Icons of God’s Presence

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Photography by Sister Macrina Wiederkher

“Sunrises anoint my soul. They are quiet prayers, icons of God’s presence.”

These are words written by my friend, Sister Macrina Wiederkher. Her words resonate with our times as we hold in the light our brothers and sisters in Florida. Their loss is immeasurable, and although we know that loss of home is not as tragic as loss of life, it is a deeply felt emptiness to lose your home and all its contents.

So many are in that heartbreaking place today, and when the night falls on this night, they will not know the safe security of home. We have only a small awareness of their heartache, but God is fully aware of all they have lost. God knows their grief and their fear, their uncertainty of the future. Sometimes all we can count on is that God knows our deepest sorrow and anoints our souls when we need it most. 

Our comfort is this: that after every storm, there is a calm. When ominous, dark clouds of destruction fill the skies, we can know with certainty that the sunrise will come.

B2904AA9-02C4-480E-B061-D174E9810346I believe my friend who tells us that sunrises anoint our souls . . . like icons of God’s presence.

And I believe it for all of the Florida folk who have lost so much.

God Images

B33BBCE1-46BB-404E-8429-32535C46106FHow do you see God? What images of God do you see? How do you find God? Where do you find God?

Most of us have at least one image of God. It may be a vague image, but still, we have an image in our minds of a higher power. There are as many images of God as there are people. People have images of a “god” they may or may not know as a part of their spiritual journey. Some imagine God as a benevolent spirit, others as an omnipotent ruler. Some imagine God as as a father, others as a mother. Some imagine God as a protector, others as a punisher.

I remember a sermon I heard many years ago proclaimed by a passionate, animated African American preacher. “Tell me brother,” he preached with a lyrical chant. “Tell me brother, how do you find God? Tell me sister, how do you find God?”

And he repeated the questions again and again, building into a spirited crescendo, after which he said, “You find God when you get little enough that God can get big in you!”

And all the congregation responded with exuberant “Amens” and “Hallelujahs.”

I would surmise that the image of God held by that congregation, at least in that moment, was the image of an all-powerful, mighty Spirit just waiting to hear their praises and then responding with little miracles of answered prayer.

God images fill the world: there is the Creator God, the gentle shepherd, the God of vengeance, the God Most High, and from sacred music, the Mighty God, Wonderful Counselor, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.*

But we must acknowledge a significant exception. Some people simply say that they do not believe in God at all, any God. No images. No spiritual need for God. Nothing. They call themselves atheists.

I have known people who profess to be atheists. By no means am I an authority on this, but in my years as a hospital chaplain, I have never known a dying patient — whether believer or atheist — fail to cry out to God. In my years as a trauma specialist, pastor and pastoral counselor, I have never known an atheist who is in the depths of trouble fail to cry out to God.

I do not say that every person who does not believe in God always reaches for God in times of trouble. I am simply saying that in my experience, people in the midst of pain, grief, fear or other kinds of chaos search for a God who, by the way, is always there.

I recently read an intriguing quote by Marcus J. Borg:

When somebody says to me, “I don’t believe in God,” my first response is, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.”

― Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary

What a wonderful response, to affirm a person’s choice of unbelief while opening the door for meaningful conversation. That response is so much more respectful than a response that 1) forces a person to listen to a treatise on the existence of God; and 2) insists that the person must immediately become a believer by following a series of simple steps.

In the last analysis, a person does not find God on our timetable or through our methods. A person will find God in his or her own way and, on the spiritual journey, will see very personal images of God. They will discover the timeless grace offered to us all: a presence of God that is is constant and never-ending.

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?

If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.

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

Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.

— Psalm 139:7-10 (NKJV)

As for me, I hold on to the image of a constant and ever-present God. Of all the images I have of God, the God I find “on the wings of the morning” most comforts me. I see God in many ways and in many places . . .  in Scripture, in nature, in my spirit. How do you see God?

For all who have eyes to see, let them see . . . images of a God strong and true, powerful and gentle, loving and accepting. God images are most assuredly there for us, for those of us who believe in God and for those who do not.

 

* “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah

 

 

Around the Bend

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Photo by Steven Nawojczyk

I wonder sometimes what I might find around the bend. “Around the bend” is an apt metaphor for the twists and turns of life’s pathway. No matter how long I have traveled my journey, no matter how much life wisdom I have gained, I never, ever know what what’s around the bend.

The pathway before me can frighten, even while I strain to see as far as I can into what lies ahead. The bend is sharp most times, and the angle hides my view. As I age, fear on the journey looms large, for I am completely aware of the dangers I might encounter around the first bend, and the next, and all the bends that are ahead of me. And yet, I am constantly graced with flashes of hope and faith whispering that what is ahead of me could be even better than what I have left behind.

The beautiful photo above by Steven Nawojczyk is a gift of calm waters bending in a gentle flow at the foot of a mountain, lightened by the golden rays of the sun. The image makes me believe that whatever is around the bend is lovely, peaceful, comforting, safe. And that is exactly what God would want me to believe, and woukd want us all to believe. I cannot help but think of the Psalmist’s affirmation that God “leads me beside still waters.”

In so many comfort-filled passages, the Psalmist offers sure and certain comfort. Hear the Psalmist’s words . . .

Keep me safe, my God, for in you I take refuge.

Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup; you make my lot secure.

The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
Surely I have a delightful inheritance.

I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.
   Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure . . .

You make known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

— Psalm 16:1, 5-6, 8-9, 11 (NIV)

And hear the words of the Prophet Isaiah . . .

Even to your old age and gray hairs, I am he, I am he who will sustain you. 
I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.  

— Isaiah 46:4 (NIV)

And so “around the bend” is not so frightening after all. In God — “who makes known the path of life” —  there is comfort, safety, protection, constancy, and even joy. Thanks be to God.

The Hands that Made the Stars

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Comfort in the magnificent Arkansas skies. Photography by Steven Nawojczyk.

As I write on this day, I am aware that many friends are in the throes of darkness and despair. Some are facing devastating medical diagnoses. Some are yearning to have a child and are going through difficult medical procedures. Some are grieving for a family member in trouble. Some are waiting with hope for a cure for a disease that is bringing them to their knees. Others are enduring harsh medical treatments, hoping their lives will be saved. Many of them are at the point of losing all hope.

It hurts me deeply every time I am at a loss for comforting words. A little part of my heart breaks because I know I cannot “do something” to ease the suffering. And so I search for my own comfort as I search for ways to hold my friends in the light. As always, I am led to Scripture, not for easy answers, miraculous cures, or an instant panacea. I peek into the Bible to find words that will lift up hope in the middle of dark days and darker nights.

Often the words I find point me to the skies, as if gazing into an expanse beyond imagination might open my eyes to a radiant and holy hope. In truth, the words of Scripture do point me to hope. 

From the Prophet Isaiah:

Look up into the heavens. Who created all the stars? He brings them out like an army, one after another, calling each by its name. Because of his great power and incomparable strength, not a single one is missing. O Jacob, how can you say the LORD does not see your troubles?

Have you never heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of his understanding. He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless.

— Isaiah 40:26-29

From the Psalmist:

When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers — the moon and the stars you have set in place — what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?

— Psalm 8:3-4

And so whoever you are, whatever pain you are carrying, know that the hands that made the stars are holding your heart.

My Lord Is Near Me All the Time

635D7269-16B0-4C30-8A96-05536FDFF587Magnificent power! On a ride through the Georgia countryside, I witnessed nature’s beauty in a thunderstorm. The sky lit up from one end of the horizon to the other and then enormous streaks of lightning flashed in astounding display. It took my breath away, not because of its danger, but because of its brilliance. I struggle to find words to describe it.

Here’s how to scientifically explain it. Within a thundercloud way up in the sky, many small bits of ice (frozen raindrops) bump into each other as they move around in the air. All of those collisions create an electric charge. After a while, the whole cloud fills up with electrical charges.

And so it was tonight. I do not always find spiritual significance in acts of nature, but this night I was overwhelmed with the idea of the absolute power of God’s creation. At the same time, I considered my close relationship with Jesus.

God, whose ultimate power can be beyond our human comprehension, visited us through his Son who walked among us on this earth. All of it dawned on me in the midst of a powerful, resplendent thunderstorm that reminded me of the eternal truth of a beautiful hymn, “My Lord Is Near Me All The Time.” *

In the lightning flash across the sky
His mighty pow’r I see,
And I know if He can reign on high,
His light can shine on me.

I’ve seen it in the lightning, heard it in the thunder,
And felt it in the rain;
My Lord is near me all the time, My Lord is near me all the time.

When the thunder shakes the mighty hills
And trembles ev’ry tree,
Then I know a God so great and strong
Can surely harbor me.

I’ve seen it in the lightning, heard it in the thunder,
And felt it in the rain;
My Lord is near me all the time, My Lord is near me all the time.

When refreshing showers cool the earth
And sweep across the sea,
Then His rainbow shines within my heart,
His nearness comforts me.

I’ve seen it in the lightning, heard it in the thunder,
And felt it in the rain;
My Lord is near me all the time, My Lord is near me all the time.

As a child my overprotective grandmother made sure that lightening would frighten me. It worked because of her very frightened demeanor at the first sign of a storm. I remember how she gathered my brothers and me close beside her on the sofa, wrapping her gentle arms around us. At every clap of thunder, she screamed.

But as an adult, I actually love thunderstorms. When thunder roars, I hear it as a reminder of God’s strength. When lightning flashes across the sky, I see it as a marvel of God’s power. When I feel showers of rain, I feel God’s presence in the provision of life-giving water. In all of it, I am grateful for the nearness of a relationship with Christ. It is abiding truth: my Lord really is near me all the time.

Amen.

To listen to the hymn, “My Lord Is Near Me All the Time” click on the video below:

 
* Georgia hymn writer, Barbara Fowler Gaultney (1935-1974), turned to writing hymns as a source of hope and an expression of her faith. In tenuous health throughout her life, Gaultney was educated in the Atlanta public schools and attended the University of Georgia. While a member of the First Baptist Church of Forest Park near the Atlanta airport, she penned both the words and music to “My Lord Is Near Me All the Time.” Her minister of music, Julian Wilson, assisted her in submitting it for publication. Her hymn was first published in the Baptist church music periodical, The Church Musician, April 1960. It then appeared in the 1975 Baptist Hymnal and has become a favorite of many congregations.  (Harry Eskew, https://gabaptistworshipmusic.org/my-lord-is-near-me-all-the-time/)

 

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Through the Fire

892264FE-E803-4E0E-B598-C7503D77F674Sometimes life hurts.
We suffer. We heal. We move on.
But sometimes life hits back. Harder.
Lethal in its cruelty.
Shattering us into a million glittering shards
of pain and loss and anguish.
And we suffer, too broken to heal,
to become what we once were.
— L.R Knost

How deeply I know that feeling of brokenness. I am personally acquainted — well acquainted — with the lethal cruelty that life can present. To heal the past requires that I pay close attention to the spiritual and emotional places within me in the present, to make sure I am healthy and whole right now. Only then will I find the strength to invite the pain of the past into my psyche so that I can face off against it.

I have learned through the years that it is not a good option to leave past pain where it is, to let it occupy the place within me it has claimed. This writing by L.R Knost is one of the best descriptions I have ever seen on healing from past pain.

Healing is not a straight and narrow road
that leads from darkness to light.
There’s no sudden epiphany to take
us from despair to serenity, no orchestrated
steps to move us from hurting to healed.
Healing is a winding mountain road with steep
climbs and sudden descents, breathtaking views
and breath-stealing drop-offs, dark tunnels
and blinding exposures, dead ends and
endless backtracks, rest stops and break downs,
sheer rock walls and panoramic vistas.
Healing is a journey with no destination,
because healing is the journey of every lifetime.

Indeed, “healing is the journey of every lifetime.” The reality is that the only way to heal from the pain of the past is to walk directly through the center of that pain in the present. Does it feel safer to just let the pain continue to smolder in the dark parts of myself? Of course it feels safer. It feels terrifying, in fact, downright terrifying.

But the dark places in me will never heal spontaneously. I have to conquer the fear and open up to the possibility that God’s Spirit can breathe life back into those embers of pain snd rekindle the fires of unhealed hurts. So as I sit cautiously at the very edge of the fires of past pain, I cannot help but recall the comforting words of the prophet Isaiah.

When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.

— Isaiah 43:2 New International Version (NIV)

And so many times, I have found deep comfort in singing the beloved hymn, How Firm a Foundation.

When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
 My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply.
 The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
 Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.*

Text: Attr. to Robert Keen, ca. 1787.
Music: Attr. to J. Ellis, ca. 1889

So the flames aren’t there to burn me. The flames are there to light my way through pain to healing. At times, I have approached those flames with courage and confidence. But at other times, I met the flames with terror.

Courage or terror — it didn’t matter really. I just walked through it just as I was, and as I did, the hurt transformed into hope. I had wounds, for sure, and lasting scars. But the scars tell a story of the battles I won and the battles I lost, and most importantly, the scars tell the story of a human who survived. So, in spite of fiery places of past pain, we learn to live as L.R. Knost says

. . . with the shards of pain and loss and anguish forever embedded in our souls,

and with shaking fingers we piece together the bloody fragments of who we were into a mosaic grotesque in its stark reality,

yet exquisite in its sharp-edged story of the tragic, breathless beauty of a human who survived life.

And we move on, often unaware of the light glittering behind us
showing others the way through the darkness.

This is a resilience we can be thankful for, a perseverance we can cherish, a strength straight from a present and faithful God that will ever — forever — sustain us. Amen.

 

* Hear the entire hymn, How Firm a Foundation, at this link:
https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=G0S62se1hAE

Guard Your Heart

FF412EF2-E311-4F00-9859-65D0582E5935A heart can break so easily. Life is filled with heartbreaking things, and no person is immune to heartbreak. Hurt from one’s children, the loss of a loved one, a marriage rife with anger, abuse by a trusted person, betrayal by a lifelong friend — all of these can leave a heart crushed.

How important it is, though, to find healing for our hearts, to find the healing balm that will ease the pain. We recall the comfort of Scripture that says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” We lean on the everlasting arms that always hold us, we rest on the promise that “God heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds,” (Psalm 147:3) and we hear again the tender words of the Psalmist.

The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.

— Psalm 34:18

So we take these promises into our souls, and we give ourselves the time we need to heal our broken hearts. To be sure, the healing depends upon letting enough time pass for restoration to happen. Never do we heal on a swift timetable. The clock must move and the days must pass on our heartbreak. The weeks may well turn into months, even years. Yet we move ahead with confidence in our resiliency and faith in the Great Healer who abides with us for as long as it takes.

The final message is this: Be patient, but persevering, for the healing of your heart must be a life priority. Always guard your heart. Believe in the healing that will surely come. Know that your broken heart will mend as it rests in the hands of the One who heals every broken heart, every time, always.

Why is healing so important? It’s all about “the springs of life.”

Above all else, guard your heart,
For from it flow the springs of life.

— Proverbs 4:23

Holy Wondering

7CD31664-E73F-4B6B-B168-4291D78B28DBWandering may well be a spiritual discipline. Many years ago, young Annie Morgan sang about it as she wandered in the hills and hollows of Appalachia. . . “I wonder as I wander out under the sky.”*

Wondering while we wander makes wandering a spiritual act. It is not merely aimless meandering. Nor is it rolling on pointlessly as if there is really nowhere to go. It is not wandering around in circles because we are hopelessly lost. It is more like a contemplative journey of discovery. J.R.R. Tolkien observed a truth about wandering. He said, “Not all those who wander are lost.”

We wander, most certainly, but might there be a purpose in our wandering? Suppose our wandering becomes a joy to us. Suppose we learn and grow as we wander about. Suppose our wandering leads us to a deeper relationship with God. Suppose in our wandering we do some wondering, looking up into the sky for new light and sparkling new thoughts that change our lives forever.

So I wonder . . . How are the stars set in their places? Apart from the certainties of astronomy, of course.

I wonder . . . Why does the sun rise every day, and then set in a wondrously painted sky at dusk making way for the rising of a luminous moon? Apart from the scientific explanation, of course.

Wondering is not about science at all. It is about discovery of beauty in most unlikely places. Perhaps it is about practicing mindfulness atop a majestic mountaintop, or contemplating life on the edge of the sea, or meditating in a forest filled with all manner of living things. It is about the exploration of the heart to know its deepest desires and longings. It is about looking into the soul, and there finding both the intense pain and the tender healing that completes a life.

A well known Christmas carol, “I Wonder as I Wander”* was first sung by young Annie Morgan, a destitute girl in Appalachian North Carolina. At a Christian fundraising meeting, Annie stepped out on the edge of the platform and stood before a crowd of people. Although she wore rags, unwashed and in shreds, she stood proudly. It is said that she smiled as she sang, “smiled rather sadly, and sang only a single line of a song the people had never heard.”

I wonder as I wander out under the sky . . .

I imagine that Annie, a girl living in poverty, wondered about many things as she wandered through the Appalachian mountains. She probably wondered about the stars in the sky, the rising and setting of the sun, the brilliant moon that lit the path before her in the night. I imagine she wondered about God and about the ways God might be present with her. I imagine she wondered about herself and about what would become of her. Like her, we wander through this life, mostly alone.

As this is my very own blog, I can freely change tenses to say with great certainty that, as I have wandered through many years, I have grown by myself, but not alone. For as I wandered, I learned to wonder.

So I highly recommend wandering for the sole purpose of wondering. Our wondering might well reveal the longing in our hearts. Our wondering might lay bare the pain hidden in our souls, but also show us the balm of healing that dwells there. Our wondering might open up a place within us to hold God, all of God, more completely than ever before.

I don’t know about you, but I plan to do even more wandering. And on the journey, I will pour myself into some holy wondering. Who knows what I might discover!

 

* “I Wonder as I Wander” is a Christian folk hymn, typically performed as a Christmas carol, written by American folklorist and singer John Jacob Niles. The hymn has its origins in a song fragment collected by Niles on July 16, 1933.

While in the town of Murphy in Appalachian North Carolina, Niles attended a fundraising meeting held by group of evangelicals. In his unpublished autobiography, he wrote of hearing the song:

“A girl had stepped out to the edge of the little platform and began to sing. Her clothes were unbelievable dirty and ragged, and she, too, was unwashed. Her ash-blond hair hung down in long skeins…. But, best of all, she was beautiful, and in her untutored way, she could sing. She smiled as she sang, smiled rather sadly, and sang only a single line of a song.”

The girl, named Annie Morgan, repeated the fragment seven times in exchange for a quarter per performance, and Niles left with “three lines of verse, a garbled fragment of melodic material. In various accounts of this story, Niles hears between one and three lines of the song.

Based on this fragment, Niles composed the version of “I Wonder as I Wander” that is known today . . . His composition was completed on October 4, 1933. Niles first performed the song on December 19, 1933, at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina. It was originally published in Songs of the Hill Folk in 1934.

Even There!

D2954ADE-75B4-4134-8B99-77B434376264Today, my pastor reminded me of a cherished truth, that we are not just loved by God, we are also known by God. Today’s scripture, Psalm 139, is indeed a precious gift. The Psalmist assures us that God knows when we sit down, when we lie down, and when we rise up.

The Psalmist declares that God knows our every thought. God knows our path. God knows our ways and the words we will speak, even before we speak them. The miracle? God truly and thoroughly knows us — every flaw, every bad habit, every unkind action. And God loves us anyway.

But for me, even more comforting than that grace-filled promise, is the truth beginning in verse seven, that God is with me when I feel alone. In the past few weeks, in fact, I have felt very much alone, far away from my child and grandchildren, far away from close friends, living in a new place that does not yet feel like home.

I am blessed with a loving husband of 48 years, my very best friend. We enjoy each other. We love being together day in and day out. We live in a lovely place in a pleasant neighborhood. But we are not really home.

So from the place I find myself these days, I find great comfort in hearing the Psalmist speaking, maybe even singing, about God’s abiding presence. In this part of the Psalm, one of the most meaningful scripture passages of my faith journey, I find the promise of God’s presence with me. The message calms my soul and consoles my heart.

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

If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.

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

Even there shall Your hand lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.

— Psalm 139:7-9 (NKJV)

Wherever I go, even there God’s Spirit is with me. Wherever I am, even there God is with me. Even there!

Thanks be to God for the gift of presence.

Stars in Our Darkened Skies

IMG_6048In these tumultuous days, so many people are grieving. And for them, the skies above are dark, starless, devoid of any promise of hope.

In California, wildfires that are still burning have been called “the greatest tragedy that California has ever faced.” At least 40 people have died and more than 200 people are missing. An estimated 217,000 acres have burned, more than 5,700 structures have been destroyed, and approximately 75,000 people have been evacuated. Evacuees are returning home to a heartbreaking new reality.

The Las Vegas mass shooting reminded us that any community, any event, any neighborhood can become a place of grave danger.

In the September earthquake in Mexico, 255 people died. More than 44 buildings were completely destroyed and another 3,000 were severely damaged, forcing thousands of people to evacuate and leaving countless more mourning their tragic losses.

The 2017 hurricane season has been catastrophic. Hurricane Harvey killed 75 people, mostly in Texas, while Irma killed 87 people in the U.S. and its territories. As of yesterday, 48 people have died in Puerto Rico as Hurricane Maria left so many people without shelter, clean water, electricity or hope.

At least 500 people are believed to have been killed or seriously injured in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, in one of the most lethal terrorist acts anywhere in the world for many years. The death toll from yesterday’s attack, which was caused by a truck packed with several hundred pounds of explosives, stood at 276 today as more bodies are removed from the rubble spread over an area hundreds of miles wide.

Perhaps some people feel abandoned by God, lost in their grief, not knowing where to turn. Perhaps some people look upward to find comfort and find instead a starless sky that speaks only of sadness and loss. Words of consolation seem empty. Sermons are never enough comfort. Sometimes prayers are not enough either. And yet our faith offers us the image of one who comforts and who understands our deepest sorrows. This comforting presence is beautifully portrayed in the poetry of Ann Weems. These are her words.

In the quiet times this image comes to me: Jesus weeping.

Jesus wept,
and in his weeping,
he joined himself forever to those who mourn.

He stands now throughout all time, this Jesus weeping,
with his arms about the weeping ones:
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.’

He stands with the mourners, for his name is God-with-us.

 

‘Blessed are those who weep, for they shall be comforted.’

Someday. Someday God will wipe the tears from Rachel’s eyes.

In the godforsaken, obscene quicksand of life,
there is a deafening alleluia rising from the souls of those who weep,
and of those who weep with those who weep.

If you watch, you will see the hand of God
putting the stars back in their skies
one by one.

– From Psalms of Lament, Ann Weems

If we have anything at all to share with the thousands of our brothers and sisters who mourn today, it is this image of a weeping Christ who “was acquainted with grief” and who always — always — puts the stars back in our darkened skies, one by one. That is hope. Amen.