The Other Mary

“Now after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week began to dawn, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb.”  Matthew 28:1

the other maryThe other Mary. In the many years I have celebrated Easter Sunday in a church service, hearing the Resurrection story told again, I don’t think I have ever thought about her – the other Mary. As this Scripture verse was read yesterday, she jolted my mind out of its lulled expectation of the familiar.

The other Mary? That’s it? That’s all the author could think to say about her? This Mary was up early, just like the other Mary, the Mary with a name – Mary Magdalene. This Mary was just as heartbroken, just as desperate to be at the tomb of her beloved Jesus. This Mary was also running to the tomb, spices in hand, to proceed with the burial traditions.

Another Gospel account of the resurrection gives indication that this Mary may have been the mother of James, an apostle of Jesus Christ. This Mary was also a witness to the crucifixion, a recipient of the angel’s announcement, and a herald of the resurrection news to the disciples. No doubt she was known and loved by Jesus as well as His many followers. It seems the author’s designation of this woman as the “other Mary” was simply a matter of clarification for the original readers who could have determined exactly who she was.

But for all of history, for every future re-telling of this glorious event, she would be known as the other Mary, the undesignated Mary. One of the many “Marys” people knew. I think there is a gentle reminder in this. Am I content to be the unknown one? Am I comfortable when attention is given to someone whose story is more interesting than mine? After all, everyone knew Mary Magdalene’s story.

The other Mary teaches me a lesson. There was only one important Person to Mary that morning – the Person she thought was still dead. The Person she came to express a grief-filled love to at a stone-covered tomb. The Person who came back to life after having died, the Person who gave her life everlasting after she died. This Person, Jesus Christ, has done the same for me – providing salvation from my sins and life eternal in Heaven through His death and resurrection.  And He should be the most important Person to me.

Jesus had a cousin, John, who knew what it was like to be the “other one”. And he summed up this lesson well when he said, “He (Jesus) must increase, but I must decrease.”  I pray this will be true in my life, that Jesus will always have the first place.

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A Christmas Blessing

christmas-bibleThis will be our first Christmas without our Mom Ashley among us, since her passing some seven months ago.This morning I pulled a small blue leather book from our bookshelf, a book that Mom loved dearly and read often – The Valley of Vision, a collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions.  Rather randomly I landed on a prayer called “Blessings”.  At my first read-through, the old English wording sent me to the dictionary for a vocabulary review. Upon a second reading, and then a third, my mind was captivated with the depth of meaning and expression found in the poem’s lyrics. Having now returned to the prayer several times, I am compelled to share it with you as this day comes to a close.

Author of all blessings I enjoy,
Of all I hope for,
Thou hast taught me
  that neither the experience of present evils,
  nor the remembrances of former sins,
  nor the remonstrances of friends,
  will or can affect a sinner’s heart,
  except thou vouchsafe to reveal thy grace
  and quicken the dead in sin
  by the effectual working of thy Spirit’s power.
Thou hast shown me
  that the sensible effusions of divine love
  in the soul are superior to and distinct from
  bodily health,
  and that oft-times spiritual comforts are
  at their highest when physical well-being is at its lowest.
Thou hast given me
  the ordinance of song as a means of grace;
  Fit me to bear my part in that music ever new,
  which elect angels and saints made perfect
  now sing before thy throne and before the Lamb.
I bless Thee for tempering every distress with joy;
  too much of the former might weigh me down,
  too much of the latter might puff me up;
 Thou art wise to give me a taste of both.

I love thee
for giving me clusters of grapes in the wilderness
and drops of heavenly wine
that set me longing to have my fill.
Apart from thee I quickly die,
bereft of thee I starve,
far from thee I thirst and droop;
But thou art all I need.
Let me continually grasp the promise,
“I will never leave thee nor forsake thee.”

mom-ashley-1Mom Ashley understood these truths in a very personal way. She knew the grace of God in her own life. She had learned that spiritual comforts are at their highest when physical well-being is at its lowest. She loved the gift of music, “the ordinance of song” and repeated beloved hymn lyrics often. She experienced the divine tempering of distress with joy. She had been the recipient of “clusters of grapes in the wilderness” and knew that God was all she needed. This Christmas, her longing for a taste of heaven has been satisfied, and she, with the “elect angels and saints made perfect”, now sings before the throne and before the Lamb. Our confidence in this eternal reality, made available through the work of the Son of God whose birth we celebrate, is indeed the greatest Christmas blessing.

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Threats and Promises

At this time of year, like no other, our culture rewards overload and rebukes margin.Whyelectronic-talking-battleship-picture only display one hundred lights on your house when you can display a thousand? We are quietly massaged into believing that exceeding our limits between Thanksgiving and Christmas is actually to be commended and that we will be better people for it – in everything from gift-giving to family schedules, from decorating our houses to consuming another holiday feast.

But behind this parade of must-haves is a subtle but fierce monster of threats and promises which often go unnoticed. How could Christmas be a season of threats when we are all singing “it’s the most wonderful time of the year” ?  Here is what a Christmas threat or promise may sound like:

“If I don’t go to my mother’s uncle’s holiday party, I will disappoint the family.”

“If I don’t give a gift of the same value as everyone else at the office party, I will be embarrassed.”

“If I get my child that toy, I will be able to make him/her happy.”

The challenging part is that the above threats/promises are not really about a toy, a party or a gift. No, they touch on much bigger issues – our security as parents, our standing in the family, our reputation at work. And here is the dangerous part: we slowly begin to believe that a certain toy will provide parental security, or attendance at the family gathering will secure approval, or an expensive gift will protect a reputation; therefore, we must accomplish these things even if it means going beyond financial, emotional, or physical limitations. Richard Swenson, in his book Restoring Margin to Overloaded Lives, states it this way:

“Chances are that if you are letting yourself be severely overloaded in some area, it is because you believe this overload offers you something you deeply long for, and you fear that cutting back in this area may cost you something you deeply value. The threats and promises work because they touch on your deep desires and fears.”

So while you are standing in line at midnight at Toys ‘R Us two days before Christmas (ah, yes — Christmas 1998), ask yourself why you are there. Yes, I know your sons want the “Electronic Talking Battleship” game more than anything else, but is that really why you are in line?  Perhaps yes – but perhaps you have believed a false promise that purchasing this gift will satisfy a deeper need you have – a need that will ultimately not be satisfied by a toy.

My friend, so many ways exist to meet our legitimate deeper needs without overloading ourselves with debt, lack of sleep, stress, and guilt. This Christmas season, choose to pursue what you value most, not the worldly “thing” that falsely represents your values.  Choose margin in your life. Choose space in your schedule. Choose time with people. Choose loving words. These are the priceless gifts of the holiday season. After all, isn’t that what Christmas is really all about, as Linus so aptly expresses?  A baby born two thousand years ago – Jesus, the Son of God – came to meet our greatest need, which is to be saved from our sins that we might know God.  And that is the best gift of all!

 

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Burning Rivers and Burning Phones

Social media is ablaze with reports and remarks about public mistakes.  Here in Cleveland, moscow-burning-riverwhere the Indians just swept the Boston Red Sox in a 3-game series, the finale was marred by the jibes of TBS reporters posing with a picture of a burning river in the background, implied to be that of the Cuyahoga River. However, TBS actually used 2015 footage of a burning river in Moscow which injured three people. Twitter lit up with condemning comments for TBS while other local media outlets  shared their displeasure over the incident.

I was six years old and living near Cleveland when the Cuyahoga River caught on fire. While I don’t recall the actual incident, I do remember hearing about it often. Did you know that 1969 was not the first time the river ignited?  It is believed to have caught fire thirteen times, with the most potent blaze occurring in 1952 and the most fatal blaze occurring in 1912, resulting in five deaths. The river fire of 1969 became most famous because of an article published in TIME magazine which actually included a picture of the much larger fire of 1952 as its cover photo, falsely representing the minor 1969 fire. In current news, TBS has stated regret for their misrepresentation, a mistake in judgment.

News reports also reveal that the Samsung Note 7, which has been catching fire for several weeks, is no longer in production. Serious mistakes in the product finally caught the attention of Samsung’s CEO and the appropriate decision has been made. But the fallout from this mistake will be felt for months to come. Peter Sadbolt, business reporter for BBC News, states in his October 13th article, “How Can a Company Repair a Damaged Reputation”, the following observation:  “It doesn’t just end with a plummeting share price, a quarterly profits warning and a product recall.  Instead, the shockwaves…are likely to be felt for years, and cause incalculable damage…At risk for Samsung is its brand integrity – intangibles such as customer loyalty, prestige and positive brand recognition.”   Mr. Sadbolt’s observations are right on target and lead us to some valuable lessons we can learn from both of these stories:

Lesson #1: One mistake can define us for life. This doesn’t seem fair.  We are human. We all make mistakes. Whatever happened to “forgive and forget”? Human nature seems be good at recalling failure and  bad at remembering success. In his article, Sadbolt lists several large corporations whose mistakes continue to define them. We do well to heed this lesson and make our choices wisely.

Lesson #2:  The response to the mistake will last as long as the memory of the mistake itself.  You made a mistake?  Then determine to do the right thing as soon as possible afterwards. Tim Ward, quoted in the same article, states, “If you have integrity running through your business, then that’s the place from which you should act.”  Responding out of integrity will go a long way in reducing the negative effects of the mistake itself.

Lesson #3: Know what the problem is. Define it. Understand it. If a wrong decision has been made, don’t be vague about it. In the case of Samsung’s product, their initial temporary solution only accentuated the perspective that they did not know what they were dealing with. Now the fallout will be much worse. If you make a mistake, own it and move forward to correct it.

Lesson #4:  Lead with confidence through the crisis.  In the article, Neil McLeod observes, “I have seen statements from Samsung, but I have not seen the face of Samsung in all of this.”  A business psychologist remarked that “those that have tried to hide these things in the past have paid a much higher price in terms of loss of consumer trust.”   When faced with a mistake, don’t hide. Be confident. Be available. Be responsible.

For most of us, our mistakes will not be made in the same public manner as a burning river or a burning phone. But the lessons to be learned are for all of us. Integrity matters.  Leadership matters. And it all starts with owning up to the mistakes we have made.

 

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Unexpected Brokenness

broken dishesThis morning I headed out the door to attend a bridal shower, a wrapped gift  in hand.  As I stepped out towards the sidewalk, the gift packaging in my hand broke loose and the gift went crashing onto the cement below.  I knew instantly that the gift, a ceramic casserole set, was destroyed.  Shattering sounds and slivers of brokenness confirmed this.  After a moment of deep disappointment, all I could do was scoop up the pieces, leave them in the house, and drive to the store to purchase another one on my way to the shower.

None of us plans our brokenness.  If we had our way, there would be no such thing as brokenness. Our journey in life would always be neat and tidy – not littered with the evidences of shattered lives and broken dreams.  But we do not get to choose when and how brokenness enters our lives. No one asks us when we would like to put cancer on our calendars or divorce in our daily routine. Sorrow unexpectedly knocks on our door and we are compelled to bid it enter, against our wishes.

So what do we do with this unexpected brokenness?  Get angry?  Kick and scream?  The ceramic shards I scooped up this morning were accompanied by frustration and a few tears. I didn’t need that today. But my anger did nothing to fix the brokenness.  No amount of anger, no amount of grasping for control, will make the brokenness go away.  Instead,  we need to accept the plan and trust the divine Hand that brings the brokenness into our lives. We must trust a sovereign God who has our ultimate good in mind, even when it doesn’t look like it.

I memorized a poem as a young teen girl that came to mind today for the first time in several years.  I share it here for those of you who are picking up the pieces of brokenness in your lives, perhaps even today.

As children bring their broken toys
With tears for us to mend,
I brought my broken dreams to God
Because He was my friend.

But then instead of leaving Him
In peace to work alone,
I hung around and tried to help
With ways that were my own.

At last I snatched them back and cried,
“How could you be so slow”
“My child,” He said, “What could I do?
You never did let go.”
– Author Unknown

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The Last Gift

western reserve military cemeteryThe late April snow had not arrived yet. It was a scenic drive as we wound our way through the countryside to the military cemetery where we would honor our mother one last time before entrusting her earthly body to the ground in this lovely place of honor. A spring sun graced the setting with beauty as the breeze caressed the floral spray adorning Mom’s casket. It was time to say goodbye.

A person who no longer dwells in their human frame is in need of nothing. No food. No sleep. No protection. No human kindness. How much of the daily work of our lives is for the care of the human body and our needs? What would I do every day if I didn’t need to cook, wash clothes, sleep, exercise, earn money to put a roof over my head,  or seek out a friend for some conversation? Perhaps this is what makes the finality of death so difficult. We live with our needs and the meeting of our needs every waking moment. And then suddenly, it stops.

We can’t imagine the ending we call death. In an even deeper way, we can’t imagine the second beginning we call eternity. It is more mind-boggling than the thought of death. How can life never end? How can I believe there is  something  so amazing I wouldn’t want it to end? I mean, life can be wonderful at times, but even exciting things get boring after a while. The truth is, I can’t grasp eternity. It makes my head hurt and my heart race just a bit. No more time? No more waiting? No more need?

Because of the ravaging effects of pain, aging, and the loss of both appetite and strength, Mom had not smiled for several weeks. Not a real smile. Oh, she gave a weak tweak of her lips for a second or two if we mentioned a funny memory, but if you weren’t watching closely, you missed it. At the evening twilight on Easter Sunday my husband and I held Mom’s  hand and spoke quietly to her as her breaths became distinctly shallow. Just as we began to wonder if she would breathe one more time, Mom’s face lit up with the brightest and most distinct smile we had seen in months. And in that instant, time met eternity and Mom walked into her new beginning. I like to think she ran, like a little girl who hasn’t seen her daddy in a long time, running for a hug. And with that, she left us. But she also gave us her last gift – the gift of a smile. A smile of promise that eternity is to be anticipated with joy for those who believe in Jesus, because being with Him is the one great joy we can experience forever. Thank you, Mom, for such an amazing last gift.

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The Last Journey: A Good Friday Meditation

I am watching my mother-in-law slowly leaving us. Yesterday as I sat by her bedside, she Mom and Dad - compressed piclay quietly, breathing, eyes closed yet occasionally flickering as if she might stir. Her body is very weak. Always a thin woman, her slight features seem more pronounced as weight loss takes its toll. Her fine grey hair forms a tousled crown against the pillow behind her head.  It is quiet in her room, the only noise being the steady hum of the hospital bed fan  blowing a continuous stream of air into the mattress for ease in adjusting her frail body. Comfort care is our only remaining option.

It’s funny how the mind jumps from the present, to the future, to the past -and back again- while sitting by the side of  a dying loved one. My thoughts wandered to my past with her. The days when Mom was the loving grandma reading books to my young sons, the mother-in-law who had this new bride and groom over for Sunday dinners nearly every week, and the diligent keeper of family celebrations and memories.  She made sure her family ate healthy, read the Bible, and had intelligent conversation at the dinner table. If Pepsi or too many French fries appeared at a meal, she would exclaim, “Horrors upon us!”, which really meant she wouldn’t try to prevent consumption of the offending product but she wanted to be sure we knew what she thought of it.

In the present, life has been a severe struggle for this gentle woman. The slow process of losing strength and ability to manage life is not for the faint of heart. She does not appear today as the person we have known and loved, yet we know somewhere inside is the same loving heart and keen mind that made her so special to us.

And the future?  While it seems we are down to weeks- or maybe days- left with Mom, her future is bright. She has been saying for a long time now that she wants to be with Jesus. I was in the emergency room with Mom this past August when a bladder infection took a terrible toll on her. A nurse sat me down and explained that Mom had “failure to thrive”. I informed her that two days ago Mom had been eating soup and talking to people – she certainly did not have failure to thrive. When asked how she came to this conclusion, the nurse replied, “Mildred keeps saying she wants to be with Jesus.”  I tried to keep from snickering as I explained to the nurse, “Oh no, that’s not failure to thrive. She knows exactly what she is saying- and she means it. She really would rather be with Jesus. But she is still here, and for now we are going to take care of this infection so she can get home and back to eating soup and talking to people.” And Mom did.

But this time, Mom is taking her last journey. This time Mom will get her wish granted. Her future is bright because she knows the One who is going to take her hand and lead her safely through the valley of the shadow of death into the glorious presence of Jesus. Once inside Heavens gates, she will hear the words of her Savior, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” The faint smile that is now a passing shadow will become a brilliant exclamation of joy as she finally makes it Home.

Why can we be at peace as Mom slips away from us?  Because on this Good Friday we remember another Person who took His last journey two thousand years ago, a journey  to a cross of crucifixion where He gave His life for the ransom of mankind from our sins. Because Jesus died, was buried, and rose again the third day, we can receive forgiveness of our sins by grace through faith in His redemptive act. Jesus’ last journey to the cross opened the way for our journey into eternity with Him. Mom believes this with all her heart.  I do as well.  And I hope, on this Good Friday, you do too.

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The Fine Art of Fanning

fireplaceFor high school teens, this time of year brings its own special stress, in particular, the process of scheduling next year’s classes, or the next few years of classes, or even choosing a college and career path for after graduation. The menu of options can be overwhelming. Honors classes or  Advanced Placement classes? College Plus credits, Post-Secondary Credits or the Career Center? What college? What’s my Major in college? The choices are endless, like cereal in the grocery store aisle.

To make matters worse, there seems to be a marked increase in the pressure from advisers to have students select a career path sooner than ever before. College is expensive, no doubt. So why not pick a career path in 10th grade and save a bunch of money on credits before college? The logic behind this shift seems obvious and does have its benefits. But as a high school teacher and parent of a teenager, I believe we need to return to some balance in this area.

Presenting educational options to our young people is terrific, but how we present these options can unintentionally become negative. Yes, these are important decisions. No, these are not “do-or-die” decisions. Yes, finding a career path and pursuing it with excellence is great. No, you do not have to know, at 16 years of age, if you want to be a doctor for the rest of your life. It really is OK to just decide your next step.  This is a narrative rarely heard anymore.

Most mornings in the winter, I start a fire in our wood-burning fireplace. One thing I have learned about starting a fire — you have to be gentle with it and give it time to grow.  It doesn’t work to stuff the firebox full of kindling and large wood, hoping to get a raging fire going in ten minutes. I start off small, letting some thin wood catch fire, then I add medium pieces of wood and let it heat up some more. Finally, after the coals are red-hot in the base of the firebox, I add a log or two. All during this process, I control the airflow into the firebox by adjusting the glass doors to allow some oxygen to fuel the fire without blowing it out. This results in a well-established fire that will continue to heat our home all day.

The Apostle Paul uses a similar picture when he instructs Timothy to “fan into flame the gift of God which is in you…” (II Tim. 1:6).  To fan means “to blow or to breathe upon, to stir up to activity” (www.merrium-webster.com).  This is not describing hurricane-force winds, a blow torch, or a dousing of gasoline to get that fire raging hot fast. Rather, this describes a gentle, controlled stirring that encourages more activity, more heat, more purposeful action. This brings long-lasting results, both when building a fire and when building a soul, a person – especially a young person with an entire future waiting for them.

Teacher, guidance counselor, parents – and I include myself:  Could we do a little more fanning and a little less dousing? Could we put away the blow torch and instead gently stir up their interests, gifts and heart desires?  Maybe if we give them a little more time to discover the fire in their hearts, that fire won’t die so quickly and they will have a lifetime to learn and grow instead of burning out at an early adult age. Let’s practice the fine art of fanning – I think the results will be pretty amazing!

 

 

 

 

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Thanksgiving 2015: It’s a Mad, Mad World

It's a Mad Mad WorldWhen Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle and Ethel Merman took to the screen in 1963 in the comedy action film, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”,  the audience left the theater laughing and the movie producers went home with an Oscar along with several other nominations. The story was a win-win for everyone.

A movie produced today with a similar title would, I speculate, have an entirely different plot, depicting instead the current tragic story line that seems to be engulfing our globe. Rather than being a tale of laughter and adventure, our story is one of angry rhetoric, retaliation, and retreat, leading to a lose-lose for everyone. We live in a mad, mad world.

In this world, anger flows freely from one government to another, one religious system to another, one ethnicity to another, one person to another, in an endless spewing stream of violence, hate speech, crime and alienation. Every recipient of this anger feels compelled to respond with retaliation so as not to become a victim or be viewed as weak. Those caught in the cross-fire of this ongoing barrage of verbal and violent attacks find themselves forced to retreat into the shadows for the sake of safety. And as if this isn’t enough, the abuse taking place on social media, where people can respond to others in ways that are entirely unacceptable in ‘real life’, exacerbates the situation. Truly, we live in a mad, mad world.

So why am I writing about this on the eve of our national holiday, Thanksgiving? Why point out disparaging news you already know? To be honest, I have not written anything for the past three months, largely due to my discouragement with the world we live in. I did not want to be part of the social media sinkhole that is sucking us all down into its pit. I am weary of reading the rants and I refuse to ridicule. I haven’t wanted to be counted among the myriad number of invisible people who have something to say on the Internet.  So I retreated.

So why focus on Thanksgiving? Why write now? Because I have seen hope. I have heard hope. I have heard hope in the voices of young people I rub shoulders with, young people who are growing up in this mad, mad world, having known nothing else. I have seen hope in the actions of young people who are choosing to put themselves out there, who are committed to making a difference in whatever way they can, large or small. Young people who are speaking up for what is truly good, for what is right, for what can bring change.

On this Thanksgiving Eve, I am thankful for a new generation of young people who are rising up with with courage and determination. A new generation of young people who, in spite of terrible odds, are choosing to walk into their future with hope. I pray I can be an inspiration for them, as they have been for me.  Happy Thanksgiving!

 

 

 

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The Jekyll-and-Hyde Inside

Jekyll and HydeThe disturbing news of another moral failure by Josh Duggar brings a response of mixed emotions. On the one hand, his continued immorality and hypocrisy now brought to light create a reaction of disgust. On the other hand, moral failure tied to blatant hypocrisy is so common these days, no one should be surprised. As I have mulled these issues over today,  my mind has been drawn to the classic tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as told by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Dr. Jekyll, a scientist who is convinced of the presence of both good and evil within himself, creates a potion he believes will feed the good person and diminish the evil person inside.  However, the evil person, a certain Mr. Hyde, gains more power, committing acts of brutality and murder that shock even the strongest persons. Over time, in spite of many attempts to control the evil Mr. Hyde, and with no secret potion remaining, Jekyll realizes  his own demise will soon come at the hands of his own Mr. Hyde. In spite of Jekyll’s belief in the power of his own goodness, it is the evil inside him which ultimately wins.

Mr. Stevenson’s analysis of human nature is exceptionally accurate. Yet somehow we have bought into a way of thinking that contradicts this. We believe that if a person is surrounded by good people,  given a good education, consumes good food and makes good life choices, the good will win. We also buy into the reverse viewpoint: if a person is surrounded by bad people, receives a bad education, and makes bad life choices, the bad will win. In other words, we accept the faulty notion that we become good or evil based on what surrounds us rather than what is within us.

Josh Duggar provides a vivid example of  the exact opposite. Mr. Duggar, it would seem, has had all of the good he could possibly have in this life and was protected from all of the bad in this life. So we are doubly shocked at his moral failure, as if there is no logical reasoning for it, no explanation. As if, somehow, we would “understand” his failure if he had come from a broken home or had been exposed to evil behaviors throughout his life. But this is not the lesson of Jekyll and Hyde.  If we listen well to the words of Mr. Stevenson, we will come to understand that the evil exists within us, not outside us. And thus Mr. Duggar’s behavior, while reprehensible for sure, should not be especially surprising.

It is not popular today to state that human beings are inherently evil, that we are all born with a sin nature which, left unchecked, can turn us all into a Mr. Hyde.  Sadly, Josh Duggar has provided us with another living illustration of this truth. What is the lesson to be learned?  Someone has already stated it well: “There, but for the grace of God, go I. ”   My so-called good environment, friends, choices, or lifestyle will not protect me from the evil I am capable of doing. I must always be on guard, never feeding the Mr. Hyde inside, but relying on the power and grace of God to save me from my sinful self.  This is my prayer, especially today.

 

 

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