way to make the imposition of ashes after his birthday dinner a logical (and festive and fun, maybe even) tie-in. And somehow, we have to weasel a way to combine celebrating my son’s birth on a day designed to keep his eyes on his eventual death. Cheers to that!

But of course, even if Ash Wednesday weren’t my son’s birthday this year, it would still present a problem. It always does. If the doldrums of winter haven’t beaten you down by now, Ash Wednesday—with its laser focus on our morbidity and depravity—is bound to do it. For many of us, it doesn’t take a birthday to tempt us to skip right over this troubling first day of the troubling season of Lent and stick to the happier occasions. After all, Easter’s a-comin’ right?

But there’s a very good reason not to skip Ash Wednesday and all its gloom and trouble, tempting through it may be. Even on a birthday—especially on one, maybe. Because as wonderful and joyous as I want to make my son’s birthday and as much as I want him to know we are thrilled he was born into this world and how worth celebrating he is, I also want him to know that taking time to mark ourselves with a sign of our grief and our sin and our suffering isn’t that bad of a way to end a birthday. It’s actually a pretty good gift.

Not that he’ll catch or appreciate any of this. Not at six. In fact, for many of us much older, we still have a hard time drudging through this dark day or grasping why it’s significant at all.

But in time, it’ll sink in. We all grow to understand that, just as the wonders of life are worth blowing up balloons and eating cake for, so are the hardships of life worth noting. Especially if we want to live a life and a faith worth celebrating.

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Of course, this is what Ash Wednesday is all about. Of course, not every one of us will feel much like heading to church on Wednesday or being told that we are dust and to dust we shall return. And not many of us like to spend much time communally acknowledging our sin or our shame or our suffering or our sorrow. Even still, Ash Wednesday reminds us this acknowledgment is central to our faith.

This year, my church, along with many others, invites folks to mark the first day of Lent with a time of music, quiet prayer and the imposition of ashes at an Ash Wednesday service and offers the hope that “this time of worship will help us walk more closely with Jesus through the Lent and Easter season.” With this, we offer the reminder that “ashes are a symbol of our repentance, of our desire to turn back to God; ashes demonstrate our solidarity of with Jesus, and with his journey to the cross and through the grave; and the sign of the cross in ashes is Christ’s own signature on us, that we belong to him.”

Yes, ashes announce an understanding of our mortality and need for repentance, but at the same time, they proclaim our solidarity with Jesus. They declare our faith in a God who not only wipes us free from sin but who takes the offerings of our broken hearts and our fears and turns them into hope and promise.

All this captured in one smudge—one smear of the ashen cross on my forehead that serves as a symbol of a most poignant paradox of our faith: God brings life out of the sin and suffering. It signifies that He did this with every heavy step Jesus took toward the cross and that He does this with us, with every burdened and broken step we take in this life.

On Ash Wednesday and throughout Lent, we’re invited to a time to look at our missteps and our regrets, our longings and our losses, and offer them all to God, who not only accepts them but transforms them.

After all, in sending His Son to suffer with and for us, God declared that our despair and our hope, our sin and our salvation, our suffering and our celebration are intertwined. He declared it’s through one that we get to the other. It’s through confession that we find forgiveness and through lament that we find healing. And Ash Wednesday offers us opportunity to do both—publicly and communally.

And it’s through this—through the smear of the ashen cross on our foreheads—that we ultimately celebrate the most poignant paradox of our faith: God draws our very hope and life—the cross—right out of our very sin and suffering—the ashes.

In the end, it’s this day of grief that leads us into the biggest cause for celebration.

This original article was published on: Relevant Magazine

10 Things I’ve Learned From Difficult People

By Steve Dunmire

When I first went into ministry, I was warned that, as a pastor, I would have to deal with difficult people. But I was not prepared for how venomous they could be at times.

I have been on the receiving end of vindictive anonymous letters, berating phone calls and accusing rants. I’ve watched too many difficult people literally storm out of the churches I have served (not to mention their passive aggressive behavior, sarcastic remarks, cutting jokes and backhanded compliments).

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But I’ve also learned a lot from difficult people. Here are a few of the lessons they have taught me:

1. Difficult People Have the Nerve to Say What Everyone Else is Thinking.

Sometimes (not always) difficult people are the people who say to your face what others will only mutter under their breath. They are sometimes the only ones who have the nerve to say what everyone else is thinking. Difficult people can be the pastoral equivalent of when a physician orders blood work for a patient: an efficient way to find out what is going on in the church’s bloodstream.

2. Difficult People Help Me Develop Thick Skin.

Dealing with difficult people is one of the most effective ways to develop the thick skin a pastor needs in order to be fit for ministry. There may be no other substitute. Dealing with difficult people is to our souls what weight training is to our bodies, so I have learned to love difficult people because they make me stronger.

3. Difficult People Reveal My Insecurities.

Difficult people force us to face up to our insecurities and our need to be liked. They force us to choose the need to be firm on some issues over our need for acceptance. Their criticism strikes at the lie that the Enemy has planted in our hearts: “This is who you really are, and all the nice things people say is just them being polite.”

Difficult people and critics in our lives can be like carnival mirrors who criticize an exaggerated and distorted version of ourselves. We recognize immediately that the distorted image is not who we are—and this can provide for us the opportunity to look at our lives and see ourselves as we really are.

4. Difficult People Make Me Clarify What I’m Doing.

Just as one out of tune string on a guitar can force us to retune all six strings, one difficult person in a church can prompt us to clarify everything we do. They force us to make things clearer and more precise because of their complaints and sometimes in anticipation of their complaints. In this way, difficult people make our ministry better because they force us to be clear and precise about what we want to do, and how we are going to do it.

5. Difficult People Show Me I Am Doing Something Right.

There is a common strand running through every major turning point of ministry, every breakthrough, every visible success, every time I could point to measurable results, or even every time I received some level of recognition. The common element in each of those things is the pestering presence of difficult people who opposed me every step along the way. I love people difficult people because they are one of the most reliable indicators I have been able to find to tell me that I am doing something right.

6. Difficult People Create Supporters.

A pastor needs meaningful friendships in order to endure. And in my case, some of my most meaningful partnerships and friendships in the ministry have been forged in response to the difficult people in a church. At times I have seen people become much more vocal supporters of me as a pastor because they have seen a critic’s harsh attack. I am grateful to have several significant friendships that were forged in direct response to difficult people.

7. Difficult People Make Me a Better Boss and a Better Subordinate.

Difficult people have helped me to see how important it is to recognize good work, applaud hard work and express appreciation. They also help me to see that not every opinion needs to be expressed. On the whole, I would like to believe that I am less critical of those who serve above me because of my experiences with difficult people.

8. Difficult People Drive Me To Prayer.

I wish this was not true, but it is. And if difficult people drive me to my knees in prayer, then I know they are a great gift. A.W. Tozer writes, “Whoever defends himself will have himself for his defense, and he will have no other. But let him come defenseless before the Lord and he will have for his defender no less than God Himself.” Difficult people drive me nuts, so they drive me to my knees in prayer, and that is one of the reasons I have learned to love them.

9. Difficult People Are Not an Obstacle to Conquer.

I once heard someone give a sermon about Eliab, David’s older brother, who burned with anger against David when he was asking the men about Goliath (1 Samuel 17:28). The pastor pointed out how David had to choose in that moment to press on to defeat Goliath, or stop to fight his critics.

Critics are neither an indicator of success nor failure, so I have chosen in advance to battle giants, not critics. I have learned to love difficult people because loving them is an option. I do not want to be remembered as the man who triumphed over his critics; I want to be remembered as the man who triumphed over giants.

10. I Am Someone’s Difficult Person.

I know I have been a difficult person in someone’s life. Sometimes I appear difficult to another person because of a disagreement, sometimes it is just because of a personality conflict, and sometimes it comes with being a person in leadership. But I have learned to love difficult people because loving them is a way I can do unto others what I would have them to do me.

Learning from difficult people and learning to love them is still a work in progress, but I hope that someday I’ll be able to truly love difficult people as God loves difficult me.

This article was originally posted at SteveDunmire.com.  Read more at http://www.relevantmagazine.com/life/10-things-i%E2%80%99ve-learned-difficult-people#tUIcsOltP9IqbjMq.99

Why Multiculturalism Is a Must for the Church

By Ashlee Holmes

It’s time to get serious about diversity in the body of Christ.

There’s a fine, gray-ish line between things in life that are nice and things that are absolutely necessary.

Cable TV and Wi-Fi access? Nice, but not necessary. No-chip manicure with shellac polish? Nice, but not necessary. My iPhone 5? Nice—and embarrassingly crucial to my sanity—but ultimately, not necessary.

There are plenty of choices we make on a daily basis that can be categorized as either nice or necessary, but what about when it comes to more weighty topics—like multiculturalism in the church, for instance?

First off, let’s talk about what multiculturalism is and is not. The dictionary talks about multiculturalism as being “the preservation of different cultures or cultural identities within a unified society.”

I like that word: preservation. To preserve means to keep alive or in existence, to keep safe from harm or injury, to maintain, to retain. So to only tolerate and blindly accept people of many colors (or to be multicolored) isn’t enough. A person’s culture and experience must be kept safe and alive. It must be threaded so flawlessly into the human tapestry that others start to learn and eventually grow from the truth of someone else’s identity.

Multiculturalism means inviting someone to be fully oneself, unapologetically, and actively celebrating the difference. “Multicolored” leaves gaps and disconnection. “Multicultural” builds bridges and elicits celebration.

Interestingly enough, my first bout of wrestling with the value of multiculturalism didn’t start in the church. It started the day a little girl in my after-school program innocently asked me if I took showers because my skin was so dark, and it continued the day a girl on my club track team asked me why I talked so “white.”

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So my wrestling with this value didn’t start in a community context at all; it started with me. Why was it puzzling to others that I was so different? What was so threatening—if anything—about my dark skin and dialect? I didn’t have answers to those questions at that time, but I knew I felt singled out and uncomfortable.

I was uncomfortable being myself around my white friends, and I was uncomfortable being myself around my black friends. There was a huge, painfully daunting gap between me and people with whom I so desperately wanted to engage in friendship and community. I internally apologized for my uniqueness and decided to become whoever I needed to become in order to be accepted. The idea of fitting in, then, wasn’t just nice to me; it was necessary.

Anyone feeling out of place experiences some level of discomfort when they’re the “other.” What I realized later in life, however, was that discomfort was actually good for me. Not only was I forced to seek my true identity in Christ—an identity formed on much more than the color of my skin—but I also took inventory of the people I’d chosen to surround myself with, and the inventory was beautiful.

I realized my life was richer and more wonderfully complex because of others’ uniqueness and truth in which I’d chosen to engage. Over time, I resolved that sacrificing my comfort for the sake of that beautiful advantage wasn’t just nice; it was necessary to my walk with God and a deeper understanding of how His Kingdom worked.

I truly believe God feels the same way about His Church. A simple, yet profound display of this sentiment is found in the Gospel of Luke, when Simon of Cyrene was made to carry Jesus’ cross. Cyrene was a city in Libya, a country in Northern Africa. An African carried Jesus’ cross.

Not much is mentioned about Simon of Cyrene, but metaphorically, his being singled out and uncomfortable says something to me about the heart of God: that everyone—regardless of race or ethnicity—has a vital role to play in the Gospel story.

Though uncomfortable at times, the pursuit of multiculturalism in the Church isn’t just nice—it’s necessary. We ultimately develop richer, more wonderfully complex views of God and a deeper love and appreciation for one another when we choose to actively participate in one another’s stories that are different from our own, that originate from different places.

My hope for the Church is that congregations and communities become more challenged—more uncomfortable, even—in wrestling with the idea of welcoming not just color, but culture, and that expressions of worship, teaching, evangelism and discipleship would be influenced by multiculturalism so richly that Christ in all of His beauty may be known more fully by many.

 

Three Things Muslims Can Teach Christians About Prayer

By Sofya Shahab

Just because we believe differently doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay attention

I knew I would love Afghanistan before I even arrived. As a student of arts, it is easy to romanticize the Middle East, drawn to its exotic mysticism, history and culture.

My first nights in Kabul were spent sleeplessly listening to the helicopters passing overhead, wondering what was happening and where they were going. At 4 a.m., the city would receive its wakeup, every Mosque sounding out the call to prayer, rousing Afghans and expat alike.

In each country, the call to prayer is slightly different, and while Afghanistan is far from the worst, I certainly didn’t welcome the local Muezzin intruding on my sleep.

But it didn’t take long for my body to tune out the nightly chorus of Kabul, much as those living near railways learn to adjust to the noise of passing trains. Ten months later, I now appreciate the intrusion of prayer time throughout my day as I have realized how much there is to learn about my own faith from my Muslim colleagues.

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Christians and Muslims obviously have very different beliefs. As Christians, we need to be firm on that, and not compromise what we know to be true from the Bible. But there has to be a dedication to learning from our neighbor while holding true to our faith.

Think of Malala Yousafzai’s recent statements to Jon Stewart on the importance of turning the other cheek. Or of Eboo Patel’s tremendous work in the area of creating interfaith dialogue. These are Muslims who have lived out something that is beautifully true. And, as is often said, all truth is God’s truth.

In that interest, I’ve seen three things Christians can learn from Muslims about Prayer:

Discipline

A majority of the Christians I know will spend the first part of their day in morning devotions, rising perhaps 30 minutes before the rush to get ready begins in order to spend time with God. But I’m not sure I know many how would wake at dawn, no matter how early it falls, in order to pray.

To me, to get up with the sun each day demonstrates an uncontainable excitement for God. There are far too many mornings where it is all too easy to hit the snooze button and simply relegate God to later in the day.

Utilizing the call to prayer as a reminder to take time out and invest in a relationship with God teaches a discipline that can often be lacking. No matter where you are or what you are doing, you must stop in order to read, worship or reflect. It puts God at the center of your life and physically demonstrates that He is more important than any other concerns you may have as they come second to Him.

Reverence

Seeing the preparations for prayer that Muslims go through can change the way in which we approach God. Removing their shoes and washing their hands, face and feet; they are making themselves clean.

While the blood of Christ has already done that for us, it is a poignant reminder that our God is a Holy God who we should come before with reverence. He may be our Father who loves us, but that does not mean we should come before Him lightly.

One of the beautiful things about the cross is it has removed the barriers between us and God, so that we can raise our voice to Him, sharing our needs and joy whenever it strikes us. But maybe we should also picture who God truly is when we talk to Him. He is the God of Moses who said “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5) And the God of Revelation 4, who shines out from His throne like precious stones.

Community

Praying five times a day, whether at the Mosque, in the office or in the home creates a sense of unity amongst Muslims, whether they are literally together or spread throughout the world.

I was raised in an evangelical Baptist church, so it was not until I came to Afghanistan that I first experienced the liturgy. I was surprised by how much I enjoy it.

One friend who has recently been working her way through The Divine Hours explained how praying a prayer that you know someone else somewhere else will be taking up after you feeds into a community that represents the true body of Christ, regardless of denomination or location, creating “a cascade of praise before the throne of God,” as Phyllis Tickle says in her book The Divine Hours.

In some ways, it is easier to be a Christian in Afghanistan than it is in England. There is a value and worth placed on religion that is often dismissed within secular cultures. Although Christians and Muslims obviously disagree about a lot of aspects of who God is and how we relate to Him, there is much we can learn from each other.

 

This article was originally posted at: http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/worldview/3-things-muslims-can-teach-christians-about-prayer

Who are You, and Why are You Here?

By Dan Miller

What Will You Do With Your Blank Canvas?

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When I was 13 years old, I painted a horse head with a paint-by-numbers layout.  I thought it was pretty good, but now that I’ve seen some real masterpieces, I realize it was pretty amateurish.  The paint was clumpy where I tried to stay inside the identified lines.  It didn’t look real; it just looked like I did a good job of painting.

My wife, Joanne, on the other hand, has drawn some amazing pieces – always starting with a blank canvas and then allowing her imagination to direct her brush or pencil.

I realize now that life’s opportunities are presented to us in much the same way.  If we paint by the numbers (take the first job, buy a certain kind of car, take two weeks’ vacation every year), we will see predictable results.  You know what it’s going to be – and it might be good – but it will never be amazing to you or anyone else.

The only way to get a masterpiece is to start with a blank canvas.  Of course, a blank canvas means you could end up with a disaster you decide to throw away.  But the next one may be the masterpiece that makes the world remember you.

While you may think this is about willingness to take risks or that it’s a reflection of personality style, I think it’s more about dreaming, imagining, and taking action.  And this is not just a business or career question; it’s more a question of the kind of life you want to live.

Think of Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Bono, Oprah, Rick Warren, Howard Schultz or Billy Graham.  Their personality styles cover the entire range of possibilities, and we would not consider them risk-takers in the sense of being people who’d go bungee jumping or hang gliding.  All of them had big dreams, started with a blank canvas and then took action to create their unique masterpieces. 

Success is never an accident.  It typically starts as imagination, becomes a dream, stimulates a goal and grows into a plan of action – which then meets with opportunity.

You get to choose what you’re creating of your life.  What will it turn out to be?

This article was originally posted at: Relevant Magazine

8 Things I’ve learned About Overcoming Porn Addiction – Part 2 of 2

This is part two of the article published in the previous post.

  1. Accountability is More Than Just Once a Week

There are 24 hours in a day, 168 hours in a week and approximately 720 hours in a month. Do we really think that sitting across from someone for 1-2 hours out of 168 and 4-8 hours out of 720 should be called effective accountability? No, it shouldn’t.

Accountability frequently just turns into a checklist of how you have or have not messed up. Real community is more intentional, and more natural. Have a group of friends that you’re living life with—who are much more to you than just a sin prevention mechanism.

If pornography is a part of your life, you need to find a few people that can help fill up some of those hours with genuine friendship—the benefits will be far greater than just kicking your pornography habit. And If you aren’t addicted to porn, you need to be one of those people who is there for someone who is.

  1. Don’t Let Your Guard Down

I sat across from a friend who told me that he had looked at pornography after about 30 days of not looking at it. When I asked him why he did that, he said that he began to celebrate the victory and let his guard down.

I have more “roadblocks” today than ever before. I can say that I have no desire to look at pornography anymore, but I’m not going to test that knowledge by becoming lazy.

On a similar note, nothing good happens late at night. Staying up late when there is no reason to do so can lead to all kinds of garbage. Just go to bed.

  1. If You’re Free, Shout It From the Mountain Tops.

If you are free from pornography, listen to me: you need to tell people.

I had a guy sit across from me bawling his eyes out while telling me he had never met anyone other than me who was free from addiction to pornography. It broke my heart, not because I thought that was true, but because even the free are being quiet. You hold hope for so many. Help them.

  1. Freedom is Yours. Claim It.

In my reflections on this, I’ve thought many times about Jesus’ work on earth. He lived, died and rose from the dead. I am free from the law of sin and death because of that. I am free.

I discovered that I fought and kicked and clawed and begged for what I possessed all along: Freedom. You have every tool you need to overcome this when you have Jesus. You just have to walk that freedom out, and let others help you along that path.

This article was originally posted at: https://relevantmagazine.com