The Insistent Knocking of a Broader Reality

For multiple years now Adventist General Conference (GC) ecclesiastic leadership has initiated forceful and categorical mandates for the church to adhere to specific doctrinal and cultural norms, with real consequences for those who might question their presumed legitimacy. This has been most notable with the threat of compliance committees, and is also part of the GC’s Faith and Science initiatives, convening multiple indoctrinational conferences to shore up belief in Young Earth Creationism. But the posture is generic, not tied to one specific context or issue. On the surface these declarations might appear to simply be restatements of recognized Adventist belief, but their framing goes farther.

An Analogy

Some years back I came across an analogy describing religious institutions. There were two contrasting physical analogs. One was to compare the organization to a peach, which had a hard core, meaning essential doctrine in the middle, but toward the outside it was soft. There was a definite boundary, the skin, but it was pliable. The second analog was an egg. Here too there was a defined center but it was all relatively soft compared to the outer boundary – the shell. And, if this shell-barrier was breached, the inner contents would spill out and the egg’s integrity would be destroyed. Thus, keeping the shell intact, even though it was somewhat fragile, was crucial.

Now analogies are always partial and never fully aligned with the original context they are compared to. But two salient points in this analogy are: 1) the essentiality and hierarchy of beliefs accepted by the group; and 2) the nature and strength of the boundary. Adventism, I suggest, has struggled between these models throughout its history. It should not be controversial that Christianity has doctrines that are not all equal. The path to salvation and Christian ethics do (and ought to) have more centrality than some of the more esoteric and cultural beliefs. And, within Adventism, this hierarchy has not always been obvious to everyone (to put it mildly). So historically we have elevated some “present truths” (e.g. eschatology) and cultural norms (e.g. smoking, vegetarianism) that have given the movement a distinctive character. It’s not wrong, of course, to place such secondary characteristics inside the doctrinal cluster, but it is problematic to elevate them to near-equal status with Christian essentials. Thus I would suggest that this tendency, throughout our past, has made Adventism more egg-like than peach-like.


Now I wish, in the core part of this essay, to focus on the boundary problem. But first let me raise a significant conceptual issue. Note that I have proposed a spatial analogy – egg and peach. I’m certainly not alone in making analogies between the church and the physical world. Adventism has, for example, often represented itself as an “ark of safety,” suggesting that that acts of joining and residing are like entering Noah’s Ark, within which you then ride out the storm and are carried safely into eternity. Likewise, “out of Babylon” references an Old Testament event that involved moving from one location to another. And more broadly, in Revelation 3:20 Jesus represents himself as standing at the door and knocking, but this really is describing a decision process. Likewise I used the word “knocking” in this article’s title. We gravitate to these sorts of physical representations of abstract ideas. That’s ok, as long as we don’t transfer the analogy’s physicality into real life. That’s because religion does not really have spatial dimensions, i.e. something that you physically enter into and can thereby keep “the world” at bay. Even though such approaches, notably monasticism, continue to exist. The hymn lyric “shelter in the time of storm” makes an analogy, not an actuality. Yet we have a tendency to reify analogies. This can be part of a legalization process in religious performance. We attend church. We read – or avoid reading – certain literature. It’s not that doing such things is unimportant or bad, but if we substitute physical choices for the inner life of a God-relational religion, we miss the forest for the trees. In part, we conceptually spacialize what is not really physical in nature.

Thus the boundary problem I wish to consider cannot be solved by physical withdrawal, abstention or selective association. Such physical choices do have their place, but beliefs are internal, properties of the mind, heart and will. And, deciding to identify (or not) with a group like Adventism, is also belief-centric. Conversely, compliance identification is external. And restricting discussion of current positions pretends that there is no need to persuade current membership that the views presently considered orthodox can hold up under scrutiny.

Broader Realities

With this recognition I now wish to call attention to issues and ideas that I suggest Adventist leadership, and membership generally, is somewhat in denial about. Broader realties that need to be dealt with. Blocking evaluation and investigation is both mistaken and futile since administrative “tools” are largely impotent against ideas. Thus membership would be much better served if leadership would validate acceptability for employees and individuals to think more openly without repercussion. Indeed, the church should ideally spearhead evaluation, rather than engage in position-driven apologetics against these “outside” ideological winds.

I would also be remiss if I failed to note two additional things. One, that often it is the lay membership, not paid church employees like administrators and pastors, who take the lead in this denial. It then becomes doubly difficult to guide people, who do not wish to confront the uncomfortable, into ideas and topics that would well serve their Christian maturation. Two, the “broader reality” I refer to does not mean that issues the church might attempt to erect walls against – are necessarily true. It’s that there is fear of even considering the possibility that they might be true. The ideas have been fearfully consigned to be outside the bounds of investigation due to their presumed dangerous heterodoxy.

Ok. Consider then the following four broad categories. I don’t claim these cover everything or that they are non-overlapping.

1) Science

Adventism has always believed the earth was recently created, as all Christians once did. But, because of the perceived need to defend the 7th-day Sabbath and the undeniable Ellen White statements supporting a Young Earth position, denominational Adventism has dug in, while some Christians have reconsidered the topic. As the scientific evidence for an old earth has accumulated (as well as different, but also significant evidence favoring evolution), Adventism has become less and less open to a full consideration of the data. The so-called Faith and Science Conferences of the past few years have been an exercise in apologetics, rather than a proper airing of the issues pro and con. The net result of this position-hardening has been to move the church more and more into a broadly defensive, anti-science mindset.

2) Atheism

This issue is deeply buried, away from Adventist consciousness, as it is for most versions of Ethical Monotheism. Throughout history, until somewhat recently, atheism would be a culturally unacceptable view, sometimes punishable. But it will not and should not disappear, as it owes its persuasiveness to what is called the Problem of Evil (POE). This is the deep challenge of reconciling a good God with the undeniable existence of evil in the world. How could God allow evil if He is all good and all powerful? One answer, of course, is that there is no God, and this “evil” just is. And any explanation to exonerate God – called a theodicy – is only needed if you’re trying to get God “off the hook” for being responsible. Philosophers and theologians have wrestled with this extensively for much of recorded history. I have tried to read everything I could on the subject because it is a crucial existential problem and most “garden variety” answers floating around churches are so lame. I’ve concluded that there are partial answers but nothing resembling complete satisfaction. If my assessment is an informed one, then it provides some explanation for why many church goers – especially conservative ones – almost instinctively recoil from even a cursory consideration. We humans want clarity in our religion (who wouldn’t) and we certainly don’t like existential risk. The POE produces both, and the option of atheism is distressing, since it means that when we die, that’s it. No future, just annihilation. Still, however distressing this whole topic is, honesty requires attention to it.

3) Ethics

This problem is subtle and concerns a subset of Adventism that operates under inadequate hermeneutics. There is a mode of thought within the church that purports to adhere to a “plain reading” of inspiration – whether the Bible or Ellen White. This group also holds what might be termed a “high view” of Ellen White’s inspiration, essentially meaning that everything she wrote is inspired. The difficulty, in practice, is that theological conclusions from such an approach are unfiltered by any appeal to a personal sense of ethical norms. So theology can be produced that conflicts with one’s internal moral compass. This problem is more generic than the Adventist version and is often labeled Divine Command Theory, and is somewhat akin (at least overlapping) to Fideism. Skepticism toward rationality and a desire to listen to what scripture says certainly has both merit and biblical support. But it can produce an oversimplified conclusion and is used to undergird problematic doctrines such as male headship. The flaw, in my view, is that there is minimal recognition that each reader interprets inspiration from their personal world-view perspective. And that re-introduces human error into a process that the adherents think is a ticket straight to mining the divine mind. Further, it can assume that the inspired author is writing and thinking from the same perspective as the reader. That is less risky when interpreting someone – like Ellen White – who lived in the recent past. But it is a dangerous assumption to apply.

4) Outdated Eschatology

Adventism has historically been grounded on, and frequently obsessed with, eschatology. The primacy has diminished somewhat throughout the last 50 years, but the assumptions and narrative have not faced serious re-examination by Adventist officialdom. Yet any reading of a book like The Great Controversy will reveal end-time scenarios that are no longer plausible. In today’s world how would large numbers of Adventists flee to the “rocks and hills” and expect to successfully hide out? There’s little wilderness available and any technologically competent government can find even small groups in time, using satellites and heat-seeking technology. And that’s just a trivial example of a narrative well past its plausibility “best-buy date.” Much more centrally is the present unlikelihood of a totally inoffensive and unrecognized group – Adventists – being persecuted for something like Sabbath-keeping, a practice that is either: a) of no concern to the great majority of the world’s population; or b) a problem that would affect worldwide Jewry far more than Adventism, and thus any persecution aimed at the church would pale compared to the political issue of attacking the practice of a major religion. If Adventists wish to continue to preach such eschatology it needs to pass a believability test. Yet reevaluation seems to be akin to slaying a “sacred cow,” perhaps because it affects Ellen White’s authority. Thus, in my experience, the church “deals” with it by simply preaching it less and less. And when it is preached, the uncomfortable details, with difficult-to-defend implications, are glossed over.

Loose Ends and Conclusion

Obviously this essay has been critical of contemporary Adventism. But I wish to blunt the tendency of some SDAs and ex-SDAs to “pile on” whenever criticism is leveled at the institutional church. People get hurt by the church, as much interpersonally as by doctrinal overreach. They then can nurse grudges. And in a highly polarized world the phrase “constructive criticism” might seem like an oxymoron. But that is precisely the tone I am intending. Criticism can be diagnostic and help improve that which is being critiqued. No human organization self-corrects easily, even when agreeing that God is positively involved. This “broader reality” I allude to uncovers the hardest questions we humans face, and reluctance to deal with the inevitable accompanying uncertainty should surprise no one.

I also think that, within any religious organization, applying the term “leadership” to non-pastoral ecclesiastics is somewhat inappropriate, or at best, overstated. What you more typically see is administration rather than leadership. Ironically, considering my criticisms here, current GC president Ted Wilson has exhibited more actual leadership than one usually finds. Unfortunately, he is leading the church to tighten its boundaries and thus further isolate Adventism from these externalities. But my point about leader vs. administrator is that church members should not expect more of those in positions of authority than is realistic. A reduction of such expectations can and should shift the focus of responsibility toward everyone. Those who wish to see the church grow and prosper must make the task of broadening the Adventist vision a personal priority.


Rich Hannon, a retired software engineer, is Columns Editor for

Previous Spectrum articles by Rich Hannon can be found at:

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Thank you Rich for your thought provoking and informative artical.

This has reminded me that we have been taught it is a moral imperative to be a member of the Adventist church in order to secure salvation in this day and age. Growing up in the church this was the overall message that I understood and took great comfort in knowing I was in the right group. However I have come to the conclusion that this is the wrong level of thinking. Can people be baptized into and or grow in Christ without being a member of the Adventist church? It seems to me that our evangelism has been focused on creating members first. Does coming out of Babylon mean joining the Adventist church or is it something different? It seems to me that becoming a member would be a byproduct for some but not necessarily everyone.

Does anyone have any thoughts on this?


Instead of doubting the existence of God because of evil in the world; we should use the existence of any good at all as proof of God. If the atheist is right, we are the product of “survival of the fittest”. To find any altruistic good in that kind of world would be an anomaly. It’s unnatural to find love and caring in a world where the strongest gets the whole “carcass” in a food fight.


Even the female hyena cares for her offspring.

Yes, the idea is always to secure those souls that are baptized. Therefore, it all becomes a matter of baptising pelo into the SDA Church. Whe I was baptized I was not asked if I wanted to be a SDA. It all came as a full package, with all benefits included…


Instinct for the preservation of the species is about love as much as a knee jerk when hit with a hammer.


Rich, I can’t tell you how much I resonate with your thoughts. A lack of openness without repercussions is crucial for healthy relationships, community, and growth together. The Adventist church, outside of certain pockets, lacks such a climate. I have called it a fortress mentality. A mentality that defends ancillary issues as crucial to self identity no matter the evidence pointing in more plausible directions, and also avoids engaging with seemingly conflicting information and viewpoints on those issues that are much more central to life and Christian faith. Stigmatization and ostracism often await those who dare to even mildly question the sacred cows.

I understand, this can be a threatening pursuit for the faithful. I’m not comfortable with such revaluation and consideration of all the issues on a personal level. But, what is the alternative? I believe the stagnation and exodus of younger people that we are seeing is it. Without such change, the church will protect itself and its ideological stakes in the ground into irrelevancy. We can be participators in righting the ship by continually speaking out on these issues despite resistance, abandoning it, or staying silent and going down with it.




I really appreciate this thoughtful essay. But it seems to me that the well-stated observations regarding the position of the church on these issues…one might use the term ‘petrified’ in some past era… only leads to two groups of people who recognize the problem(s).

One group says, ‘enough already’ and formally leaves the church. The others, like me, stick around, wringing our hands since the administrative arm of the church has a vice grip on the processes and procedural controls that could offer an opportunity to re-examine these things. As I have opined before, this closed-minded hypocrisy is one of the primary reasons our young people do not stay in the church. And it is why ‘evangelism’, as we call it, is no longer producing results…our denomination is no longer relevant…eschatologically, spiritually, hermeneutically or in any other arena.


I find the assumptions about the evolutionary process and one being an atheist problematic.

This perspective is very simplistic, and is easily overcome without a God based explanation, an atheist view. Thus the God believer who is attempting to evangelize places themself in a position that will not get any traction with many people.

We must be willing to do the hard work, intellectually, to reconcile and grapple with the mysteries of life and the universe. It is the mystery that we encounter at the intersection, of science, faith, lived experience, including human interaction, that is bridged by faith…


As a member of your second, “stick around” group, I’ll offer a couple of tack-on points to my article. One, most importantly, is to focus on, and “leaven,” your local church. Here is where we actually live out our religion in community. And, of course, here is also where a lot of the resistance I note, takes place. But I do find that people who actually rub shoulders with each other (interrupted sadly by COVID at present) are generally less closed-minded to kindly, well-articulated conversation about change. Most people, I think, are just trying to live their lives and haven’t concerned themselves much with the sort of things I’ve listed in my essay. But, as they matter at some level, those who have paid some attention are not necessarily preempted from such discussion with their fellow congregants, if approached kindly. Second, I have also rubbed shoulders, in my past, with a fair number of church administrators, on Conference and Union Committees. Some are “Peter Principled” into their position and perhaps closed-minded. But others, I found, were more progressive, albeit closeted, than the average layperson. They, at least, would entertain the conversations. And some would even vote progressively if it didn’t impact their career. That sounds like I’m labeling such people as semi-cowards, but there is not a lot of future for an administrator who falls afoul of their “superior.” The verticality of Adventism is part of the structural problem. But impacting institutional religion should always be second in our priorities to personal religion anyway. We “brighten the corner where we are” :smile:.


Well, I’m with you there. If it were not for the personal interactions, things would be very sad indeed, because the ‘corporate’ side of church has really not been very warm and fuzzy in most of my experience. Particularly since I had the misfortune to move away from a university based church.

What disturbs me most, is perhaps even more fundamental than the profoundly esoteric observations in your article. As an example, when I ask the members of my adult Sabbath School class if they have confidence in their salvation, they all equivocate or express their doubts. Really, is that not outrageous!! These are older people who have been SDAs most, if not all of their lives. How can we spread the ‘good news of salvation’ if we don’t believe it is at work in our own lives? People warming the pews every Sabbath are still unsure of whether their sins will ‘blot them out’. It is so sad.


Actually I wasn’t zeroing in on evolutionary aspect of a Godless world. If there is no God to give direction then we only have learned behaviour, guided by self-interest. I’m still in awe of the man, now dead for decades, who passed the lifesaver to others struggling in the icy Patomac in DC. By the time his fellow passengers, struggling all around him had been pulled to safety, he had died of exposure. This kind of selflessness in the midst of every other indication of man’s depravity is a surprise; and there is no humanistic way to account for it.

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Starting at the beginning: A Broader Reality of Trusting in the Lord!

So long as Religion rather than Relationship is considered salvific, there will be no sense of assurance of personal salvation. As such, people will continue to look to the approval (however fickle) of other such religious members or the satisfaction of religious rituals or adherence to religious beliefs to find their validation, and thus, are never really sure they will be accepted.

While there are many fundamental beliefs I hold in common with the SDA church, the fundamental practice of co-joining baptism with church membership is one I abhor. It destroys the very potential of salvific assurance by creating the above mentioned distortion of religion as the basis of Salvation. And it diminishes (possibly destroys) the opportunity for the believer to move into membership from a positive position of appreciation.

As already mentioned, the past/present methods of evangelism often ‘slips in membership’ atop the baptism without the candidate realizing what that means. The candidate is excited about committing their life to follow Jesus, only to find out that other mortals are claiming that loyalty.

Were we to simply baptize people, in recognition of their commitment to follow Jesus, without the church membership ‘small print’, we would help them establish a basis (assured salvation) for moving forward with answering the question: “How does my salvation now affect my life?”. In their excitement for a love of Jesus, they would now find a reason to allow the Holy Spirit to change their life and thinking.

Having established the basis of salvation on a positive relationship with Jesus, the believer is able to move forward with their spiritual life, reading, learning, studying the life of Christ and His principles of the kingdom thru the gospels, then evaluating the pros and cons of various other religious ideas (from the Bible & church apologists), listening to the Holy Spirit woo them into a more compliant & complete life, toward that illustrated by Christ’s earthly mission.

Unfortunately, most Christian religions hold no confidence in the power of the Holy Spirit. Instead, they usurp the place of the Holy Spirit, presuming from their own position of piety to convict of sin, define righteousness and carry out judgement.


I agree with much of your assessment, but you speak of baptism and salvation as a largely individual experience. The NT portrays baptism as dying and rising with Christ, and entrance into the kingdom of God. That experience is the commencement of a shared life of faith in the community of believers. Iow, truly spiritual life is life together, not simply an individual pursuit of a mystical personal union with Christ, and individual spiritual development as a solo pursuit.

The NT letters bear this out, written largely to communities, and describing and teaching them how to live life together. Salvation is thus being part of the people of God, participating in his new humanity united in him, and contributing to building it up in faith, hope, and love.

While I agree that modern denominational membership adds its own peculiar requirements beyond this, I still think that the biblical idea of baptism into the shared life of God’s new creation in Christ is still valid… and not a lone ranger spiritual life in Christ as the alternative. The Bible, after all, was written by people and to people living in collective cultures, not in individualist cultures as we live in today. I think that needs to shape how we interpret what it’s saying and what it then means for us, modern, western individualists, who come to the Bible and read it from our cultural, social, and spiritual tradition.

I’m assuming you live in such a culture. Please correct me if I’m wrong.



I believe I understand your point of view. That said, what I was asserting is, that within the frame of most of us who write on this forum were brought up, live, and conceive the world, are from an Abrahamic faith tradition. From this established frame in it is hard to conceive that one can arrive at a conclusion about why people, individuals, communities, etc, may chose to sacrifice for others, outside of the God we conceive and know. Thus my statement with reference to atheists. The real thrust of my point is that “faith” or belief is the intersection of the science, one’s world view, our individual and collective lived experience, the interaction with others. It is this, we struggle to reconcile, and how we reconcile things that are in question, and too that end, it is a step of faith regardless of how one chooses to view the cause of “good” and “evil” in the world. That you or I, or anyone else, cannot reason, or conceive that motivation(s) to good, and self-sacrifice, can only come from a divine motivation, doesn’t make other explanation less plausible or believable. Thus we some of us, like @Rich_Hannon, struggle with the things contained in this article, and more.


I do believe that salvation is personal, very personal. But that does not preclude religion from being a venue for those individuals who are being saved to assist others to find the Christ that provides that salvation or a place to celebrate that salvation experience, together.

My comments presumed that the candidate for baptism was influenced by the efforts of a community of Christian believers who were promoting their faith.

As such, I also presumed that that community of faith would be a continuing influence after the candidate ‘established the basis of salvation, a positive relationship with Jesus’. Since God chose to suffer the consequences of sin rather than coerce or impose His will on sinners, I think the faith community should operate likewise, to cooperate with Him, as God rescues the sinner from the results of sin.

If freedom of conscience is that important to God, that He sent His own Son to die, the faith community should also see it’s eternal value. Those who move into eternity must be thoroughly convinced of God’s love, and equally convinced of the devastation of rebellion (sin), that rebellion is eliminated forever. The only way that can happen is with a willful alignment of our will with His will, out of love not fear. Rather than presuming the position of the Holy Spirit (attempting to usurp it’s power), the community of faith should see itself as celebrating (sharing with one another) the goodness of God, to the purpose of building up faith in Him, not faith in the efficacy of the community.

Despite being sinners, even believing sinners, God continues to woo (rather than coerce) us into a deeper and deeper relationship, that leads to a deeper commitment to His established way of living. The community should operate in a like manner, not abandoning or hiding what they believe, but living and presenting what they believe in a loving and positive presentation. Their efforts should take the approach of a loving influence that leads a candidate to WANT to officially join the faith community and become a known member, thankful to be able to worship and promote a loving God.

The membership would be more vibrant if they were deliberately in the faith community rather than being distraught and fearful to be somewhere else. While there will always be those who change their mind about being committed to God, the backdoor of the church is often swung open by those who feel they were ‘hoodwinked’ into the membership or ‘sold a bill of goods’ that was not what was presented. For some, I truly believe God has to move them somewhere else in order to continue in the faith.

If the community focus is on the goodness of God, it should lessen the negative effects to our faith when finding out that even believers fall into sin. The community of faith may fail to be perfectly loving and honest (sometimes or often), but God will never fail to love and embrace you. He’s waiting for each of us to believe in Him, just as the Father of the Prodigal Son.


I have been an SDA since I was 13. I am now 73. I do not believe in salvation by denomination.

I used to think we had it all figured out. Now I don’t think anyone has it all figured out. I don’t believe in salvation by having it all figured out.

I am not anti Ellen White, but I don’t really know what to think about her writings as a whole. I have been blessed by some of her writings and confused by some of her writings.

I believe “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” I don’t think the Bible is a science book, but I do believe it presents eternal truths that we may not understand until we meet Him face to face.

“The wages of sin is death” is a central truth or falsehood. Did death come before sin or as a result of sin?

I am blabbering because I am tired.

I believe we are not here by accident and that God really does love us.

I believe, when it is all said and done, that He will allow Himself to be judged.

I don’t know what to think about 1844.


Sir, you are a very wise person. Thank you for sharing a part of your journey.


Yes, again I agree with much of your view, especially the idea that the faith community is not to preach its own efficacy, and to promote an atmosphere of love and freedom, not fear and coercion. Bravo!

My only point was that salvation in the NT was about belonging to the group. About the new creation that Paul spoke of at the end of Galatians, a community of Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, male and female, who were no longer divided and stratified, but were made equally one in Christ Jesus. Spiritual life in the NT, written from within a collectivist culture and framework, cannot be divorced from this spirit inspired and energized fellowship. It is not cast in primarily individual terms of a personal relationship with Christ. There is no place in the NT where that phrase or idea is even explicitly articulated. It is the way we, as modern westerners, think of Christianity, and salvation. Not the way the NT largely puts it. Iow, salvation is never cast as a private experience. It is lived out in community, not as an optional add on, but as an integral feature of the experience. While the place of the individual can’t be denied, the idea that one is saved as an individual apart from belonging to and participating in the life of the people of God, is alien to the NT.

I think it’s helpful to try and take what the writers were saying in their own terms and from within their cultural matrix before applying it to ours.




Not to argue the point, but only to explain my perspective:

I understand that ‘community identity’ was held in high esteem in those times.

So, if you mean in the New Testament, outside the gospels, you might have a point about many thinking of salvation in terms of community (although Philip & the Eunuch may give pause to defining that attitude as universal).

If you mean ‘belonging to the group’, as in being one (out of many) that were having a personal experience of Jesus, the Christ, then that (definitional) belonging I agree with, but not to a physical group which others might have assembled.

The teachings of Jesus, as highlighted in the Sermon on the Mount, are about a personal relationship with Himself & His Father, and living out that relationship with & toward others, on the way to the kingdom. He never suggested that joining a religious group was necessary to come into the kingdom. The participation in community followed the establishment of a heavenly relationship. Also, after Jesus ascended, simply belonging to the group did not create a salvific condition (ala Ananias & Sapphira).

Jesus never characterized salvation as a result of belonging to a group or that belonging to a religious group was a necessary requirement (thief on the cross). In fact, most of his comments about the existing religious groups were negative.

I’ll say again, that a proper Christian Community can be a good and profitable thing for those who are being saved. But membership does not hold salvific value nor provide a pathway into the kingdom. Being saved is a precursor to authentic community.

(Thanks for the interchange of ideas.)