Author Archive | Denny Burk

A Ransom to Satan?


Paul Harvey

I preached in my home church of DeRidder, Louisiana this morning, and I chose to preach a very traditional Palm Sunday sermon. I addressed the topic of “the innermost meaning of the cross” from Romans 3:21-26. It would seem that this kind of a message would be “old hat” among mature Christians, the basic substance of our faith. Yet I find that popular misconceptions about the meaning of Christ’s death still abound.

I heard Paul Harvey share the following story on his radio program on the Saturday before Easter, March 30, 2002. It’s a sweet story, but it represents a fairly common misunderstanding of Jesus’ atoning work on the cross. My aim is not to criticize Paul Harvey; I’ve always loved to listen to his show. However, I think the anecdote does reflect an unwitting error that Christians are prone to make–namely, that Jesus’ death was a payment to Satan. Here’s Harvey’s story.
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“The Bird Cage”

There once was a man named George Thomas, a pastor in a small New England town. One Easter Sunday morning he came to the church carrying a rusty, bent, old bird cage, and set it by the pulpit. Several eyebrows were raised and, as if in response, Pastor Thomas began to speak.
“I was walking through town yesterday when I saw a young boy coming toward me, swinging this bird cage. On the bottom of the cage were three little wild birds, shivering with cold and fright. I stopped the boy and asked, “What you got there son?”
“Just some old birds,” came the reply.
“What are you gonna do with them?” I asked.
“Take ’em home and have fun with ’em. I’m gonna tease ’em and pull out their feathers to make ’em fight. I’m gonna have a real good time.”
“But you’ll get tired of those birds sooner or later. What will you do then?”
“Oh, I got some cats. They like birds. I’ll take ’em to them.”
The pastor was silent for a moment. “How much do you want for those birds, son?”
“Huh??!!! Why, you don’t want them birds, mister. They’re just plain old field birds. They don’t sing – they ain’t even pretty!”
“How much?” The boy sized up the pastor as if he were crazy and said,
“$10?”
The pastor reached in his pocket and took out a ten dollar bill. He placed it in the boy’s hand. In a flash, the boy was gone. The pastor picked up the cage and gently carried it to the end of the alley where there was a tree and a grassy spot. Setting the cage down, he opened the door, and by softly tapping the bars persuaded the birds out, setting them free.
Well, that explained the empty bird cage on the pulpit, and then the pastor began to tell this story.
One day Satan and Jesus were having a conversation. Satan had just come from the Garden of Eden, and he was gloating and boasting.
“Yes, sir, I just caught the world full of people down there. Set me a trap, used bait I knew they couldn’t resist. Got ’em all!”
“What are you going to do with them?” Jesus asked.
“Oh, I’m gonna have fun! I’m gonna teach them how to marry and divorce each other. How to hate and abuse each other. How to drink and smoke and curse. How to invent guns and bombs and kill each other. I’m really gonna have fun!”
“And what will you do when you get done with them?” Jesus asked.
“Oh, I’ll kill ’em.”
“How much do you want for them?”
“Oh, you don’t want those people. They ain’t no good. Why, you’ll take them and they’ll just hate you. They’ll spit on you, curse you and kill you!! You don’t want those people!!”
“How much?”
Satan looked at Jesus and sneered, “Your life.”
Jesus paid the price.
The pastor picked up the cage, opened the door and he walked from the pulpit.

Accessed 4/5/05 – http://www.webedelic.com/church/birdcagef.htm
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In spite of its shortcomings, we should acknowledge that the story does illustrate a couple important truths. First of all, it illustrates God’s love for sinners through Jesus’ sacrificial work (e.g. John 15:12; Rom 5:8). It also rightfully proclaims that Jesus’ death on the cross releases sinners from the ruling power of sin, which includes satanic bondage (Acts 26:18; 2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:13; 2 Tim 2:26).

However, the story completely misunderstands the Bible’s teaching about the payment that Christ made in behalf of sinners. In the story, Christ’s sacrificial death is pictured as a payment to Satan. Satan has humanity caged up, and unless he’s properly paid off all humanity will be damned. So Jesus steps in and pays the ransom to Satan in order to release sinners who are held captive by him.

Harvey’s story represents a view of Christ’s atonement that the church rejected centuries ago (click here for more info on the early church’s rejection of this view). But the main problem with this “ransom to Satan” view of Christ’s death is that it misunderstands what the Bible teaches about the meaning of the cross. The scriptures are clear that Jesus Christ’s death on the cross constituted a payment to God, not the devil.

Why is this point significant? It’s important because the Bible everywhere affirms that sin is an offense against God (e.g. 2 Samuel 12:9-10; Romans 3:23). All of us are sinners and have thus offended God. The offense of sin has created a rift between God and humanity (Isaiah 59:2). Sin has incited God’s angry and terrible wrath, and all of us therefore owe God a debt of eternal punishment because of our sin. This debt is paid in hell, and when one goes there one never finishes paying the debt. It lasts for eternity.

It’s important to note here that hell is not a place where Satan doles out punishment upon sinners. No, hell is much scarier than that. Hell is the place where God metes out His just punishment upon sinners. We must not think of hell as a place where Satan rules. On the contrary, hell is the place of Satan’s punishment (2 Peter 2:4; Rev 20:10). So if hell isn’t the realm of Satan’s wrath, then who’s wrath is it that is poured out in hell? It’s the wrath of God. When we let ourselves reflect on this truth, the thought is almost too difficult to bear. The same God who is the treasure of heaven is also the One who is the terror of hell. This is why Jesus warned people, “And do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28). Whereas heaven is the realm of God’s mercy, hell is the place of God’s wrath. Hell is scary not because Satan is there but because, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).

All of this further illumines the point that we as sinners owe a debt of eternal punishment to God, not to Satan. Therefore, when Jesus died, he was making a payment to God, not to Satan. When Jesus died, he was being punished by God, not by Satan. On the cross, Jesus Christ was receiving the punishment from God that we deserved. Someone may object to this last statement by asking, “But does the Bible really teach that God is the one who punished Jesus? After all, it looks like the Romans and the Jews are the ones who punished him.” Numerous texts could be cited in response to this objection. Let’s look at a couple.

The prophet Isaiah describes Jesus’ death as follows, “But the Lord was pleased To crush Him, putting Him to grief” (Isaiah 53:10, emphasis mine). In Isaiah’s words, “the Lord” is the One who crushed Jesus. In Matthew’s gospel, God says “I will strike down the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered” (Matt 26:31). In this text, God is clearly the agent of Jesus’ death. Also, let us not forget 2 Corinthians 5:21, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” God made Jesus to bear the guilt and punishment for our sin! This couldn’t be any clearer in scripture.

So the payment that would have taken us an eternity in hell to endure, Jesus endured in the moment of the cross. Jesus’ physical sufferings were horrific. But who can imagine the terror of the spiritual anguish of bearing God’s wrath against sin? All the frightful rage of the infinite creator and judge of the universe was poured out in full on Jesus at the cross. As C. H. Spurgeon once put it, “it seemed as if Hell were put into His cup; He seized it, and, ‘At one tremendous draught of love, He drank damnation dry.’ So that there was nothing left of all the pangs and miseries of Hell for His people ever to endure.” This is the true meaning of Christ’s death. Jesus took the wrath of God upon himself as a substitute in the place of sinners. In this, Jesus rendered payment to God, not Satan.

The amazing paradox is that the measure of God’s wrath is also the measure of his love because “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). God’s love is demonstrated in Jesus’ death. How can this be? The measure of Jesus’ anguish on the cross demonstrates the extent of his love. He suffered to the uttermost for those he came to save. So when we view God’s wrath poured out on Jesus at the cross, we are at once viewing the measure of his love for us. Isn’t this the reason that we sing, “Amazing love, how can it be that Thou my God wouldst die for me?”

We give away precious gospel truth if we say that Jesus’ death was a ransom to Satan. If we say that Jesus’ death is a ransom to the devil, we don’t see the true measure of God’s love because we don’t see the true measure of His wrath poured out on sin. But we see the gospel in all of its glory when we realize that Jesus’ death was a payment to an offended God who loves us. God offers Jesus as a substitute penalty-bearer to anyone who will place their faith and trust in him. Whoever turns from their sin, whoever forsakes all attempts to reconcile himself/herself to God through human effort and good works, whoever will trust in Jesus alone will find salvation from the eternal debt of punishment owed to God. That is the heart of the Gospel.

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To My Students: A Word of Exhortation

My writing today is dedicated especially to my students at the Criswell College. I am happy to hear that so many have been stopping by to read what I have posted, so I have all of you in mind as I write today. There is a short essay by B. B. Warfield that I read when I first began my trek in theological education many years ago. What Warfield wrote in this essay radically changed the way that I had been thinking about the task that I had before me. He argues with passion and vigor that there should be no bifurcation between the “head” and the “heart” when one applies himself to serious study of the scriptures. Warfield’s words were momentous in my life, and I think they will be in yours too. Princeton Theological Seminary has posted Warfield’s article on their website, and I am encouraging you to click on the link below, print out the article, and read it carefully. Blessings on all of you with much love, Dr. Burk.

The Religious Life of Theological Students – by B. B. Warfield

(About B. B. Warfield)

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The Sloan Resignation: “Vision Minus the Visionary”

Several weeks ago I wrote about the resignation of Robert Sloan from the presidency of Baylor University in a blog titled, “The Demise of Sloan and the Fortunes of ‘Baylor 2012’.” In that essay I concluded with the following: “I fear that the vision of ‘Baylor 2012’ will have a whole different character or be perhaps entirely lost without Sloan at the helm. However, I am reminded by a good friend that the glass may not be half empty, but half full . . . I will be hoping and praying that my friend is right.”

According to an article in the March issue of Christianity Today, the glass may indeed be half full. In “Vision Minus the Visionary,” Robert Benne predicts that, “there is good reason to believe that Baylor 2012 will go firmly forward under a new administration. There is no guarantee that this ambitious plan will be completely successful or that it will now be free of controversy, but its likelihood of success is now greater without Sloan than it was with him.” It remains to be seen whether this analysis will be correct, but I recommend your reading the article anyway (click on the following link).

“Vision Minus the Visionary” – by Robert Benne

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Review of “Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Debates”

Mark Husbands and Daniel J. Treier, eds. Justification—What’s at Stake in the Current Debates (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004). ISBN: 0830827811. $23.00.

The ten papers appearing in this volume are selections from the conference on Justification held at Wheaton College Graduate school in April of 2003: “The Gospel, Freedom and Righteousness: The Doctrine of Justification.” One would think that a book such as this one, published at the time that this one was, would be all about the current debate over the so-called “new perspective” on Paul. This collection of essays, however, demonstrates that there is much more to the Justification debate than the quarrel about the character of first century rabbinic Judaism and its influence on the apostle to the Gentiles. These papers take up the question whether imputed righteousness is “fictive, forensic or transformative” (p. 7). The book divides into four parts: (1) Justification and Biblical theology, (2) Justification and the Crisis of Protestantism, (2) Justification in Protestant Traditions, and (4) Justification and Ecumenical Endeavor. Continue Reading →

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Review of “Making Sense of the New Testament”

Craig L. Blomberg, Making Sense of the New Testament: Three Crucial Questions (Baker: Grand Rapids, 2004). ISBN: 0801027470. $14.99.

Craig Blomberg’s Making Sense of the New Testament is published as a companion volume to Tremper Longman’s 1998 book, Making Sense of the Old Testament: Three Crucial Questions. In the current volume, Blomberg sets out to identify “three crucial questions” that must be answered by anyone who wishes to consider the truth-claims of the New Testament. In chapter 1, he sets out to answer the question of whether the New Testament presents a reliable historical portrait of Jesus. Here he takes up the old question of whether the Christ of history resembles the Christ of the scriptures. Blomberg concludes that the historicity of the Gospels and Acts is confirmed by sound evidence and that accepting their historical claims does not require a leap of faith. Blomberg does a good job of taking the reader step-by-step through the evidence, and in the end produces a very convincing apologetic for the veracity of the Gospels and Acts.

In chapter 2, Blomberg takes up the controversial question whether Paul was the true founder of Christianity. He queries whether the teaching of Jesus can be reconciled with the teaching of the great apostle to the Gentiles: “Was Paul, in fact, the second founder, or perhaps even the true founder of Christianity as it has developed down the centuries?” (p. 15). In this section, Blomberg responds to the skeptical charge that Paul’s letters reveal a radical revision of the teachings of the historical Jesus. Blomberg does well to point out that Paul is aware of the Jesus traditions that were current in his day and that some of these traditions appear in his letters. In 1 Corinthians 11:23-25, for instance, Paul makes use of a tradition that was handed down to him by word of mouth. This tradition looks remarkably similar to Luke’s version of the Jesus’ words at the Last Supper (Luke 22:19-20). Paul and Luke’s use of a common oral tradition shows the antiquity of Paul’s theology of atonement and that he was concerned with the historical Jesus. Blomberg wrestles with other texts in Paul that allude directly or indirectly to Jesus’ teachings. Blomberg says that, “Theological distinctives between the two men remain, and the differing purposes of the Gospels and the Epistles must be taken into account” (p. 106). Thus, there is more evidence of continuity between Jesus and Paul than is commonly acknowledged by New Testament scholars, and the points of discontinuity can be explained by the different purposes of Paul the letter writer and the evangelists who wrote the Gospels.

In chapter 3, Blomberg considers how the New Testament applies to the modern day. He explores the various principles that govern the interpretation of the New Testament’s diverse literary forms. These include (1) determining the original application intended by the author of the passage, (2) evaluating the level of specificity of those applications to see if they should be or can be transferred across time and space to other audiences, (3) if they cannot be transferred, identifying broader cross-cultural principles that the specific elements of the text reflect, and (4) finding appropriate contemporary applications that embody those principles (p. 108). He then works out these principles in relation to the different sections of the New Testament canon: the Gospels, Acts, Paul’s letters, Hebrews and General Epistles, and the Revelation. The principles that Blomberg elucidates can provide a good starting-point for developing legitimate implications out of the author’s original meaning. One notices, however, that it is still unclear how one is to know when it is appropriate to move beyond the intention of the biblical author in applying the scripture. For example, on page 140 Blomberg says that the interpreter needs to “recognize that Paul lays down principles which could not be fully implemented in his world but which challenge later Christians to move even further in the directions he was already heading” (emphasis mine). This “further” idea sounds remarkably similar to William Webb’s “redemptive movement hermeneutic,” to which Blomberg refers in an extended footnote on pages 172-173. Webb’s hermeneutic appears to the present reviewer to be highly unstable and, in Webb’s application of it, favorable to an egalitarian reading of Paul.

In sum, Blomberg has produced a handy little primer on some of the basic questions that face the reader of the New Testament. There is not much new here for specialists in the field, but this book will be useful for beginning students of the New Testament at both the college and graduate levels. It is also useful as an apologetic tool for anyone who might be interested in evidence concerning the historical claims of the New Testament.

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My Mentor John Piper and Romans 12:1-2

John Piper discipled me in my car when I attended Dallas Theological Seminary. I used to listen to his sermons as I would commute to and from work and school. Throughout my career in seminary, the Lord used John Piper to shape my thinking about God and the scriptures more than any single teacher that I ever had. I know of no preacher who combines exegetical, theological, and devotional depth like Dr. Piper. His ministry, which is called “Desiring God,” makes all of his sermons (manuscripts and audio) available for free at http://www.desiringgod.org/.

I am teaching on Romans 12:1-2 in a Sunday morning bible study at my church. As is normal for me, I draw on a number of different resources in preparing for my teaching. Five of John Piper’s sermons in particular have been tremendously helpful to me, stimulating not only my mind but also my heart. Therefore, I heartily recommend these sermons to you.

Build Your Life on the Mercies of God – by John Piper
Present Your Bodies as a Living Sacrifice to God – by John Piper
Do Not Be Conformed to This World – by John Piper
The Renewed Mind and How to Have It – by John Piper
What Is the Will of God and How Do We Know It? – by John Piper

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State of the Union Address 2005

Article II, Sec. 3 of the U.S. Constitution says that the President, “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information on the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” Tonight, President Bush did just that, setting forth his vision and plan for the nation in a 53 minute address to the Congress.The most poignant moment in the speech occurred when he recognized the mother of slain soldier Byron Norwood, who was killed last year in Iraq during the attack on Fallujah. In an unscripted but emotionally powerful moment, the mother of the slain soldier leaned forward to embrace an Iraqi woman whose father was killed by Saddam Hussein. Even the President fought back tears as he watched this scene unfold in the gallery above him.

The most ambitious item on the President’s domestic agenda is his intention to overhaul Social Security. He irritated his opponents in Congress in this section of the speech, drawing loud heckles from the Democrat side of the aisle. The palpable tension in the room portends a gigantic political battle that is certain to unfold in the coming months. The President said tonight that benefits for people who are now 55 years old and older will not be affected by any of the proposed changes. The Democrats will ignore this in the coming months and will try to frighten seniors into thinking that Bush desires to cut benefits to current recipients of social security. This will be a bitter fight indeed.

I was encouraged to hear the President’s clear resolve to support a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex “marriage.” This commitment has been called into question of late. In an interview with the Washington Post last month, President Bush seemed to indicate that the amendment would not be a priority as long as the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act stands unchallenged in the courts. The amendment was noticeably absent from the list of top-10 legislative priorities that Senator Bill Frist released on January 24.

A group of prominent religious conservatives (including James Dobson and Gary Bauer) responded to these developments by sending Karl Rove a letter threatening to withhold support for Bush’s social security plan if he doesn’t make the gay marriage ban a priority. The President’s spokesman came out shortly after and reaffirmed the President’s commitment to traditional marriage. I think he did well again tonight to reaffirm his support for the amendment to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

I wish that the President would use the bully pulpit more effectively in defense of the unborn. I understand the political calculation that goes into his not attending the annual “March for Life” in person. What I don’t understand is why he doesn’t try to use speeches like the State of the Union to try and win Americans to the pro-life cause. At the “March for Life” on January 24, 2005, Bush phoned in his remarks and said that “a true culture of life cannot be sustained solely by changing laws. We need, most of all, to change hearts.” If he really believes that hearts have to change, then he has to use the bully-pulpit to make the case for the pro-life cause. People will not change their minds on this issue unless they are compelled to do so by force of argument. As far as I can tell, he hasn’t done that yet.

Overall, this was a great speech.

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My New Favorite Album: “Soul Still Remembers”


Pictured above: The Critics’ CD release concert in Shreveport, LA.

I’ve just posted a review of the the Critics‘ debut CD on the “CD Baby” website (click here). “Soul Still Remembers” really is my new favorite album, and the Critics are my new favorite band.

Musically, “Soul Still Remembers” deserves a place among the all-time greats. I am a fan of bands like Counting Crows, Vertical Horizon, and Train, and this album surpasses them all. A written review cannot do justice to the Critics by way of description. You simply have to buy this album and listen to it for yourself.

To enjoy the album as it was intended, you really have to buy the CD. The songs are not arranged willy-nilly, but actually appear in an intentional sequence. The CD jacket is printed like a book, complete with chapter divisions and endnotes. Each song comprises a chapter (or “canto”) in what is supposed to look like a book of poetry. And the lyrics are indeed poetry.

The lyrics portray the ruminations of an individual who is grappling with the issue of repentance, and each chapter opens up new vistas into the human condition before God. All of this is mixed with a profound understanding of the Word of God and how it describes our plight and salvation. Every time I reread these lyrics, there is a new insight that I hadn’t seen before.

One of my favorite songs of the album is “To Jeremiah,” a poem about the prophet and the Biblical book bearing his name. This song illustrates what is true of the rest of the pieces on the album; the lyrics can stand alone by themselves as poetry. Here’s “To Jeremiah”:

Sing to me, Jeremiah,
of pickled skin and cracked bones,
of wrists rusted by chains
and feet cut by the stony road
where lion and bear wait
to kill your view of faulty Zion,
stripped down from her hill.

Tell me, Jeremiah,
about this town with no King,
where you, pressed face-long to the ground,
taste your teeth broken down
for the least of these.
Women eat salty skin
boiled and baked within them,
in their own hands,
and the prophets lie
and see clever fantasies
to calm the captives.

Let me, Jeremiah,
bear the yoke while I’m young
that I might sit down and shut up
disgraced in my own ashes—
a “harlot-town’s son”—
so I can better know your hope
because, sir, I’ve seen your King.
Oh, Jeremiah sing,
for your King, at last, has come.

A new kingdom has come.

Do not delay. Make haste and add this album to your collection.

(When you visit the CD Baby website, listen to the following songs: “A Floor Below,” “Worse Than I Thought,” and “Soul Still Remembers.”)

Pictured below: Me (left) and the lead singer Myles Roberts (right) after the CD Release concert.

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The Gender Wars and Harvard University

President of Harvard University, Lawrence H. Summers, has gotten himself into a catfight because of comments he made recently at a session on the progress of women in academia organized by the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Mass. Although there is no transcript of his remarks, he reportedly claimed “that the shortage of elite female scientists may stem in part from ‘innate’ differences between men and women.”[1]

He shared an anecdote about his daughter to illustrate the point. He once gave his daughter two trucks in an effort at “gender-neutral parenting.” His daughter soon began referring to one of the trucks as “daddy truck” and the other as “baby truck.”[2] The event led him to ponder whether there was any truth to the notion that certain proclivities are connected to gender. For his daughter, at least, despite his best effort it seemed clear that something inside her compelled her to play what little girls are often wont to play. His is the kind of observation that many parents make when they actually deal with reality and not with ideology. Boys and girls are different.

Not surprisingly, Summers’ concurrent analysis of the shortage of women in math and sciences was not received well by the dogmaticians of political correctness that inhabit the halls of academia. Indeed, at least one listener received his words as a personal vote of no confidence with respect to the role of women in the academy. Nancy Hopkins, a biology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, actually got up from her seat in the middle of the speech and walked out. She said, “I felt I was going to be sick . . . My heart was pounding and my breath was shallow . . . I was extremely upset.”[3]

A faculty committee of Harvard University has responded to Summers’ remarks with a reprimand, saying that his words “did not serve our institution well. Indeed, they serve to reinforce an institutional culture at Harvard that erects numerous barriers to improving the representation of women on the faculty, and to impede our current efforts to recruit top women scholars. They also send at best mixed signals to our high-achieving women students in Harvard College and in the graduate and professional schools.”[4]

Dr. Summer’s remarks were hardly an assault on women or modern feminism. He has subsequently said that he did not mean to imply that women were mentally inferior or somehow less apt for scholarship in math and sciences than men are. His words were merely an observation concerning the differences between men and women. Yet the storm of controversy that has erupted reveals the extent to which feminist dogma has gripped the popular consciousness. One cannot even make the suggestion anymore that there are innate differences between boys and girls without causing an uproar.

It never ceases to amaze me how anti-feminine the feminist movement has become. At least in some of its more radical wings, the movement encourages females to pretend that there are no differences between men and women beyond the biological accidents of their anatomies. The practical effect of this ideology has not really been a thoroughgoing egalitarianism, but a suspicion of everything male. Ironically, women are encouraged to act less and less like women, and more and more like men. Who would have thought 100 years ago that the feminist movement would result in a suppression of traditional femininity? Yet this seems to be what has happened.

The controversy surrounding the Harvard President’s remarks reveals that there is still a pitched battle going on over the meaning of gender in our culture. Ultimately, this conflict can only be resolved by a willingness to listen to what the Creator of gender has to say about who we are and what he intends for us. As long as the feminists keep up their effort to shut Him out of the conversation, however, the fight will have to continue.
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[1]Washington Post, Wednesday, January 19, 2005; Page A02, accessed on-line: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A19181-2005Jan18.html.
[2]Washington Post, Wednesday, January 19, 2005; Page A02, accessed on-line: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A19181-2005Jan18.html.
[3]Ibid.
[4]New York Times, Wednesday, January 19, 2005, accessed on-line: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/19/education/19harvard.html.

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