Pulling Back the Veil

IMG_5796How good and pleasant it is when people live together in harmony!

– From Psalm 133

How long, O Lord, will we experience hate speech and evil actions? How long will we see the kind of divisive and violent display we saw in Charlottesville? How long will we refuse to lift the veil to reveal the truth about our nation, about ourselves? How long, O Lord, will we remain silent, complicit? How long will it take us to stand courageously as people of God and proclaim in whatever ways we are able that racism, xenophobia, homophobia and every form of injustice will not prevail in our nation?

The God who made us and nurtured us expects us to act with courage in the face of evil, to speak, to write our leaders, to be present in the quest for justice, to wage peace, to pray for the strength to change our world, and most importantly, to be brave enough to pull back the veil, to truly see the depth of the division in our nation and the racism in our own hearts. This is God’s calling and challenge to us. But most of the time, most of us meet God’s challenges with hesitation and questions.

I am only one person with many limitations. How can I make any difference at all?

I don’t know enough to speak out. How can I influence anything?

I am not strong enough. How can I persist in the midst of such violence?

The lives of our sisters who live on in the Scripture encourage us by their courageous example and summon us to be change-agents that work for the day when God will reign on earth as in heaven.

Deborah, prophet and judge in Israel, calls us to emulate her wisdom, courage and compassionate zeal for justice. (Judges 4:4-14)

The four daughters of Phillip the Evangelist call us to prophesy as they did with boldness and courage. Eusebius refers to them as “great lights” or “mighty luminaries.” These strong women held a unique place in the early church, exercising their prophetic ministry freely and powerfully. Will we become “great lights” in the midst of hatred’s darkness? (Acts 21:9)

Esther calls us to the kind of bravery and courage that led her to risk her life to save the lives of her people. Like her, perhaps we have been called for such a time as this. (Esther 4:14)

The five daughters of Zelophead call us to be fearless. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah stood fearless and firm, and as result reformed the culture of their day. Because they spoke up without fear, they reversed precedent. Their call to us is to speak truth to power. (Numbers 27:1-7)

Certainly, our deepest desire is for “people to live together in harmony.” But until that day comes, we will speak and work and pray for peace and justice.

My friend, Ken Sehested shares a prophetic line from a poem penned by Adrienne Maree Brown: “Things are not getting worse. They are getting uncovered.”

In response, Ken writes:

The poet’s counsel in light of these things would be mine as well: “We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.” (http://www.prayerandpolitiks.org/blog/2017/08/12/we-are-charlottesville.2776686)

I end with a wise word from another poet, Maya Angelou.

History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.

With the example of our Biblical sisters, with God’s unambiguous call, let us move with courage, pulling back the veil, uncovering the truth, working for the day when people will live together in harmony.

A Holy Thread

Enlight137Years ago, I served The Providence Baptist Church of Little Rock as their pastor. In those days, 1992, I was the only ordained woman who was a Baptist pastor in the state. Because of the strong and vocal disapproval and disdain from Baptists in Arkansas, my ministry at Providence was a lonely nine years.

I had just experienced months of open animosity from the Arkansas Baptist State Convention as I went through a hard, hard ordination process. Threatening phone calls were just the tip of a very ugly iceberg. And I was hurt, almost broken, from the experience. But that story is a blog post in itself that I will save for another day.

I was given a rare gift, though, in the people of Providence — a congregation of deep love and unwavering support. They were a courageous people, each having come to Providence from other Baptist churches to live out their faith. They took a risk to join Providence. Many convictions led them to do so, the role of women in the church, the inclusion of all persons, the re-visioning of the idea of “Baptist,” the desire to create a covenant with like-minded brothers and sisters, the quest to build a “beloved community” in our city.

I will always remember Ethel, one of our deacons and a dear mother-figure for me, who gave me constant encouragement. She would say to me almost weekly, “Tie a knot in the rope and hang on.” One of the times she said that, I was experiencing a particularly difficult time. I responded that what she was calling a rope felt much more like a thread.

I often recall those years with a mixture of joy and pain. In those years, many of us were grieving the loss of the denomination that had long nurtured us. We mourned for the loss of our seminaries, our beloved professors scattered in a deliberate and abusive diaspora. We mourned the loss of our Foreign Mission Board and worried about our missionaries around the world and the people they ministered to in towns and villages, plains and forests.

What I can say is that the pain slowly faded and healing covered us. I can also say with firm certainty that there was always a thread to hold on to, a thread that represented hope. I am inspired by the writing of William Stafford, who must know something about the thread we grip so tightly.

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

– William Stafford, The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems (Graywolf Press: 1998), 42.

Oh, what a comfort it is to hold on to the thread that never changes, even as everything around us changes constantly. What a comfort it is to find that sacred thread and to hold it tightly through all manner of life tragedy. What a comfort it is to move through change, suffering, loss, the many threatening events of life, and to feel the holy thread in your hands . . . constant, unbreakable, given to us by a compassionate God who always knew that our pathway would be scattered with stumbling stones and ominous boulders.

Thanks be to God for the holy thread. Hold it tightly.

Afraid of the Night

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From the poem, “The Old Astronomer to His Pupil” by Sarah Williams. The last line of the poem was used as an epitaph for an Astronomer-couple
buried at Allegheny Observatory.

 

 

Almost every night as bedtime approaches, I experience a feeling of panic. I have thought a lot about what is going on in me when this happens. Hoping to overcome the fear, I say to myself again and again, “I need not be afraid of the night.” And yet the panic persists. What I do know is that there is a part of me that fears going to sleep and never waking up. I have thought long and hard about where such a feeling might come from.

I recently worked through this and discovered that the panic is related to my many nights spent in the hospital in 2014. I remember well the long nights of sleeplessness and anxiety. I remember the irrational fear that clung tightly to me following a few brushes with death. I remember that, even when I was stronger and out of imminent danger, I continued to be afraid. And I remember that the nights in the hospital were lonely and seemingly endless.

When I was discharged and safely back home, I continued to be sleepless, eyes wide open every night, all night. I stayed exhausted, of course, and slept soundly during the day. It is interesting to me how the body adjusts itself to changing circumstances and schedules, physically and emotionally, even spiritually. Body and soul, I easily accepted an intense fear of the night. Perhaps I could just as easily embrace the reality of a caring God who watches over me through every dark time. Perhaps I could find the God of the Psalmist.

You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.

Before a word is on my tongue, you, Lord, know it completely.

You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning,
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”

even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

– Psalm 139:1-13

I need not be afraid of the night.

It is true. Through every dark day, I could not flee from God’s presence. In the “dark night of my soul, in every difficult time, there was a reality I needed to learn, an eternal truth waiting fir me to discover. My discovery was about the captivity of fear, especially fear that descended on me in the dark of night. My discovery was also about a Light that is brighter than any darkness I could ever experience.

I need not be afraid of the night. Thanks be to God.

 

For the Love of Trees

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Image by Diane Walker@Contemplative Photography

I have had a lifelong love affair with trees. Trees have inspired and strengthened me in many ways. The huge magnolia tree from my troubled childhood was a place of safety, giving me a place to hide from danger, offering to me a place to feel protected.

Miss Martha’s sprawling fig tree on the edge of our back yard bore wonderfully unusual fruit, soft and sweet and delectable. Her plum trees were loaded with plums, sweet and sour and delicious both ways. The fond memory I have of Miss Martha’s trees is punctuated with an angry Miss Martha catching us stealing figs and plums, yelling at us with an ominous voice, and chasing us from her yard.

The African plains graced my life with the gift of watching giraffes feeding on flat-topped thorn trees and elephants pushing their weight against misshaped baobab trees. The colorful swaying of ten foot tall bougainvillea trees was a mesmerizing sight. And in Africa, poinsettia plants are trees, trees like I had never before seen.

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Beyond this crash course on botany, and dendrology, I share a heart-and-soul love of trees. It is almost a spiritual connection for me, one that keeps me fully grounded, one that represents life, growth, rootedness, protection and sheer enjoyment.

My friend, Elaine, writes a beautiful blog entitled The Edge. In today’s blog post, Elaine shares a quote about what we learn from trees written by Diane Walker. (https://theedgeishere.wordpress.com/2017/08/10/contemplative2017-rooted/)

It’s possible, you know — we learn it from the trees —
to be full of grace and humor, dancing in the light
while remaining fully grounded,
rooted in the gravitas of being . . .

– Diane Walker

God is pleased, I think, when we dance in the light full of grace and humor. We learn it from the trees, Diane Walker says. I believe she’s right. So today, I will be spending a few moments sitting in the shade of our Chinese Tallow tree and swinging underneath a towering Pin Oak. Perhaps in the leaves that rustle gently in the breeze, I will hear God’s  whispers.

 

 

Life Is a Gift

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Today I read an inspiring blog post written by my long-time friend, Guy Sayles. He recalls his medical diagnosis of Multiple Myeloma three years ago and describes the experience of “vivid remembering of hard days of treatment.”

Around the same time, I entered a time of serious and unexpected illness which led to a diagnosis of end stage kidney disease. I spent most of 2014 in the hospital, literally fighting for my life on at least three occasions. My husband was terrified. Mercifully, I knew nothing of the urgency of what was happening to me.

Guy Sayles writes of a reality that I completely understand when he says, “The first two years of my having Multiple Myeloma were so challenging that I didn’t expect to be alive now. That I am is sheer and surprising gift to me.” (http://www.fromtheintersection.org/blog/2017/8/8/its-all-gift)

For me, it was not so much that I expected imminent death, but throughout my long period of recovery and rehabilitation, I never expected to be able to care for myself again. That I now am able to live a relatively normal life is most certainly a gift of grace I never expected. Healing and recuperating was much like a resurrection for me. I got my life back.

So my constant question to myself is what will I do with this gift of life? I am inspired by the way Mary Oliver asks this question in her poem, The Summer Day.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

I am compelled to answer that question, to use the gift of my life as a gift to others. To care for people with compassion. To do justice where oppression reigns. To make peace in the face of violence. To scatter hope in the places where despair has taken hold.

I hope you will truly hear the way Guy Sayles expresses this.

The awareness which gently and repeatedly washed over me was, “Life is gift and my response may, can, and should be gift-giving.”

And my calling is to lavish gift-giving—to share freely and fully whatever I manage to harvest. There’s no need now for barns and bins, for storing up for another day, or for worrying about markets and prices. “Freely you have received,” Paul said, “freely give.”

These days, I aspire, in every dimension of life, to this the wisdom Annie Dillard offered to writers:

“One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now . . . something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water . . . The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is shameful, it is destructive.  Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.” (The Writing Life, pp. 78-79)

Amen and amen. May God make it so.

In the Dark

 

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I was asked recently to write about faith and chronic illness. The request prompted me to recall the year I lived in the dark, the year that I was so seriously ill. It made me think about the losses I have experienced since the diagnosis of end stage kidney disease. It reminded me of the freedom I have lost because of the eight hours I spend on dialysis every day.

The truth is that, in 2014, I thought I was going to die. The greater truth is that I did not die. In fact, I slowly grew physically stronger. Spiritually and emotionally, I descended into grief and despair and somehow managed to emerge with fresh hope and deeper faith.

It was a grueling process learning to write again, practicing with the occupational therapist’s endless pages of ABCs over and over until I began to form legible letters. It was hard learning to walk again, regaining the strength and balance I had lost. It was hard being unable to cook, to care for the house, to bathe myself, to browse the web, to do all the simple things I used to do so easily.

To be sure, it was a dark time of frightening uncertainty and doubt. I mourned for the life I once enjoyed. But in time, I discovered an unexpected grace: that spiritual transformation often happens in the dark. The writing of Richard Rohr offers a way to describe this time of my life. This is what he writes.

We seldom go willingly into the belly of the beast. Unless we face a major disaster . . . we usually will not go there on our own accord. Mature spirituality will always teach us to enter willingly, trustingly into the dark periods of life, which is why we speak so much of “faith” or trust.

Transformative power is discovered in the dark—in questions and doubts, seldom in the answers . . . Wise people tell us we must learn to stay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning. That is the dark path of contemplative prayer. Grace leads us to a state of emptiness, to that momentary sense of meaninglessness in which we ask, “What is it all for?” 

– Richard Rohr

It was indeed “the belly of the beast” for me. And as Richard Rohr writes so eloquently, I needed to learn to “stay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning.”

Here’s the outcome. Smack dab in the middle of the darkness I experienced, there was God. There was grace. There was transformation. And there was renewed life. Thanks be to God.

Nearer, My God, to Thee

Enlight136

While enjoying some quiet time on my new pergola swing, I listened to the hymn “Nearer, My God, to Thee” sung by Brigham Young University’s male choral group, Vocal Point. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I was transported to a sacred place in those few moments. The hymn I had sung for so many years took on fresh, new meaning for me. It could be because of my aging, my illness, my need for a closer relationship with God. Perhaps the hymn spoke to me simply because I needed it. I have long loved this old hymn and its simple, but profound, message.

Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!
E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me,
Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to Thee.

Refrain:
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down,
Darkness be over me, my rest a stone;
Yet in my dreams I’d be nearer, my God, to Thee.

There let the way appear, steps unto Heav’n;
All that Thou sendest me, in mercy giv’n;
Angels to beckon me nearer, my God, to Thee.

Then, with my waking thoughts bright with Thy praise,
Out of my stony griefs Bethel I’ll raise;
So by my woes to be nearer, my God, to Thee.

Or, if on joyful wing cleaving the sky,
Sun, moon, and stars forgot, upward I’ll fly,
Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to Thee.

– Lyrics by Sarah F. Adams, 1805–1848
Music by Lowell Mason, 1792–1872
Published 1841, Hymn in public domain.

What makes this particular performance of the hymn so compelling is the inclusion of a counter melody. While a solo voice sings the words of “Nearer, My God to Thee” and paints a portrait of a life drawing near to God, the chorus sings a counter melody in Latin. The music is stunningly beautiful. The message reaches the depths of a soul in need of God’s presence. One listener described it like this:

So wonderful. It feels like angels paying a visit to earth with a hymn.

So I want to share with you the Latin text and the translation, which brings new meaning to the hymn.

In articulo mortis // At the moment of death

Caelitus mihi vires // My strength is from heaven

Deo adjuvante non timendum // God helping, nothing should be feared

In perpetuum // Forever

Dirige nos Domine // Direct us, O Lord

Ad augusta per angusta // To high places by narrow roads

Sic itur ad astra // Such is the path to the stars

Excelsior // Ever upward

Why, you might ask, am I writing a music review on my blog today? I suppose my words are an attempt to describe a need for the nearness of God. In times of grief, when sorrow overwhelms, when darkness is all we see, drawing near to a God of compassion is our healing balm and our highest hope. As I contemplate this truth, I am thinking of what was called the greatest disaster in maritime history — April 14, 1912 — the S.S. Titanic sank after striking an iceberg. As the ship disappeared into the vast ocean, Mr. W. Hartley, the ship’s bandmaster, led the band in playing “Nearer, My God, To Thee.”

I pray that, in whatever crisis you face, you will rest in the nearness of God. And I invite you to listen to BYU Vocal Point’s performance of this hymn:

 

Raising Cain

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“The Resurrection of Lazarus.” Oil on canvas painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1896 

As someone born and raised in the south, I know a lot about “piddlin’ around.” I do it all the time, and when the day’s light comes to an end, I always wonder if I have done anything at all worthwhile.

Don’t get me wrong. I heartily approve of some piddlin’ around in life. Especially holy piddlin’ like getting quiet and getting in touch with God. Holy piddlin’ like sitting in silent contemplation can bring God close to me. Praying can take me to a special place for sensing God’s touch. Listening to sacred music opens my soul to the whisper of God.

Piddlin’ can be a very life-giving pastime. On the other hand, some of us God followers long to change the world, to face off against oppression, to do justice, to end wars . . . to do something of eternal meaning.

Our problem is that changing the world can be a heavy burden that we simply cannot carry around for long. The secret, I think, is a balance between pensive spiritual moments with God and those once-in-a-while moments of sparkling mission and calling, those moments when we rise courageously above ourselves and almost see miracles. Truth is, it is not a common happening for us to find ourselves raising anyone from the dead or healing someone who is suffering illness.

It seems that the best we can do is to say to God, “I offer you, God, my silent devotion. And I offer you my willingness to follow your highest calling and your most extraordinary mission, wherever it leads and whatever the cost. Here’s my heart. Do with my life as you will.”

I very much enjoy the writing of Annie Dillard, and she has written eloquently on this very subject. Here’s what she writes.

There is always the temptation in life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for years on end… But I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous…more extravagant and bright. We are…raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.

– Annie Dillard

I hope that you will find many of those sacred “be still, my soul” moments with God. But I pray also that you will, along the way, have eyes wide open for those bright and extravagant miracle moments when it just might be possible to raise Cain or raise Lazarus.

A Perfect Place to Die

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Japan’s Aokigahara Suicide Forest

I watched a very thoughtful and intriguing movie last week — The Sea of Trees. The film was captivating, telling the story of a despondent professor who despaired of life and searched for a way to end his life. His search led him to Aokigahara, a forest in Japan known also as the Sea of Trees or the Suicide Forest.  Aokigahara Forest has been home to over 500 confirmed suicides since the 1950s. It is called “the perfect place to die” and is the world’s second most popular place for suicide.

One might say that suicide is not the most uplifting subject for a blog. But suicide is a very real and present tragedy in the world. Consider these startling statistics reported by The Jason Foundation. (http://prp.jasonfoundation.com/facts/youth-suicide-statistics/)

▪️Suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10-24. (2015 CDC)

▪️Suicide is the second leading cause of death for college-age youth and ages 12-18. (2015 CDC)

▪️More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, combined.

▪️Each day in our nation, there are an average of over 5,240 attempts by young people grades 7-12.

▪️Each year, 30,000 Americans die by suicide. An additional 500,000 Americans attempt suicide annually. (http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/suicide)

Some people have found help through suicide prevention programs. Others choose to turn to 24-hour suicide helplines available around the clock to provide crisis intervention. (https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/) Still others find that it is their faith that raises fresh hope within them and lifts their sight above the darkest of days.

There is a special kind of renewed hope when people who have been on the brink of taking their own lives share their stories of faith, the depth of faith that ultimately gave them the inner strength to live. Samuel Trevor Francis (1835-1925) told such a story of faith. He experienced a spiritual turning point as a teenager, contemplating suicide one night on a bridge over the River Thames. An unexpected renewal of his faith saved his life that night. At age 41, Samuel Trevor Francis recalled the faith that saved him and penned the words of the well-known Christian hymn, “O the Deep Deep, Love of Jesus.”

O the deep, deep love of Jesus, vast, unmeasured, boundless, free!
Rolling as a mighty ocean in its fullness over me!
Underneath me, all around me, is the current of Thy love
Leading onward, leading homeward to Thy glorious rest above!

O the deep, deep love of Jesus, spread His praise from shore to shore!
How He loveth, ever loveth, changeth never, nevermore!
How He watches o’er His loved ones, died to call them all His own;
How for them He intercedeth, watcheth o’er them from the throne!

O the deep, deep love of Jesus, love of every love the best!
‘Tis an ocean vast of blessing, ’tis a haven sweet of rest!
O the deep, deep love of Jesus, ’tis a heaven of heavens to me;
And it lifts me up to glory, for it lifts me up to Thee!

But let’s go back to where we began —  the best place to die.

Many years ago, I looked for that place, a way out of many years of relentless, chronic pain. I traveled alone to Mayo Clinic to receive two weeks of specialized medical care and physical therapy.  Perhaps a city very far from my home would be the best place to die. After an upsetting treatment at the clinic, I managed to make it to my hotel room. I took out all the bottles of prescription medication I had with me. The phone rang, and a friend distracted my focus from the tablets I had poured out in front of me. And through our conversation, with tears falling on my freshly-made bed, I learned something very life-giving about the depth of my faith, and most of all, about the depth of God’s abiding, ever-present love.

And so today I can say with strong assurance that the best place to die — or to live — is in middle of the deep, deep love of Jesus, a love that is for me “vast, unmeasured, boundless, free!” A love that restored hope in the midst of my despair. A love that was enough.

Today, as I silently sing “O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus,” the words of that beautiful hymn ring real and true. God’s love truly was underneath me and all around me, even on that cold and lonely night in Minnesota.

Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

Raise Beautiful Trouble!

IMG_5737Raise beautiful trouble!

Resist! Resist all actions that hinder peace and cause the madness of warring. Women have long dreamed of peace, dreaming of a world without war, hatred, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and all forms of injustice. Our Jewish brothers and sisters proclaim “Tikkun Olam” calling us to heal the world. Tukkun Olam is a jewish concept defined by acts of kindness performed to perfect or repair the world. The phrase is found in the Mishnah, a body of classical rabbinic teachings and is often used when discussing issues of social policy.

Raise beautiful trouble!

Diane Wilson climbed over the fence at the White House, skinning her stomach on the steel barbs. Two weeks later she got a visit from two guys in black suits, black shoes, and wearing sunglasses, Secret Service agents who wanted to know if she had an authority complex.

Diane is active in the organization, CODEPINK, a women-led grassroots organization working to end U.S. wars and militarism, support peace and human rights initiatives, and redirect tax dollars into healthcare, education, green jobs and other life-affirming programs. (http://www.codepink.org)

Century after century women have yearned for and worked for peace. Through the years, women have walked hand in hand as they reflected on ways to create a just and peaceful world. Maybe it’s just a woman thing! Julia Ward Howe proclaimed these words in 1870.

Arise, then, women of this day! Arise all women who have hearts, whether our baptism be that of water or of tears! . . . We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says, “Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.”

— Julia Ward Howe, 1870, From her Mother’s Day Proclamation for Peace

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Art by Ayla Mahler

The dream persists. The peacemakers persevere, longing for a day when all people will “hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, And never again will they learn war.” (Isaiah 2:4 NASB)

The words of T.E. Lawrence offer stunning hope for better days.

. . . the dreamers of the day are dangerous men and women, for they may act their dream with open eyes, and make it possible.

Sisters (and brothers too), continue to dream of peace with eyes wide open. Raise beautiful trouble! Resist! Persist! The peace of the world is your reward.