Divine Hiddenness and Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa, the Albanian Catholic sister celebrated for her lifetime of service to the poorest of the poor in India, is an icon in Western culture. She represents the deepest level of selflessness and charity. The Catholic Church beatified her in 1997, and expects to canonize her as a saint. If her service to humanity in the name of Christ is considered exemplary, perhaps her spirituality may be expected to be the model for Christians, as well.

Yet in a personal letter to a spiritual confidant written in 1979, she confessed, “Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.”[1] Teresa had apparently written 40 letters over a period of more than six decades to mentors, confessors, and confidants concerning her ministry and her spiritual struggles.[2]  These letters reveal that not long after she began her ministry to Calcutta’s poorest inhabitants, her sense of the presence of God disappeared from her soul, returned only for a short period in 1959, then left her again till her death in 1997.

Teresa’s experience of spiritual anguish, though extreme, illustrates the human predicament of seeking to cultivate a relationship with a God who is transcendent, invisible, and hidden. A theological assessment of her experience can legitimately question the genuineness of her salvation, given the doctrinal problems found in the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church relative to justification by faith. If she never truly trusted in Christ’s finished work alone on her behalf, then she never “passed out of death into life” (I John 3:14), and never was in-dwelt by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:9). If she was never justified by faith (versus works), she would not know “peace with God” (Rom. 5:1). The Scriptures do not teach that such a person should have any expectation of a sense of the presence of God in their life. Can we say with certainty that this is the case with Teresa? Only God knows.

One attempt at a psychological assessment was offered by Dr. Richard Gottlieb, a teacher at the New York Psychoanalytic Society & Institute. Gottlieb raised a theory suggesting her sense of abandonment was self-inflicted. “Psychologists have long recognized that people of a certain personality type are conflicted about their high achievement and find ways to punish themselves.”[3] Can we say with certainty that this is the case with Teresa? Only God knows.

Rev. James Martin, an editor at the Jesuit magazine America, offers quite another perspective. He commented that Teresa’s letters “may be remembered as just as important as her ministry to the poor. It would be a ministry to people who had experienced some doubt, some absence of God in their lives. And you know who that is? Everybody. Atheists, doubters, seekers, believers, everyone.”[4]

It would be a worthwhile study to read her letters in total and attempt to discern how Teresa responded to the hiddenness of God in her life from a biblical standpoint. She clearly experienced great doubt and sorrow in her life, yet pressed on faithfully in her service to Christ despite any sense of his presence in her soul. Those of us who have struggled with divine hiddenness may learn a powerful lesson from her.

[1] David Van Biema “Mother Teresa’s Crisis of Faith.” http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1655720-1,00.html
[2] Teresa’s letters have been published in “Come Be My Light,” published by Doubleday Press, 2007. Ed. by Brian Kolodiejchuk.
[3] David Van Biema “Mother Teresa’s Crisis of Faith.”
[4] Ibid.

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Divine Hiddenness in the Old Testament

Divine Hiddenness in the Old Testament

The theme of the hiddenness of God in the Old Testament develops progressively. Genesis opens with a world in which God is actively and visibly involved. God and man are found in a state of innocence and intimacy that is unparalleled in the biblical narrative (Gen. 1-3). That state of innocence and intimacy is broken in the Fall, and man is cast out of Paradise. Later in Genesis, Noah hears God’s voice warning him of the impending flood which destroys the world before his eyes (Gen. 6-9). Still later, Abraham has a vision of God and supernaturally has a son born to him and his aged wife. Jacob wrestles with an angel, and Joseph supernaturally interprets dreams.

In Exodus, Moses experiences the voice of God in a burning bush calling him to deliver the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt, and miracle after miracle of judgment, deliverance, and provision ensues. A turning point, however, takes place in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land. The entire community of Israelites witnesses the voice and manifestation of God in the desert and is traumatized by the experience. They beseech Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die” (Exodus 20:19).[3] Richard Elliott Friedman notes, “After this scene in the Bible, Yahweh never again speaks directly to an entire community. All communication from the deity is directed only to individuals, prophets, who then deliver the message to whomever they are told.”[4]

The apparent presence of God continues to diminish until Samuel, who is the last person to whom God is said to have been “revealed” (I Sam. 3:21). The voice of God is heard less and less until finally there is a vast stretch of 400 years where there is no word from God whatsoever. God has hidden himself completely.

Over thirty times in the Old Testament, the metaphor of God hiding his face is used. The first time this metaphor is used, YHWH tells Moses that the people will someday leave their God and break their covenant with him: “Then my anger will be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them and hide my face from them, and they will be devoured. And many evils and troubles will come upon them, so that they will say in that day, ‘Have not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?’” (Deuteronomy 31:17).

Whereas the “narrative books depict the diminishing of the apparent divine presence step-by-step, and the poetic books depict the emotional response of individual human beings to divine hiddenness. These books communicate that the disappearance of God is a more terrifying condition than divine punishment.”[5] The psalmist writes “But I, O Lord, cry to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you. O Lord, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?” (Ps 88:13-14). And this: “By your favor, O Lord, you made my mountain stand strong; you hid your face; I was dismayed” (Ps 30:7).

The prophetic books mingle despair and hope, however. The prophet Isaiah recognizes God’s stance toward his wayward people yet expresses hope in God’s saving love for his people when Isaiah exclaims, “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior” (Isa. 45:15). In the latter portion of Isaiah’s book, there is a beautiful, hopeful passage looking forward to a time of restoration and renewal. God speaks to the prophet: “For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,” says the LORD, your Redeemer” (Isaiah 54:7-8). Certainly one of the greatest passages of the Old Testament is the prophecy concerning Messiah, the Suffering Servant: “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (Isa. 53:11). This promise will prove to be the consummate act of God’s mercy and grace that will restore God’s covenant nation of Israel to himself.


[3] Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[4] Richard Elliott Friedman, The Hidden Face of God, (New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 1995), p. 17.

[5] Ibid., p. 75.

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The Hiddenness of God – Introduction

What is God? Unknown, and yet is the face of heaven full of signs of him.

Lightning in fact is the wrath of a god.

The more one is invisible, the more one conforms to what one is not.

But thunder is the glory of God.

The love of immortality, as ours, is likewise the property of a god.

–Friedrich Hölderlin, “Was Ist Gott?”

(translated from the original German by J.E.H. Smith)[1] 

 

The hiddenness of God is a troubling, yet intriguing theme in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures. This theme has captured the attention of theologians, authors, academics, and poets of the likes of Martin Luther, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Elie Wiesel. It has fed the skepticism of unbelievers, tested the faith of believers, and stirred the fascination of philosophers.

I personally have wrestled with this deeply challenging matter for almost 40 years, and I suspect many of my dear readers will find themselves in the pages of this blog many times over, as many of us have shared aspects of my experience.

For the next months, I would like to share my observations and mediations on the theme of the hiddenness of God. My comments are based on a paper I just did for my ThD studies at Columbia Evangelical Seminary. To let you know what to expect, I will do the following:

  1. Define divine hiddeness
  2. Review salient Old and New Testament passages
  3. Touch on the natural human response to hiddenness
  4. Review a prominent Christian’s experience of hiddenness
  5. Consider what a Christian response should be to divine hiddenness
  6. Consider implications for the mission of the church

Definition of Hiddenness

It has seemed to many people, believers and non-believers alike, that God is in some sense hidden. God’s nature, intentions, will, even his very existence and love or concern for us do not present themselves in an entirely clear manner to everyone, not even to every sane, well-balanced, honest adult. This can be a source of perplexity, for if certain facts about God (such as his existence) are meant to have far-reaching ramifications in many areas of our lives, it is remarkable that there should be widespread ignorance of these facts.[2]


[1] J.E.H. Smith, “A Fragment of a Hymn,” German Poetry: Selected Translations,  http://www.jehsmith.com/1/2012/11/germanpoetryselections.html, (accessed March 4, 2013).

[2] Nick Trakakis, “An Epistemically Distant God, A Critique Of John Hick’s Response To The Problem Of Divine Hiddenness,” Heythrop Journal 48, no. 2: 214-226. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed March 3, 2013


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On Suppressing the Truth of God – Romans 1:18

Romans 1:18 declares that humanity “suppresses the truth.” Since its earliest history, it has suppressed the truth of God in unrighteousness, but today it is more sophisticated about that suppression. It has a dysfunctional relationship to truth, as an inventory of the prevailing world-views of the 21st century reveals.

  • Humanism is an anthropocentric world-view that suppresses the truth that God is the center of the universe. It withholds glory and thanksgiving from God (Romans 1:21), and declares, “The end of all things is the happiness of man.”[1]
  • Naturalism is an anti-supernatural world-view that suppresses the truth of God’s “eternal power and divine nature” (Romans 1:20). Naturalism claims that nothing exists outside of or above natural law, including any god.[2]
  • Secularism is an anti-religious world-view that suppresses the truth that God is worthy of honor and thanksgiving, affirming that society should remain independent of religion.[3]
  • Relativism is a philosophical world-view that suppresses the absoluteness of truth in general and God in particular, making all truth to be relative to its linguistic, historical, or cultural context.[4]
  • Evolutionism is a naturalistic world-view that suppresses the truth that God is the source and maker of the natural order, affirming that living things have evolved from single cell organisms by random mutations over a very long period.[5]

Though many today violently and mockingly deny the existence of God and disavow any belief in Him whatsoever, the Scriptures stand as a testimony against them that they do possess such knowledge. It may be asked how the Bible can assert that unbelievers “know God” when they flatly and hotly deny any knowledge of him.

It may be that the atheists and agnostics have so aggressively and deeply suppressed that knowledge of God in their minds and hearts that perhaps even their conscious minds no longer recognize the truth. F. Leroy Forlines states, “Only a small part of our knowledge is in the conscious mind at a given time . . . there are some things we would rather not recall. What is stored in the subconscious mind is knowledge whether we want to recall it or not.”[6] This toxic human relationship to truth compounds the misery and ruin of humanity as demonstrated in Romans 1:21-32.

Human beings possess a rare capacity for self-deception. When they face the reality of an innate knowledge of God on one hand, and their deep resistance and revulsion toward the worship and accountability due him that that knowledge brings, they experience what psychology calls “cognitive dissonance.” Cognitive dissonance theory states that two opposing cognitions create “unpleasant psychological tension,” which it resolves by “simply chang(ing) one to make it consistent with the other.”[7]

Romans 1:25 declares that humanity has suppressed that knowledge to ease the psychological tension and “exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever.” Therefore, humanity can “know God” and possess an awareness of his existence, and yet commit intellectual sophistry and exchange the truth about God for something much more palatable.


[1] Paris Reidhead, “Ten Shekels and a Shirt” (sermon), http://www.sermonindex.net/modules/mydownloads/singlefile.php?lid=282; Internet; accessed 11 February 2012.

[2] “Naturalism”, All About Philosophy, http://www.allaboutphilosophy.org/naturalism.htm; accessed 11 February 2012.

[3] “Secular Humanism”, All About Philosophy, http://www.allaboutphilosophy.org/secular-humanism.htm; accessed 11 February 2012.

[4] “Moral Relativism”, All About Philosophy, http://www.allaboutphilosophy.org/moral-relativism.htm; accessed 11 February 2012.

[5] “Evolutionism”, All About Philosophy, http://www.allaboutphilosophy.org/evolutionism.htm; accessed 11 February 2012.

[6] F. Leroy Forlines, Romans, Randall House Bible Commentary, ed. Robert E. Picirilli (Nashville, TN: Randall House Publications, 1987), p. 31.

[7] Hugh Stephenson, “The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance,” [article on-line]; available from http://www.ithaca.edu/faculty/stephens/cdback.html; Internet; accessed 20 January 2012.

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Jesus and “Seeker Sensitive” Ministry

As I usually do on a Saturday, I am preparing a lesson for my adult Sunday School class. This week’s passage is in the Gospel of John, chapter 6, verses 53 to the end of the chapter. In this narrative, Jesus makes a couple of statements that don’t seem to set well with His hearers.

The first is this: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:53) The response of His hearers was “This is a hard saying; who can understand it?” (John 6:60) Jesus question to them in verse 61, “Does this offend you?” makes it clear that they simply didn’t grasp it, they were offended by it.

The second is this: “Therefore I have said that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.” (John 6:65) The response of His hearers is seen in the next verse, which declares “from that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.” The grammar of the original Greek suggests their departure was decisive and final.

This passage has been the subject of impassioned debate throughout the years. Some come away from this text saying “See, Jesus taught cannibalism!” Another sees Roman Catholic transubstantiation here. Yet another sees Calvinistic predestination. Admittedly, these are difficult statements. But I don’t intend to offer an exhaustive exegesis of this text in this article, nor clear up the difficulties, nor offer a theological position statement.  What intrigues me is something else.

Jesus failed at being “seeker-sensitive”, by today’s standards. As a matter of fact, Jesus actually ran “seekers” off.

Jesus obviously didn’t have the benefit of books on contemporary church growth in His library. He must have missed the seminars and teaching tapes and webinars. Jesus didn’t have the disciples deliver coffee mugs to new visitors. He didn’t have a plexiglass pulpit. He didn’t have padded pews. He didn’t have greeters. He didn’t have parking lot attendants. He didn’t have a band accompanying the praise team. Come to think of it, He didn’t have a praise team. He didn’t keep His sermons to under 15 minutes, and He sure didn’t use politically correct language.

Jesus preached things that offended people and ran them off. The same Jesus that taught about loving your neighbor and having faith like a little child also took a whip and ran money-changers out of the Temple, taught on hell more than any other voice in the New Testament, and spoke scalding words to the rigid and hypocritical religious leaders of His day. In the end, His preaching got him killed.

Pastors have a dilemma today – if they preach fearlessly and without apology what the Bible declares, many people will get offended and leave. But if they preach what is palatable to the sensitivities of most people, what is “seeker-sensitive”, they’ll make people happy and attract the crowds. But what they don’t realize is that it will be God that is offended, and it will be He that will leave.

When the mighty proclamations of the Eternal One are edited, repackaged, sanitized or censored, know this, He will depart silently and imperceptibly. Either He will be honored as the supreme treasure of life, or He will not be found. The church that does not have Jesus Christ pre-eminent is by definition, not the church.

In our desire to build His church, the first question we need to ask is not  “what do people want to hear?” or “what ministries do people want?” or “how can we be sensitive to the needs of the seeker?” Let us rather ask the question, “what does God want to say?” and “what ministries has God ordained?” and “how can we be faithful to the priorities of the Lord of the Church?”

Jesus founded His Church not on being “sensitive to seekers”, but by being “sensitive” to His Father. His relentless devotion to His Father’s glory, His will and His word should be our measure of true success, not the next church growth trend.

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Theistic Evolution and a Palatable Christianity

I was reading a theological journal recently, CHRISTIANITY AND SOCIETY, and one article, “Dealing with Heresy” by Steven Perks, commented upon a new book, “The Lost Message of Jesus” by Steve Chalke, who is a professed evangelical. In the latter, Mr. Chalke apparently criticizes three foundational biblical doctrines of the Christian faith: Creation, Fall and Redemption. (Note: evangelicals usually have pretty high regard for these three…but perhaps that’s changed since I grew up.)

Here’s Rev. Perks’ commentary:

“These three doctrines stand or fall together. The rejection of the doctrine of Creation must, logically, lead to the rejection the doctrine of the Fall, and with the doctrines of Creation and the Fall gone nothing biblical remains of the doctrine of Redemption since the presuppositions on which the biblical doctrine is predicated are no longer there; i.e. it is no longer the same redemption and has been turned into something else.

All three doctrines are an offense to the nonbeliever. If we wish to fashion a version of Christianity that is acceptable to the non-believer we must remove the biblical content of all three doctrines and we must set at naught the doctrinal formulations that the Church has developed over history in opposition to the heresies that have attacked the received faith. But what is left when this has been done? Not the historic faith of the Church but mere lifestyle Christianity. The gospel is no longer the good news of our deliverance from sin but a lifestyle choice.”

Well said, Rev. Perks. As I read the article, it dawned on me that theistic evolution, the middle-ground between Darwinian theory and the Bible, rather than making friends between science and religion, and making Christianity palatable to modern minds, actually creates greater problems for us than we ever dreamed.  We not only tamper with the historic Christian doctrine of creation, but we set in motion a trainwreck. (Theistic evolution, if you weren’t up on your “isms”, is the theory of origins whereby God somehow uses evolution to create the heavens and the earth and all living things, and is espoused by many of the mainline Christian denominations.)

If God used evolution to create all living things over millions or billions of years rather than speaking things into existence in six literal days (“let there be….”) as in the Genesis account, then the Genesis account of the Fall is also suspect. Think this through with me…if we can’t take Genesis 1 and 2 literally or seriously, then how do we know if we can take Genesis 3 literally or seriously? If the fall of man in Gen 3 is allegorical, then Paul’s references to Adam’s fall in I Cor 15 and Romans 5:12, and Jesus’ reference to Adam in Lk 3:38, are rendered almost meaningless! Evolution doesn’t teach a fall, but rather a progressive and incremental improvement of humanity over vast expanses of time. If the doctrine of the fall is rendered meaningless, then what is the point of redemption? What are we saved from if humanity is slowly improving over time? Who needs a virgin birth? The cross? The resurrection? The ascension?

Rev. Peck correctly identified the aspiration guiding this theological accomodation: “if we wish to fashion a version of Christianity that is acceptable to the non-believer”.  The more I read these days, the more I sense that this aspiration is actually guiding and controlling the thinking of more ministers and theologians in this age than ever when it comes to proclaiming the message of Jesus to this generation. Here’s my concerns over this approach:

1) When we of Adam’s helpless progeny set out to “fashion a version of Christianity”, we do so according to our own vain imaginations rather than received revelation, and run the risk of fashioning God after our image, rather than after how He has revealed Himself to be. We must go to the Christian scriptures and let it teach us what Christianity is, not tell it what we imagine it to be.

2) When criteria for the content of the Christian message includes “acceptable to the non-believer”, we make a tragic error. It is the unbeliever that is in deep and desperate need of being accepted by God, rather than the message needing to be accepted by anyone. By no means does that unbeliever set any terms in the deal.

Imagine a capital murder trial in which the accused is asked if the terms of the legal proceedings, the verdict or the sentence are acceptable to him or her.  No, jurisprudence is determined by the rule of law alone, and is applied unwaveringly by the judge.

Imagine a fireman in a blazing building afraid to offend an inhabitant of that edifice with a report suggesting that he was trapped and would die horribly. Then imagine the fireman giving the chap a choice in how he’d like to be rescued from a fiery death. No, the doomed man is at the mercy of the fireman, and should be deeply grateful for the rescue by whatever means.

To suggest that it is God’s acceptability is in question before any man, that He should somehow accomodate the sensibilities of any of His creatures is absurd and unworthy. This is God’s universe, not ours. To elevate human sensibility above the judgement of the Creator is anthropocentric, humanistic and idolatrous.

As we consider our stewardship of the gospel, the “message of Jesus”, let us resist the temptation to make it palatable for the unbeliever’s sensibilities or intellect. Romans 1:21-22 warns us that the unredeemed human condition is described as “futile in their thoughts”, “foolish hearts darkened”, “professing to be wise, they became fools.” To borrow a line from a 1960’s rock song, they are in no condition to know what condition their condition is in.

Revision of the message of Christ to become palatable to that spiritual and intellectual condition is an exercise in futility itself, and robs the message of any power or potency to liberate.  Let the gospel of historic Christianity speak as it was “once delivered to the saints”, without any accommodation to pseudo-science or modern human sensibilities. Let it flood those futile minds and darkened hearts with truth and light.

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My First Longing for the Eternal

My first recollections of a longing for the Eternal were in my teens in the Chicago suburbs. As most every young person, I became conscious of those enduring questions – why am I here, where do I belong, is there more to life than this, does that cute blonde in my freshman biology class like me, and who is John Galt?

The urgency of those last two questions have faded over time. If you’re interested, no, the girl in freshman biology never noticed my scrawny presence. As for John Galt, well, you’ll have to answer that question for yourself for now. One hint – “Atlas Shrugged” penned by Ayn Rand in the year of my birth. Perhaps fodder for another posting.

The first three questions persisted for years, however. “Where do I belong” became quite painful to me. I was (and am today) quite tall and lanky, of reasonable intellect, musically inclined, and more than a little geeky. I found no social group that would have me; I found little affinity with most of them.

The extant cliques of the day were the greasers – the guys with slicked-back hair whose lives centered around cigarettes, beer, chicks and anything with an engine. The jocks were the athletes whose lives were all about beer, chicks and football. The stoners were all about, well, getting stoned. Lesser lights were the geeks – serious students with pocket protectors, duct-taped glasses and 4.0 GPA’s, and lastly the band and choir kids, who were referred to by an epithet which today would be considered politically incorrect, so I’ll defer to your imagination.

I found the greatest affinity with the musicians, so I joined the choir and even was an assistant director, yet I still didn’t feel like I belonged. This longing was more than a need to fit in a social group – it was a longing for the Eternal.

In the summer of 1974, backstage of a production of “Oklahoma” at my high school, my encounter with the Eternal began. The cast included three brothers and sisters by the name of Ellis. They were very talented musicians and performers, and were the leads in the show. One afternoon, one of them came to me, showed himself friendly, and told me of the Eternal One, the source of all life, who in Jesus Christ made Himself like me to bear my brokenness in a singular act of atonement, give me endless life in His resurrection, and invite me into a lifetime of communion with the Eternal.

Of course, he was a 17 year old Baptist boy, and waxed a little less poetic than that with language like “Jesus died on the cross for your sins, and if you repent and believe, you’ll be saved”, but when he quoted those ancient words of the gospel from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, I knew the Eternal was calling me by name.

“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)

Deep called unto deep that day for me. Down in my inner core, somewhere beneath the crust, beneath the tectonic plates of my life, something heard that Voice from the Deep Heart of God. That Voice gave me courage to believe, so I cast aside those futile things I clung to, spread my arms wide, and fell face first into the ocean of His living grace. I’ve been swimming in that ocean since that day, and never regretted that decision.

In the Old Testament wisdom book, Ecclesiastes, the Teacher intones: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

This “eternity in their hearts” is that very same “longing for the Eternal”. Do you feel that longing? Bet you do. You’re not that different from me, I’m guessing.

But know this – you won’t find the Eternal in a philosophy, or a religion, but in a living relationship with God through His Son Jesus Christ.

Are you feeling something going on in your heart now? You may be longing for the Eternal.

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June 20, 2011 · 4:47 pm