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Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Being There: A Eulogy to Our Dog Carter

(Photo credit: Amateur photographer and family friend Mark Singletary)

(Photo credit: Amateur photographer and family friend Mark Singletary)

Today our canine companion of 15 years—about the length of our marriage—died. He passed away peacefully at the age of 17 with his closest family around him, stroking him wistfully between sobs and thanking him for the life and love he  shared with us.

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Velvet-eared, sweet and gentle Carter was a rescue dog, just a garden-variety lab mix with a personality that made you want to love him for the rest of his life. He was dropped off on our porch during our first year of marriage, a time when we were still acclimating to newlywed life. Carter had been found as a puppy roaming a construction site in rural Tennessee, and—as we soon discovered was typical of Carter—charmed his way into the hearts of the men who worked there. They soon were feeding him scraps and one day, one of the men, an acquaintance from church, dropped Carter off on our porch in hopes a new dog might lift our spirits after the loss of our last dog Truman.

15 Years of Being There…

There are so many things by which to remember our dog. His boundless energy on long hikes or accompanying us on jogs. The way he seemed to intuit when we were having a bad day, and would tenderly put his muzzle in our lap, letting us stroke his head and tell him about it. And, before children came along, Carter’s warm body cuddled up next to us in bed at the end of a day. He just wanted to be with us no matter what. Even when my husband and I couldn’t be around one another, and there have been those moments, Carter was always there— and we could always be around Carter.

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Carter’s unfailingly sweet disposition to all belied his capacity as a hunter in the wild. (Carter had come to us after spending at least a year, maybe two, surviving on his own in the woods, after all.) There was the time when a neighbor kid issued a 10-year-old boy’s taunt one day as we were standing in front of our apartment in Princeton, New Jersey: “Wouldn’t it be cool if Carter could catch that squirrel?!,” he exclaimed, as we watched Carter zero in on a squirrel 10 feet away, his body gearing up for a chase.

Carter caught that squirrel, and pretty soon had it in his jaws, flinging that squirrel by the neck in a death grip—all to the neighbor kid’s enthusiastic shouts of “Yeah, Carter!,” and to the kid’s parents’ horror at an unfolding scene that, because of its grisliness, probably would not be shown on your average PBS nature program.

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Then there was the time that 40-pound Carter took down a fully grown adult deer on the Princeton golf course. Early in the mornings we would let Carter run free on that open field of meticulously clipped, rolling green carpet. One morning, however, during a snow storm in early spring, my husband came back from a walk to report that Carter had caught and killed a deer, one of the many in the woods around the seminary apartment complex we inhabited. After the unstoppable carnage, the deer’s carcass had been too big to lug or haul anywhere, so we had been obliged to leave the unlucky deer there, and to imagine what it would be like for some pharmaceutical executive in his perfectly white golfing knickers to discover venison near the tenth hole. We still feel a bit sorry about that incident.

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When our first child came along, there was an adjustment period, and we wondered, especially I in my jittery, anxious first days of motherhood, whether Carter would treat my newborn child like just another squirrel or deer. But Carter was smart, and he soon caught on that he had taken a new position in the family food chain. After that, he became a loyal protector of our kids, always enduring even the rough shoves and pulls of toddlers with nothing but an abiding patience—even in his twilight years. He accepted his lot with grace, contenting himself just to be there, even if it meant being an afterthought next to dirty diapers, skinned knees and swim lessons and soccer practices.

In recent years, Carter had been there, too. A stable, faithful presence. When in old age he no longer could go on hikes with us, he still would greet us with his tail wildly wagging, as if we were the best thing that had happened to him; and when any of us would leave the house, he would whimper. He was our canine cheerleader of sorts, and he was always there, even when we took him for granted.

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During the last months of his life, Carter could no longer climb our home’s steep stairs to join us in the TV room on family movie nights or to lie at my feet as I worked. That was hard for him.  Some days he would cry and whimper at the foot of the stairs, because all he really wanted was to be there next to us. But his hips had started to give way and cause him pain.

And When Being There Was Hurting Him Too Much…

There were other issues, too, that in recent days came to a head and led to the awareness that Carter did not deserve to be kept around for our sake anymore. His quality of life had so greatly diminished.

Carter rallied again for us this afternoon, just before the vet came to inject him with sodium pentobarbital. He wanted to join us for one last romp around the yard on a bright day in early spring—and, somewhat begrudgingly, for some family photos.

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Then, surrounded by teary-eyed family telling him how much they loved him and how much he had been a gift to us, Carter climbed onto his comfy bed for one last time; and, with his tired, now white-haired muzzle enclosed by a cup of Dairy Queen soft serve ice cream, Carter drifted off into a long and peaceful sleep.

The vet said we were sending Carter to heaven. I hope so. Because if he’s not there, I’m not sure what hope there is for the rest of us.

God speed, boy. I’ll miss you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Author Marilynne Robinson Live: On Soul Vs. Mind and Why It Matters

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson's latest book is Lila.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson’s latest book is Lila.

My favorite contemporary author Marilynne Robinson was in town this week speaking at an event hosted by Emory’s University’s Carlos Museum. She was speaking with an astrophysicist who was also brilliant—but I was mostly there to hear Marilynne, whose gentle, colorfully evocative conjurations of grace in the lives and words of her novels’ characters keep wooing me back to her work.

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At one point in the conversation she was asked to comment on what she views as the difference between the soul and the mind.

The soul, she said, is independent of one’s biography, (whereas the mind, implicitly, is); and the soul is more like God’s “investment” in every person.

The soul is more like God’s investment in each of us.

And if the soul is God investment, then what more particularly is this divine investment? If the assumption is that we are all “divinely invested,” what is that investment? Is it the image of God? Love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness and self-control—all of those things that I so often lack? Is it the gift or gifts with which God has entrusted us, be they a capacity to write like Marilynne…or dance like Justin Bieber? Or is it simply God’s breath—the creative Word of God which cannot return to God empty?

What is God’s investment in you and in me?

That, it seems, is a question by which to live.

 

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Dying Stanford Neurosurgeon—On Heidegger, Graham Greene and Time

Stanford neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi savors a moment with his daughter Cady. (Credit: Mark Hanlon, Washington Post)

Stanford neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi savors a moment with his daughter Cady. (Credit: Mark Hanlon, Washington Post)

I’m finally emerging from hibernation on my latest book project, this one now definitively titled The Recovery-Friendly Church: Loving and Ministering to People with Addictions (InterVarsity Press) and slated for release this fall. (Last week the book’s publication with IVP finally became official with the signing of a contract and after a long vetting process that involved consideration of, rather overwhelmingly, six offers of publication from prospective publishers.) This week I put the finishing touches on our now completed manuscript—or at least a first draft of a manuscript, which has been my big excuse for not coming by this intersection during the last few months. So I am glad to be back.

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This morning I am grateful for the life and wisdom of the late Stanford neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi, who died Monday at the age of 37, having only recently witnessed the birth of his daughter Cady. Kalanithi’s meditations on dying and making the most of time were published yesterday in The Washington Post. Here is Kalanithi with some parting thoughts for his daughter and for the rest of us.

 

 

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Writing Sabbatical—and “The Departure of the Prodigal Son”

I’m sorry: my absenteeism at this intersection can be attributed to a number of things lately, the most pressing of which is my forthcoming book with author and Christian addiction specialist Jonathan Benz. The book (Prodigal Church or a version of it) is now officially under deadline and by April 1 I’m to have a manuscript to the publisher (which we will announce shortly, with a hard decision pending). So I’m having to take a writing “sabbatical”—although that term makes the next few months sound misleadingly restful and enjoyably languorous, like sipping cappucinos in a Paris coffee shop while penning poetry. The reality is that I’m a bit under the gun.

So regrettably we won’t catch each other here hardly at all during the next couple of months….but I’ll be back.

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For the time being, here’s a poem, “The Departure of the Prodigal Son,” by the poet Rainer Maria Wilke, an excerpt of which will appear within the pages of Prodigal Church—and which asks the question “What drives you to go forth?”:

To go forth now
from all the entanglement
that is ours and yet not ours,
that, like the water in an old well,
reflects us in fragments, distorts what we are.

From all that clings
like burrs and brambles–
to go forth
and see for once, close up, afresh,
what we had ceased to see–
so familiar it had become.
To glimpse how vast and how impersonal
is the suffering that filled your childhood.

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Yes, to go forth,
hand pulling away from hand.
Go forth to what? To uncertainty,
to a country with no connections to us
and indifferent to the dramas of our life.

What drives you to go forth? 
Impatience, instinct, a dark need,
the incapacity to understand.

To bow to all this.
To let go–
even if you have to die alone.

Is this the start of a new life?

 

 

 

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Restless Soul Hall of Fame: Sister Corita Kent

Credit: Corita Art Center, by way of NPR)

Sister Corita Kent, in front of her artwork, at Immaculate Heart College in 1964 (Credit: Corita Art Center, by way of NPR)

Since NPR’s recent segment, Sister Corita Kent has come to mind a few times this week as someone who deserves to be added to our Restless Souls’ Hall of Fame—yes, it’s a bit of a new concept here at this intersection, but I like it, and on occasion will be adding lesser-known figures like Sister Kent to its ranks. By “restless souls,” I mean the spiritual exiles of our time—people who are seeking after God and finding God in the world around them, often outside of mainstream, traditional church which has failed them.

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Sister Kent, whose artwork is now on exhibit at the Andy Warhol Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, once headed the art department of Immaculate Heart College, in Los Angeles, California. Like Warhol, Kent used images from the advertising world and pop culture to fashion her creations, but in the case of Kent, a Catholic nun, these works were expressions of her Christian faith.

In this way, something as mundane as the slogan on a General Mills cereal box— “the Big G stands for Goodness”—which served as General Mills’ logo, could be transformed into a meditation on God Himself as “God,” “goodness,” and “spiritual goodness.” Or, similarly, Kent could juxtapose other advertising logos with verses from Scripture and quotes from Gertrude Stein and the poet e.e. cummings. Just a Wonder Bread wrapper could elicit reflections on hunger and poverty.

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Kent eventually left the college and convent over differences with her bishop, who, in reaction to Vatican II reforms, made known his discontent over Kent’s preference to choose secular clothes over the habit. But as NPR recalls, Kent never left the church and continued producing art with overtly spiritual themes.

In her later years, Kent fought cancer several times, and the darkness of this struggle comes through in her later artwork. But, in 1985, she created her “Love” stamp for the U.S. Postal Service (which I still remember from my own childhood), 700 million copies of which were sold.

I am grateful to NPR for the introduction to Kent. In many ways what Kent did with art, I have sought to do in the writing of my first book Grace Sticks, as a bumper sticker-inspired meditation on The Way, The Truth and The Life. Kent’s relentless search for traces of God from among the often banal, mundane artifacts of American consumerism is a reminder that just about anyone can search for God and find God in the very ordinary circumstances of their life.

 

 

 

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“I Am Charlie Hebdo”

The cover of the latest edition of Charlie Hebdo. (Credit: Charlie Hebdo, AFP)

The cover of the latest edition of Charlie Hebdo. (Credit: Charlie Hebdo, AFP)

I struggle to know how to greet you after such a long hiatus from posting here—and in light of how much has happened in the world since Christmas, the most obvious development being last week’s horrifying events in Paris and a growing public incantation against religious violence and threats to freedom of speech in the form of a the chant “I am Charlie Hebdo.”

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Honestly, last week left me feeling down in the dumps. What drives such senseless acts of murder? The notion that somehow the prophet Muhammad needs to be protected from slander? Really? It would be one thing if Muslims believed Muhammad to be God. That motivation, while it still does not justify killing other human beings, would at least be a bit more understandable. But mass killing and suicidal craziness to defend the name of a human being, however revered, are nothing less than absurd!

I have no answers here, only wonderment, but maybe you have some thoughts. Feel free to leave them below.

In the meantime, my latest book project is coming along. Prodigal Church, a tool book for church leaders on addiction and recovery, is making unglamorously steady progress. Last week’s deadline signified the official halfway mark. And I’m glad to be back again a bit more at this intersection between God and life, and to wish you a Happy New Year. Come on back every so often. It’s always nice to see you here.

 

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A Christmas Homily

While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. —Luke 2:6,7

The sheer physicality of this picture strikes me this Christmas. The baby Jesus, wrapped not in swaddling, baptismal-like garments of the kind you might see in a Renaissance painter’s sumptuous rendering—but in whatever is on hand at the end of a sweaty, arduous journey by two poor pilgrims.

A woman in labor, a first-time father standing by trying to help and only partially succeeding, the animals restlessly crowded around, startled by the new interlopers in their midst. Blood. Sweat. Dirt. Hay. Steaming piles of fresh manure.

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And a Jesus who will end his life much as he began it, in blood, sweat, poverty and rejection, wrapped in cloth.

Did Mary expect to deliver her firstborn son in a manger, next to a few cows and sheep? Did she manage at least a laugh at the strange hilarity of her plight, in between the first contractions and the stomping, snorting and lowing of farm animals? Or, did she feel only quiet resignation that bearing a Savior of the world would require this poverty and rejection? But I digress…

This first Christmas was a material one, too, just not in the way we’ve come to celebrate it. Not in harried online shopping and last-minute trips to the mall. Not in worries that the gift we gave was not expensive or impressive enough.

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The “material” Jesus comes to redeem are the blood, sweat, tears, poverty and limitation that go along with being human. We need the physicality of this scene, just as we need the physicality of the crucifixion. It is here that our redemption begins. This human God is at the core of what Christians have proclaimed across the centuries. By being with us, by being in our shoes, God begins the work of redemption that continues to this day. “God with us”—the same “Immanuel” the prophet Isaiah proclaimed would come to His people—is a God who cares about our frail human flesh and its corruption. Blood, sweat, tears, poverty and rejection—all of the hardest parts of being human—need to be part of the Christmas story for the very reason that they are the things we most need to know God will redeem.

May your Christmas be richly blessed with the renewed assurance that God is redeeming the hardest parts of being human—of being uniquely you—through the work of One who is with you in the mess.

Merry Christmas!

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Mental Health Break—Sprawl II

My favorite band these days is Arcade Fire, and I’ve featured the Canadian indie rock group before at this intersection between God and life. The lead singer studied Kirkegaard in college and their songs, like this one, are often subtle but brilliant critiques of the least aesthetically pleasing things about Western (post)modernity: in this case, suburban sprawl and its tendency to strip human beings of their need for beauty and the aesthetics of truth, reducing them into often faceless, dehumanized puppets of sort (as the video below seems to suggest). But, in addition to penning meaningful lyrics, the band knows how to write some really snappy, get-under-your-skin tunes and (I’m told) are amazing in concert.

Here is Sprawl II:

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I Can’t Breathe and the Widow’s Cry—A Guest Post

Fellow saint and sinner Saskia de Vries is a neuroscientist in Seattle, Washington and has posted before at this intersection between God and life. She, like so many of us, is grappling with the tragedies of Eric Garner and Michael Brown and the larger systemic problem they seem to reveal—namely, a pattern of police brutality against African Americans in this country.

And, on the heels of this week’s release of the U.S. Senate report documenting our country’s use of torture, I suggest that Saskia’s reflections have even broader prophetic resonance for the American church. How we treat people—no matter what they look like or the color of their skin—is a “litmus test” of our faith, according to Jesus.

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Here is Saskia with some timely and profound reflections on the story Jesus tells of the persistent widow:

A couple years ago, I preached a sermon on the Faith of Christ. Looking at some of the healing stories in the Gospels, I talked about how the faith of Christ is not about believing things, it’s not accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior, it’s not about trusting that Jesus was the Messiah. The faith of Christ is knowing that all people are valued and actively caring for them. It’s knowing that a bleeding woman, a slave, or a Samaritan leper, are just as worthy as a prominent Rabbi. It’s valuing people, even people that aren’t valued by society.

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One of the passages that helped me see this was the Parable of Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1-8):

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ ” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:1-8)

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Luke tells us from the start that this is a parable about the need to pray always and be persistent. It is strikingly similar to the parable of the friend at midnight (Luke 11), knocking on the door at midnight asking for bread. Jesus taught, “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door shall be opened for you.” (Luke 11:9). It sounds like this parable is more of the same. It is the gospel of the squeaky wheel: complain, and you will receive; whine, and it shall be given unto you. Yet, many have cautioned against this interpretation. After all, how many of us have found our most ardent prayers unanswered, despite our persistence. No, this is not a parable about persistent prayer.

This parable comes right after Jesus had been teaching his disciples about the “days of the Son of Man.” The days will be sudden and unannounced. “I tell you,” Jesus said, “on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left.” (Luke 17: 34) It will be obvious when it comes, Jesus tells them, but there will be no signs that it is coming. So you’d better be ready. Immediately he tells them about the widow and the judge, concluding “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” The important question, Jesus tells us, is not when will the Son of Man come, but when he does come, will he find faith? This parable is not about prayer so much as it is about faith.

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But where is the faith in this parable? There’s nothing in the parable about beliefs, no trust, and not even any mention of Jesus. Instead what we find is a widow who refuses to shut up. We all know a widow is a woman whose husband has died. However, the Hebrew word used in the Bible for widow, almanah, actually conveys something a bit different. It wasn’t just that an almanah was a woman who had lost her husband, but in the process she was left without financial support. There are women in the Bible whose husbands died who are never referred to by this word: Ruth, Naomi, Orpah, Abigail. While these women had lost their husbands, they had maintained a means of support. But the widows, the almanot, in the Bible, they had no support. They were poor, destitute really, and more than that, they lacked any social standing. Indeed, the word almanah derives from the root alam, which meant to be concealed, to be put to silence. Widows were women who had been silenced, who had no voice, had no standing in society. As such, women had not standing to appeal to a judge on their own behalf. So the fact that the judge refused her is not necessarily an indictment against him, not completely. I would even argue that the fact that he finally grants her justice is an act of faith on his part. It may be delayed, and it might not even be for the right reasons, but in the end he grants her justice. This judge, who neither fears God nor respects people, was finally faithful… and yet, will the Son of Man find faith on earth?

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The Bible, from the Torah through the prophets and into the new testament gospels and letters, instructs us to care for widows (eg. Deuteronomy 24:17, Isaiah 1:17, Jeremiah 7:6, Zechariah 7:10). It’s not about bringing old women casseroles after their husbands pass away, or about making sure someone cleans out their gutters in the fall. It’s about not letting the almanot be concealed and left without a voice. It is mentioned so often that the welfare of the widow becomes a litmus test of the moral character of Israel. So from its outset, this parable in and of itself is an indictment for all of God’s people. A widow being denied justice is the very definition of unrighteousness, of faithlessness – not just for the judge, but for everyone. Whatever the situation is that she is begging for justice, it should never have reached this point. Someone should have intervened on her behalf long ago. Some one with standing should be pleading the judge on her behalf, and a just judge, someone who does fear God and have respect for people, should have quickly granted her justice. But instead, the widow is left to plead her own case, while everyone around her wishes she’d just be quiet.

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In the past few months and weeks I’ve been stunned by the deaths of black men killed at the hands of police officers. I’ve been confused by the justice system returning grand jury decisions that I don’t understand. I’ll be the first to say that I don’t know exactly what to do about the situation. I honestly haven’t read that much about the different incidents, only enough to know that Michael Brown and Eric Garner should not be dead. I’ve read enough to know that it’s about more than those two men, that the justice system works differently for black people in our country than for white. And I’ve read more than enough to know that something has to change. When I hear “I can’t breathe” or “hands up don’t shoot”, I hear the voice of the widow begging the unjust judge. “I can’t breathe” is quite literally the cry of one who has been silenced, an almanah. Justice is being denied. We are failing at faith.

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We need to fix this. I have no panacea to offer. But I know that I must add my voice to those who cry with the almanot. Because black lives matter. I know we cannot wish that people would just be quiet, that the protests would fade away so we can get back to our lives. Because black lives matter. And I know we need to acknowledge and correct the racism that continues to pervade our justice system and our country. Because black lives matter.

We’ve been called to grant justice to the widow. Over and over again, we’ve been called to grant justice to those who are oppressed and those who have been silenced. This is our litmus test. Let’s get this right. So that when the Son of Man comes, he will find faith on earth.

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Advent and Emptiness, Via Louis CK and the Prophet Isaiah

I’ve been making my way through the book of Isaiah. This morning’s reading was from chapter 6, where the prophet Isaiah receives his call to go to the people of Israel and proclaim God’s judgment of a people who have wandered away from God’s purposes for them. Isaiah asks how long God’s people will languish in a state of spiritual blindness, their senses dulled to right relationship with God and neighbor. God answers: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the Lord sends everyone far away and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.”

Until vast is the emptiness.

In other words, until the Babylonians have laid waste to the kingdom of Israel (technically Judah then), sending its people into captivity.

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Physical emptiness, or the barrenness of the land, is a sign of God’s judgment, at least in Isaiah’s case. An indication that Israel has turned its back on life with God to pursue other gods. But what about spiritual emptiness? The gaping hole in one’s soul that only God can fill has become a bit of an annoying cliche. (I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard it in sermons.) But the awareness that one is ultimately and existentially alone, and ultimately and existentially accountable for how one lives in the face of death, is a way to couch this emptiness that we tend to avoid as much as humanly possible until avoidance is no longer possible.

I don’t know: did God make us with this hole that longs to be filled, as the cliche often goes? Maybe.

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Or, is this emptiness as much a a sign of our spiritual dislocation? A dulling of our senses for the things of God, things like truth, beauty and justice, and faith, hope and love?

Too often Advent can be a time when we ignore the emptiness. But what if we listened to it just for a moment? Where would it lead us? Certainly away from our cell phones and white noise on the radio. Maybe to One who will save us from ourselves and be with us in our ultimate and existential aloneness, in a way that only God can do. Maybe even to a child in a manger.

Here is Louis CK with some thoughts on “that forever empty thing”:

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