Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Tidings of comfort and joy

It's a tiny chip of white Corelle (yes - the dinner-plate stuff), etched by a laser - the finished size is about an inch square, and about as thick as a communion wafer (if that). A casual bump could snap it in two. A delicate ornament, hanging on our Christmas tree, reminding me of what really is important on this blessed holiday.

There are no presents under the tree; the third year it's been that way, in fact. Sister Sue is still barely functioning, physically, a year after being disabled. Sister Sandy is in the process of moving from the dear-God-it-finally-sold house to the dream-house in the country. And I am still trying to help out and dig out, myself. So all the "gifts" in my life are gifts without wrapping...

Home. A place to lay one's head. Heat, food, light. A warm bed, a hot shower. So many people have forgotten what an incredible gift these things are. Thanks to ever-growing lists of foreclosures and evictions, an awful lot of people are being reminded how crucial a home is - even if it IS a royal pain, sometimes.

Health. That's been more of a challenge this year than in years previous. Sue's continuing agonies with her back and her knees have reminded me not only how glad I am that mine are still OK, but how blessed I am to be mobile. No wheelchair or walker for me, yet - for which I am grateful. The diabetic care needs to take a notch-up this next year - but there are other things which will probably help that...

Family. Sue and Sandy and their husbands, and Sue's in-laws, completed the family circle this year. We are not all in the best of health, we are not all in the best ways financially or materially - but we are all here, alive and at least partially well. That is a great gift, all by itself. So many friends have lost loved ones in the last couple months, I find myself very grateful for this gift today.

Love. I haven't written much about this here, but when my friend Ted and I had dinner last week, he asked about work and family and health, and then said, "...And what about your love life?" Well, The Guy and I have been in constant, daily contact for more than 3 months now, aided and abetted by video instant messaging, two visits of mine to Springfield, MO and one visit by him here to northwest Ohio. We've found much that we have in common - and much about the other that fascinates each of us. We have found how much fun it is not to be alone, to be cared for by another - and it is, as the old song says, "a good feelin' to know..." And then it happened.

(I posted this elsewhere, so forgive me if this sounds familiar...)

The house Chris and his housemate owned, which has been on the market for seven months...sold. "Under contract," as they say. And the questions began, for Chris. What's holding him there, what would he do? What would WE do?

That's when he asked me...what I thought of him moving to Toledo.

I was blown away. After all, I moved to Toledo because I felt I had to, for my sister and brother in law. I don't think I would have come here otherwise. But there he was, in my arms, saying he was ready to move to Northwest Ohio...for me. Just for me.

Holy capoley, Batman.

My mind, which tends to run to the negative, saw all the reasons why it probably wouldn't work. But arrayed against all the nay-saying voices was the fact that this man wanted to be with me. And I wanted to be with him. Not just for a weekend. And not to "move in together," at least not yet. But I sure didn't want this to continue to be a long-distance relationship (it's expensive, to be honest).

The second movie we saw together was Transformers (which is just a fun piece of film, to be honest). When Sam and Megan (the two teen protagonists) encounter the Autobots for the first time, they are faced with a beat-up, driverless Camaro whose door swings open to invite them in...

Sam: It wants us to get in the car!...
Megan: And go WHERE?!?....

Sam: Fifty years from now, when you're looking back at your life, don't you want to be able to say you had the guts to 'get in the car'?...
What a revelation.

It was the same feeling I had when, years earlier, I heard Robin Williams talking about "seizing the day" and "sucking the marrow out of life" in Dead Poets Society. Yes - of course I want to "get in the car." Even if I have no idea where it's going...

And so it begins.

We found him an apartment; he has been looking for a job long-distance. This Thursday, I will take a two day journey to Springfield, MO (in between the Evil Empire's demands), and I will meet his parents for the first time. And then we will pick up the loaded Budget rent-a-truck and his Ford pickup, and head for Toledo.

Part of me is terrified - afraid of the weight of my past relational failures. Part of me keeps going over why this won't work. But a large part of me is singing hosanna's and torch songs and can't wait and is willing to leap tall buildings...and ride Greyhound buses... to make it work.

Perhaps this is the greatest gift I have received this year - the ability to even consider myself worthy of this affection, this companionship - this love. All I can do, for today, is trust God, do the best I can to be ready for what's coming...

...and be willing to get in the car.

Merry Christmas to all of you. You who share this journey with me continue to be an amazing blessing, wherever and however things go.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Music of Christmas

For me, there are lots of Christmas albums which are part of my holiday listening. But there are two or three Christmas CDs which really seem to share the heart of the amazing message of Christmas.

When Steven Curtis Chapman's "The Music of Christmas" came out in 1995, I fell in love with it instantly. My faith revolves so firmly around the Incarnation - Emmanuel, God with us - that this album just anchored itself in my heart instantly. There is nothing that will cure Grinch-yness like hearing br'er Chapman's voice proclaiming God's presence, here in the real world.

And the blessing and absurdity of Christ's birth comes through in his song "This Baby:"

"This baby made the angels sing,
And this baby made a new star shine in the sky
This baby had come to change the world
This baby was God’s own son,
this baby was like no other one
This baby was God with us -
This baby was Jesus!"

Then there is the song by the group 4Him from "The Season of Love" CD, with the chorus which captures the seeming insanity of the Incarnation:

"Now I'm not one to second guess
what angels have to say -
But this is such a strange way
to save the world..."

But for me, the essence of Christmas is captured in a beautiful ballad by Chapman, reminding us of just how real this Jesus really is, all year long:

One of us is cryin’
as our hopes and dreams are led away in chains,
And we’re left all alone -
One of us is dyin’
as our love is slowly lowered in the grave,
Oh and we’re left all alone -
But for all of us who journey
through the dark abyss of loneliness
There comes a great announcement,
We are never alone -
For the maker of each heart that breaks,
the giver of each breath we take
Has come to earth
and given hope it’s birth

And our God is with us - Emmanuel
He's come to save us - Emmanuel
And we will never face life alone
Now that God has made Himself known
As Father and Friend,
With us through the end - Emmanuel!
(Steven Curtis Chapman, "Our God Is With Us")

And then, of course, there is the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin - and I'm telling you, no church choir has EVER proclaimed the birth of Christ like she does:

So much of this season will focus on shopping, gifts, Christmas cards, parties - the busyness and the business of a holiday. But thank you, God, for men and women of talent, who by their words and music point me back to the manger, back to Bethlehem... back to Jesus - God with us. Right here, with us. Amen.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Farewell to The Leader of The Band

The leader of the band is tired
And his eyes are growing old
But his blood runs through my instrument
And his song is in my soul --
My life has been a poor attempt
To imitate the man
Im just a living legacy
To the leader of the band
I am the living legacy
To the leader of the band.

(Dan Fogelberg, "Leader of the Band")

The "leader of the band" was his dad, but Dan Fogelberg's song about their relationship and the bond they shared in music touched an awful lot of people (as so many of his songs did). So it was a real sadness to read that Fogelberg had died of prostate cancer Sunday, at age 56.

He was a marvelous composer, writer, and musician. His classic songs ("Longer," "Another Old Lang Syne," "Part of the Plan") helped shape my musical landscape.

His songs reminded us of the power of love, and to say "I love you" to the people who need it, and his illness and death remind us men that prostate cancer screening is something we ALL should be doing, anytime after 30 but especially after 50.

My bet is that the music in heaven is a little sweeter, this day...

Update: for some of my readers who never were familiar with Fogelberg's music, some YouTube links. For anyone with a father, anyone who struggles with their place in the world, and anyone in love (especially Make Love Stay), these are required listening...

Leader of The Band
Part of the Plan
Same Old Lang Syne
Make Love Stay

Are you there?

Are You there? Are You there?
Do You watch me when I cry?
And if it’s in Your power,
How can You sit idly by?
I try so hard to please You
But you never seem to see
Is it my fate to sit and wait?
Wonder what my struggle means
I wish I knew that someone out there cared -
Cared for me...

("Are You There?", from the pop opera "bare")

But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring
you good news of great joy that will be for all the
people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been
born to you; he is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11, NIV)

It's the week before Christmas, and the battle is on. Several radio stations are playing continuous Christmas carols, Christmas specials are on TV every night, and every page of the newspaper is packed with ads selling Christmas joy. Against this background, so many churches are trying to shout, "HEY! Over HERE! See, it's about CHRIST, the Savior!"

I finally heard someone ask the ultimate question yesterday. Hearing one more "He's the reason for the season" message, one disgruntled shopper said, "Yeah, fine, it's about Christ, Christ is born, I get it. But so what?"

Wow. So what, indeed.

Do we ever stop and ask ourselves WHY it is such a big deal that Christ is born?

For me, it comes back to the song quote at the start of this - a song sung by two boys at a Catholic high-school. Things aren't going so well in their lives, and their song cries out the question, "Are you there, God?" Is God there, and does God know, really know, how hard life is, at times?

The answer to the question is in the manger. Yes, God knows - because God was here. Present, and fully human. Emmanuel - God WITH us. Right here, with us. As lowly and as persecuted and troubled as us.

The reason for "the reason for the season" is to let us know that God was right alongside us; hungry and cold and tired and struggling just as we are. We are never alone, because there is One who walked among us. Right here, with us. Emmanuel.

That knowledge, that understanding brings more peace to me than an awful lot of the dogma and doctrine I've swallowed over the years. The knowledge and assurance of a limitless God who knows how limited and powerless I can be, and is present for me in those times, has literally been the difference between "going on" and "not going on" more than a couple times in my life.

God of beauty and power, I give thanks to You today for the gift of Jesus - the Emmanuel who walked among us as one of us. Remind me of Christ's presence as the challenges of the worldly holiday come upon us. It helps to know that you are "there," God, because we know your Son was "here." Amen.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Not writing over the head of my audience...

I did this test as a result of my buddy Chris Harrison over at Prophets and Popstars - just to see where these yo-yo's scored me. It does help for trying to sell any future publication, anyway. Not TOO intellectual - but probably not enough images and pictures to make it "elementary school," Chris. Too much text....

Another year, one day at a time

It's 3:30 AM. I should be asleep, but a late-arriving cold has devastated my intentions for rest this evening. Coughing, sneezing, sore throat - all kinds of happiness.

But that's OK. It just means I get to start celebrating early.

Seventeen years ago - December 12, 1990 - I walked into the Wednesday Night Men's group of Alcoholics Anonymous in Toledo, Ohio. My life was about as broken as it could be - and I started a new life that night, even though I wouldn't recognize it for quite a while afterwards.

Today, there are still parts of my life that remain broken - my finances aren't what they could be, my health could stand some considerable improvement, and I still cling to a job I'm not excited about while I look for "the next right job." It ain't all peaches and cream, by any standards, folks.

But life today - challenges, snuffles, sneezes, wheezes and all - is vastly better than anything I could have imagined in December of 1990. For that I have to thank a God of infinite love and patience, the worldwide AA fellowship, and a series of sponsors and friends who have kept nipping at my heels to keep me on the right path.

Today is especially gratifying because I learned yesterday that a fellow blogger went to their first AA meeting a few brief days ago. I had the chance to share some of my early recollections with them, and hopefully encourage them to "keep on keepin' on," as so many others have done for me.

I have a weird image that I share with folks about the gift of service in AA. For me, I see my sobriety a lot like chocolate milk. You see, if I just get some chocolate milk, and leave it in my refrigerator, it eventually goes sour - just like my own sobriety will, left to my own devices. But if I take the chocolate milk out of the fridge, pour it out and share it with others, it stays sweet and fresh. And by some AA miracle, the more than I pour out and share, the more I find left in the fridge. I get so much more than I give away, time and time again.

So thank you, God, for the gift of this year of sobriety - with all its challenges and joys. Now if you could just clear up my nose long enough for me to go to sleep, that would be really cool...

Monday, December 10, 2007

I wish someone would have told me…

We will not regret the past, nor wish to shut the door on it. (Alcoholics Anonymous, fourth edition, page 84)

Of all the “promises” that I’ve heard from the 12-step recovery programs, this one has been one of the most challenging, to me. It has been way too easy, over the years, for me to mourn what could have been rather than move confidently forward toward what might be. After a while, if one stumbles enough (and I sure have) one starts looking more and more at one’s feet, and looking less and less at the horizon and the heavens.

I believe with all my heart that all my mis-steps and “opportunities for growth” can be of benefit to others – if nothing else, as a “good bad example,” or at least as a sign-post in neon-orange saying, “Ye need not pass this way….” So here is a short list of concepts I wish I’d been heard (or had been willing to hear) earlier-on in life.

[Note: There are plenty of other bits of wisdom I could pass along (for instance, the wisdom of not doing the “rent-a-truck and have friends help you move” thing after you’re 40). But these are ideas and concepts that I believe could have radically changed my life if I’d bumped into them a little earlier.]

I wish I would have learned…

Feelings aren’t facts. I wish someone would have told me that my perception of facts would not always be the same as the facts themselves. In certain circumstances, I would look at something and believe it to be true and yet it would not, in fact, be anywhere close to true. This was especially true when it came to feelings. “Feelings aren’t facts,” I heard recovering people say – but for years, I lived as though my feelings were facts in my life - rather than just my own responses to what life dealt me. That would have helped a lot, especially early on. For instance, just because I felt ugly and unlovable for much of my childhood (despite what my mother tried to tell me) didn’t mean, in fact, that I was either of those things….

Capital-T truth. I wish someone would have said, “Forget these eternal truths and so on. There are people who have been arguing over eternal truths for centuries, and they are no closer to agreeing or finding the one true way than they were in the first century. It’s enough just to be searching – because if you are, you’ll find truth that works for you along the way. And you may be surprised to find out that at least a part of what you find will agree with someone else’s version of eternal truth, and you will find connection and community there.” (And if that sounds like I have been reading Richard Bach’s Illusions or something, so be it.)

Comparing myself to others. One absolute truth which I learned from people in 12-step recovery groups that would have been helpful very early on was this: “You cannot judge your insides based on other’s outsides.” It would have been very helpful to know that there was an excellent possibility that the self-confident, self-assured people who were in my junior-high and high-school classes were frequently just as terrified and uncertain and ready to self-destruct at any one moment as I felt I was. I’m not sure I would have believed it, at that stage of the game, but it would have helped to have someone at least plant the seed.

The presence of doubt in the lives of people of faith. I don’t know if I would have been able to listen, back then – I’d started forming an idea of right and wrong and good and bad by the age of seven or eight, and had decided that there was something very wrong with me (especially looking at others’ outsides, and comparing them to my insides). But I sure wish I had heard as a youth someone like Pastor Tom Housholder, of Prairie Village, KS, who made the bald-face declaration in the first sermon I ever heard him preach that “there are times that a voice in my head says to me, ‘What if everything you’re saying is a lie?’”

I still remember that moment – it was electrifying! After 34 years of feeling like I was the only doubter since “doubting Thomas” in the history of the Church Universal, I finally found someone with a collar who admitted to the same doubts and fears I’d lived with all my life. I wish I had been exposed to people of powerful faith – like Pastor Tom, like Martin Luther, like so many of the “fathers and mothers of the Church” who actively questioned and doubted in their hearts, even as they professed mighty faith (and led others to it) in their public lives.

So much of what I heard preached about faith in my formative years was about certainty – about being absolutely certain about God, about His being all-powerful, all-righteous and all-knowing, and about being absolutely certain of my “salvation.” People professed to be absolutely certain that their prayers were heard, that God could change things (even if He often wouldn’t), and were also certain that rejection of the desperate prayers of the devout didn’t mean rejection of the devout.

I wasn’t certain of that. Not at all.

In fact, I’d pretty much decided by the age of eight that I was a lost cause (based on some very selective hearing of what I heard preached). I had this belief that I was stained with original sin – something so bad that a few splashes of water and mystical mumbo-jumbo as an infant wasn’t going to save me from it. Believe it or not, by that age I had a sense that I was intrinsically broken – that there was something fundamentally unacceptable about who and how I was made that just wouldn’t fit in with the church-going world. That, of course, led me to the next revelation.

We’re all outsiders, at times. Growing up an overweight, un-athletic kid (with all the doubts and fears about whether the taunts about sissy and pansy were true), I thought some pretty unkind thoughts about my tormentors (well, awful thoughts, if the truth be known). As a result, I was absolutely certain that there was no room in church (or even in polite society) for people who thought about others the way that I did. From there it became very easy to say, “Yup, I’m on the outside, and I don’t see any way of getting ‘in’ any time soon.”

It wasn’t until I started listening to hundreds of people from every walk of life saying over and over again, “I felt apart from everything, and never a part of anything,” that I realized that this feeling is closer to a universal experience than many so-called religious experiences. And by definition, if I share “being apart from the world” with most of the rest of the world, I’m already “on the inside.”

There are probably more of these – but this is a start.

So....what are some of the things you wish you'd heard (or been willing to listen to) earlier in life?

Friday, December 07, 2007

Christmas for "notorious sinners"

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. (Luke 2:8-9, NIV)

Echoing in my mind is a lesson that recurs every year at this time, so forgive me for plowing familiar ground today. It's a powerful lesson I learned about shepherds nearly 10 years ago, in one of my first ministry classes. Some who have listened to me for a while have heard this before...feel free to tune out. But it's an image that bears repeating...

What brings this image back to mind is my recent reading of Mike Yaconelli's book "Messy Spirituality," and a passage entitled "Notorious Sinners." He writes, "'Notorious sinners' refers to the scandalous category of forgiven sinners whose reputations and ongoing flaws didn't seem to keep Jesus away. In fact, Jesus had a habit of collecting disreputables; he called them disciples."

So I think it's especially important to repeat this particular Christmas image now...when a great deal of what society sees as "Christianity" comes down to pseudo-righteous people pointing fingers at other groups, and yelling "You're a sinner! You'd better repent or you're going to Hell!"

(As if we all weren't sinners...as if, somehow, there were people who somehow didn't have lifestyles that were unacceptable to God in some way...)

You see, on Christmas eve, one group of key players in the story are shepherds. And in Biblical times, shepherds were considered some of the most distrusted, dishonorable, dishonest, and lowly people of all the world. I absolutely love what professor of ministry Donald Messer says about shepherds:

"Far from being a noble profession, the job of shepherd in first-century Palestine was one of the most despised trades, along with gamblers, usurers, and publicans. Contrary to our romantic images, shepherds were generally considered to be thieves. Far from being viewed as reliable and responsible, they were habitually known to graze on other people's lands and to pilfer the produce of the herd. Their social and religious status would not be much higher than pimps and drug pushers in our day. They, like the publicans and tax collectors, therefore, were deprived of their civil rights. They could not fulfill a judicial office or be witnesses in a court. It was forbidden to buy wool, milk, or a kid from a shepherd - because it was widely assumed that it would be stolen property. One ancient writing reports that 'no position in the world is so despised as that of the shepherd.'" (Donald Messer, Contemporary Images of Christian Ministry (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), page 172.)

Now those are DEFINITELY "notorious sinners."

Yet Luke reports that the first ones to hear of Jesus' birth were shepherds - among the most despised people in the New Testament world! Can you imagine their shock - to find out they were the first ones to be eye-witnesses of God's majesty? And can you imagine the people they talked to afterwards? No wonder Luke writes that everyone who heard of Jesus' birth from the shepherds "wondered at the things told them by the shepherds"!

When you read it that way, it's not a very pretty scene, is it?

No, it's not. And it's not meant to be. God didn't mean it to be pretty. God meant it to be real.

Let's put it in today's words. Jesus could have come as a triumphant warrior-king, bristling with power, to smite the evil and establish a kingdom built on power. But that wasn't God's plan at all. There was no royalty, no engraved invitations for the rich and mighty to the arrival of God's son. Instead, there was an obscure town of Bethlehem, in the filthy corner of a barn, in a feed trough, where a confused carpenter was witness to the birth of God's son to his teen-aged wife-to-be.

Wonder with me at how the despised and lowly men tending sheep felt as angels from Heaven give them the telegram: "...Born to you this day is a Savior, which is Christ the Lord." The news of God's son had come - not to those who felt they deserved to hear, sitting comfortably at the Temple - but to those who needed the news most! Creatures who thought that their sins had left them without a prayer were the ones who found that the salvation of the world had come first to them!

And what does it say of the one who becomes "the Good Shepherd"? Messer points out that this oxymoron is the equivalent to saying "I am the the Good Homosexual" to the religious right, or "I am the Good Fundamentalist" to the gay & lesbian community, or like saying "I am the Good Terrorist" - because in those days, shepherds were just that despised. Messer writes, "It is no wonder that after Jesus called himself 'the Good Shepherd' the Gospel of John reports, 'there was again a division among the Jews because of these words (John 10:19)" (page 173). Jesus identified with the lowly, and with the despised - and yet turned that despising description on its head, transforming the label as he did everything else he touched.

In these days of insanity - when businesses are encouraged to "keep the 'Christ' in Christmas" so they won't get boycotted - it's important not to lose the amazement and wonder of those who witnessed the birth of our Savior. And let me never forget that if God could be present and "with them" in the mess of the stable, surrounded by the disreputable and untouchable ones of that time, then God can and is surely with me, during the messes of my life, and when I feel unworthy and apart from the rest of the world.

It is in the most impossible of my own times and situations that I have to remember the amazingly unlikely people and places that were part of the story of God's arrival on earth. And I also remember that I am the unlikely - and undeserving - recipient of the gift of grace brought by Jesus to the world.

May I continue to stand by the manger in wonder at the astonishing love of God - for you, and for me!

Monday, December 03, 2007

Killing me softly...

I felt all flushed with fever, embarrassed by the crowd,
I felt he found my letters and read each one out loud.
I prayed that he would finish but he just kept right on...
Strumming my pain with his fingers,
Singing my life with his words,
Killing me softly with his song...
(Roberta Flack, "Killing Me Softly With His Song")

"No wonder, when I peruse the titles of a Christian bookstore, I feel like I am the only klutz in the kingdom of God, a spiritual nincompoop lost in a shipful of spiritual giants. When I compare my life with 'the experts,' I feel sloppy, unkempt, and messy in the midst of immaculately dressed saints...and I'M A MINISTER. Maybe that's why God allowed me to pastor a church 'for people who don't like to go to church.' When your 'pastor' has been kicked out of two Bible colleges, maybe it's easier for people not to be intimidated by some ideal of spirituality."
(Michael Yaconelli, from his book "Messy Spirituality")

There are days when I feel like a spiritual Concorde - mighty and powerful, designed by God to be of immense service to God's kids. And then there are days when I feel like an old spiritual bi-plane - revving and then spluttering, climbing and then losing altitude, just barely hanging in the sky.

And when I heard people quoting verses like "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48), I felt that I would never, ever be able to be one of "those Christians," because I'd never, ever be able to measure up. The people who I met in church seemed so "good," and I kept comparing my insides (which seemed dirty, damaged and broken) to their outsides (which sure looked on their way to "perfection"). Those were definitely "losing altitude" days...

And then, occasionally, I would hear a saint - like my late mentor, Pastor Tom Housholder, or like Michael Yaconelli - speak of being both "broken and beautiful," of being "a spiritual nincompoop" - and I would sit back down in the pew and say, "Maybe I'm eligible after all..."

There is a reason Jesus was born in a manger. There is a reason the first person he revealed his true nature to was a Samaritan woman, by a well. There is a reason Jesus hung around with disciples who were more "misfits" than "good fits." There is a reason that we are all eligible to be waiting for the Christ child to arrive, this season.

We qualify as Christians precisely BECAUSE we are broken. It's just that simple. It seems impossible, but it is absolutely true. Read the Gospels carefully, and you'll find that the folks who think they are righteous don't get much mileage in Jesus' presence...

And for that reason, my spiritual heroes and mentors have been the ones who spoke of struggle, not inspiration or perfection - because they knew I'd never identify with anything but feeling "apart from."

Michael Yaconelli is just the latest in a long string of saints who have kept me in the corral every time I think of jumping the fence.

To all those who, by their testimony, have made me understand that I have a place in God's mercy and love, I give thanks in this season of preparation called Advent. They are the people who, by their words and their actions, gently welcomed me and said, "Come in and sit a spell - you're welcome." They were the ones who wrapped ME in swaddling clothes at my Christian birth - and I will always be grateful for them.

Thank you, God, for saints like Mike Yaconelli, who were capable of "killing me softly" with their words and the stories of their lives. Help me to be a bridge like them, that I might reach those who might otherwise not hear the words of Christ. Help me help them hear the message of welcome and acceptance. Amen.