New Innocence Mission Album: Sun on the Square

Review by Brian Bayer-Larson and Abram K-J

The gap between the last two Innocence Mission albums was five years. Now, a mere three years after releasing Hello I Feel the Same (reviewed here), The Innocence Mission has put out Sun on the Square (Badman Recording Co).

 

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The Innocence Mission (image via Badman)

 

The album begins with two measures of a nylon string guitar arpeggiating a major chord, which quickly turns minor as the vocals enter, instantly evoking a yearning for connection. This first track, “Records from Your Room,” uses piano sparingly and gorgeously. The haunting high-register melody perfectly compliments the lyrics: “I meet you there out in the air // I’m listening.” It’s a compelling way to link this album to ones before it, setting the stage for something new but familiar.

The second track, “Green Bus,” offers an exquisite interplay of guitars—soft and understated, but precise and tight. “I cannot find a thing beautiful enough for you again,” Peris sings. The song’s strings are beautiful, expressing more ineffable longing.

In “Look Out From Your Window” (featuring a Peris kid on viola!) Peris still wants to listen: “All I cannot say I hope you know // All you cannot say I hope I can hear.” There is a theme of disconnect mingled with hope, acknowledging the reality that we cannot achieve ultimate communion with one another, even asbut that we hold out hope that one day we will. It is on this track that there is (at last!) some percussion.

“Shadow of the Pines” is an instant classic, and easily a top 10 Innocence Mission song. The muted piano is as if they decided to use toy instruments and coaxed all the beauty they could out them. The song is like stepping out of the Metro in Paris on a spring afternoon, encountering a fantasy made real. The instrumental closing of the track gives the listener layers of melodic, moving riffs, which—were this any other band—could have built for another five minutes. (The song is a modest 4:01.)

The spare use of electric guitar on “Buildings in Flower” is a nice touch. Don Peris’s guitar is tastefully employed and never over-shimmery (if that’s even possible!). More drums! (But only for the last quarter of the song.) If “And it’s hard to know, now, where we should go” is the call, the response (in question form) is, “Will the lifting of a window let the Spirit in, and then we begin to vividly live?”

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The sixth and title track, “Sun on the Square” is probably the most complex song on the album and maybe one of their most ambitious compositions ever. Loads of string swells as the rhythmic song goes on, which is a great sound for the band. “Let there be more kindness in the world,” Peris sings.

If the next track “Light of Winter” sounds familiar, it’s because a previous version (called “From the Trains”) appeared on a sweet EP called “the snow on pi day.” It could be a Radiohead song. The first version—which we like a little better—had a little more backbone to it—bass and drums where there is piano now. The songs are different enough that renaming it made sense. The new version is still great. The theme of light–and seeing it–continues.

Track 8, “Star of Land and Sea,” is practically brutal in its child-like expression of hope in a dark world. There are echoes of the same two-note, high-pitched guitar riff from the previous track, which ties them together nicely.

The second to last song is “An Idea of Canoeing,” the chords and mood of which are reminiscent of Lakes of Canada. Where else are you going to find a melodica? More wondering: “Will I cross the street to you / in the traffic breaks / in the light of this / in the light of this love / here and now?”

“Galvanic” is a nice way to end the album. She sings in hope, “I believe we are going to see, things will come right this time.”

Overall, this is a very good album (can the band create otherwise?) with a lot to dig into, both lyrically and aurally. The band seemed to write and record this album with a soft touch, not risking too much. But you’ll only find gratitude here for the ways this record returns to the lush notes and tones of My Room in the Trees and Befriended.

As with all their albums there is an undeniable authenticity that comes through in their music. Amazingly, the band’s songs could produce the same emotional response in the listener, whether or not they produce them with multiple instruments. Karen’s voice and heart-rending lyrics come through with every composition. Also amazing is her ability to write so skillfully (and for such a long time now) about such universally human themes as loneliness, disconnect, hope, light, and vision. The hope is uniquely Christian, or at least one that looks up. It’s this—and the unique and always moving music—that keeps us coming back to them.

Check out the album here at Badman or here at Bandcamp.

 


 

Thanks to Badman for early access to the album so we could review it.

App Review: You Need a Budget

Image via YNAB

 

Long gone are my days of reconciling expenses in the check register to a print bank statement at the end of the month. Instead, I’ve been tracking daily expenses in real time since May 2015 with the app You Need a Budget (YNAB).

YNAB is a philosophy (with newly released accompanying book) as much as it is an app. Here are the four tenets of YNAB, in their words:

  1. Give every dollar a job.
  2. Embrace your true expenses.
  3. Roll with the punches.
  4. Age your money.

Their Website is as clean and clear and informative as any I’ve seen. You could easily (and productively!) get lost in their articles, tips, and sources of support for hours.

YNAB 4—which I received a few years ago for review and which has now been replaced by a yearly subscription model—consisted of a desktop app and mobile app that stayed in sync with each other via Dropbox. YNAB 4 is still fully functional, so you don’t have to upgrade to the subscription-as-service model if you don’t want to; you just can’t buy the stand-alone apps as a one-time purchase anymore. But what I’ve seen of the new Web app is an impressive step forward for an already great app.

The best thing about using YNAB is that even the act of tracking transactions has made me a more prudent spender. I’ve had months where I was still using an outdated budget, but tracking my spending was sufficient for not overdoing it. That’s perhaps the best contribution YNAB makes to one’s financial practice.

The four tenets are great, too. “Give every dollar a job” helps you avoid, as YNAB says, the scenario where you are feeling flush with cash after receiving a paycheck, so go out and buy all your friends drinks, only to realize 10 days later you needed that money for car repair. Their idea is that you decide what to do with your money before you spend it. It may not be novel, but it is also frequently ignored.

YNAB is a massive movement with a huge following. Using the app (and accompanying YNAB resources) these last 3.5 years has been immensely helpful.

Here are some pros and cons of the app (YNAB 4) itself:

PROS

  • Cross-platform integration means I can track an expense with the receipt still in my hand and everything stays current
  • You can carry the same budget over month to month with the click of a button, or easily modify as necessary
  • The support articles, forums, and Webinar options are some of the best of any app I’ve ever seen. In fact, in the middle of writing this blog post, I went to see what Webinars there were, found a 20-minute “Learn the Four Rules” session starting in a matter of minutes, signed up, and sat in on the 20-minute session
  • The app moves users away from the need to rely on complicated Excel spreadsheets (although I still use one for student loan tracking!)
  • Recurring expenses are super easy to set up; then you watch them populate into your register each month, with no need to manually repeat them
  • YNAB remembers your payees, so that I only have to start typing “Mar…” now to get “Market Basket” to pull up as an auto-complete option. It also learns what categories certain vendors fall into
  • Handling cash is easy—you have two options
  • There are some really nice spending graphs and charts you can pull up, to see where your money is going at a glance

CONS

  • I’ve occasionally had to reset my budget because sync didn’t pick up, although I’ve never lost data
  • Even though I’ve read and re-read the support articles on how to set up and manage credit cards in YNAB, I still find it less than intuitive

I typically include lots of screenshots in app reviews, but I’m not altogether sure how to do that in this case without disclosing sensitive info! There are a bunch of screenshots of YNAB 4 here, and of the newer subscription-based YNAB here.

All in all, working with YNAB principles has been a life-changing approach, at least in the area of finances. Check it out for yourself and see what you think.

Book Review: Raise Your Voice: Why We Stay Silent and How to Speak Up

Kathy Khang’s new book from InterVarsity Press addresses an important question:

You have a voice. And you have God’s permission to use it.

In some communities, certain voices are amplified and elevated while others are erased and suppressed. It can be hard to speak up, especially in the ugliness of social media. Power dynamics keep us silent and marginalized, especially when race, ethnicity, and gender are factors. What can we do about it?

In the introduction (“The Risk of Silence Versus the Risk of Raising Your Voice”) Khang gets right to it: “More often than not, raising my voice comes at some cost” (3). But not speaking up has a cost, too: “I learned that even when I chose to be silent and do nothing, I was still choosing to communicate something” (10). She says, “I want you to know that you have a voice. God wants you to use it, and the world needs to hear, see, and experience it” (10).

Khang roots our voice in the image of God and says, “Creation was not meant to be silent” (35). The God who spoke creation into being calls us to speak and even speaks through us.

This doesn’t mean raising our voice will be easy. Khang talks about fear, failure, and the risk of upsetting others. She shares experiences where speaking up for peace has been difficult for her—even times when trusted colleagues have (literally!) tried to silence her. Her sharing of her and her family’s life stories are a compelling part of her showing readers what finding our voice can look like.

I marked up quite a bit in this book. Here are some of the passages that especially helped me:

Rather than waiting for fear to pass, we must be willing to make small yet courageous steps toward the unfamiliar. We must simply be willing to “do it afraid.” (65, from a friend of Khangs that she interviews)

Speaking out is often labeled as rocking the boat or causing trouble, but silence is just as dangerous. (83)

Another thing to consider is what issue is pulling at your heart and soul so much that it might make you do something you never thought you’d do? (57-58)

I found the following idea especially compelling, and a great antidote to those who complain about “division” or “playing the race card” or whatever other reasons people give for avoiding difficult conversations:

Speaking up doesn’t increase division. It brings injustice and sin to the forefront. (66)

The book is not quite the step-by-step how-to guide I expected from the chapter titles, but Khang offers plenty of practical advice:

What issues do you care most deeply about? Identify what compels you to speak up. What people, problems, dreams, and values are near and dear to your heart? What things make you angry and question humanity? Where do you find hope? (57)

And her use of the Esther narrative as a lens through which to view using one’s voice is inspiring.

The book, by the way, is an excellent oceanside companion…

 

 

… and a good dinner partner:

 

 

It’s especially timely, given everything the current president does and says, as Christians try to navigate what to say and how to say it and in what venues.

 

 

Raise Your Voice releases July 31 and is available here (IVP) and here (Amazon).

 


 

Thanks to the good folks at IVP for the review copy, sent without expectations of the content of my review.

Drawn from Nature: A Stunning Children’s Book

Helen Ahpornsiri’s Drawn from Nature might be the most beautiful children’s book we’ve ever read. (And we’ve read a lot of them over the years.)

Ahpornsiri uses plants pressed by hand to lead the reader through the four seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter. The text itself is informative and lyrical, but the artwork is stunning.

Here are some pictures:

 

 

 

 

 

 

I can’t imagine how long it takes to illustrate a book (let alone do one page!) with hand-pressed plants. This 64-page book invites staring and wonder at the beauty of creation… not just that Ahpornsiri created from pressed plants, but how she did it. The creations that emerge are gorgeous.

My kids have gotten lost in this book already, as have I. It’s really fun to read a section at bedtime, but any child—reader or not—can easily find themselves swept up in these pages.

You can go here to look inside. Find the book at Amazon here, or through its publisher here.

 


 

Thanks to the good folks at Candlewick/Big Picture Press for sending the book for review, though that did not influence my opinions.

A Book You Should Read: Amy L. Sherman’s Kingdom Calling

Any church is an outpost of the Kingdom of God. There is the mission of the church, expressed in terms of what it does together as a congregation. Then there are the myriad ways members of a congregation—especially but certainly not limited to ones involved in teaching, social services, and other care-taking roles—live out the church’s call to love, to be salt and light, to share the good news of God’s love..

Even if we are at church four hours a week, we churchgoers spend some 98% of our lives not gathered with the congregation as a whole. How can churchgoing folks continue to build the Kingdom of God, not just when we are together, but when we are apart?

3809There exists among congregations an impressive amount of what Amy L. Sherman in Kingdom Calling refers to as “vocational power–knowledge, platform, networks, position, influence, skills and reputation.” As a pastor I am keenly aware of the importance of equipping the body of believers to use their “vocational power” for the growing of the Kingdom of God. How, as Ephesians says, can we “equip the saints for the work of ministry”—ministry not just at church but in our day-to-day lives, in all the places in which God has set us?

Sherman sets the course with a definition of vocational stewardship: “the intentional and strategic use of one’s vocational power (skills, knowledge, network, platform) to advance the values of the Kingdom of God.” In calling for “foretastes” of the Kingdom of God, she speaks of a righteousness that has three dimensions: up (God and me), in (myself), and out (the world and me). This robust understanding of righteousness gets at the heart of the Old and New Testament’s definition of righteousness as right relationship with God, self, and others.

Throughout Kingdom Calling Sherman tells inspiring stories of non-profit owners, teachers, pastors, small groups, construction workers, cleaning service providers, and many others who are helping to advance the Kingdom of God by offering foretastes of it in their own spheres.

As a pastor I appreciated Sherman’s focus on “four pathways for deploying congregants in the stewardship of their vocations” (22). These are:

  1. “Blooming where we are planted by strategically stewarding our current job,”
  2. “Donating our vocational skills as a volunteer,”
  3. “Launching a new social enterprise,” and,
  4. “Participating in a targeted initiative of our congregation aimed at transforming a particular community or solving a specific social problem.”

Sherman shares inspiring stories of church-school partnerships and congregation-wide initiatives, although it is hard to know how to replicate some of the successes Sherman mentions, absent more specific implementation suggestions. But insofar as her aim is to cast a vision to church leaders and attendees of vocational stewardship and the great potential found in vocational power, Sherman’s work has excited me to move ahead in my own church with what I’ve learned from Kingdom Calling.

OT and NT Library from Westminster John Knox, Now in Accordance

This week Accordance Bible Software has released a massive 68-volume bundle from Westminster John Knox Press: the Old Testament Library and New Testament Library.

The whole bundle, which is also available in component parts, includes a full set of 31 Old Testament commentaries, a series of 15 New Testament commentaries, and topical monographs for both Testaments. Here’s an article from Accordance on the release. In this post I interact with the bundle, as well as provide a short video demonstration of how to smartly search the modules via different search fields.

 
 

Sample Passage: Mark 12:13-17 (Among Others)

 
 

Nothing against commentaries that draw on an established translation, but I appreciate commentaries (like this one) where the author offers an original translation with explanatory footnotes.

Here’s Mark 12:13-17 in Eugene M. Boring’s original translation:

12:13 And they are sending some of the Pharisees and Herodians to him, to set a verbal trap for him. 14 And they come and say to him, “Teacher, we know that you are truthful and answer without regard to what people may think, for you show no partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it right to pay the poll tax to the emperor, or not? Should we pay it, or should we not?” 15 But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and show it to me.” 16 And they brought one. And he says to them, “Whose image is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” 17 Jesus said to them, “Give back to the emperor the things that belong to the emperor, and to God the things that belong to God.” And they were utterly astounded at him.

This section reads well enough. Note that Boring translates the beginning of the verse

Καὶ ἀποστέλλουσιν πρὸς αὐτόν τινας τῶν Φαρισαίων καὶ τῶν Ἡρῳδιανῶν

as

And they are sending some of the Pharisees and Herodians to him….

The “and” is translated (better, I think) in other versions as “then” (NRSV) and “later” (NIV). And I don’t find compelling reason in an English translation to preserve Greek’s “historical present” (ἀποστέλλουσιν) as “they are sending,” when the passage is describing a past narrative event. Formal English narrative prose wouldn’t be expected to use historical present. So, too, with verse 14’s, “And they come and say to him….” But that doesn’t overshadow Boring’s exegetical prowess!

For the second part of verse 13, ἵνα αὐτὸν ἀγρεύσωσιν λόγῳ, Boring provides a nice explanatory footnote:

The dative / instrumental logō, without preposition or pronoun, can refer either to what the inquirers say, “with a question,” or what they try to get Jesus to say, “in what he said.”

The translations throughout the OT and NT Library are strong in this regard—the authors highlight other options and why they chose what they did, focusing on lexical and grammatical challenges as they arise.

OTL and NTL are full of historical background:

While in the Markan story line the whole scene is part of the effort to find grounds on which Jesus may be arrested, the question itself, and Jesus’ response to it, is also inherently important for Mark. It was a live issue in his own time, in which the relation of Christians to the demands of the Roman government was not an abstract problem.

And more:

The denarius was a Roman coin, bearing the image of the emperor and an inscription declaring him to be divine and pontifex maximus (high priest). Not only the image, but the inscription, would be offensive to Jewish sensibilities.

In addition to focus on grammatical-historical detail, the series is refreshingly theological in a way that keeps the wider biblical witness in view for a given passage. Here’s more of Boring on this passage in Mark:

There is no paralleling of Caesar and God. God is God and Caesar is not God, in direct opposition to the image and title on the coin. The world is not divided into two parallel kingdoms. There is no encouragement in this text for dividing the world into “secular” and “sacred,” with Caesar ruling the one and God the other, nor is there any “balancing” of civic obligation to the state and religious obligation to God. Obligation to God overbalances all else (cf. 12:44, which concludes this section). Caesar is relative and God is absolute, so the two statements are not on the same plane; the second relativizes the first. Even the conjunction kai that joins them is not coordinating but adversative (as, e.g., Rom 1:13). Caesar does have a kingdom, and Jesus’ followers live in it, but God is the creator of all, and God’s kingdom embraces all, including that of Caesar. Thus while the saying itself calls on Jesus’ hearers to give both Caesar and God their due, it is not directed to those situations in which one must choose between God and Caesar as Lord. When those situations arise, devotion to God must clearly take precedence over Caesar; God demands all (12:29–30; cf. Acts 5:29). But the saying does not tell the hearer in advance how to discern what those situations are.

(His honesty and humility are refreshing!)

Again, the attention given to the passage in its wider literary-biblical context is a hallmark of the series. Here is Stephen E. Fowl on Ephesians 4:1 (“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received”):

Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesians is that they walk in a manner worthy of their calling. The use of the term “to walk” to characterize a way of life already appeared in 2:2, to refer to the Ephesians’ moribund way of life outside of Christ. In 2:10 it is used to speak of the manner of life that God has prepared for believers, further connecting chapters 1–3 and 4–6. Here in chapter 4 the initial admonition to the Ephesians is to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called.” The standard to which the Ephesians’ common life should conform is the “calling with which they have been called.” This calling is first mentioned in 1:18, but it is really in 2:1–10 and 11–22 where the shape of this calling is developed. Recall that in chapter 2 the Ephesians learn of their deathly state in God’s purview and outside of Christ, yet also of how God has graciously delivered them from death into life in Christ so that they may walk in the good works that God has prepared for them. Hence, Paul is not setting some new standard for them. Rather, he is reminding them of what God has already done on their behalf.

When it comes to critical issues like authorship, the volumes I’ve interacted with take a balanced approach. Here’s Fowl, again, on Ephesians:

The overwhelming majority of people read Ephesians for broadly theological reasons. That is, they read Ephesians because it is indisputably a part of Christian Scripture, and Christians by virtue of their identity are called to a lifelong engagement with Scripture as part of their ongoing struggle to live and worship faithfully before the triune God. Christians read Scripture in a variety of ways and in a variety of contexts to deepen their love of God and love of neighbor. Given the ends for which Christians engage Scripture theologically, the issue of authorship is not particularly relevant. Ephesians plays the role it does in the life and worship of Christians because it is part of the canon, not because it is written by Paul or not written by Paul. The text is canonical, Paul is not.

There are some real standouts in the series: Gerhard von Rad on Genesis, Brevard S. Childs on Exodus and Isaiah, Leslie C. Allen on Jeremiah, Adele Berlin on Lamentations, Luke Timothy Johnson on Hebrews, and more. I wish I’d had this Berlin volume as I preached through Lamentations last Lent! (I did access some pages via Google Books preview.)

 
 

VIDEO: Using Search Fields in Accordance

  

How about the OT/NT Library in Accordance specifically? In April I made a 12-minute screencast (just for fun… and for free!) that explains how to read a book in Accordance. I highlight four features that you won’t find on Kindle or that aren’t possible in print. (Here’s the link.) All that I highlight in that video is true of just about any tool in Accordance.

In the below video, I take a shorter time (if you don’t have 12 minutes) to highlight just one feature that sets Accordance apart from other software: search fields.

 
 

 
 

Where to Get It

  

For a few more days, the OT/NT Library is on sale through Accordance.

The OT/NT Library is also available as individual commentaries, if you want to pick up just the volume covering whatever book you’re studying or preaching on now.

You can read more about the new release here, which includes hyperlinks to the full bundle, the smaller bundles, and individual volumes. And be sure to check out Wes Allen’s review here!

 


 

Thanks to the PTB at Accordance for providing me with free access to the OT/NT Library in exchange for a review. This provision did not influence my assessment of the series! See my other Accordance posts (there are many) gathered here. I recorded the video using the app Capto.

App Review: Tempo Training Log for Runners

Tempo is an iOS training log for runners. It’s simpler than apps like Runtastic and Runkeeper, but it more than makes up for its fewer features with an excellent visual layout—the best of any running app I’ve seen.

Tempo doesn’t track runs in real time, but it pulls data from the iOS Health app. It’s explicitly designed to be a companion to the Apple Watch Workout app, but I’ve been testing it with my Health app, which receives workout data from both Runkeeper and Garmin Connect. In other words, Apple Watch or not, your running app or fitness watch can help you access at least 90% of Tempo’s features.

Here’s what the Dashboard looks like:

 

 

This is all the data I want in a running log, all in one place. You get year-to-date mileage, monthly mileage, and weekly mileage. You also can see “Last 365” (days), “Last 30,” and “Last 7.”

Underneath those top two rows is your “Intensity Trend,” which is the best way I’ve seen in any app to quickly scan through training patterns.

If you upgrade to Premium (easily the cheapest annual subscription I’ve seen in the App Store—$6.99/year), you get an Intensity Log that shows you data well before the most recent month:

 

 

A “Cumulative Graph” gives you another way to compare mileage (and pace!), week over week or month over month:

 

 

 

(My pace was thrown off by tracking some walks I didn’t intend to track. Oops!)

Here’s a sequence of weeks with pace above it—a great combination:

 

 

Also unique to the Premium version is “Trending Averages,” which look like this:

 

 

You can see all your runs as a list (“Runlog”—available to free users, too):

 

 

That button in the top right allows you to filter your runs. You can add notes to each activity, as well as tag it with your own tags (a Premium feature), even multiple ones (“Trail,” “Long run,” etc.).

 

 

 

Each individual run displays more activity if you click it:

 

 

If you have an Apple Watch (again—the assumption behind this app) you’ll get splits. If you’re connected to a device with a heart rate monitor, you’ll see that info, too. You can add any of your own notes, as well.

The Today widget is also really great, although seeing it next to Strava’s reinforces that the font is smaller than ideal. All the same, the widget gives you your last run, your weekly milage, and your monthly mileage—more data than other apps’ widgets provide.

 

 

There are two things Tempo lacks compared to other apps like Runkeeper or Strava:

  1. Social components
  2. Real-time run tracking

More and more, however, I see these as a strength. The app is focused—it’s a graphical training log, a digital version of what you might otherwise keep in a pocket notebook to track all your runs. Only this looks way better, and automatically imports your runs, as long as you have a watch or phone app that can feed data to Health. If you do run with a watch, you can run phoneless and still have all your data in a great-looking display.

The lack of social interaction on the app (you can’t connect via Tempo to friends) could also be a strong point, especially since Tempo seems intent on guarding user privacy. That’s not always the case with other similar apps.

Here’s some copy from the developer on privacy and lack of ads:

Tempo is built with privacy as a core principle. Your data is yours; we will never claim it, sell it, or share it with anyone. Tempo is for focussing on running and recovery without ad distractions, so it only has a paid model. You can download and try it for free, but your running will significantly benefit from pro features available with Tempo Premium.

It’s worth nothing that Runtastic Premium (advertised as ad-free) now regularly has Adidas clothing ads in my activity feed. I can’t remove them, and support acknowledges that they are there, but won’t admit that the ads are… well… ads. Which show up in ad-free Premium. No such detritus with Tempo.

The developer of Tempo is also a runner, and I think he’s succeeded in his aim to give you “your running visualized to delight you, motivate you, inspire you, and help you achieve your running goals.” Knowing mid-month that I’ve covered 50 miles is nice, but it’s even more motivating to know what I’ve done in the last 30 days, which Tempo shows you.

By the way (if I may sound off for a moment), the Health app on iOS has the worst layout of any Apple app. It’s as bloated and hard to navigate as iTunes is on a laptop. So if you do run with an Apple Watch, Tempo will relieve you from having to review data via the Health app—a continual exercise in frustration.

Tempo is free and available here. The Premium version is cheap and helps support further development. You can even try all the Premium features with a 14-day free trial.

If you want to read more of Tempo’s story, go here.

 


 

Thanks to the developer for the upgrade to Premium so I could review the app. I’ll be re-subscribing, for sure.