History begins with an explosion of Divine creativity. Eden is birthed and man lives in communion with God, in harmony with creation, and in the gift of God’s shalom. And yet, even in this glorious state, God declares one thing is not good. What is this one thing? God declares, “It is not good for man to be alone.”
God declares isolation is not good. God’s intent for creation, and more specifically, God’s intent for people, is not independence and aloneness. Rather, it is to experience life-giving connectedness with God and with the imago Dei. Inter-dependence is one of God’s sacred gifts.
Behavioral research reinforces our awareness of the negative impact of isolation, characterized by high levels of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, insomnia, and stress. Both biblical revelation, as well as clinical research, reinforces our understandings of isolation’s dark effects.
Professional counselors have a bird’s eye view of COVID19’s isolating effects on individuals and families. Over the last 8 months, the isolation associated with COVID19 has created a significant surge in persons seeking help as “shelter in place” orders were issued in the spring, lay-offs and furloughs were implemented late in the summer as PPP funds were depleted, and struggles with addictions and mental health among the masses intensified. For those active in Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, Narcotics Anonymous, and many other twelve-step programs, being with other people is essential to experience recovery. In 12-step communities, COVID’s isolating effects have been devastating for individuals and families. Missy and I couldn’t help but notice how busy the liquor store became at the entrance to Costco at the outbreak of the pandemic. This would be confirmed in due time, along with its tragic effects, through well-written articles.
Christian Pastors have a dual-lens in this era of history; one that observes the negative effects of a pandemic on mental health, as well as one that beholds the negative effect COVID has had on the purposes of the Church and the spiritual health of her people (When you see the word, “church” try to think “people” and not an institution).
Think and reflect prayerfully on the following, with the realization of God’s intent for the good of His people wed with His glory:
The New Testament blazes with the white-hot admonition for Christians not to neglect our regular rhythms of coming together:
“And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do;” Hebrews 10:25 (NLT)
The New Testament burns with intensity regarding the importance of what we practice in our coming together:
We are to “spur one another on to good works,” “love one another,” “bear one another’s burdens,” “forgive one another,” “forebear with one another.” In fact, the “one-anothers” are used 100 times in 94 verses in the
New Testament to instruct us in how we are to be intentional in caring for one another and “building each other up” as we come together.
The New Testament boils with passionate language in how we are to channel our devotion:
“They devoted themselves to . . . fellowship.” Acts 2:42 (NLT)
In the Greek text, the word translated devoted (proskartereo) means “hold fast to something, continue or persevere in something.” In other words, we are to hold fast and persevere in being intentional about being with one another. (You can watch and listen to teaching on this topic HERE).
John Wesley, when speaking of one of the purposes of the church regarding Christians growing in sanctification, affirmed the following conviction, “There is no holiness but social holiness.” Wesley’s context for this statement is not related to social justice as some have falsely claimed. Rather, he is referring to Christians needing to experience social connectedness with other Christians to develop in Christ-likeness. This matter was so convictional for Wesley he developed the methods of Methodism through the gathering of societies, bands, and class meetings. To be a Methodist Christian was to be disciplined in regular discipleship rhythms taking place through deep connections with other believers.
As we live in a pandemic, we will continue to see upticks in COVID cases in the Winter months to come. And even after the COVID19 vaccine is distributed, we will still be living with COVID in our midst for a while. There is no perfect, completely safe time to come back together for social connectedness in worship and discipleship in the near future. And in light of occasional surges of COVID, I honor the difficult decisions our Council on Servant Ministries has had to make over these many months. When we do return, which I hope will be sooner than later, we will continue to wear masks and social distance. And if you are elderly or immuno-compromised, one needs to be mindful of making choices that are best for you as it relates to being in crowds.
United Methodist theologian, Dr. Kevin Watson, appealed to the church back in August to not let fear govern decisions regarding gathering for in-person worship. Watson’s urging was based on encouraging the church not to forsake the purposes for which she was created, which is all the more important in the lives of people living in the context of a pandemic. He stated,
“Study Gnosticism, why it is a heresy, and why the body is an essential part of the Christian life and part of what needs to be saved. Corporate worship with bodies present matters. There are going to be seasons in the midst of a pandemic when it is impossible to responsibly gather corporately in the flesh. But we must not pretend that what we do in the midst of those times is as good as the physically gathered body. It just isn’t.”
As we navigate through a unique time, it is essential that we do not fall into default thinking that believes I can both give myself to God and not give myself to His Body. We are designed for both. The vertical is the priority, and the horizontal is the result. For some of you reading this, you were not active with the body of Christ before the pandemic. This is a good time to ask yourself what God would want to teach you. Perhaps corporate worship and discipleship with others is something you did not see or appreciate before; but COVID, and the isolation it has created, serves to awaken your spiritual senses. Being in-person with your church family is not a matter of personal preference; it is a matter of God’s design.
This is a good hour in history to ask ourselves: Are these matters convictional or optional for me as a Christian? Is my participation in the gathering of the body of Christ to magnify God through worship, and participating in discipleship gatherings merely a part of routines I had grown accustomed to before COVID, or are they seen as essential purposes for my life?
A.W. Tozer, in his classic work, “Man, The Dwelling Place of God,” writes,
“The important thing about man is not where he goes when he is compelled to go, but where he goes when he is free to go where he will. The apostles went to jail, and that is not too revealing because they went there against their will; but when they got out of jail and could go where they would they immediately went to the praying company. From this we learn a great deal about them. The choices of life, not the compulsions, reveal character.
A man is absent from church on Sunday morning. Where is he? If he is in a hospital having his appendix removed his absence tells us nothing about him except he is ill; but if he is out on the golf course, that tells us a lot. To go to the hospital is compulsory; to go to the golf course, voluntary. The man is free to choose and he chooses to play instead of to pray. His choice reveals what kind of man he is. Choices always do.”
For many of God’s people, there is a longing to press into the purposes for which we were created; not because gathering with other believers is familiar or it’s our normal routine, but because gathering with other believers is the kind of people we are. For many, gathering with fellow believers for worship and discipleship is not optional, it’s convictional.
To gather with other believers to glorify God, treasure Jesus Christ, love others, and make disciples of all peoples, is to step into the very purposes for which we were created. It is also a sign of faithfulness to the vows most of us made before a Holy God when we committed to being in membership with a local body of believers through our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.
The late Tom Wood, one of the saints of Christ Church, used to say, “The one thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history.” The following is certain, we will come out of this pandemic at some point. We have had multiple pandemics in history. We have come out of all of them.
What is uncertain is this; will you come out of this pandemic the same? Will you come out of this pandemic with a fresh resolve for Christ? Will you come out of this pandemic with a fresh commitment to worship and discipleship in person, present with His body, and expressing mission together to a dying world? Will you waste your wilderness, or will you allow God to do a new work in you for His glory?
If you can answer rightly in God’s eyes, Eden awaits you.
Paul Lawler is the Lead-Pastor of Christ Church UMC. He and his wife, MJ, have four children and one daughter-in-law. In addition to serving as a pastor, Paul and his brother, Dallas area businessman Patrick Lawler, founded two Patricia B. Hammonds Homes of Hope for orphans at high risk for human trafficking in Thailand. The homes are operated through the international ministry of the Compassionate Hope Foundation. Paul also serves on the boards of The Wellhouse, The Compassionate Hope Foundation, and the East Lake Initiative. He often tweets Kingdom thoughts at @plawler111.
Really? Is that the wisdom of the day? To minimize the desires of the heart so that the sting of disappointment is bearable! I had hoped that this Covid stuff would have been over by now, but I’m told to not get my hopes up. I was hoping that we would be having Sunday morning worship together by now, but I guess I had my hopes too high. I had even hoped that my Texas Longhorns were going to be able to play their rematch with the LSU Tigers, but once again, I am reminded that I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I am tired of hearing about hopelessness. In fact, I am sick of it! One of my favorite Scriptures on hope comes from Proverbs 13:12 “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” Imagine that, having hope but waiting for a future day to be fulfilled by it. I can understand the world falling into a rut like that, but for those of us who have faith in the Almighty, we don’t have an excuse. For God’s word in Hebrews tells us that “faith is the confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see (11:1).” So just because I can’t see hope, doesn’t mean it is not there.
In chapter 5 of the book of Romans, Paul tells us that “hope does not disappoint us,” so why wait, come on, go ahead and get your hopes up! Dallas Willard tells us that “hope is the confident anticipation of good.” What a great attitude to have to start your day. You have probably heard it said that there are only two ways to wake up in the morning, “good morning Lord,” or “oh Lord, it’s morning!” Likewise, you can choose to hope and anticipate good, or default to fear which is “the anticipation of evil.” So, I don’t know about you, but I want to get my hopes up!
You know, even if we think our hopes have been dashed, the good Lord might have a different plan for us. Even when we think hope is gone it just might be that we can’t see it yet. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus on that day of resurrection show us that the greatest of hopes can sometimes be veiled! You see Luke tells us in his 24th chapter that the two on the road talking to an unrecognizable Jesus confessed “we had hoped that he (Jesus) would be the one who was going to set Israel free!” Little did they know at the time that hope was looking at them square in the eyes.
So, I acknowledge to you that I have listened to the world proclaim, “don’t get your hopes up,” one time too many. I choose not to defer hope. How, you might ask? By meditating on God’s word, that’s how. You see, the two on the road to Emmaus, received hope and initially didn’t even know it. “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he (Jesus) explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself (Luke 24:27).” That revelation gave them the hope that they thought they had lost. In Jesus Christ there is always hope!
So even though we continue to have Covid in our lives today, we still have hope. And even though we are not gathering Sunday mornings yet, we have hope for the day we will. And you know, it’s not a big deal Texas and LSU won’t be playing their game together, Texas would have won anyway!
Grace and Peace,
Almighty God, on this day through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, you revealed the way of eternal life to every race and nation. Pour out this gift anew, that by the preaching of the Gospel, your salvation may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.
– Book of Common Prayer
Spring Break and the Spirit
During one spring break in college, I was a part of a smaller team made up of students from our college ministry, scouting our missionary opportunities in Belize. I spent an entire day in the back of a truck with one of my buddies named Ryan. We were driven from village to village across the country by a man we had met for the first time early that morning. Soon, we pulled up to an orphanage at sundown to join the rest of our group, who had been playing with the children for most of the day.
I was supposed to give a sermon that night after dinner during worship. Before the trip, I had prepared what I might talk about, what Scripture I could use, what stories I could tell, etc. But after spending a few days in Belize, and an entire day in the back of a truck and helping with various physical tasks, I realized that nothing I had prepared would have mattered.
When we got out of the truck, Ryan and I made a beeline to this small concrete plot with a basketball goal and joined some of the kids from the orphanage for a game of two on two. It was during this game where I realized that what I had prepared to talk about wasn’t going to work.
We were called into their bigger room, and I was asked to find a spot toward the front of the room. Sweating and still catching my breath from the game, my mind started to race as I thought about what I would say when I got up to speak. I couldn’t think of anything, so I prayed. I asked that God would still use me and give me words.
So I stood up, looked at all of the children – ranging from babies to a couple of guys who had just turned 18 and were soon going to be leaving home – and I smiled. The only words I could say were, “Jesus loves you.” I remember asking, “Do you know that? Do you know that Jesus loves you?” And as those words came out of my mouth, every child broke out in song – “Jesus loves me this I know…”
And as I smiled even bigger, tears started rolling down my face. I have never been so moved by the Spirit in my entire life.
We are told that when the day of Pentecost came, Jesus’ disciples were together and sitting in a house. Now, we are told that among them were the original 11 disciples, a new guy named Matthias (who had just been added to the 11), some certain women, Jesus’ mom, and Jesus’ brothers. We know they are back in Jerusalem, and they are sitting in a house, and I would guess that they are a bit on edge. Jesus, now risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, has informed them that they are to receive the Holy Spirit and be his witnesses in Jerusalem (where they are), Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Then, as they were watching Jesus ascend, some angels asked them what they were doing and told them to get on with it – to get back to Jerusalem because Jesus has given them something to do.
But now, they are sitting in a house in Jerusalem – waiting.
I am sure they were praying. They were probably discussing all of this over and coming up with the best plan as to how they might actually carry out this whole “witnessing” thing that Jesus has given them to do.
And then, it got really loud…think wind tunnel, the rush of air thundering in your ear so loud that you can’t think kind of loud. And then, tongues of fire. Yes, you read that right. Tongues of fire appear above the disciples’ heads, glowing as they descend upon each of them and rest there. The disciples are then filled with the Holy Spirit, giving them the ability to speak the languages of all who are present in Jerusalem – those who have come to celebrate the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost).
Of course, you are probably familiar with what happens next. Crowds gather together. People are amazed but shocked. The disciples are accused of being drunk at 9 am. And Peter delivers an incredible sermon. Then, 3,000 people come to faith and are baptized. The church of Jesus Christ is birthed.
For the followers of Jesus today, Pentecost provides the opportunity to become aware of the gift of the Spirit and the birth of the church. Because God’s Spirit came to us, we as Christ’s body have been brought to life and given the power to know God’s will and do it.
Here is the thing though…
This world presents plenty of challenges. To be completely transparent, most of the time, I feel like the disciples might have felt when Jesus was ascending to heaven before their eyes. I would surely have been thinking, “Oh no, what now?” Surely they began to feel hopeless or worried, even with Jesus’ final words still ringing in their ears. At least one of them must have asked, “How am I supposed to do that? If they killed Jesus, what will they do with me?”
Think about your life. If you are like me, there have been moments of doubt, despair, or helplessness – especially when we see racism lead to the death of men who need not have been murdered, or while we live in the midst of a global pandemic. Confusion and weariness are natural feelings that come during such times.
It can lead to a deep loss of hope. It can lead us into a place of complacency.
Enter Pentecost. God’s Spirit rushes in and shakes us out of our complacency and renews our hopes. Though things may be dire and life may present incredible challenges, the good news we learn from Pentecost is that Jesus was not lying when he said he would “be with us always until the end of the age.” The Spirit of God enables us to live out and live for justice, peace, mercy, and love. We are given new life, the church is born, and we celebrate the power of life in the Spirit.
This is the life we are called to – a life in the Spirit where we live in relationship with God, with our selves, with our neighbors, and with the world around us. A life seeking God’s Kingdom and His will to be done.
Little Children and the Spirit
I felt a little bit like the disciples might have felt when Jesus ascended as we pulled up to the orphanage that evening in Belize. I had prepared and knew that I had been given an opportunity to share about Jesus. Before leaving Chattanooga, I had thought through some ideas for a great sermon. But then I got to the children’s home, played with them, laughed with them, and got to know them. I started to think, “Oh no. What now?”
And then, at the mention of Jesus and his love for us, the Spirit rushed in. Instead of a wind tunnel and the sound of air so loud and intense that one could not hear themselves think, the Spirit moved through little children. Sweet, innocent, and beautiful children. As the Spirit moved, I stopped talking and got out of the way. As the Spirit moved, all I needed to do was watch and receive. And that is the heart of Pentecost, isn’t it?
Let the Spirit move. Watch. Receive.
May we have eyes to see this Pentecost. May we have ears to hear. May we have hearts open to receive what the Spirit may be trying to do in us.
[author] [author_info]Michael is the grateful husband to Sara. They are the lucky parents of their son, Grady. Michael has earned a B.A. in Religious Studies from UT-Chattanooga, and a Master of Divinity with an emphasis in Church Planting from Asbury Theological Seminary. Michael enjoys spending time with Sara, running, good coffee, reading, and playing with their son. Being from Memphis, he is an avid Memphis Grizzlies fan.[/author_info] [/author]
It seems awkward to think about what Sunday morning hospitality at Christ Church will be like after we finally get through all this Covid-19 stuff. So much of my Sunday morning ministry is displayed by a heart felt “good morning” (usually 2-3 feet away from the recipient), a firm welcoming handshake, and a smile. But recently, I have heard from at least one of our country’s top disease specialist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, that we “may never shake hands again.” How can that be I ask myself?
For centuries the handshake and others forms of touching have been the foundation of cultural and professional hospitality between individuals. According to Manners & Customs of Bible Times (Gower, 2000 p.189), the traditional greeting “involved the laying on of hands on each other’s shoulders then a pulling together and the giving of a kiss, first on the right cheek and then on the left.” Samuel kissed Saul when he anointed him (1 Samuel 10:1), Simon the Pharisee failed to greet Jesus in such a way when he came as a guest to his home (Luke 7:45), and Paul wrote “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (Romans 16:16).
Years ago, I remember leading First Methodist Opelika Alabama’s Prison Ministry away from simply putting items (candy, books, paper and pens) on a table for the inmates to grab and take as they please. Instead I encouraged volunteers to hold the items in their hands and then give them to the inmates who desire them (and to do so with a smile looking them in the eyes). I called it the giving of God’s Grace, and it became a form of greeting that was transformative to many of those inmates. They didn’t just take something, they received something!
So, what will the good people of Christ Church be able to do when we are finally invited back together? How will we greet, and fellowship, and worship together? Unfortunately, I do not have an answer for you at this time. But I believe God has an answer. I have faith that God will show us how to lovingly greet one another, how to have a cup of coffee and joyful fellowship with each other, and how we will stand together and praise His Holy Name. I believe that so strongly that I am willing To Shake On it!
Grace and Peace,
First Impressions Minister
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She doesn’t have words for this
But does she need them
When the whole world trembles with the same fear
Grieves the same loss of the illusion of control
Grabs at the same threads of hope
Watches the same sun move across the same sky
Waiting for the resurrection
I am writing this the day before Easter Sunday. How strange that my feelings of sadness about our current world mixed with doubt, fear, anxiety must have also mirrored that of Jesus’ followers. And yet, I know there is hope tomorrow. There is joy and song and new life. There is a hallelujah that is bubbling up from my throat that I almost can’t contain.
I read the above poem on Instagram this week and it just hit home for me.
I don’t have words for what we are all going through. Do I even need them?
We are all trembling together. We are all staying home keeping our babies safe, happy, and entertained.
We are grieving the control and routine we used to have. The leisurely walks through Target are a thing of the past. The carpool lines, play dates, library trips and playground visits are nonexistent.
We are grabbing at threads of hope or toilet paper. Maybe it’s the hour when our husband (whose job is essential) walks through the door or clocks out at his home office, maybe when the mail arrives with our stimulus check, or even the baby’s nap. Yet none of those things offer the everlasting hope and always leave us wanting more.
Watching the same sun move across the same sky, Waiting for the resurrection. Waiting for the quarantine to be lifted? No, something better is offered. The weight of sin has been lifted. He has risen (Mark 16:6). We know that our Redeemer lives (Job 19:25). Even in our hard, long days of isolation, we are not alone. We are not dead in our sin; we are alive with Christ (Col 2:13).
Mommas, I don’t know if we will get to meet this summer for Mom Time. Nothing is guaranteed. Was it ever? What I do know is that you are not alone. And in these heavy days, cling closer to the cross. Lean into his words in scripture. Abide in him. I know I have good days and bad days as this time marches on but the more I rely on him, the more precious this time with my family is becoming. Remind me of that again at bath time!
CC Women’s Ministry Team
Don’t Miss Christmas
By Michael Bowman
So, pause. Do not miss it.
The Birth, According to…
But who were these “wise men?”
We Three… Dudes?
These “wise men” or “magi” as most scholars agree are better referred to as astrologers. They were not kings, and there is no evidence that there were only three of them (don’t believe the Christmas carol.)
It can’t be more clear: they all missed it.
The Free Gift of Christmas
Michael Bowman is the Student Minister at Christ Church UMC. He is the grateful husband of Sara and dad to Grady. Michael earned his B.A. in Religious Studies from UT-Chattanooga, where he met Sara. He also holds a Master of Divinity with an emphasis in Church Planting from Asbury Theological Seminary. Michael enjoys spending time with Sara, running, good coffee, reading, playing basketball, and playing with their two dogs, Gus and Lily. As a good Memphis native, Michael is an avid Memphis Grizzlies fan.
Follow him on Twitter: @bichaelmowman
By Michael Bowman
is the beginning of the Church year. It is our starting point.
Advent begins a six-month period of time where the Church focuses on and relives the story of Jesus.
Advent is a quiet season that invites every one of us to slow down. It is a season for fasting, for paying attention, for contemplation, and for preparation. It is a place in our American cultural calendars which comes just after Thanksgiving ends, and the world around us begins its frantic decorating, whirlwind of present-purchasing, and calendar-filling amounts of party-going. In the midst of all this, Advent offers us the opportunity to slow down and wait. But wait for what?
Each Advent we step back into the story of Jesus. We are reminded that the Savior of the world has come and He is coming again – by the way, Advent literally means “coming” or “arrival.” At Advent we wait with anticipation, with expectation, and we prepare for the coming of Jesus.
We remember that the Savior of the world came as a baby to a family that was not perfect, to a family like yours and mine that had its own scars and wounds that needed healing; families that, as my good friend Tom Fuerst once wrote, “only God could love.” (Fuerst, Underdogs and Outsiders)
Advent reminds us that our Savior loves being in the middle of all human activity, whether it be good or bad, clean or dirty, put together or falling apart, seeking redemption in each and every aspect of human life.
ADVENT IS A PARADOX
Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “I think the Church is the only thing that can make our terrible world endurable and the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the Body of Christ and on that we feed.” Advent is meant to remind us that this is true, and it is a bit paradoxical. We make up this Body of Christ, yet we also make up this world. We are meant to be lights in a dark world, but often may only make things dimmer. And Advent is a season full of paradoxes.
John H. Westerhoff III has noted the paradoxes at play in Advent: “longing anticipation and patient watching; transforming the way we envision life and yet living prepared; waiting for what never seems to come and continuing in hopeful trust; desiring to give up control and opening ourselves to few possibilities for life.”
Even further, it offers a contradictory way of being in the midst of possibly our most chaotic and distracting season of life: the holidays.
As the world continues in its race of consuming more and doing more, with no end in sight, Advent invites us to try a different way. The holiday season brings with it an ever present reality of chaos and distraction. It brings with it bad memories, and reveals the hurts or wounds within our families or relationships. It throws in our faces false hopes and false joys with propositions of, “If you buy this you’ll be happy… if you get her this she will love you… if you spend time with those you love this holiday season then all the bad things in life will disappear…”
Advent reminds us of something more. Advent is a season where doing really isn’t allowed. We are not meant to “do.” During Advent, we are meant to “wait.” We wait and long for the coming of the One who will make all things new, who will wipe away every tear, who offers us real life (and life abundantly), who cares about our hopes and dreams, who truly sees us, truly knows us, and truly loves us simply for who we are. We can’t buy that like a present to fit perfectly under our will-trimmed tree. We can only wait.
Think about the paradox of Advent as good news. Jesus, the Savior of the world has come, and He is coming again.
Let me invite you, this Advent season, to slow down. Don’t give in to the chaos or the distractions. Find moments of silence throughout your day (for those of you like me, this sounds terrifying, so I get it.) Seek out moments of solitude where you can really reflect on what is going on within and around you.
I invite you this Advent season to be present – with yourself, with your surroundings, and with others. Pay attention. Pray. Meditate. Be vigilant and actively watch for Jesus. Listen to others around you really well. Be slow to speak. Slow down enough to get in touch with yourself again, with your hopes and dreams, your longings and desires. Take notice of these things.
Let us take this time to clean out the chaotic and disorderly parts of our endlessly busy lives and prepare for the coming of our Lord. Decorate. Be hospitable. Prepare for a party! Make way for coming of the Lord. The former things are passing a way, and all things are being made new.
Michael Bowman is the Student Minister at Christ Church UMC. He is the grateful husband to Sara and dad to Grady. Michael earned his B.A. in Religious Studies from UT-Chattanooga, where he met Sara. He also holds a Master of Divinity with an emphasis in Church Planting from Asbury Theological Seminary. Michael enjoys spending time with Sara, running, good coffee, reading, playing basketball, and playing with their two dogs, Gus and Lily. As a good Memphis native, Michael is an avid Memphis Grizzlies fan.
Follow him on Twitter: @bichaelmowman