Review: Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age

Ecologies

Ecologies of Faith in a Digital AgeStephen D. Lowe and Mary E. Lowe. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: Proposes an ecological model of faith formation and the possibility of creating this kind of spiritual ecology in online educational settings.

It was in a college biology course that I was first introduced to the reality of ecosystems. My biology prof wisely told us to select a patch of nature and to take time to observe all that was going on–from the soil and the creatures that lived in it to the vegetation, shrubs, trees, to insects, animals, and birds. I never thought before of how these were not disparate elements but interdependent on each other to flourish.

Stephen and Mary Lowe propose in this book an ecological model of growth for human beings consisting of six elements: physical, intellectual, emotional, social, moral, and spiritual ecologies. The first part of the book develops this ecological motif in scripture, particularly in the parables and Paul’s image of the body of Christ. The authors argue that this is possible not only in shared physical communities but that spiritual ecological communities may form online as well and contribute substantively to each other’s growth.

They especially engage the criticism that online community is a weakened form of mediated presence. They note that the doctrine of the communion of saints and the bonds of the Holy Spirit are not limited by distance and share examples from thoughtful online discussions eliciting more than what people would say in a classroom to compassionate support when difficult circumstances are shared with a group on Facebook. Online connections serve as a form of social capital, as do in-person connections, and sometimes these intersect. Instead of creating autonomous, isolated learners, online technologies foster connected, collaborate learning and growth. The Lowes also note how this is not new to our day. The Apostle Paul uses the mediated communication of letters, read by emissaries as a way to be absent in body but present in spirit to churches in different locations. They also note the power of reciprocal influence in social networks, especially as the diversity of those networks increase (diverse natural ecosystems tend to be far more robust).

The final part of the book focuses more on the nature of connectedness, looking at our connetions with Christ (syn Christo), with each other (synkoinonos) and the “one anothering” that runs through the New Testament. They propose the idea of ecological or contagious sanctification with examples of leaven and root and branch systems used in scripture.

Finally they propose a series of propositions for thinking ecologically about spiritual growth:

  1. God created a universe that exists and functions as a cosmic ecosystem.
  2. The earth exists within a larger cosmic ecology and operates by ecological laws.
  3. Natural growth follows ecological laws and teaches us that everything grows through ecological interconnections and organic interactions in a mutualistic relationship of interdependence.
  4. Ecological laws that govern natural growth operate similarly in the spiritual realm.
  5. Christians have a spiritual connection to Christ and other Christians, which forms a spiritual ecology.
  6. The spiritual connections we have with other Christians create opportunity for reciprocal exchanges of spiritual nutrients.
  7. The spiritual ecology created by Christ through the Spirit is unbounded by time and space, enabling Christians to enjoy the benefits of this reality at any time and in any place, whether in person or online.
  8. Christians who share a connection to Christ through the Spirit receive an imputed holiness that makes them mutually contagious and provides us with the ability to spread our contagion in online ecologies of learning (pp. 211-222).

This last point seems to engage in theological imprecision. Scripture speaks of the righteousness of Christ being imputed to the believer, but not holiness, a progressive work of the Holy Spirit in transforming our lives. I also question how we can spread something imputed by God. We can only point others to the one who imputes righteousness through Christ. That said, Christians may certainly influence one another to endeavor, with the Spirit’s help, to live holy lives.

I also thought that this book tries to do two things and does one reasonably well, and one less well. The book makes a good case for an ecology of spiritual growth, for the ways we are interdependent upon one another, whether together, or separated by space and time, in fostering each other’s growth. This book thus makes a good case for online community and its power to contribute to our growth in Christ.

What the book does less well is describe how this may be done well, as well as dealing with the dysfunctional aspects of online media. Just as good gardeners work with the ecology of places in choices and arrangement and cultivation of plants, it seems that those who curate online spaces likewise can do things either to foster or inhibit spiritual growth in those spaces. It would have been very helpful for these educators to give more specifics, and not just anecdotes, of how they translated their theory into practice.

Good gardeners often plant in groupings rather than single plants. Plants thrive together.  The Lowes help us see that the same is true for Christians–we grow better together, and together can include online forms of togetherness. These can be substantive, and formative. Hopefully this work will contribute to the development of good practices that foster such outcomes.

 

Review: Hidden in Christ

hidden in Christ

Hidden in Christ: Living as God’s BelovedJames Bryan Smith. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press/Formatio, 2013, 2019.

Summary: Thirty short reflections on different key words found in Colossians 3:1-17 on what it means to be “in” Christ.

A number of years ago, I had the chance to go through James Bryan Smith’s The Good and Beautiful God (review) with a group. Perhaps one of the most challenging and rewarding parts of this study was memorizing Colossians 3:1-17 together, a verse or two each week, forcing us to really meditate on each word of the text. The first three verses of this text are as follows:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:1-3, NIV)

The title of this work draws on verse 3, and one of the themes Smith explores is what it means for us to live in Christ. Above all, it means to live as God’s “holy and dearly loved” people, (verse 12). In this pocket-sized work, James Bryan Smith leads us through a kind of lectio divina on this text in Colossians, focusing successively in 30 chapters on key words found in the text, offering short reflections on each one. For example, the first five are drawn from the verses above: raised, with, seated, set, hidden. As he considers the word “set” in verse 2, he offers these reflections:

   When it comes down to it, living the Christian life is simply a matter of where we set our minds. Every waking moment we have a choice about where, and on what, we will set our minds. That is something we are free to do. Having been raised with Christ and forgiven forever, and having Jesus with us in all we do, the primary practice of living as a Christian boils down to what we think about, what we dwell on, what values we keep before our minds, what truths (or lies) we have in our consciousness. (p. 37).

In addition to these brief reflections, there are sections about “Living into the Truth,” an “Affirmation” which is a brief statement summarizing the key truth represented by the word, a “Prayer,” and finally questions for “Reflection.” The short chapters and focus on a single word make this an ideal devotional resource that could be used over a month, or perhaps once a week for thirty weeks. There is also a group discussion guide at the back of the book for a five week discussion using six chapters each week.

In addition, this little book is a good introduction to the ideas in the Apprentice Series by the same author–or perhaps in my case, a good refresher. Recently, a paperback version of the book has been released, making it available at a lower price. What Smith models for us is the slow, reflective opening of ourselves to the message of scripture we often pass by in our instant-everything world. When we omit these practices, we do not gain time but lose the chance to hear God’s assurances of our belovedness.

 

Review: The Gift of Wonder

the gift of wonder

The Gift of WonderChristine Aroney-Sine. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press/Formatio, 2019.

Summary: A “serious” Christian discovers creative practices that cultivate wonder, joy, and even fun in one’s relationship with God.

The one danger of being serious about one’s faith is, well…seriousness. It’s a danger for any committed Christian, especially those engaged in Christian work. After all, these are serious times, we deal with serious matters of life and death, injustices, suffering, and more. Often, when we talked about the practices that nurture a serious faith, we consider things like prayer, fasting, scripture study, worship, giving, and others.

This was the life Christine Aroney-Sine lived for many years. She describes how the shift in her practices to those that foster joy, child-likeness, curiosity, and play:

“It all began when I asked people, ‘What makes you feel close to God?’ They responded with stories of sitting by the sea, playing with kids, turning the compost pile, washing the dishes, and walking in the local park. Even taking a shower got a mention. Hardly anyone talked about church or Bible study. Most people connect to God through nature, interaction with children, around the dinner table, or in their daily activities. However, they rarely identify these as spiritual practices” (p.5).

Subsequently, the author developed a list of child-like qualities that we too-serious adults need to rediscover. Things like: delight in God, playfulness, sharing stories, imagination, curiosity, awe and wonder, love of nature, living in the present, gratitude, compassion, hospitality, looking with fresh eyes, and trust. The chapters of this book explore these qualities in scripture and her personal experiences and end with a creative exercise, best done with a group.

For example, in the chapter on imagination, she begins with a prayer on imagination, explores the imagination that leads to great books about future worlds and great discoveries. She invites us to reflect on what gets our own creative juices flowing. She narrates some imaginative expressions of worship. She tells of friends whose imaginations are opened by the reading of children’s books, or just by doodling! The chapter proposes that even good argument can be imaginative as we explore and debate different points of view. Then her creative exercise suggestion is to read a children’s book, and to choose a favorite Bible story, and re-tell it as a children’s story.

Along the way, you will be invited to plan a playdate, identify ten miracles before breakfast, walk a finger labyrinth, seed bomb your neighborhood, have fun with leaves, plan a gratitude scavenger hunt, and more. I’m tempted as I look at this list to pooh-pooh all this, and then it occurs to me that maybe I am far more like Eeyore than Pooh in such moments, and certainly not like Tigger!

Perhaps my favorite chapter, because it may be something I most struggle with was the one on resting in the moment. Aroney-Sine invites us into breathing and circling prayers or CAIM, drawn from Celtic spirituality. These think about the circles of our lives, God’s encircling care and protectiveness from that we would keep out of the circle of our lives. One simple example she quotes:

The Sacred Three
My fortress be
Encircling me
Come and be round
My hearth and my home. (p. 135)

The exercise for this chapter helps us walk, draw, and pray in circles. What qualities of God do I want in my life circle, even as I envision Christ’s outstretched arms embracing the world. What do we want excluded from our circle, who is in our circle and who do we want to invite in? We get to write our own circling prayer.

This might be a great book for a ministry team where things have gotten serious and earnest. Aroney-Sine never dismisses the serious challenges of life, but invites us to rediscover the wonder and joy and beauty of God that is the deeper reality that grounds our lives, the wisdom children grasp and we tend to forget. Who’s ready for a playdate?

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: True You

true you

True YouMichelle DeRusha.  Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.

Summary: Using the analogy of pruning, explores how our true selves, our true callings can emerge when we remove the clutter of business, of false selves, and idolatries that obscure the true shape of our lives.

Michelle DeRusha proposes that the tending of ourselves may be much like the process  of fukinaoshi, or open pruning which allows a tree to flourish by cutting away the dense clutter of branches so that light can reach the center. It is hard pruning, cutting away living as well as dead branches that obscure the true shape of the tree. It is persistent, cutting away suckers that deplete the tree of nourishment. DeRusha proposes that God’s work of revealing our true selves follows a similar process.

DeRusha shares her own narrative to help us understand this process. It began for her with sitting on a bench for five minutes a day (“directed rest”) while walking her dog. She talks about the relentless press of busyness that clutters our lives and robs us of these contemplative moments. Sitting quietly is like studying the true to understand its essential shape and what needs to go. For DeRusha, a question came one day: “Why do you have trouble with intimacy?” An orthopedic injury came to represent physically a deeper question: “Do you want to get well?” It came to a head at a retreat in Italy when some more questions were asked:

“What does it mean for you that rest is found in God? What does it mean when we are away from him?

She broke down as she recognized that in her relentless restlessness, she didn’t know God, and thus finding rest, finding calling.

The remainder of the book describes the journey of “hard pruning” that began as it became clear what needed to be cut away. She talks about the dark night that comes in facing our brokenness, our apartness from God and our deep longing for God. She leads us into the stillness on the “far side of the wilderness” and the practice of waiting, of staying in place. She also discusses that learning who God is, and learning who we are go together–that this process of waiting, of resting begins to reveal the true shape of our own lives, our “birthright gifts.” In the end, this inward journey takes us outward, as we connect the rest we find in God, the gifts we discover in ourselves, and the needs of the world come together.

Each chapter includes a “Going Deeper” set of reflections at the end. This makes the book an ideal adjunct to a series of retreats, or an extended journalling process. This would also make an ideal Lenten devotional. She concludes the book with an appendix that includes practical tips for taking “directed rests.”

DeRusha combines the seemingly “ruthless” practice of open pruning with a gently written exploration that explores why we so clutter our lives, why we are so busy. Through her own story, she helps us ask if we are running from God–from resting in God and intimately knowing God. Her reflective writing helps us long to wait, to listen, to attend, to pay attention to our lives. She helps us to see how the pruning away of busyness and the false images of self opens us up to the true shape of our lives.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Transforming Grace

Transforming Grace

Transforming Grace, Jerry Bridges. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2017 (book originally published in 1991, study guide, 2008).

Summary: A comprehensive study of the nature of grace and the experience of grace throughout the life of the believer accompanied by a study guide for group use.

“Sola Gratia!” was one of the rallying cries of the Reformation. We believed we are saved by God’s grace alone rather than through anything we’ve done or will do. Yet we often have a hard time believing in and living into grace as a transforming, ongoing reality in our lives. More often, it seems it is simply a theological formula or a point in our presentations of the gospel message.

Jerry Bridges, who died in 2016, wrote this book to address the question of how we may live in grace and experience God’s gracious transformation in our lives. Recently, the publisher released a new edition of this work, combining the text of the earlier work with a subsequently published study guide for groups.

The first couple chapters address a struggle facing many of us. We often profess to believe in grace but live Christian lives that are performance-based, where we tie God’s work in us to the balance of our own merits and demerits. Our crucial need is to come to the place of understanding our utter, permanent bankruptcy. Bridges writes:

“To the extent you are clinging to any vestiges of self-righteousness or are putting any confidence in your own spiritual attainments, to that extent you are not living by the grace of God in your life” (p. 24, italics in original).

Part of the remedy for us is to understand how truly amazing is the grace of God that utterly blots out our sins and remembers them no more. God is like the generous landowner in Matthew 20, who pays those who work only an hour a day’s wage, who gives us what we need and not what we deserve. This leads to godly lives motivated by the extravagant love we have received. Obedience is no longer adherence to a set of rules, but rather recognizing that the commands of God express how we might love him in response to the grace we have experienced.

We are called to live holy lives, even as we are already freely declared holy in the sight of God through grace. Grace also is evident in our growth into the holy character that is already ours as gift, a character enumerated in the fruit of the Spirit. This call to holiness is a call to freedom. Bridges uses the helpful illustration of a raised road running through a swamp where living by grace informed by the law of love that leads to liberty is contrast with going off one side into the  swamp of legalism or the other side of license. As we progress in grace, we discover that grace is sufficient in our lives, meeting us in our weakness and debilities, challenging our self-sufficiency, and bringing us to an awareness of both our own inadequacy and God’s utter adequacy.

Chapter Twelve was perhaps one of the most helpful in the book, on appropriating grace. We often struggle between our own desires and the will of God, and need to appropriate God’s grace to become what we believe. Bridges believes this occurs as we seek God in prayer for this ability to do what God bids, as we lay hold of scriptural promises and principles (which in true Navigators ministry is scripture we have memorized), and as we submit to the providential working of God in our lives. Bridges also commends the importance of trusted companions with whom we honestly share our struggles.

Finally, Bridges encourages us to put on “garments of grace” as we put on the qualities of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, and forgiveness, and an overarching love, as commended in Colossians 3:12-14. He concludes the book in observing how forgiveness is possible because we recognize our own indebtedness or bankruptcy toward God, and thus forgive the small debts we are owed by others. In this, Bridges nicely closes the book where he begins.

I thought this book a very clear, biblical, and practical explanation about how we might live into the grace of God. Bridges own humility in sharing his experiences of struggling with this in his own life make this even more winsome. The incorporation of the discussion guide (a bit more than 100 pages) into this work enhances its usefulness to groups. Although there are thirteen chapters, the guide is organized into eight discussions. For each, the guide summarizes the central idea for the covered material, offers a warm-up exercise, provides selected text from the book to read ahead, questions to help in “exploring grace,” a closing prayer, going deeper questions if there is time for this, and quotes from famous Christians to help us “ponder grace.”

As a Christ-follower for five decades, it was a delight to be reminded of these foundational truths and how we may live into them. Yet the text is clear and basic enough to be understood by new believers, and rich enough to provide fresh nourishment for those who have walked long with Christ. All of us have in common the reality that we more easily profess grace than appropriate it for our lives.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Life in the Presence of God

Life in the Presence of God

Life in the Presence of GodKenneth Boa. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: A contemporary discussion of the idea that a vital Christian life is one increasingly lived on a moment by moment basis in the presence of God.

So what exactly is an authentic Christian life? A set of activities or practices does not quite seem enough. Nor is adherence to a set of beliefs. Kenneth Boa, in this book, joins generations of Christians in proposing that a vital Christian life is led increasingly in the moment by moment presence of God. In his introduction, he frames it this way:

“Sure, it’s good to give the first–or the last–moments of our day to God. But what about the rest of the day? It’s so easy for our hearts and heads to end up somewhere else. Is that how God really wants us to live? Is that what he really had in mind when he said he’d give us abundant life (John 10:10)?

I’m proposing that we take our life with God–and our awareness of his presence–with us everywhere, not just into our quiet times but into our noisy times too, incorporating practices into our lives that help us keep that awareness right in front of us, throughout the day, every day.”

Boa’s book is divided into two parts. The first explores the biblical basis of this idea. This wasn’t thought up by Brother Lawrence, but rooted in the reality of what it means to be in Christ. Boa explores the biblical images, biblical exemplars culminating in Christ, and the image of “walking” with God that runs through scripture.

The second part turns to how we may learn to practice God’s presence. Here he does commend Brother Lawrence, the experiment of Frank Laubach and other practices of learning increasingly to abide moment by moment in Christ. Boa points to modern neuroscience’s understanding of the plasticity of our brains and how they may be re-wired through repeated practice. This also involves learning to re-see our world, specifically that we see that all of it matters to God and seeing it in the light of eternity. How we see our time is critical, especially in an age of busy-ness. Taking time to surrender our days to God in our waking moments, finding time to recollect ourselves through the day, and to conclude our days in thanksgiving and reflection are all important as well as establishing rhythms of work, rest, and sabbath.

Suffering and sin are also realities that intrude upon our lives. In suffering, we learn both to lament and to walk in God’s presence in the way of the cross. In sin, growth in experiencing God’s presence means learning to recognize the stages of temptation (a section that was worth the price of the book for me!) and to quickly confess and repent.

The book concludes with two chapters that focus on our visions of community and of the well-lived life.  While we can have unhealthy notions of community, which Boa discusses, good communities practice encouragement that leads to growth, accountability, and living the gospel with “one another” in communities where good soul care is practiced. Finally, to live in God’s presence is to become who we were meant to be–to live into our calling–even as Strider the Ranger must become Aragorn the King in Lord of the Rings. To be in the Lord’s presence is to live with a different vision of the “good life” centered around a vision of eternity.

Each chapter concludes with practical exercises that help us hear God’s Word and to practice his presence. It is the practical element, combined with good biblical grounding and Boa’s own experience, that makes this book so helpful whether you are a recent convert or a lifelong believer. Boa focuses his attention on the everyday in our lives, which in fact make up most of life. To live in God’s presence here is to discover God’s presence in all of our lives from the seemingly mundane to the moments of crisis. And to live in God’s presence is to take creatures rooted in time, and help them live in the light of eternity. Could anything be more important?

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

Review: Vintage Saints and Sinners

Vintage Saints and Sinners

Vintage Saints and SinnersKaren Wright Marsh (foreword by Lauren Winner). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: Brief vignettes of the lives of twenty-five “saints” and how reflecting on them may inspire and challenge us.

It is one thing to be a Christian and another to understand how one might live well the Christian life. Certainly reading scripture is indispensable, both for precepts and examples. But throughout the history of the church, reading “the lives of the saints” has been found a valuable aid as we see fleshed out examples of the life of faith. This book is a contemporary contribution to that genre, giving us vignettes on the lives of twenty-five “saints” (not all are canonized as saints in the Roman Catholic Church) and the author’s reflections on what they teach her about the life of faith, and how they challenge her.

The book is organized into two parts around two key ideas in Jeremiah 6:16, asking and walking. Under “Asking” she writes about Soren Kierkegaard, Augustine, Therese of Lisieux, C. S. Lewis, Henri Nouwen, Flannery O’Connor, Martin Luther, Amanda Berry Smith, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A. W. Tozer, Mother Teresa, and Brother Lawrence. Under “Walking” she offers accounts of the lives of Thomas Merton, Benedict and Scholastica, Fannie Lou Hamer, John Wesley, Francis and Clare of Assisi, Dorothy Day, Howard Thurman, Julian of Norwich, Mary Paik Lee, Aelred of Rievaulx, Ignatius of Loyola, Juana Ines De La Cruz, and Sophie Scholl.

Each account typically runs seven to eight pages, making it ideal for one’s devotional reading. Marsh mixes biography and her own reflections about how learning about this saint speaks to her own experience. I particularly appreciated the lesser known figures she writes about, a number of them women. Reading the account of Sophie Scholl’s faith-inspired resistance to Nazism that resulted in her martyrdom raised the question of when is it right to risk one’s life in a righteous cause. Then there is the sharply contrasting picture of the Mexican Catholic sister Juana Ines De La Cruz who remains in her cloistered cell and writes beautiful poetry and philosophical theology to God’s glory and then renounced it for a life of contemplation and service. I’ve read much of Martin Luther King, but it was a delight to read of Howard Thurman, his mentor.

Lauren Winner, in her foreword, encourages noticing which saints we are drawn toward, and which saints trouble us. I’ll give you one of each from this collection.

I’ve found myself more and more drawn to the writings of Soren Kierkegaard as my life has gone on. Wright’s account of his reaction to the comfortable conformity of Danish Christianity appeals to me even as it challenges me. She writes, “Abandon your calculated safety for a reckless, wholehearted life of faith in Christ. Continue to become. Grow. Risk. Take that radical leap of faith right now.” I find myself drawn as one who has lived in that awkward tension of longing for comfort and yet knowing that it is in the risks of faith that life is its most intense and real.

Dorothy Day has been troubling me for the past couple months, as I’ve read a narrative of her life, as well as the shorter account here. At one point she has an abortion. When she converts, she leaves her marriage to follow Christ. She gets herself arrested numerous times, even at seventy-five. She employs her considerable writing talents on a penny newspaper, The Catholic Worker, and pours out her life serving the working poor. Marsh writes of her:

The human, more colorful Dorothy comes through in her confessional writings. Yes, she admits, it really is raving lunacy to give up your own bed, food, and hospitality to any old stranger in need. But that needy person hasn’t arrived to simply remind you of Christ. No, in “plain and simple and stupendous fact,” your guest is, quite literally, Jesus. The Bible shows how ordinary people like Lazarus, Mary, and Martha welcomed Jesus and so can you; there’s no excuse. Christ is all around you, meeting you in friends and outsiders. The glass of water you give to a beggar is given to him.

Dorothy insists that in the end we will be judged by our acts of mercy, so heaven hinges on the way we act toward Jesus in his frail, ordinary human form. So long as families still need bread, clothing, shelter, Dorothy says, “we must keep repeating these things. Eternal life begins now.” So don’t point to some distant dream of glowing redemption—let’s make life today look more like heaven. Get out there and make a difference in Jesus’ name.

Dorothy forces me to ask the uncomfortable question of whether there are times I’ve failed to recognize the Lord Jesus in a needy person seeking help.

One of the things one comes away with in this collection are that there are probably as many ways of “being a saint” as there are human beings. These people are so different from one another. If there is anything they have in common, it is simply to be captivated by the love of God and the person of Christ and what it means to live out this love in the days and years we are given. This is a book that both challenges and offers hope. Each of these people is indeed a saint and a sinner, both one responding to the call of God, and doing so out of the messiness of his or her life. In these pages, they beckon us to join them on the Way.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.