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Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Witness of the Holy Spirit

Introduction

In this post I will argue that the fundamental issue maintaining religious belief is an indwelling sense of God in a person's life. The converse is true: non-belief is founded on a loss of such a sense or an inability to find it in the first place

I remember my Salvation Army grandmother criticizing another officer with the claim that he was too interested in "head knowledge" and not enough interested in "heart knowledge". I was young and did not ask her what she meant. I think she was making the distinction between book learning and a direct, emotional and personal response a sense of God in her life.

My father would often say, "he that believeth hath the witness in himself", which is a quote from John's first epistle : 1 John 5:10 . He shortened the full text, presumably to make it more pithy.

The full text is:
"He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself: he that believeth not, God hath made him a liar; because he believeth not the record that God gave of his Son."
- King James Bible "Authorized Version", Cambridge Edition

Do trained philosopher / theologians accept this point of view? The answer seems to be yes, as I will show with reference to William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga.

William Lane Craig

This perspective is articulated cogently in the video below, by William Lane Craig, who is a theologian, philosopher and prolific writer and debater. (Type "William Lane Craig" into the You Tube search bar and you will receive many pages of links.)

Within the first minute of the interview Craig says, "The way that I know that Christianity is true is first and foremost on the basis of the witness of the holy spirit in my heart. And that this gives me a self-authenticating means of knowing that Christianity is true, wholly apart from the evidence". He doesn't describe what this sense of the "witness of the holy spirit" is, but Craig does describe methods of cultivating and fostering it. Between 3:40 and 4:15 in the video he states: " ...cultivating your spiritual life, engaging in spiritual disciplines like prayer, meaningful worship Christian music sharing your faith with other people, being involved with Christian service so that you will foster the witness of the holy spirit in your life (and) be filled with the holy spirit ..."

And there is the rub. As I noted in the previous post, I treated Christian claims very seriously in my childhood and teenage years. I "gave my heart to Jesus" on more than one occasion, desperately seeking that sense of God in-dwelling, or as Craig puts it the witness of the holy spirit. I tried the methods of fostering that spiritual sense that Craig recommends and in the end it did not work for me. I sometimes felt an emotional reaction to verbal appeals, Christian music and the combination of the two, songs and choruses. This emotional response quickly dissipated when the stimulus was removed and I noted that I felt similar heightened emotion with secular music and writing. Increasingly as I desperately searched for this sense that many others claimed they possessed, I began to feel that there was nothing there as I prayed, in fact, it felt like I was praying into a great void. I wondered what was wrong with me that I could not engender the sense of God in my life, but after a while I decided that just maybe there was nothing wrong with me. Maybe there was nothing real to find.

Who am I to say that Craig and other Christians are wrong in claiming this sense of God in their lives. I can't and I won't make that claim. I have no access into the interior lives of other people all I can do is make judgements from my personal introspection. The problem is that as Craig has stated this inner sense is first and foremost the evidence for the Christian God and experience. If inspection of his inner experience is unavailable to other people it is ultimately a flimsy basis for a claim as vast as the Christian one.

In the end, from my personal experience I agree with the converse of Craig's claim - a loss of this inner certainty of God's in-dwelling or never being able to even achieve such a sense, is important to the choice of non-belief.

The video is short, lasting only 5 minutes 38 seconds and is well worth listening to.



I have already described one of my problems with Craig's claim of the Witness of the Holy Spirit - my failure as a young Christian to find this experience, this was largely an emotional or psychological one.

There are rational problems with Craig's claim. (Craig did not invent this argument - it can be found in the New Testament, as I have already pointed out.) The view that the internal feeling of God's presence is a "self-authenticating means of knowing that Christianity is true, wholly apart from the evidence", is very problematic. Craig is explicitly stating that irrespective of evidence that might be presented refuting belief in God he will accept the claims of Christianity because of his internal feelings. This has the normal method of gaining understanding back to front:
Craig's Method
  1. Believe first that Jesus Christ is our saviour
  2. Encounter evidence and find a way to make it conform (drive it into the ground)
Evidentialist (Scientific) Approach
  1. Conduct a broad, unbiased search for evidence
  2. Draw the conclusion that is best supported by the evidence without prior favour for a particular outcome
Craig's method has the belief driving the investigation, whereas in the evidentialist method there is no prior belief, evidence is collected and a conclusion that fits the evidence is determined. It seems clear to me that the evidentialist approach is the method most likely to produce reliable information.

Craig also makes the claim that people's understanding of the Witness of the Holy Spirit is invariant over time while evidence is changeable, when he discusses the "shifting sands of evidence and argument which change from person to person, place to place, generation to generation. Whereas the Holy Spirit and his testimony gives every generation and every person immediate access to a knowledge of God, and the truth of Christianity that's independent of the shifting sands of time and place and person and historical contingency". Although our understanding of the universe around us is changing all the time, this does not mean that our current ideas will necessarily be invalidated with future developments - our understanding is cumulative. For an interesting discussion of this process see this article. The claim that the "Witness of the Holy Spirit" as understood by people is invariant between time, place and person is crazy. Has Craig made any study of Church History? The Thirty Year's War was one of the most destructive conflicts in European History, and differing understanding of the "Witness of the Holy Spirit" was an important element in starting and sustaining the war. Has he not heard of Roman Catholicism, the various strains of Orthodoxy, Arianism, Gnosticism and the widely divergent Protestant sects. Many Christians, now and from generation to generation, would take serious objection to many elements of Craig's, protestant evangelical, version of the "Witness of the Holy Spirit".

Suppose I were to make the following claim:
I have a self-authenticating feeling in my mind that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is the one true supernatural creator of the universe. And I will subordinate all other considerations to my faith. I will find a way to make evidence conform because I cannot be wrong about this. fsm
Most people would laugh out loud at such a claim, and think I was crazy to make it - but it is the same claim made by Craig (and the writer of 1 John) regarding a different supernatural entity.

This leads to another problem that I was grappling with in my late teens and early twenties. I called it the Geographical problem. I was agonising over the claim that "Jesus is Lord", but if I had been born in India I would be struggling with the claim that Khrisna is an incarnation of Vishnu. Specifically that: Krishna is the eighth incarnation of Lord Vishnu. The name Krishna appears as the 57th and 550th name of Lord Vishnu in Vishnu Sahasranama of the Mahabharata, and is also listed in the 24 Keshava Namas of Lord Vishnu which are recited and praised at the beginning of all Vedic pujas.

If I had been born in an Islamic country I would be listening to sermons like the one below.


Note at the 3:50 mark of the video the speaker talks about "the faith established in their hearts" being prior to believing the major claims of Islam. This is not as clear as Craig's argument, but it seems to be making the same general point.

Interestingly, although Craig makes very strong claims about the priority of internal conviction, he still argues enthusiastically for the logical arguments for the existence of God, particularly the Cosmological argument, which will be the topic of the next post.

Alvin Plantinga

Plantinga provides a more sophisticated and detailed argument, but it seems to me to be vulnerable to the same criticisms as that of Craig.

Here are some video discussions of Plantinga's arguments from Matt McCormick

The first two videos introduce Plantinga's views:







The third video deals with objections to Plantinga's arguments. These criticisms (many of which are similar to criticisms of Craig's views) are compelling to me.





So much for philosophers and theologians. Is there any other perspective on these issues?

Artists

Artists often catch the thrust of culture early in its development. One example is Matthew Arnold who wrote the magnificent poem Dover Beach in 1859. The penultimate stanza addresses the issues of this post.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

There was a time when faith enfolded and comforted people, but now that is not possible. Faith is actively retreating from us, described in the powerful line - "But now I only hear its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar".

The final lines of the stanza leave a bleak image of the emotional landscape resulting in the retreat of faith. Arnold provides a resolution in the final stanza that I will discuss in a later post.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The toughest thing ...

It was the evening of Sunday, 2nd February, 1975 and I was about to perform the most difficult act of my life.

I was sitting at the kitchen table at my parent's house. That morning I had performed my last public act as a member of the Salvation Army (the Army) by participating in the dedication service for my baby daughter, Catherine. (A dedications service in the Army, is the equivalent of a christening or baptism in other churches .)

My mother must have noticed the look of dread on my face as she asked me, "What is wrong, son?"

I took a deep breath and then said, "I no longer believe in God, so I am leaving the Army".

During the next 30 minutes, through the tears, I tried to explain my decision. I don't think I did a good job of it. This is the first of a series of posts that rectify that lack of clarity, explaining how I came to that momentous decision and how my thoughts on the topic have developed over the last 39 years.

Later that evening, in the privacy of our room, my then wife (Christina) asked me why I could not just pretend. The point was that the pain of "just pretending" over the previous 3 or 4 years had eventually forced me to make my stand.

_______________________________

I had been raised in a very religious family. Many of my earliest memories involved the Army and Christianity.

I remember watching my father take on tasks that went against the grain of his personality, all because of his devotion to God and the Army.

In 1955, when I was five, we shifted to our new home in Glenroy, (a northern suburb of Melbourne, Australia). We still attended Kensington Corps (church) about eight stops down the local railway line. We attended Kensington because my mother's parents (Senior Majors Frederick and Irene Goold) were the officers (Ministers) there. Sundays were long days. We arrived in Kensington before the 11:00 am service and did not leave for home until after the evening service which finished at about 8:15 pm. One evening I remember getting off the train at a dark Glenroy station and watching dad starting up a conversation with another man wearing a Salvation Army uniform. I remember my irritation (I was tired and wanted to get home) while I observed the seemingly interminable conversation. The other person, I later discovered, was Envoy Goodinson, and he and my father hatched a plan to start up a Salvation Army corps at Glenroy during that meeting. The corps is still operating today, with my brother, Phillip, in the role as Sargent Major (the equivalent to Senior Elder or Vicar's Warden in other churches).

Churches need money to operate and I remember my dad coming home from work, eating his evening meal, donning his uniform and then heading out into the night to knock on doors asking for donations for the Army. He was not an outgoing person, and did not enjoy these evenings collecting, but he did it because he saw collecting as part of his religious duty.

Glenroy corps was a fairly small one, so particularly in the early years, tasks fell to dad that he would have avoided in a larger setting. One of these was the Salvation Army athletics day. As a kid, I enjoyed the athletics day, but it fell to my father to organise Glenroy's contingent. He was not at all interested in sport. He had very few days off. He worked on week days and Sundays were always very busy, so Saturdays and public holidays were precious to him, as a means of recharging his batteries. He was depressive with limited energy resources. I remember one athletics carnival morning, I was excited to be going to compete but was very aware that my dad was struggling with the burden of organisation. Happily others saw his difficulties and another man said that he would take over which allowed my dad to go home and rest. As we drove off to the athletics oval I was very pleased that my father had been relieved of this task that he found so onerous. The same man who took over the task currently visits my dad in his nursing home every Friday afternoon.

These and similar memories of my parents devotion to their God and their church made my non belief announcement extremely difficult.

So why did I make the decision and abrupt announcement?

_______________________________

I first "gave my heart to Jesus" at age 7. I had heard others (including my father's brother, Bill) talk of their childhood conversions, and thought that it was the appropriate thing to do.

The Army held yearly meetings (services) for all members in my state. These meetings were called Congress. I remember when I was 16 sitting in an evening Congress meeting listening to the music, singing the songs (hymns) listening to personal testimonies of God's grace, and the sermon. There was the usual appeal for people to make their commitment to Jesus and I found myself walking to the front of the hall to be counselled. In my youth and teen years I was surrounded by believers and tried desperately to find the God that so many others claimed had transformed their lives. During my late teens and early 20s doubts grew in my mind. More of this in the next and subsequent posts.

I was twenty-four when I made my final stand. Why did it take so long, if my doubts started six or seven years previously.

There are two explanations for my tardiness, other than my reluctance to hurt my parents. The first was that the doubts and uncertainties grew slowly and the second was that announcing my ideas publicly would cause serious difficulties. I needed to get an education - secondary and tertiary - and the cheapest and easiest way of financing this was by staying at home with my parents. My father helped me purchase my first car which made access to the University across town much easier.

It was also surprisingly easy to pretend. I played in the Glenroy Salvation Army corps band. On one occasion we were to play at a combined Christian service at the local Anglican Church. As is usual with Salvo bands we met before the service for the band master to give final instructions and to pray that God's work would be extended by our playing. The Anglican Archbishop was in the room with us as the band master asked me to pray. At this stage my doubts were starting to solidify and I was not at all sure that the God that I was praying to, really existed; but I knew what a prayer in that circumstance should include so I gave a perfectly acceptable prayer with my fellow bandsmen and the Archbishop.

After graduation I was posted to teach at a school in Mildura - about six hours drive from Melbourne. This should have been my chance to make my stand but I didn't take it then for a number of reasons. I was not strong and decisive and had a number of other issues on my plate. The first year of teaching - even in a relatively easy country school - is very difficult and that was one of the major issues on my mind. To tell the truth, I was quite afraid that I would make a mess of my career. The other reason for my lack of action on the religion front is that we were going to a town where we knew no one. I would meet people at school but the only ready made social group for my wife was the local Salvation Army corps.

So through a lack of decisiveness, other more important issues on my plate and concern for my family I found myself playing in the band at the Mildura Army Corps and participating in services and Army activities, even though by then I had pretty well given up on my belief in God. My time at Mildura Salvos was made more difficult by a piece of recent corps history. Some years before I arrived, a Salvationist teacher had been appointed to the the school. He was very committed to God and the Army, and was very capable. He had a significant impact on the Mildura corps. He had transferred back to Melbourne a few years before I arrived, and the members of the Corps thought that they had found a replacement for him when I arrived. How wrong they were.

By December 1974 I had all my ducks in a row. I was totally fed up with the sham and hypocrisy of my pretence at religious belief and I was now financially and occupationally independent. I realised that I could not quietly glide out of my religious predicament. When a Salvationist stops wearing uniform it is a very big statement. I also thought that my parents deserved an explanation of my decision. I made careful plans. Before we left Mildura for the summer holidays in Melbourne, I gave my musical instrument (a tenor horn) to the band master stating that I would not be using it in the next six weeks and that he would likely have a better use for it than me. Actually, I did not intend to play it again.

I decided that it would be best to make my big announcement on the evening of the last Sunday of our holiday in Melbourne. If I had made an early statement it would have been followed by weeks of earnest and emotional discussion that I wanted to avoid.

Another reason for delay was that my wife (Christina) was very pregnant and Catherine was born on New Years Day 1975. We were all very busy with the new baby for most of our stay.

_______________________________

While I was unleashing my bombshell, that Sunday evening, my two girls, Beth (2 years old) and Catherine (less than a month) were asleep in their room. Naturally they are now adults and interestingly are both Salvationists. Catherine, who I dedicated that morning, is now a Salvation Army officer, and although I disagree with her on matters of religion I am very proud of the work she does in caring for damaged and desperate people who have been outcast by the rest of society.

_______________________________

What were the gains and losses in my decision?

The major gain is quite clear - a sense that I had regained some integrity and honesty. I no longer had to pretend to believe ideas that now seemed absurd to me. Unlike some churches, the Salvation Army can be quite direct with the question "Are you saved ?" and it can sometimes be quite difficult to avoid a direct answer.

When I was a believer (or when I was trying to be one), I scrutinized all of my actions or thoughts, no matter how trivial, with the question: "Is this what a Christian should be doing?". One Christian believer, who was close to me, went to see the musical Hair, which has a famous mass nude scene at the end. I thought that it was not the sort of show that a Christian should be attending, so I did not see it. It might well be that in my uncertainty and doubt I was applying a higher standard of Christian behaviour than necessary, and that people who were more confident with their Christianity could take a more relaxed approach. One change that I noticed when my beliefs became public was that I no longer applied the level of scrutiny to my behaviour that I once had. That was seriously a relief.

Some people who came to reject their (fundamentalist) religious beliefs have stated that it was a relief to now accept basic and clear science. This was never an issue for me as I had always found a way to reconcile religious belief with scientific fact. More on that issue in a later post.

One loss for me was not playing in the band, but the fact that I did not even consider joining a secular band indicates that this was not a major loss. Some people who reject their former theisic beliefs note a loss of community as many of their friends were in the Church. This was not a major problem for me as many of the religious people that I knew had been annoying me, for some time, with their narrow mindedness and thoughtlessness.

A quite devastating loss that some newly minted atheists report is rejection by their family. This was not an issue for me as I contemplated my options leading up to my big announcement. My family members were extremely disappointed with my choice but there was no decline of their love and concern for me. I have only become aware that rejection by family was a possibility while reading deconversion stories in recent years.

_______________________________

These posts are an attempt to explain the reasons for my religious (or irreligious) opinions.

In the words of one of the most famous men of history - Here I stand, I can do no other ...

_______________________________

Here is a link to my next post called The Witness of the Holy Spirit .

Monday, March 24, 2014

Summer Holiday 2013

For our overseas trip in 2013 we returned to Europe. We owe a debt of thanks to our friend and travel agent Christine Klein for her great organisation of our trip.

If you need a travel agent contact Christine. She is easily contactable, friendly, informed and efficient.

We don't fly non-stop to Europe any more instead we have a 2 day stopover in Dubai. Although it is always hot, there are always plenty of interesting sights to visit.

Here is a link to my post on our Dubai visit.

From Dubai, we flew on to Paris. This was Margaret's fifth visit to the city and the magic has worn off for her - "Paris, been there done that!". This time we managed to visit a location that I wanted to do for many years. We also had a surprise meeting.

For the details of our Paris trip click on this link.

After Paris we had booked a tour of Ireland and Scotland.

Here is the link to Ireland ,

and

here is the link to Scotland.

England 2013

After the tour (of Ireland and Scotland) we spent two weeks in Lancashire, based at Philip's house in Preston.

We arrived at about the same time as Philip's bees, and we watched him set up his hive.

We also attended the end of year concert at Hayley's school, and were entertained by two choirs that Hayley is a member of.
A must in that part of the world is the picturesque Lake District.


Margaret turned 70 while we were in England.

Philip organised a party at Jamie Oliver's restaurant in Manchester, where we had a great celebration.


Scotland 2013

When we had completed our tour of Ireland, we took a ferry to Scotland.

Naturally pipers were everywhere.
Among the many places we visited was Edinburgh Castle.
One of our favourite crime writers is Ian Rankin, whose detective, John Rebus, drinks in the Oxford Bar in Edinburgh. It is a real bar, Rankin's favourite watering hole. For many years I have wanted to visit the Ox, and finally achieved that ambition. The photo shows me drinking to Rebus in the front bar.


Ireland 2013

After France we toured Ireland, starting in Dublin.

Dublin is an attractive city to walk around, with many historical and cultural points of interest.

The Easter Uprising of 1916 is commemorated by the statue at right, in the front window of the General Post office (middle left) which was the headquarters of the Uprising. Dublin was the hometown of many writers, including, James Joyce (middle right), Jonathan Swift (bottom left) and Oscar Wilde (bottom right)
Jonathan Swift's grave in St Patrick's Cathedral Oscar Wilde memorial
We saw some attractive countryside in our tour through Ireland, including:



France 2013


One of my memories as a child is the family talking about a French town, Villers-Bretonneux, where my paternal grandfather, Samuel Charles Spencer, was wounded in April 1918, as he fought in WWI. Margaret and I finally achieved our desire to visit the town when we visited France in 2013.
For details on grandpa Spencer's war experiences click on this link

The main Australian war memorial in France is located at Villers-Bretonneux. The photograph at left shows the two major features of the memorial, the cross and the tower.

The photo below (left) is taken from the War Memorial and shows Villers-Bretonneux across the valley.

The school in the village houses a museum and the school yard has a sign "Do not forget Australia" as can be seen in the photo below (right.
We visited many more locations on the battlefields tour, including some where trenches had been preserved, as shown at left.

Margaret and I stayed near the Gare du Nord in Paris and I posted the photo, from our hotel window, shown below (left) on Facebook. I was surprised to find a Facebook message from my cousin, Suzanne Cook, to say that it was the same as from her window. We were all staying in the same hotel! We spent some time together particularly in our favourite bar on the corner of our street (photo bottom right).
Brian, Michaela, Margaret and Suzanne sharing an afternoon drink.
Our hotel was within walking distance of Montmartre.

We visited Sacre Coeur cathedral, and I climbed the stairs to the viewing area, which provided great panoramas of Paris.

Margaret spent some time shopping in some of the side streets of Montmartre.


Thursday, December 12, 2013

Christmas Letter 2013

This has been a mixed year for us.


MUM


In May Stephen’s mother, Edna, passed away.
She had fought ill health all her life.

Stephen’s first recollection of his mum was visiting her in hospital when he was quite young. In the last two years of her life she struggled with the aftermath of a stroke.

The photograph, at right, shows her enjoying her 84th birthday. Those below were taken at her 80th birthday and at Fiona's wedding. (To view a larger version of each photo click on the photo. To close the larger photo click on the X in the top right corner.)



If you click on the slide show it will be paused and the photos will be opened in a new window or tab.
Unfortunately the Slideshow does not appear on Apple devices.
To see the pictures click on this link.


Dad is settled and comfortable in the nursing home, and misses here terribly as do we all.

FRANCE


Another childhood memory Stephen has is the family talking about a French town, Villers-Bretonneux, where his paternal grandfather, Samuel Charles Spencer, was wounded in April 1918, as he fought in WWI. Margaret and I finally achieved our desire to visit the town when we visited Europe (France, Ireland, Scotland, England) this year.
For details on grandpa Spencer's war experiences click on this link

The main Australian war memorial in France is located at Villers-Bretonneux. The photograph at left shows the two major features of the memorial, the cross and the tower.

The photo below (left) is taken from the War Memorial and shows Villers-Bretonneux across the valley.

The school in the village houses a museum and the school yard has a sign "Do not forget Australia" as can be seen in the photo below (right.
We visited many more locations on the battlefields tour, including some where trenches had been preserved, as shown at left.

Margaret and I stayed near the Gare du Nord in Paris and I posted the photo, from our hotel window, shown below (left) on Facebook. I was surprised to find a Facebook message from my cousin, Suzanne Cook, to say that it was the same as from her window. We were all staying in the same hotel! We spent some time together particularly in our favourite bar on the corner of our street (photo bottom right).
Brian, Michaela, Margaret and Suzanne sharing an afternoon drink.
Our hotel was within walking distance of Montmartre.

We visited Sacre Coeur cathedral, and Stephen climbed the stairs to the viewing area, which provided great panoramas of Paris.

Margaret spent some time shopping in some of the side streets of Montmartre.


DUBAI


We broke out trip to Europe with a two day stopover in Dubai. For details click on this link .

IRELAND


After France we toured Ireland, starting in Dublin.

Dublin is an attractive city to walk around, with many historical and cultural points of interest.

The Easter Uprising of 1916 is commemorated by the statue at right, in the front window of the General Post office (middle left) which was the headquarters of the Uprising. Dublin was the hometown of many writers, including, James Joyce (middle right), Jonathan Swift (bottom left) and Oscar Wilde (bottom right)
Jonathan Swift's grave in St Patrick's Cathedral Oscar Wilde memorial
We saw some attractive countryside in our tour through Ireland, including:



SCOTLAND

We took a ferry to Scotland.

Naturally pipers were everywhere.
Among the many places we visited was Edinburgh Castle.
One of our favourite crime writers is Ian Rankin, whose detective, John Rebus, drinks in the Oxford Bar in Edinburgh. It is a real bar, Rankin's favourite watering hole. Stephen has wanted to visit the Ox for many years, and finally achieved that ambition. The photo shows him drinking to Rebus in the front bar.


ENGLAND

After the tour we spent two weeks in Lancashire, based at Philip's house in Preston.

We arrived at about the same time as Philip's bees, and we watched him set up his hive.

We also attended the end of year concert at Hayley's school, and were entertained by two choirs that Hayley is a member of.
A must in that part of the world is the picturesque Lake District.


Thank you to our friend and travel agent Christine Klein for her organisation of our trip.

MARGARET'S 70th BIRTHDAY

Margaret turned 70 while we were in England.

Philip organised a party at Jamie Oliver's restaurant in Manchester, where we had a great celebration.


CHRISTMAS

Like most people, have been to many Christmas events, with a few more in the pipeline.

A real highlight occurred at our Village Carols Service when Mark Creasey, Cameron Creasey, Joshua Creasey and Phillip Spencer (along with a Village resident, Rodney Ashfield) provided the music. It was a great contribution to Village life and we were very proud of them.

Here is a video of from event.



Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

   from

        Margaret and Stephen