Orthodox Christian Response to the Descendants of Anabaptism

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Fr. Anthony Roeber, a priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, and a Professor of Church History, St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, Yonkers, New York, and a friend of mine, had agreed to answer some questions asked by my Mennonite friends.

Before getting to those questions and his answers, I want to express my gratitude to him, to those brave enough to ask questions, and also for those of you lurking in the shadows. And, while I would much prefer that we could all meet over coffee together, I am still grateful for the opportunity to virtually introduce you and pray that this dialogue is beneficial.

So without further ado…

Question: How does Orthodox Christianity make worship more about God’s glory than Anabaptists do?

Fr. Anthony: I would not suggest that any version of Protestantism neglect’s the glory of God, but the real question that has to be asked is what is Orthodox worship all about. The central focus of the Liturgy involves hearing the Word of God “rightly divided in truth” as well as the reception of the Eucharist—which means Thanksgiving—for the gift of his continued presence in all the Mysteries of the Church, all of which are critical to our on-going journey toward union with God. Right worship always includes acknowledging our privilege as the royal and priestly people who as adopted sons and daughters of God are able to worship him in spirit and in truth. That means that right worship involves the whole person—all the senses, the intellect, the emotions, bodily postures. But that worship also, and always confesses our failures both individual and collective to respond to his grace and the gift of faith. This is why our lives, including the Liturgy, continue to involve living under the Cross—and the need for constant repentance—turning back to God—and the change of heart that is our daily struggle, both individually and collectively. The Liturgy the Orthodox believe is a participation in the eternal Liturgy that is constantly being offered before the throne of God where the bodiless powers of heaven, Mary, the mother of God, and all the saints who have been well-pleasing to him from the beginning already share in a more intimate way in that praise and thanksgiving that will achieve its final shape and fulfillment at the resurrection of the dead and the Second and Final Coming. Liturgy, for the Orthodox, is therefore always eschatological—we are looking forward to his return. And, the Orthodox can claim that this is the way we have always worshipped, even if specific customs and rituals are slightly different in different cultures and places.

Question: I’m bothered by what happened with we Anabaptists in the Reformation (rebellion) 500 years ago. As a group, is there hope for we who left to be reunited back to an ancient branch of the church? In a collective way, can what has been done be undone? Would it take individuals journeying back to a Catholic church, or could some sort of collective reconciliation be made?

Fr. Anthony: The Orthodox identify themselves as the Church that acknowledges the unbroken Tradition of the Church from the very beginning of apostolic times. The Church has been forced by error to articulate aspects of that same faith in the form of the Nicaean Creed for example, and by other general councils of the Church that had to address false versions of the Gospel—the presbyter Arius’ claim that the Son of God was a created God, that there was a time when He was not—and so on. No one in any culture and in any tradition is automatically excluded from the communion of the saints that is the Orthodox Church. But since the Anabaptists were a 16th-century innovation of how the Gospel is understood, and they broke with the Latin Church whose bishop in Rome had already left the communion of the Orthodox. So the Anabaptists were never in communion with the Orthodox, and hence it is probably not correct to talk of “reconciliation,” but rather of how and whether the Anabaptists individually or collectively can accept the unbroken Tradition of Orthodoxy which in some aspects, would understand why for example, the peace testimony of the Anabaptists attempts to do justice to the early Church’s desire to witness to Christ’s own teachings as the God who forgives, who is merciful, who does not wish the death of any sinner.

Question: Since the Reformation, Anabaptist churches have been plagued by schism. How/why is the Orthodox church free from this? What does she have that we don’t?

Fr. Anthony: It would not be honest to say that the Orthodox Church has always succeeded in keeping everyone within the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church. The Church of the East broke communion with the Orthodox by refusing to acknowledge Jesus’ mother as the “God-bearer” thereby casting doubt on whether Jesus of Nazareth was and is fully God. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 finally could not persuade the Coptics, Armenians, and some Syrians that the Church’s attempt to say that Christ is one person with two natures, one fully divine, one fully human, in perfect communion with each other, unconfused, unmixed—was correct or sufficient. And finally, the Roman Church broke communion with the Orthodox by altering the words of the Nicean Creed unilaterally—in violation of the consensus that had been arrived at in council and to which Rome had signed its support and assent. Nonetheless, the Orthodox continue as they always have, confessing, and worshipping as they always have, neither adding nor subtracting from what they have received from the witnesses of the Resurrection. It is this insistence upon an unbroken Tradition that is confessed and sustained wherever the bishop with his presbyters, deacons, and people are gathered around the Mysteries of the Church that has sustained Orthodoxy in the face of persecutions and martyrdoms that continue right into the present day.

Question: What does Orthodoxy desire from Protestants and Anabaptists? Does she have an ideal vision for us and our future? Is she OK with us being alienated from our spiritual past?

Fr. Anthony: The Orthodox pray that all people in all places and times and cultures find their true home in the Orthodox Church. No, the Church is not “okay” with the inadequate—however sincere—confession of the fullness of the faith that it sees in both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. In short, the Church prays that those who have never been part of the Church or have strayed from it find their way home. It is the obligation of the Orthodox not to put obstacles in the way of those who wish to be members of the Church—but because the Church is made up of fallible and sinful men and women, this has not always been done as it should be.

Finally, one of my own questions: Mennonites and other Anabaptists take a firm stand against violence and cite the Sermon on the Mount as the basis for this. First, what is the Orthodox view of “non-resistance” as described in Matthew 5:39 and elsewhere in Scripture? Second, do the Orthodox have their own version of just war theory?

Fr. Anthony: There is no “just war theory” or theology in Orthodoxy. The Orthodox recognize not merely the scriptural teaching you mention but the witness of the saints, many of whom have suffered martyrdom rather than respond to violence with violence. At the same time, the Orthodox recognize that situations arise when the failure of an Orthodox Christian to defend the weak, the helpless, the innocent, would itself be hard to justify before the Judgement Seat of Christ. But the taking of human life—in any form—is sinful, and must be repented of with a firm intention not to repeat such a grave sin in the future. There may be circumstances when the individual or the community of faith feel compelled to defend themselves or others, but the Orthodox do not spend a lot of time trying to work out systems of “justification” for acts of violence, and increasingly have distanced themselves from actions of individuals, communities, or even states, that continue to commit such sins. But the Orthodox do not see a simple response to this problem nor are they prepared to reduce the entirety of the Gospel to a peace testimony only. Some Orthodox will therefore in good conscience serve “honorably” in the armed forces, or in the police, or other forms of law enforcement—and others will decline to do so. There does exist a Peace Fellowship among the Orthodox and perhaps it is with these Orthodox that Christians from the Reformation Peace Churches should take up contact.

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“And who is like me?”

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I’ve heard the good Samaritan story many times before.  I even blogged about it a couple times because of the important message it contains about salvation.  But this weekend I’ve gained some new perspective on this account and wanted to share it.

First some context…

The good Samaritan story is the answer Jesus gave to a legal expert who had asked him how to obtain eternal life.

In Luke’s account we read that Jesus, rather than attempt to explain, answered the legal expert’s question with some other questions:

“What is written in the Law?”

“How do you understand it?”

To that the legalistic man answered by quoting Scripture:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind”

“Love your neighbor as yourself…”

Jesus tells the man that he had answered correctly and further affirms with a statement: “Do this and you will live.”

However, the expert was not satisfied.  Luke tells us that he sought “to justify himself” and inquires further: “And who is my neighbor?

Here’s the twist…

I’ve never realized the full connotation of that question.  The question actually came loaded with more arrogance and elitism than is reflected in our modern reading of the language.  The word “neighbor” was understood to mean a close associate and thus the question asked was more to the effect: “And who is like me?

In other words the expert wanted Jesus to affirm his own understanding of Biblical text that gave him a legal loophole and means to escape the inconvenience of a broader interpretation of the law.  The expert wanted to love only those who added up according to his own religious standard.

Jesus, now having exposed the real intent of the expert’s questions, responds with a story about a traveler who suffered misfortune.  He had been beaten, robbed and was lying by the side of the road.  Two religious elitists approached and then crossed to the other side of the road and passed without making any attempt to help.

Jesus goes on to describe a Samaritan (a tribe who the legal expert would not associate with) who went above and beyond to help the wounded man and then asks the expert: “Which of these three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

Jesus turned a question “who is like me” into an opportunity to reorient the questioner…

The expert, obviously trying to justify his own selective love, had asked who to love.  But Jesus does not directly answer the expert’s question.  Instead he takes the conversation from a question of who to love to a question of how to love and described a love without preconditions or prejudice.

To love God means to look past differences of race, social status or religion and love like the Samaritan.  It is a message extremely relevant in a time when we are told some lives matter and others not so much.

Following Jesus doesn’t mean sanctimiously calling out those who we deem to be racist, sexist or otherwise bigoted—as a means to wash our own hands of responsibility for those things—and then being on our way feeling smugly justified.

It means laying our own tribal identities at the foot of the cross, loving those different from us as freely as the good Samaritan did, and being a fulfillment of the ideal in Galatians 3:28…

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Caution: Mennonite In Transition

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A couple years ago, upon realizing my life was going nowhere in a hurry and not wanting to settle for mediocrity, I called out for God’s help.  I wanted a truly abundant life, I knew that I was wholly inadequate to bring about the necessary changes to make that reality (God knows I’ve tried) so I begged for the impossible be done.

I have seen many dreams die in my life because of fear of failure, inexplicably poor timing, etc.  I was well-aware of the cliché definition of insanity (doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result) but could not seem to break from the patterns of life that limited my potential.  I was what I was and deeply dissatisfied with that.  

There was an undefined something that always seemed to crush my higher ambitions.

I could not beat an enemy that could not be defined.  So I told God in no uncertain terms that I would literally crawl on hands and knees across a wilderness of broken glass to be made right.  Throwing every bit of faith I could muster, like a gambler going all in with a desperate last gasp effort, I prayed “make the impossible possible for me” and then concluded my morning prayer.

It was an hour or two after that when I hopped out of my truck and went down writhing in pain.  My knee buckled under me.  In that moment what had been diagnosed as an MCL sprain became a full ACL tear and I knew that the implications were huge.  I would be unable to perform the duties of my job and with that was facing financial uncertainty.

Still, despite excruciating pain, I was serene and confident.

God had answered.

Or so I hoped.

“It is what it is…”

My faith crumbled against that awful reality.

“You are thirty years old living in Milton.”

It was true and the implications clear enough.

I was a stick in the mud, already past my prime by the standards of some, and certainly not the adventure her heart was set upon.  I simultaneously loved her brutal honesty and hated the harshness of judgment.  My worst fear realized.

I had no defense.

When we finally parted ways I was lost in a haze.  The rug yanked out from under me.  My sputtering attempts to articulate my own heart had no effect on her whatsoever.  Blissful hopes were mercilessly cut down by an otherwise nurturing soul.

My conversation with her end with my mouth involuntarily echoing her “it is what it is” plea and with that accepting the rationality of fatalism that had long dogged me.

A continuing cruel loneliness now seemed inevitable.  I had tried many times before, taken my hits, always got back up again by believing next time would be better—that something greater would come from my suffering rejection.  But this time I could not delude myself with hope.

My faith had lost the day—my hope against hope had failed—and now a terrible fate of a despairingly cold and isolated life was upon me.

My mind, a place normally full of noise and activity, went totally blank as if unable to comprehend any of it.  I was in shock about what had transpired and numb.  

I wandered off aimlessly.  

Into the wilderness of South Dakota.  

Into the dark of night.  

Into oblivion.

The storm brewing in overhead seemed to perfectly mirror the log-jam of conflicted thoughts and swirl of deep emotions.

My delusion of hope that a young ambitious woman might find me desirable enough to consider a romantic relationship was shattered into a million fragments.  My failure to achieve now clung to me like an unforgivable sin.  Very soon I awoke from my stupor into an inescapable nightmare of reality.

The uneasy calm broke when Johnny and Brian somehow found me.  The rain, which had coincidentally held to precisely the moment they carried me to the shelter of an awaiting truck cab, began to pour down in torrents and so did my tears.

Escaping reality was impossible.

Doing battle with the it…

Most people nowadays pursue career first and romance second.  But I had these things in reverse order.  I prioritized relationship and postponed all else.

My reasoning was that it would be better to form life ambitions and goals together as a couple rather than apart.  And I might have pulled it off had I been a bit less socially awkward.  Unfortunately I had this vexing tendency to freeze up as soon as my interest was piqued and thus my early romantic pursuits failed miserably.

Years were frittered away with unfulfilled dreams, chasing one false hope after another and waiting for opportunities that never came.

Not to say that I did nothing of value in that time either.  I gained life experience, slowly built confidence in my abilities, learned to live independently, and gained perspective.

However, it was hard not to feel a failure.

There seemed to be this mysterious “it” that always kept my best efforts from panning out and nobody had the answers for this that I craved.

I’ve heard all the cliché advice I could ever stomach.  One person says try harder and the next will say you’re trying too hard.  One tells you “you’re intimidating” and the next says you lack confidence.  You’re basically wrong no matter what you do.

The same one who says they want someone “mature” rejects your offer and then dates a teenager whom she later marries.  It is incredibly confusing when the same person who says you’ll make a “great husband” refuses to even consider a date.

It is impossible to define exactly what the “it” is.  It was a ball of anxieties, that inexplicably poor timing, a curse of a jealous enemy, the lack of true community and help.

It was many things and yet nothing at all.

It was an invisible monster that chased me throughout my life.  It was the glass wall that seperated me from those who were more able to conquer the obstacles in their way and achieve their goals.  It was my doing too little too late or too much too early.  It was my always being close to the mark and yet never hitting it.

The “it” is not something external to be vanquished.  It is everything from my formative years up until the present moment that I’ve experienced or thought.  It is my home, my genetic and cultural inheritance, the good and bad together intertwined and inseparable as part of my own character.

The “it” is a sum total of what defines me as a person.  

It was inescapable.

It is me.

It is what we make it…

Her certainty about her own direction was why she was so attractive to me.  It was never my plan to grow old in Milton.

However, she seemed to believe that her personal ambitions were something that made us incompatible.  To me our lack of similar résumé was not a disqualification, I saw our differences as an asset, considering her strengths as being complimentary rather than contradictory to mine, but she disagreed.

She was my last remaining escape plan.

I did not eat in the days after because I had no desire to continue as I had and seemingly had no escape.  I wanted to die and would rather starve than keep feeding myself with more false hopes.

I cried, “I have no vision!”

I so desperately wanted free of a mind seemingly incapable of focus.  I had seemed to do fine in a structure.  I was a diligent worker, a loyal friend, responsible and dedicated.  But leave me too free to choose my own path and I would dither indefinitely in indecision.

God provided just enough reason to get me out of bed.  I cleaned up, composed myself a bit, ate the cup of yogurt and glass of water mom provided.  I faced her again, my elusive hope against hope, and then in the weeks following I went under the knife to have the torn ligament replaced with a graft and after that began the months of rehabilitation.  My goal to come back stronger than before and physically I did.

What also happened in my time off of work was a book (written but shelved pending further review) and this blog.  I’ve found some answers in blogging.  Writing my experiences and recording some of my thoughts has seemed to help provide some direction.  The more vulnerable I’ve become the more friends and opportunities to serve I’ve seemed to gain.

Why am I Mennonite?

I have never been the Mennonite golden boy.

I’ve never had the swooning attention of the favorites who better represent the ideals of Mennonite culture.  I’ve always done things a little different.  I was who I was and gave up on being anything besides that.  But still, I longed to gain acceptance in the Mennonite culture.

In Mennonite culture marriage is acceptance and not all are.  Yes, sure, we’ll let most anyone be a member so long as they complete the required steps, but marriage is where the reality of a two tiered system becomes very evident.  There are the kids born in the right homes, the ones able to do all the things that make them popular within their cultural context and marriageable, and then there are those of us who don’t fit the mold.

She represents a direction that I thought my life should go in.  Her Mennonite idealism, her simplicity of role or purpose in life, represented something deep within my own heart and desirable.

However, many who have read my blogs question this and ask… “why are you still Mennonite?”

It is question that I dislike.

I’m Mennonite because I like being Mennonite.

We have such a neat and tidy cloistered existence.  We have beautiful families.  We are the happy Hobbits living in the Shire of Middle-earth.  Everything we do is safe.  Even our missionaries typically go out to all the corners of the world yet never leave the protection of their religious confines.

It has been suggested to me recently that I have “out grown” the tradition.  That is the question that I have wrestled with as of late.  

Can one actually out grow their home?  

I’m running out of arguments why to stay in a denomination that is more about conforming to cultural expectations than transformation of mind and living a life of true faith.

It is hard not to notice that most of the help on my journey came from those leaving the Mennonite tradition or outside of it.  The support I’ve gotten from those within has been grudgingly or something that needed extracted and done as mere religious duty.  I hear brotherly love spoke of by Mennonites, but it seems more relic or ritual than actually reality.  The real brotherhood I’ve experienced, the genuine Christian love, comes from beyond my own Mennonite tradition.

Does a man of faith belong with those who shrug “it is what it is” rather than risk a small step into unfamiliar territory?

Should I have any part with those who eagerly travel over land and sea to win a single convert and yet would never go in a direction they don’t understand?

Still there is a strong urge to remain a part.

I’ve always thought all voices were needed in the conversation and the including mine.  If everyone capable of challenging the cultural status quo leaves it would create even more tunnel vision and further imbalance.  My strengths, rejected or not, would be of benefit to those who think they have all the answers and are confident about the tradition they received.  

Composites make a stronger material than their component parts—shouldn’t the bond of love be able to do the same with two dissimilar people?

Decisions, decisions…

There is a time to wait and there is a time to take decisive action.  I have given up many opportunities for placing my hopes within the context of my Mennonite culture and gone many years without seriously considering the alternatives.

Mennonite is my cultural identity.  Despite my many idiosyncrasies, I’ve always been Mennonite at heart and somewhat proud of my ethnic and religious heritage.  How does one unbind and divorce themselves from their cherished past?

Impossible, right?

It is not like I haven’t ventured out before in search of what I might find only to return again as if drawn by an invisible force that grew stronger the further away I got from whoopie pies and covering strings.  But things do change and there could be a force stronger than that which always pulled me back.

When I asked God to make the impossible possible for me, I had a personal vision that included remaining Mennonite and the young woman that I knew was an impossibility as far as worldly logic is concerned.  But it now seems possible that my vision then was too narrow and that I should look beyond to the other options available.

Being Mennonite is not the be all end all.  God calls us to go beyond the limits we set for ourselves or those set for us by our cultures and that is my intention.  It doesn’t matter what my religious peers or even my blood relatives think—Jesus called us to follow Him and leave our fears, insecurities and inadequacies behind us.

Maybe impossibility made possible for me is something I never anticipated?

That is what have I learned since that day tearing my ACL, in recovery from yet another slap of rejection, and from the battle with the “it” which drove me to extremes in search of answers.  I learned that I do not have all the answers and don’t need all the answers before I am able to step out in faith.

Please pray…

There are many things that will soon come to a head for me and most I am unable to talk openly about at this time.  Many of these things being pivotal life changing decisions that must be made.  What happens in the next couple months will determine many things.

Your prayers to help me through this transitional time are very appreciated.  Pray that the impossible is made possible.

Ken Ham’s Ark: Evangelical Outreach or Hammy Recreation?

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“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” (Matthew 5:13)

Question: How to know the salt of a religion has lost its savor?

Answer: Religiously themed amusement parks that seem to be more about preserving pet dogmas (or boosting the ego of a charismatic personality who built them) than the actual Gospel preached by Jesus and lived out by the early church.

Encounters of the wrong kind send the wrong message.

An article on televangelist Jim Bakker’s abandoned ‘Christian’ amusement park prompted my reflection above.  However, my mind soon went to another attraction now available to consumer Christianity, that being Ken Ham’s latest creation enterprise in Kentucky, the Ark Encounter.

Anyhow, other than the name reminding me of the Turkey Hill Experience (an actual attraction located in Columbia, PA) I’ve encountered some other thoughts about the 100 million dollar project: I’m not sure this edifice Ham boasts may be “one of the greatest Christian evangelistic outreaches of our day” will live up to the hype.

This tourist trap of mammoth proportions might end up more like Bakker’s now derelict ‘evangelical’ pleasure mecca.  It actually seems more like a dead end of fundamentalist dogma than it does a truly faithful living witness of Christian love.

And, at 40 dollars a pop to enter, it is evident that our modern expressions of grace are not cheap—we might have already encountered a bit of a messaging problem.

Finding answers in Jesus, not Genesis.

Yes, the Ark Encounter and other expressions of faith, like charitable giving, are not necessarily mutually exclusive.  But I see only one of the two endorsed by Jesus as an outreach and it is not the Genesis themed recreational Biblical tourism kingdom of Ham.

Perhaps, instead of creating hundred million dollar gimmicks, that may be as likely to win as many converts outside of blood relatives as Noah’s original did, we should be focusing our kingdom building efforts elsewhere?  Could we do more to provide substantive help to those around us in need?

The problem with the modern ‘scientific’ attempts to bolster Biblical claims is that they often aren’t all that scientific nor do they well reflect the faith of Scriptural example.  The Gospel of Jesus never needed to evolve or be adapted for our time.  No, our time needs to adapted to actual life of spiritual reality that was once found in the early church:

“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (Acts 4:32-35)

The truth of our faith is the truth that we live.  That is our strongest argument and apologetic.  Jesus never said we should try to prove the historical accuracy of Biblical narratives as a means to covert others to faith or convince ourselves.  Jesus said to live we he taught and then the Spirit would reveal itself in and through us.

There is no need of an edifice built of wood as an evangelical tool to share true faith.  What there is need of is a body of believers who acts in unison as the hands and feet of Jesus.  A church that literally feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, shelters the homeless, meets the practical needs of their own communities and leads in genuine love:

“If you love me, keep my commands.  And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. […] The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.” (John 14:15-21)

The truth of our love for God (expressed in our obedience to love other people as Christ commanded) will reveal the truth of God to us and the world.  It is really that simple.

Either Jesus is the answer or He is not.

I recall my own hope based in apologetics and my taught mistrust of mainstream science.  I remember my own hopeful glances over at the secular neighbors, who attended an Evolution versus Creationism debate with my family, and at the time not realizing then that my own confirmation bias shaded glasses were as blinding as theirs.

It was a well-meaning yet misguided effort.  My trying to prove Christianity through study of history and using theories (often more flimsy and unscientific than the ones they mocked) only left me thirsty for truth.  My religious indoctrination actually caused me to doubt.  The deeper I got into the available evidence the less I believed anything.

It was only through an encounter with Jesus that I realized the error in my ways.  It was when I stopped resting in my own knowledge and started to live more obediently to the simple unadulterated teachings of Jesus.  It has been a transformative spiritual experience that cannot be duplicated through intellectual, artificial or forced means.

If you want to encourage faith be faithful.

Save what you would spend on Ark Encounter, find someone in your own community with a need (perhaps a single mother or elderly person) and fill it—that will do more for the faith of your family than feeding Ham’s Answers in Genesis empire.

If you wish to encourage your children in faith, show them how to be salt and meet the needs of their neighbors in Christian love.  That is the obedience to the law of Christ that will show them real truth and bolster your own faith.

If you have not encountered any real needs around you, then I pray you have an encounter with the Spirit of God and your eyes opened.

Don’t be yesterday’s news, be today’s salt.