Apocalypse Now

We talked about the Apocalypse yesterday in church. I know, what a way to ring in the Advent season – fire, earthquakes, doom, gloom, calamity and disaster. How festive.

But actually, Pastor Ryan did something interesting. He turned the notion of the Apocalypse on its head, for me at least.

Did you know that the word apocalypse comes from the Greek word literally meaning "to uncover?" As in revelation, insight, enlightenment. And this definition, on the first Sunday of Advent, is relevant indeed.

After all, the Advent season is literally about uncovering Jesus, celebrating and seeing his presence everywhere and carrying that revelation through the rest of the year.

The reading yesterday was from Luke 17:20, a passage commonly referred to as the rapture:

Some of the Pharisees asked Jesus, “When will the kingdom of God come?” Jesus answered, “God’s kingdom is coming, but not in a way that you will be able to see with your eyes. People will not say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ because God’s kingdom is within you.”

I tell you, on that night two people will be sleeping in one bed; one will be taken and the other will be left. There will be two women grinding grain together; one will be taken, and the other will be left.

I don’t know about you, but those last two sentences have always scared the bahooey out of me. So, you’re telling I’m going to be shuffling down the street one day with a friend, or standing in line for a Starbucks mocha, and suddenly Jesus is going to shoot down, grab the person next to me to shuttle her off to Heaven, and I’m going to be left standing alone, bewildered and out of luck? I’m going to be left behind? Yeah, not a day I’m looking forward to.

In the past, I’ve always read this passage and assumed the word “taken” means “chosen.” As in, God is going to choose one over another; choose one and leave another behind. Choose someone else over me. But does it really mean that?

A closer look at the preceding lines leads me to believe that perhaps what we think we see isn’t actually what we see at all. As Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is coming, but not in a way that you will be able to see with your eyes.”

And why can’t we see it? Because God’s kingdom is within all of us.

Not just in the midst of destruction, chaos and calamity; not necessarily in the dramatic moments we can witness with our eyes, like a rapturous choosing; not necessarily in the most likely place we expect it, but within us, in our hearts and souls – perhaps the place we least expect to find it.

So I guess it’s fair to say that I experienced my own apocalypse yesterday. It wasn’t in earthquakes, floods or battle but in the original Greek sense of the word. I was enlightened. The truth was uncovered: I heard that God’s kingdom is within me, the place I least expected indeed.

This post is part of an ongoing series entitled Advent: Giving Presence. Click here to read other posts in the series.


Giving Presence

At the risk of sounding terribly boastful, I just wanted to note quickly that my first column was published in the Lincoln Journal Star today! On the last Saturday of every month I'll be writing a religion and spirituality column -- today I'm reflecting on giving presence during the Advent season. Check it out!

Click here to read other posts on the theme of Giving Presence during Advent.


$450 Billion

This Sunday marks the first Sunday in Advent, the time in which we prepare for the birth of Jesus.

If you're like me, Advent is a time of frenetic shopping, baking, decorating, wrapping and incessant griping. I'm tired. I'm bitter that the "burden" of Christmas falls on my shoulders while my loving but generally non-shopping, non-wrapping husband watches Sports Center. I'm frustrated by the additional 25 responsibilities heaped onto my already-full plate.

Jesus has not played a starring role in my Advents past.

This year, my holiday season will be different. This year I am making a concerted effort to focus outward, not on myself and what a burden Christmas is to me, but instead -- to use a trite cliche -- on the reason for the season. This year I am making an effort to focus on the literal meaning of Advent -- from the Latin adventus, meaning "arrival." I am celebrating the arrival of Jesus.

Take a moment to watch this video, from the non-profit organization called Advent Conspiracy. It's only 2.5 minutes, but it's guaranteed to make a profound impact on how you view the holiday season.

So what stood out for you as you watched the Advent Conspiracy video? Was it the fact that Americans spend more than $450 billion on Christmas every year?

$450 billion.


What are you going to do about that?

In the coming weeks I'll be blogging periodically on this theme of Advent Conspiracy, offering stories and ideas of how I am making small but significant changes in my approach to the holiday season. I hope you'll join me. Read along; comment on your own changes; tell us how you're celebrating a truer Advent this year.

And check out Advent Conspiracy for more reason-for-the-season inspiration.

This is the first in a series of posts on the theme of Giving Presence during Advent. Click here to read other posts in the series.


Iron Chef

Cooking with children. Not the ideal, in my opinion.

I used to love to cook. I relished retrieving the cutting board from the cabinet, the chef’s knife from the block, the red pepper from the fridge, and methodically slicing and dicing, Norah Jones crooning in the background, glass of Shiraz breathing on the counter. I found the ritual relaxing. Who knows, perhaps someone who finds knife work relaxing is a deeply disturbed individual, but truthfully, chopping and sautéing were my segue from a hectic workday into a peaceful evening.

Not so anymore. I have children now, two boys who love to cook. So the process has grown infinitely messier. Messy with a capital M.

Rowan’s favorite pastime these days is peeling vegetables. Just last week I gave him a five-pound bag of carrots to peel, and he dove into the task with gusto, standing on the stool, hovering over the sink, peeling and peeling and peeling, his brow furrowed in concentration. He peeled the entire bag and stacked the smooth carrots in a pyramid on the counter. “I’m done! I peeled them all!” he proclaimed triumphantly, peeler raised above his head in victory. My backsplash looked like a post-modern art installation, sprayed and splattered with translucent strips of carrot. He was pleased.

This week we tackled pumpkin bread. I plan to make 18 or so mini loaves this holiday season – gifts for the kids’ teachers and Sunday school volunteers, treats for the neighbors and the mailman.

We got the giant mixing bowl from the bottom cupboard. I cracked six eggs, and Rowan went at them with the whisk, gooey, gloppy, salmonella-laden yolks sloshing over the sides of the bowl. I deep-breathed and tried not to panic over the certainty of food-borne illness.

I added oil, a can of pumpkin, four cups of flour, a bunch of sugar, lots of spices, a bag of chocolate chips. More whisking, flour whooshing over the sides of the bowl, whitening the counter, Rowan’s chin, my eyelashes.

I held the bowl as Rowan swept great glumps of batter with a spatula into the tins. Golden droplets splatted onto the counter, dribbled down the cabinet door. Later I found a hunk of dried batter on my sock.

I turned to clean-up duty; Rowan wandered into the living room to watch TV. The rich scent of baking pumpkin, spicy and sweet, wafted through the house, mingling with Sponge Bob’s cackle.

It’s not pretty, this cooking with kids. It doesn’t come neatly wrapped in lovely paper and tied with a satin bow. It’s messy. But it’s a blessing nonetheless. And some days, I’ll take what I can get.

This reflection on cooking with kids is linked up with You Capture over at Beth's blog, I Should Be Folding Laundry AND Just for the Joy of It with Sharon over at Good, True and Beautiful. Stop by those spots for more tantalizing snapshots of food and stories of joy abounding!

Happy Thanksgiving, Happy Eating, Joy to All!


Setting Sail

I caught this quote on the end of my friend Bridget’s email recently:

"The winds of grace are always blowing, but you have to raise the sail."

The saying is attributed to Ramakrishna (1833-1886), a Bengali Hindu sage. I have no idea who Ramakrishna is, or what his story is, but I have to say, he offers sage advice indeed.

For years I assumed that a person either simply had faith…or didn’t. I figured that was the whole point of faith, right? Not seeing, but believing anyway. I didn’t think there was a middle ground. I didn’t think a person could practice having faith, work at it. I figured some people, the lucky ones, had faith, and the rest of us, the unchosen, were left to float along, unmoored.

Turns out, I was wrong.

I spent decades stagnating at sea, sails tightly wound around the mast. It wasn’t until about three years ago that I began slowly, slowly to unfurl those sails. The unfurling began in a number of ways: probing sessions with an astute counselor; a one-to-one chat with my pastor; a rigorous class on the New Testament; attending church on a more regular basis.

Those were strange, disconcerting times. I didn’t believe in God, yet I was going through the motions as if I did. I didn’t believe in God, yet I was pretending to believe. I felt like an imposter.

Sounds horrifying, doesn’t it? Sounds wrong and fake and vaguely sinful.

Well it turns out that I had embarked on the right course after all. According to theologian C.S. Lewis, faith can begin with pretending. Here’s what he says in Mere Christianity:

“Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already.”

I’m finding that faith, at least for me, is part discipline. In the beginning I behaved as if I had faith. I practiced having faith; I worked at it. I still do. And in keeping to the discipline – praying, worshipping, reading the Bible, writing – I found that the faith that germinated in my mind slowly began to seep into my heart.

In many ways this practicing makes sense. Isn’t it through discipline that we mature into better people in many aspects of our lives? Practicing patience; practicing humility; practicing contentment. Isn’t it through the rituals of practice that we actually grow into more patient, humble, generous, happy human beings?

The wind gusts through the white pines this morning as I write this. The chimes clank on the bare branches of the magnolia tree; the last of the dry oak leaves flutter to the ground in the dark. Across the sky a barely perceptible line of grey lightens the horizon.

A new day dawns.

My sails are raised.


Where is Your House Built?

These are the song lyrics I heard Noah singing a couple days ago as he emptied the dishwasher:

Don’t build your house on the sandy land,
Don’t build it too near the shore.
It might be kinda nice,
But you’ll have to build it twice.

The words sounded vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place how I knew them.

“Hey Noah,” I said. “Where’d you learn that song? What’s it about?”

He looked at me for a second – you know, the look your kids give you when they think you’re really, really dumb…or perhaps pulling their leg (yes, even eight-year-olds have mastered this look).

When he discerned I was serious, he explained. “We sing it at Sunday School,” Noah told me. “It’s about building your house on a rock, not on sand, because you know, sand is sort of slippery and it makes things collapse.”

Ah, yes. Here I am, struggling to learn about “enough,” learning to build my house on solid ground rather than sandy soil, and my son is literally singing God’s words into my ears and straight into my heart.

I'm celebrating this small moment with Emily's Tuesday's Unwrapped over at Chatting at the Sky.


Hot Pink Hats and Other Must-Haves

Last week, after hearing Pastor Greg’s comment that Americans spend more than $850 million a year on ring tones, I launched what I dubbed Michelle’s Mauvelicious Anti-Materialism Campaign -- an attempt to curb my frivolous spending and focus more on gratitude and contentment.

So, you might be wondering, how did I do?

And the answer: not so great.

In less than five days I indulged in a tall, fat-free, hold-the-whip-please mocha at Starbucks. Twice.

I bought the December issue of O The Oprah Magazine at Walgreen’s when I ran in to pick up Tylenol.

And I purchased a pair of shoes.

You’re probably thinking, “Hey! Not bad!” And it’s not bad, really. Except for the fact that this was the week I was making a concerted effort to curb my need for more. And I caved on four separate occasions.

It’s not like I forgot the Campaign. Oh no. I remembered. I just went ahead and ignored it. I was swayed by the More Minstrel chanting in my head: “Go ahead…you deserve a treat…Oh come on now, it’s just a magazine…Really, aren’t you entitled to a little pick-me-up?”

The shoe purchase was a classic. I didn't trot over to Kohl’s and pick up a pair of sassy slingbacks. I was at a friend’s house, and I spied the Mary Jane clogs sitting on her carpet. “Cute shoes,” I squealed. “Can I try them on?” When they fit like a glass slipper my friend said to me, “I’m going to return them anyway; if you want them you can just buy them from me.” Enough said. I hit a new low: I bought a pair of shoes right out of Diana's living room.

This Sunday Pastor Greg preached on cultivating contentment, and I saw myself reflected in the reading, which was from Luke 12. When a rich man experiences a bumper crop of grains, he says to himself, “I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll have room enough to store all my wheat and other goods. And I’ll sit back and say to myself, ‘Eat, drink and be merry!’” (Luke 12:18-19).

And you know what God says to the man? You know what God says to me? He says, quite simply, “You fool!”

Yes, God is calling me a fool. And rightly so. “Yes, a person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God” (Luke 12:21).

As Pastor Greg noted in his sermon, I spend a lot of time convincing myself of how much I deserve, how much I am entitled to (these two words comprise a frequent refrain in my head), rather than simply counting my blessings. Rather than being grateful and content with what I already have.

My friend Kim at Kimmy Does Denver wrote about this theme last week too, as she mulled over Proverbs: “When you grab all you can get, that's what happens: the more you get, the less you are” (Proverbs 1:19).

So what did I get from my rash purchases? Well, I got a nice caffeine boost from the mocha, followed by mid-afternoon crash.

O Magazine offered me 285 alluring pages brimming with “80 Inspiring Ways to Get Your Glow On!” (like the $195 Kate Spade hot pink faux-fur trapper hat that would look absolutely darling on me).

And the shoes? Well, I don’t know. I haven’t even worn them yet.

All in all: not much. The more you get, the less you are.

I’m actually beginning to believe that the more we “grab,” the less we get. That is, in our futile efforts to satisfy our unending wants through external means, we actually chip away at our chances for true happiness, bit by bit by bit.

So…long story short…I’m still trying. Luckily I have grace. The chance to try again. The opportunity to move from a mind frame of entitlement to one of blessing. And what a perfect week to try again: Thanksgiving.

This post is part of a series on the theme of "enough," based loosely on the book by the same title by Adam Hamilton.


Ode to Joy, Part 2

Last Sunday during church I watched our music director, Denise, conduct the choir and congregation during worship, and I was amazed by the joy that radiated from her face. She actually glowed, her slight frame moving with the cadences of the music, arms waving, face smiling broadly.

“Wow,” I thought to myself. “Wouldn’t it be great to love your job that much, to feel that happy at work?”

I was envious of Denise’s joy on the job, envious of the exuberance with which she embraced her work.

Not that I don’t love my job, mind you. I do. It’s gratifying, challenging and rewarding. I enjoy the people I work with; we laugh, support one another and learn from each other. But still, I can say with certainty that I’ve never been described as “glowing” at work. I don’t radiate joy. I don’t think anyone’s ever looked at me sitting at my office desk and thought, “Wow, would you look at that Michelle. Boy does she glow or what?”

So the question is: why not?

It’s not that I don’t have the opportunity. After all, happiness, contentment, is a choice. I can choose to be that happy at work, at home, in my everyday life. I have that option. I’m just not choosing happiness. It’s that simple.

It was a revelation of sorts, that I, too, can experience that degree of happiness, no matter what my job. Joyfulness on the job isn’t limited to church positions; joyfulness is available to all of us, no matter what we do.

So what about you? Do you exude joyfulness at work? Or are you slogging through the day on autopilot? Today I’m choosing joy on the job.


When Then

Most of you know by now that I’ve been writing a lot these days about contentment. In fact, I’ve written a whole series of posts based on the book Enough, by Adam Hamilton, which I’m currently reading with my Southwood small group.

I’ve also written quite a bit about my “when then” tendencies. You know, when you find yourself saying things like, “When we buy a house…then I’ll be happy” or “When I have a baby…then I’ll be happy” or “When we remodel the kitchen…then I’ll be happy” or even “When I get that new purse…then I’ll be happy.”

I’ve had a lot of “when then” moments through the years.

On Wednesday I read a post by one of my favorite bloggers, Jon Acuff over at Stuff Christians Like. Jon is wicked funny, super clever and really smart (you can just tell by how he writes). He’s also got a book deal with Zondervan, which, suffice to say, makes me wicked envious. But Jon is impossible to dislike, because on top of being smart and funny, he’s nice, too. When I first started blogging I emailed him for some advice…and he actually emailed me right back. This is a guy whose site gets like 90,000 hits an hour.

Anyway, on Wednesdays Jon blogs on slightly more serious topics, and yesterday he wrote a great post on the “when then” syndrome, specifically about getting his book published, which was a topic that hit close to home for me. Give it a read – the guy’s got great things to say.

We're talking about books today at My Cup 2 Yours -- pop on over for some other good reading suggestions.


God’s Hand

It took me a while, but I finally know why folks out here on the Great Plains call this God’s country.

In the beginning I didn’t see it, couldn’t see it, so blinded was I by my New England-centric definition of beauty. I’ll never forget the first night Brad and I pulled into town. As we puttered up to the Super 8 in the lurching U-Haul, I glimpsed a grain elevator rising over Highway 2. “What the hell is that?” I asked Brad, horrified by the sight of the peeling concrete, its mass hovering over the highway like an abandoned war ship. It was hideously ugly, and the sight of such an eyesore angered me.

The landscape was just too vast for me to appreciate. I couldn’t see its subtle beauty; all I saw was its sameness, its homogeneity. Same old rows of corn and soybeans; same old November dirt; same old dilapidated barns.

Today, it’s a different story. Today I see beauty in the light as it basks lazily over seas of undulating grass. Today I see the lone gnarled tree, rooted strong, a beacon to pioneers past. Today I see two boys chasing grasshoppers, rippling sunflowers bowing sunny heads, as if nodding in appreciation.

Today, as the sun rises and sets on this land, this place I now call home, I see God’s hand everywhere.

I'm posting these sunset images as part of the You Capture challenge over at I Should Be Folding Laundry [I admit, I cheated a bit...there was hardly a ray of sunshine in Lincoln last week and the early part of this week...and the theme of the You Capture challenge is supposed to be sunrise/sunset. So I cheated and posted these pictures I snapped earlier this fall at Spring Creek Prairie, near Denton, Nebraska].



Yesterday as we were driving across town, Noah said this:

“You know what my mind does when I see something pretty like trees or flowers, Mommy? My mind goes right from the pretty thing to God, and then it stays there.”

Just about took my breath away. Noah captured in one simple sentence what I’ve been grappling with for weeks now as my small group reads Enough together. How do we find contentment in life? How do we experience true joy? How do we turn our attention from the acquisition of things to a simpler, truer existence? Noah had the answer: simple gratitude.

When I asked Noah if he could explain what he meant, he couldn’t. He didn’t even try. Noah was content to bask in the moment, to let his mind stay with God, without feeling compelled to analyze or deconstruct the feeling.

At age eight, Noah has the key to joy and contentment tucked securely into his heart. Today I pray he can hold onto it for a lifetime.

This post is one in a series based loosely on the book Enough. Click here to read other Enough posts.

I'm unwrapping this small moment as part of Tuesdays Unwrapped over at Chatting at the Sky and sharing it with you Just for the Joy of It.


Enough: Mauvelicious Materialism

It’s begun.
Did you see the advertising fliers this weekend, spilling from your Sunday paper? These were the headlines and slogans I caught screaming from the colorful pages:

Must Have Gifts! Best Sale of the Year! No Interest – 3 Years! 24/7 Shopping Online! Expect Great Things. No Down Payment, No Interest ‘til 2013.

And so on.

And on the same day here’s what I read from Jesus:

“One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15).

Hmmm. Sounds like a contradiction to me. On one hand we have the media’s pleas for consumerism blaring at us from all directions, and on the other hand, Jesus, simply telling us that our possessions mean nothing.

Whatever shall we do?

To be honest, I like to thrust the onus onto someone or something else. Anything so that I don’t have to take the blame: “But I can’t help that I want, want, want…it’s our culture’s fault…I’m bombarded by messages cajoling me into spending and consuming. It’s not my fault!”

But a paragraph I read yesterday in Adam Hamilton’s book Enough opened my eyes to the real truth. Hamilton quoted this line from Proverbs:

“Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control” (Proverbs 25: 28).

We all have the power, the ability, to say no. It’s called self-control. It’s a God-given gift.

We can say no to overspending. We can say no to overconsumption. We can say no to materialism and greed. We can say no to impulse buying. It’s just takes self-control.

Pastor Greg cited a startling statistic in yesterday’s sermon. He noted that American’s spend $850 million every year on the purchase of ring tones. You know, the peppy Fergie number you bought because the standard 15 ring tones your cell phone already comes with aren’t cool enough, or distinct enough, or edgy enough.

Let me repeat that. $850 million. On a telephone jangle.

An impulse purchase. And one that’s so easy to justify. It’s only a couple bucks right? What’s it going to hurt? It’s not like I’m buying a Swiss chalet. It’s just a harmless ring tone.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not judging. Ask me how many shades of lipstick I have upstairs in my makeup cabinet right now. There’s the “Shimmershell” I only wore once because it made me look like an Easter egg. And then “Brandyberry” from my one-day vampy phase. Oh and “Mauvelicious,” “Honeyplum Glow” and “French Toast.” My lips are beginning to look like a gourmet food market. I’m always on the hunt for that illusive, perfect shade, the one that will morph my mouth from a thin-lipped grimace into a Penelope Cruz pout.

Yeah, good luck with that.

Adam Hamilton points out that the opposite of self-control is slavery; we are enslaved by our impulses.

I am enslaved by my impulse to buy lipstick, as well of the other dozens of impulse purchases I make every month. I’m disillusioned. I think these “things” will win me happiness, contentment, peace, security. And they don’t. They won’t. I know this in my heart…yet I still do it. I’m still “chasing after wind,” as it says in Ecclesiastes.

So here’s the deal. From this day forward I’m taking action. For one month I will act with the utmost consumer self-control. I will think before I swipe (my credit card, that is). Starbucks, In Style, cosmetics, holiday decorations, handbags, shoes (special help on this one, God, please) – it’s all going under the microscope.

Anyone care to join me? I’m calling it Michelle’s Mauvelicious Anti-Materialism Campaign. Kind of rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it? I’ll let you know how I do.

This post is part of a series on the theme "Enough" based on the book by the same name by Adam Hamilton. Click here to read other Enough posts.


Give the Gift of Enough

Last Sunday we read Luke 12, the passage in which Jesus warns his disciples about worry.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” (Luke 12: 22-25).

As a nail-biting, hand-wringing fretter, this passage really resonated with me. “Yeah! Why worry?” I thought, fired up as I sat in the pew. “How is worrying adding any value to my life?”

I left church feeling inspired; ready to turn over a new, less worrisome leaf.

And then it struck me. Of course I don’t have to worry about food and clothes. That’s a cinch – I have plenty of food and clothes. It’s easy for me to feel confident that God will provide when I pull my chair up to a table laden with food, when I open my drawers stocked full of sweaters.

But what about others who are less fortunate? What about Neema and Kantate? What about the millions of starving people in the world? What about those who suffer? The poor? Those that own a single shirt, the one on their backs? It’s easy for me to follow Jesus’ advice; I have everything I need and want. But what about them? Is Jesus telling them not to worry, too? Is Jesus telling them that God will provide? Because it looks to me like the plan isn’t working.

That’s what I thought last Sunday. I wondered if God was keeping up his end of the bargain.

And then the realization hit. It’s not just a pact between God and the suffering. I’m in the mix. I play a role, too. I’m right there in the middle, standing between God and his people. And it’s my job, my personal responsibility as a person with more than enough, to stand in the gap. That’s how God envisions it. That’s how God sees his plan unfolding.

The problem is, those of us with more than enough aren’t doing nearly enough.

We aren’t holding up our end of the pact. “Sell your possessions and give to the poor,” Jesus commands (Luke 12:33). That’s a pretty clear directive. It’s obvious to me, in reading that line, that God envisions a role for you and me to play. It’s clear that he expects us to step up to the plate; he expects us to bring balance to an unbalanced world. It’s not all on God’s shoulders. It’s on mine and yours, too.

So here’s the challenge. As we approach the holiday season, a time that screams in neon headlines that we all have more than enough, what are you going to do to stand in the gap?

It doesn’t need to be a huge sacrifice; you don’t literally need to sell every last one of your possessions. But you can do something. Call your church – find out what local charities it supports. Look up your city shelter or soup kitchen and volunteer an afternoon or evening there. Clean out your closet and bring a carload to the Goodwill. Send a check to the Salvation Army.

This holiday season let’s give the gift of enough…for everyone.

This post is part of an ongoing series on the theme of "enough," based loosely on Adam Hamilton's book Enough.


Velvet Jesus

A few weeks ago I bought my nephew a gift in honor of his baptism. When I mentioned this on the phone to my sister, she was aghast. “It’s not some tacky Jesus thing is it?” she asked suspiciously. I was insulted. “No, it’s not tacky! It’s cute!" I insisted. "What? You think just because I found God that I’ve lost all sense of taste?!”

We laughed about it, the image of me packing a velvet Jesus painting into my suitcase, en route to Oliver’s baptism. We laughed about Jeanine feeling obligated to hang said velvet Jesus in her living room.

The conversation got me thinking, though, about how reluctant I am to wear my love for God on my sleeve. I fear judgment. I fear the assumptions people might make about who I am. I fear being “that kind of Christian.” The over-the-top kind. The super-in-love-with-Jesus kind.

A few years ago my sweet neighbor Robin hand-labeled each piece of candy she handed out at Halloween with the tag “Jesus is the Real Treat!” I was appalled. This was before I believed in God, of course, so the idea of someone proclaiming their love for God so obviously, and on a Snickers for crying out loud, was horrifying. I made fun of her. I called her Martha Stewart on Jesus.

Now when I think back to Robin (she moved to Kansas and I lost touch with her), I am filled with admiration. Yeah it’s a little hokey to label marshmallow eyeballs with a Jesus message, but I love how she had the courage to do it. She didn’t care about what people would think. She didn’t care about the neighbors who would roll their eyes. She had a message to proclaim, and she proclaimed it.

I may not label my Butterfingers with a Jesus message next year, but I am thinking about ways in which I can proclaim my love for God.

“But you write a blog about faith every day, you’re doing it already,” you might be thinking. True. But writing the blog is easy because I can hide behind the words. Here I am, on a dark Friday morning, writing in my office. It feels safe; I’m tossing words out to cyberspace. I can hide behind my computer screen.

So I’m thinking about how I can take it to the next level.

What about you? Are you Martha Stewart on Jesus? Do you wear your love for God on your sleeve? Or do you take a subtler approach? How do you proclaim your love for God?

Really, I want to know. Some days I feel like a pseudo-Christian, a half-way Christian because I’m not “out there,” because I balk at lacing my conversations with references to God. I’m having trouble with the definition of “Christian” these days, and where I might fit.


Love with Action

"If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth."  1 John 3:17-18.

I heard a story on NPR (read about or listen to the story here) a couple of mornings ago that really made my heart sing. It was about a community healthcare clinic in Indiana that’s devised a unique plan to help its patients pay for their care. The patients pay off their medical bills by volunteering at local agencies around town.

I love this concept because it benefits so many. One: the volunteers, many of whom are unemployed right now, most certainly feel good about working to pay their bills. Two: the clinic is partnering with other service agencies around town. And three: the service agencies are positively impacted by the work of the volunteers.

Plus some of the benefits go beyond the actual work performed. One woman interviewed in the story stocks produce at the local co-op to help pay for her diabetic care. Not only does this help co-op general manager Richard Elmore keep his shelves stocked, he points out another benefit: "Since most of the volunteers that we get from Maple City Health Care Center are Latino, that helps add diversity to our store," Elmore says in the story.

I love the creative problem-solving here. I love that those involved are really thinking, thinking about the dignity of their patients, thinking about ways to impact others, to serve others. I love that the people at this Indiana healthcare clinic love not just with words, but with actions and in truth.

I'm linking up with Just for the Joy of It over at the Good, True and Beautiful today!


Love a Vet Today

Today’s the day we honor our nation’s veterans. To be honest, in the past I didn’t pay much heed to this day. Those honored and remembered were grainy, black-and-white images, figures tumbling one after the other onto a far-away beach. Characters in one gory war movie after another…Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Saving Private Ryan. Icons. But not real. At least not real to me.

War has moved closer to home in recent years. My cousin Joe served his first tour in Iraq back at the beginning of the conflict. And just recently he was called back, a mere few months from completing his service. They snagged him just in the nick of time, just as he was about to start a brand-new job, a fresh chapter in life.

Joe took this turn of fate with remarkable good spirits. If I’d been in his shoes I would have appealed to General Muckity Muck down at the Pentagon. I would have pitched a big hissy about the unfairness of it all. Or at the very least whined and stomped about in a tantrum of epic proportions. But Joe didn’t do that. He accepted his lot with grace.

Joe stopped in Lincoln last winter, on route from Washington State back to the east coast, where he would “ship out.” The kids instantly fell in love with him, wooed by his Seattle style (who wears a sleek velour blazer and a tweed driver’s cap in Nebraska, for heaven’s sake?) and his just plain fun. Joe jabbered into the rainbow night-light like it was a telephone; banged out a rousing rendition of The Entertainer on the piano; and played game after game after game. Rowan sobbed on the driveway the next morning, howling like he’d just lost his best friend as Joe drove down the street.

So today I’m giving thanks for our nation’s soldiers and veterans in a new way, a more personal way. Today I’m praying for Joe and for the thousands like him so far from home. May God watch over them all. Amen.


Enough about Bedrooms

This is what my master suite (i.e. bedroom) looks like:

And this is what I want it to look like:

Yes, I’m coveting again. So continuing on the theme of "Enough," please let me expound.

I want a sanctuary. An airy, fresh, white, laundry-pile-less, Lego-less, Mr.-Potato-Head-appendage-less, let’s be honest here, kid-less, sanctuary.

I want a master suite into which I can retreat each night, a bed piled high with pillows wrapped in Egyptian cotton, a bed into which I can sink. A suite with an attached bath. And a bath with a deep, jetted “garden tub” (I heard this descriptor last night on HGTV. Not exactly sure what it means…but it sounds quite lovely).

These are the thoughts that twirl about. These are the thoughts running through my head when I bring my good friend Meredith on a tour of my house last week. And you know what my dear friend Mere said when she saw my bedroom? She said this:

“Oh, Michelle! It’s beautiful! It’s like a cozy tree house.”

Jeez, I never thought of my space quite that way. A tree house? Really? I love that.

So today I’m thanking Meredith for opening my eyes, for shining the light on a cozy tree house bedroom tucked beneath the rafters. After all, a tree house bedroom is enough, isn’t it? A tree house bedroom is more than enough.

(For the record, Brad is looking over my shoulder and commenting that he doesn't see much difference between the two photos).

I'm linking up with Tuesdays Unwrapped at Chatting at the Sky. Click over for your Tuesday dose of inspiration!

* Tranquil bedroom photo from Country Living.


Enough Already

Americans are extremely eager in the pursuit of immediate material pleasures and are always discontented with the position that they occupy…They think about nothing but ways of changing their lot and bettering it…One usually finds that the love of money is either the chief or a secondary motive at the bottom of everything the Americans do.

That’s a quote I read last week. Spot on, if you ask me.

The funny thing is, these observations were written not last week or last month by a contemporary sociologist, but more than 100 years ago, by Alexis de Tocqueville, a French philosopher and historian who traveled to America and then later published his observations in a book called Democracy in America.

These days we’re talking a lot about the concept of “enough” at Southwood. The passage I just cited was included in the book we are reading in our small groups – Enough, by Adam Hamilton. And yesterday Pastor Greg preached on the topic in church.

It’s got me thinking. A lot.

I’ve written before about my problem with coveting and my constant desire to purchase the next, best thing. Usually my wants are pretty insignificant – it’s not like I’m dying for a Tuscan villa or a Lamborghini (well, okay, yes on the Tuscan villa…but let’s keep it realistic here). My wants are so easy to justify – that perky pink Cover Girl lip stain; a slouchy hobo bag; a pair of sassy platforms.

Well sure, the 14 lipstick shades I already own are sufficient…as are the six or seven purses and the gosh-I-don’t-even-want-to-admit-how-many shoes tucked cozily into the shoe-holder on my closet door (and those are just my fall/winter shoes; the spring/summer collection is packed into a Rubbermaid container in the basement). But don’t I deserve a new fill-in-the-blank here? I mean really, what’s it going to hurt? $7.99…$19.99…$39.99?

And so on and so forth.

The trouble is, how much happiness does those zillions of frivolous purchases really buy me? A single application of the new lip stain? Maybe a couple days flouncing down the office hallway with the hobo bag? A week or two of wobbling in the new shoes? And then I move on to desiring something else. A new shade. A sassier shoe.

Sell your possessions and give to those in need. This will store up your treasure for you in heaven! And the purses of heaven never get old or develop holes. Your treasures will be safe; no thief can steal it and no moth can destroy it. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be. (Luke 12:33-34 NLT)

Wise words, Jesus. Wise words. But oh, so hard to live by. Sell my possessions? All of them? Every last one? Gosh, isn’t that a bit extreme?

You know what? My son Noah lives by that wisdom. Just yesterday he came down from his room bearing gifts. For Dad: the clay chameleon he molded and hand-painted himself, wrapped in a Christmas gift bag. For Rowan: his prized Whoopee cushion (Rowan called it the “Whooshee cushion” and insisted on using throughout the rest of the day, begging me oh-so-slyly, “Mommy, sit there…yeah, right there.). And for me: a lilac-hued clam shell, nestled into a crimson velvet bag.

These weren’t just any old gifts. These were Noah’s prized possessions. And he gave them away yesterday, not for any reason or special occasion, or because he had to or felt obligated to, but because he wanted to (he hadn’t even heard the Gospel; he’d been in Sunday School, learning about Joseph!).

Somehow Noah knows the real treasure is in watching his brother’s eyes light up over the gift of a Whooshee cushion. His heart is in the right place. Noah’s heart is where I want mine to be.


Writing to See

I’m not as spiritual as you.”

Believe it or not, this is what I’ve been told by three separate individuals over the last two months. I actually laughed out loud over the irony of it, because the fact is, I’m not very spiritual. It just looks like I’m spiritual because I write about faith every day and then post my thoughts for the public to see.

The truth is, I still struggle. The truth is, I don’t often feel like I have a direct connection to God. The truth is, on some days I still forget to pray. And when I do remember to pray, my mind wanders to laundry, and the grocery list, and what I forgot to do at work that day.

I will say, though, that writing about faith, God and spirituality every day forces me to keep my eyes wide open. And because of this, I see more of God’s work and presence in my life than I ever did before. In some ways I’m looking for God because I have to. I know, that doesn’t sound very spiritual does it? It actually sounds pretty bad. But it’s not. It’s a good thing, as Miss Martha would say.

Like any other spiritual discipline – meditation, fasting, Bible study, prayer – writing for me is a practice, a discipline that brings me closer to God. It may seem contrived, it may seem forced, but it works. In forcing myself to look continually for God in my everyday, in keeping to the discipline of writing, my eyes are open and seeing God. Over time, the process becomes less forced and more habitual. A good habit. And over still more time, the habit becomes second nature. On some days I see the presence of God everywhere, without even trying.

So I just wanted to clear up any misconceptions – I’m not more spiritual than you. We’re all on a level playing field here; we all have the same opportunities to seek God.
You don’t even have to be a “writer” to write about faith. Check out Ann Voskamp’s Thousand Gifts – a simple list, jottings on slips of paper. There are innumerable “gratitude journal” ideas out there, but I love how Ann describes hers and her reasons for keeping it.

So what do you say? How about you become a writer today? Grab a slip of paper. Start writing. What do you see? Where do your eyes land when they gaze out the window? Mine see the sun, rising through leafless trees, glinting over a backyard carpeted with oak leaves. Another gift from God.

I'm sharing my Glimpse of God with Jennifer and her readers over at Studio JRU today...won't you join me? And check out Jennifer's amazing artwork while you're there -- she's truly found her calling.


A Baptism

Baptisms are my new favorite Christian celebration. It used to be weddings. I’m such a sap, I tear up the moment any bride, even a perfect stranger, steps one foot down the aisle. One long, low note of the cello in Pachelbel’s Canon, and I’m a goner.

And now it’s the same with baptisms. My eyes well every time I witness a child baptized in church. I am so overwhelmed, so in awe of the moment.

I sort of missed out on my own children’s baptisms. Back then I was still in the “going through the motions” stage of spirituality, at best ambivalent about the whole thing, at worst, completely detached. After Noah was born, my mom asked every few weeks, “So…did you set a date for the christening yet?” She tried to act nonchalant and conversational, but her voice was tinged with anxiety. She was fretting, and I knew why. She worried that if something tragic happened, Noah would end up bouncing around in Limbo, dependent on the earthbound Catholics to pray him up to Heaven.

Truthfully though, I didn’t care much about baptizing my kids. I did it out of custom, obligation. It was a good excuse to get the extended family together. Everyone flew out to Nebraska for a visit. Plus there was also the baptismal gown. Worn by three generations of Brad’s family and hand-sewn by his great grandmother, it was an heirloom: cascading to the floor, ivory faded to the softest yellow, delicate lace at the hem and sleeves. My mother-in-law actually had to slit the lace cuffs so we could slide Noah’s pudgy wrists in – apparently infants were a bit slimmer in Grandpa Arnold’s day. A beautiful gown, it attracted attention from some of the church ladies, and I felt glowy and a little excited by all their fawning. That’s what the baptism was all about for me: the heirloom gown and a decent prime rib dinner afterwards.

Last Friday was different. Last Friday my nephew was baptized in Holy Cross, the church my sister and I attended many a Saturday night with Nana and Papa.

It was a private event on Friday morning, the cavernous church chilly and empty, save Ollie’s grandparents, his parents, my kids, and Mike and me, Oliver's Godparents. Deacon Toller guided us through the ceremony, and though it was brief, the moment was rich with the presence of the Holy Spirit as he dabbed oil in the sign of the cross on Oliver’s forehead and poured water over his soft curls. Mike lit the baptismal candle, we said the Lord’s Prayer, Deacon Toller prayed over Oliver, his hand raised in blessing (Oliver thought he was giving him a high five).

And then it was done.

But not nearly done. Just the beginning, in fact.

“Today you will receive the greatest gift of your entire life,” Deacon Toller told my nephew, as Oliver munched Cheerios, gazing up solemnly at all of us. “Today you are baptized as a child of God.”

Simple words. Powerful words. Words of love. Forgiveness. Renewal. Connection. Grace. Words of promise. A promise that will be kept as Oliver walks through this life, God at his side.


Guy Talk

Seventeen gentlemen welcomed me into their close-knit circle last Thursday night. We gathered in Ray’s cozy living room, folding chairs squeezed around the divan and end tables, the Virgin Mary gazing at us serenely from the corner.

They meet twice a month. My dad is one of twenty or so in this Cursillo group, some of whom have been meeting regularly for more than 25 years to talk about God and their faith. I was there as a “guest speaker” for the evening.

Cursillo, which is a Spanish word literally meaning “short course,” is a ministry that began in the Roman Catholic Church during the 1940s and has since spread to other Christian denominations. The cursillo method focuses on training lay people to become effective leaders over a three-day weekend, which includes a number of talks, some given by priests and some by lay people. The retreat emphasizes that participants are to take the movement's methods back into the world, on what they call the “fourth day.”

One weekend a few years ago I called home to chat. “Dad’s not here,” my mom told me. “He’s at men’s church retreat till Sunday night.”

“What??? What’s wrong?!” I yelled into the phone. “He’s doing what? Mom! Is it a mid-life crisis or something?”

This is the man who attended Mass sporadically at best when I was growing up. This is the man I was sure didn’t believe in God. What in the world was he doing at a Catholic spiritual retreat, bunking with a bunch of religious guys?

That was five years ago. Since then Buzz had become an active, committed member of Cursillo.

Every time Ray’s front door opened last Thursday night, all the members jumped to their feet. It was a little bit like being in Mass again, actually – stand sit, stand sit, stand sit. As each man came through the door, he offered an open-armed embrace to every member in the room and then turned to me. I had only met two of the men before, but each of the seventeen greeted me with a warm hug, like I was his own daughter or granddaughter in town for a visit.

I read a bit from my personal essays – stories of growing up Catholic, stories of doubt and struggle, stories of dipping my toes into Lutheranism. The men listened raptly. And then they asked question after question after question.

A great evening indeed, one of the highlights of my trip -- exchanging stories, laughing, talking about God, just me and the guys. The love and support in that brightly lit living room was palpable. And Ray’s kielbasa was out of this world.

When I got back to Nebraska I found an email from Phil in my in-box, who kindly wrote to thank me for visiting the group. Toward the end of his note, he mentioned this:

“It has been a real joy for me to have met, gotten to know, and regularly share faith experiences with your delightful dad. God Bless.”

It’s no wonder my dad’s found faith, buoyed by such compassionate, God-loving men. Last Thursday night, tucked into a wing chair, munching kielbasa and hanging with the guys, my faith in God got a big boost, too.



I told a lie last week.

I was speaking with an acquaintance, and I heard myself say, "You were so right! It took about five years, but I finally feel like Nebraska is my home."

When I had first moved to Lincoln this woman had told me it would take close to five years to feel like Nebraska was truly my home. That's how long it had taken her when she moved with her husband to Massachusetts. At the time I didn't think I'd last another day in Nebraska, never mind five years, so her words weren't exactly a consolation. But it turns out that in some ways she was right. I have carved out a community. I do have friends. A job. A life. Nebraska is my home.

That said, the minute I told her Nebraska was home, I sensed a coldness seep into the bottom of my belly. Because I knew what I had said wasn't completely true. I want it to be true. I want more than anything to feel like Nebraska is my home. But my heart lives in two places.

There is so much I positively do not miss about New England. Like the tailgating. I actually saw a man's facial wrinkles in my rear view mirror when I was driving on I-91, he was that close to my bumper. I love that Nebraskans keep a full car's length away, just like we were all taught in driver's ed.

And I don't miss the, how shall I say this tactfully...well, I don't miss the arrogance either. I know I'm generalizing and stereotyping here, but East coasters are different, more direct, a bit braggy sometimes.

Like the guy in Starbucks who, in eight minutes, told me he is an ex-Marine, has his Ph.D. in history, teaches at a university in Ohio, is the head soccer coach there, is married to a woman who’s a vice president at IBM, lives in a $660,000 house in Ohio, is looking at real estate in Longmeadow and has a son who's a terrorist expert for the FBI. Did I really need to know all this? Was he really telling me this just to be friendly? I don't think so.

I prefer the Midwestern modesty. So many of the Nebraskans and Minnesotans I have met in my years living on the Great Plains are humble, quiet and attentive compared to the brash boisterousness of many New Englanders (myself included!).

I love living in Nebraska, I really do. It's a great place to raise kids. Safe, secure, friendly. I have a community here; friends I love, people who lift me up, support me in every way possible. I found God in Nebraska. Who could complain about that?

But there is one thing missing. A little boy. My nephew.

I've seen him only three times in 18 months -- once when he was born, last summer, and last week. And each time I drink him in -- kiss him a million, billion times; run my fingers through his curly, fine hair; sit with him on the floor to read countless books; carry him around like he's a prince. I work really, really hard at becoming his absolute favorite, if only for one short week.

This time I focused on teaching him my name. "Where's Auntie?" I crooned again and again, until finally when I asked, he pointed at me and grinned. And then I kept asking, just so I could see him point and smile at me.

It wasn't until my last night in Massachusetts, tucked into the creaky twin bed in my old room, that I realized it's all for naught. A week from now, he won't remember me at all, I thought, tears sliding off the bridge of my nose and seeping into my pillow. I won't be back again until next summer. And that's just the way it's going to be. Year in, year out. I cried myself into a big, pathetic, self-pitying pile of mush.

I wish there was a happy ending to this post. I wish I could say I woke up the next morning and it was a brand-new day; that I counted my blessings and moved on. But I didn't do that. I moped through the airport, kids crunching Doritos in tow. Moped my way back to Nebraska. And basically have been moping my way through the week.

I know I'm graced with too many blessings to count. I know this and truly appreciate it in my heart. Most days I give thanks. Most days it's more than enough.

Some days, not nearly enough.


All Aboard

My parents, the boys and I enjoyed life at a 19th-century pace last week. We boarded a steam train in Essex, Connecticut, journeyed a few miles north through picturesque riverside towns, and then hopped on a ferry boat to chug along the Connecticut River. The trip, though only a few miles round trip, took three hours. It was deliciously slow.

As the train shuddered and wheezed its way through Chester and Deep River we all gazed out the windows, transfixed by the spectacular scenery. Noah admired the popsicle-orange mountain maples as they dropped their leaves onto crumbling stone walls. Meme pointed out the egret, poised like a statue at the edge of the marsh. The train rumbled and lurched, inching across trestles that spanned trickling streams, winding around riverside marinas, sailboat masts still against the blue sky. And we were quiet. Just a bit of chatter every now and then. Even Rowan was remarkably subdued, perched on Pepe’s lap, his forehead pressed against the cool window (the half tablet of children’s Dramamine may have helped).

On the top deck of the Becky Thatcher the kids devoured hot dogs and licked strawberry-blast candy rings as the crisp air snapped the flag above the boat’s stern. We glimpsed a bald eagle perched in its twiggy nest along the shore, waved at motorboats speeding by and turned our faces toward the warm October sun.

The steam train and riverboat tour were the highlights of our trip home last week. For me, it was a rare opportunity to sit back and rest, to do nothing but gaze out the train window. To drink in deep breaths of autumn air at the boat’s rail. And to witness my kids enjoy an entire day with their grandparents, a day that unfurled slowly, gently, like a ribbon rippling in a sea breeze.

I'm linking up with Emily over at Chatting at the Sky; check out her Tuesdays Unwrapped for more stories about small moments of appreciation.


Saint Michelle

Yesterday was All Saints Sunday at Southwood.

All Saints Day was a Holy Day of Obligation in the Catholic church, which meant that if it fell on any day other than Sunday, an extra day of church was required that week. My sister and I dreaded those HDOs and would cringe when my mom announced at breakfast that we would be heading to 7 a.m. Mass before school. I don’t recall much else about All Saints Day when I was growing up, except that at Mass we honored those that had achieved sainthood in the eyes of the Catholic church: Saint Paul, Saint Patrick, Saint Catherine, Saint Jude, Saint Joseph, Saint Thomas and dozens of others. Most of these people had led upstanding lives in devotion to Jesus and the church, and many had died horrible, torturous deaths for their faith.

I distinctly recall the first All Saints service I attended at Southwood several years ago. We lit candles and carried them to the front of the church to place on the altar. A bell tolled solemnly. These candles were lit not in memory and honor of the many brave souls who had been martyred for Christianity, but for regular people, the loved ones who had gone before us to their eternal rest.

I was bewildered. How did these ordinary people qualify as saints? What did they do to warrant such a grand title? It almost seemed…sacrilegious. Saints in Catholicism are canonized at the conclusion of a lengthy process requiring proof that the person did indeed live a saintly life. Sometimes the process takes decades, even hundreds of years.

Let’s put it like this: Mother Teresa has not yet been canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. So you can see why I was pondering how in the world Nana, Papa and Great Aunt Mary had somehow catapulted to saint status, while Mother Teresa had not.

It’s taken me a couple of years to realize that Lutherans have a somewhat different interpretation of the concept of sainthood. It’s much broader, as Brad described it yesterday after church. Pastor Sara clarified this broader definition of sainthood for me in her sermon, in which she compared the translation of the word “saint” in Greek and English. “Saint” in Greek means holy, sacred, dedicated to God, while in English it is defined as a person of great holiness or virtue. A subtle but important difference, if you ask me.

I had never thought of my loved ones, both living and dead, as saints. But the more I do think about it, the more I see it’s true. So many people in my life, those that have gone before me and those that live with me today, exemplify Jesus in their actions and words. On one hand, this realization that we are all saints feels liberating – “How great that Lutherans are so fair, so egalitarian, allowing us all in on the sainthood action,” I think to myself. But then the reality sinks in. There must be expectations that go along with this lovely sainthood. I probably can’t just flounce through life wearing my saintly status perched like a crown upon my head.

If I’m a saint, that means I should probably try to act like one, too.

As a Catholic, it was easy to venerate the saints – those that had gone above and beyond the call of duty. It was easy to place them on a pedestal and assume sainthood was for “someone else” -- someone holier, better-behaved, more dramatic in his or her actions toward God. Someone who performed miracles. Someone burned at the stake for their devout beliefs. Someone closer to God, hand-picked by God to do great things.

Now I realize that the pressure is on – God calls me to be a saint, and he expects I will aspire to live like one, too. Miracles are not required. I do not need to throw myself onto a burning pyre. But I should aspire to live like a saint nonetheless – nurturing, serving, forgiving, faithful. A high calling indeed.

The kids overhead Brad and I talking about this subject in the car on the way home from church yesterday. Noah suddenly burst out, “Saint Michelle!” and he and Rowan cracked up in the backseat. Brad and I laughed, too – the idea is pretty funny when you think about it.

But after listening to Pastor Sara's sermon and worshipping on All Saints Sunday, hearing Noah bestow that "title" on me was a wake-up call, too. Saint Michelle. Most of us would be reluctant to call ourselves saints. It doesn’t feel right; it feels like too much. But that’s exactly what God does. He calls each and every one of us a saint. So the question is…how will you try to live like a saint today?

All material and photographs copyrighted Michelle DeRusha 2012

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