The Way

Ecclesiastes 3.1-8

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

John 14.1-6, 27

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

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The disciples just don’t get it. I mean, they’ve been with Jesus for years and they’ve seen it all. They were there when he walked on water and when he told the story about the mustard seed. They were there when he was chased out of Nazareth and when he healed blind Bartimaeus. They were there when he calmed the storm and when he made the lame man walk.

But now, after all of that, they still don’t get the whole picture.

“What to you mean Lord? We don’t know where you are going, how can we know the way?” 

Jesus said, “I am the way!”

In our lives there is a time for everything. Ecclesiastes hits the truth that we’d sometimes rather ignore. If we had it our way our lives would be nothing but birthing, planting, healing, building, laughing, dancing, embracing, keeping, speaking, and loving. But life doesn’t work that way. For every glorious mountaintop there is an equally frightening valley.

When a child is born a new parents feel an unknown joy and expectation, only to realize how fragile the new life is and the terror begins to creep in.

When we start to recover from an illness, the memory of our horrible we felt stays with us and we find ourselves waiting for the next time we have to reach for the medicine.

When we find someone we want to spend the rest of our lives with, we begin to realize that if we lose them we might just lose everything that keeps our lives together.

There is a time for everything, and this was especially truth during the life of Jesus.

A time to be born, to a poor virgin in a small little town called Bethlehem. 

A time to die on a hill called Golgotha while abandoned by the most important people. 

A time to plant new ideas in the minds of his followers, and a time to pluck up as he brushed the dust off his feet village after village. 

A time to heal the many who were suffering from every ailment under the son, and a time to let the dead bury the dead. 

A time to weep for his dead friend Lazarus and a time to laugh while sharing wine around the table with his friends. 

A time to embrace his friends while washing their feet, and a time to let go when encountering Mary by the empty tomb. 

A time to go looking after the one lost sheep, and a time to let go of the broken theology of the scribes and the Pharisees. 

A time for silence while he prayed in the garden and a time to scream as he turned the tables over in the temple. 

A time to love the very people who hated him and a time to hate the very world that lost sight of what it means to love.

For everything there is a season.

All of us go through life from birth to death jumping back and forth between the mountaintops and the valleys, begin the joys and the sorrows, between the laughing and the crying. And all the while Jesus is with us – weeping while we weep, dancing while we dance, and praying while we pray.

Lo, I am with you, even to the end of the age. 

Jesus insists on journeying with us in this life from our first breath to our last, knowing full and well that we need all the help we can get. Because even the disciples, the ones closest to Jesus, the ones who walked with him on the roads of life still didn’t get it.

Their hearts were troubled because they thought they knew what Jesus was here to do. They were awaiting a version of their own kingdom rather than Jesus’ kingdom. They saw a future that suited their needs best, rather than a future where all of God’s children could rejoice together.

“I am going ahead of you,” says Jesus. “I am preparing the way for you.”

To be frank, their confusion is also born out of their resistance to let go of the one who grabbed hold of them. If they had it their way, Jesus would’ve stayed with them forever walking along the sea of Galilee. They couldn’t bring themselves to a see a world where Jesus hung from a cross, so instead they just kept asking the same types of questions over and over again.

But as the way, there was no other way for Jesus than the cross, the tomb, and the resurrection. 

Jesus walks through the valley of the shadow of death, Jesus sits in the darkness of suffering and shame, Jesus breaks forth from the chains of death so that we might know that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

That’s the whole message of scripture. 

The disciples didn’t get it, but you know who did? Kwabe did.

Kwabe knew the place where he was going, the place that Jesus prepared for him. 

He knew that every single time he walked forward to receive communion at church that he was tasting what now belong to him forever and ever. He knew that every single moment with his children, every perfect embrace, is what he is now experiencing with God Almighty. He knew the forgiveness and peace that he experienced through Abigail was awaiting him in his promised resurrection.

Kwabe had eyes to see and ears to hear the kingdom of God in his midst. His faith was such that even without walking the streets with Jesus like the disciples, he knew the place where Jesus was going, and he held on to the way that is Jesus the Christ no matter what.

I was driving on my way to church one morning when I got a call from Kwabe on my cell phone. “Hello Pastor” he said calmly. Thinking there was something wrong on our recent financial report I slightly braced myself for whatever it was that he needed to tell me. But I was wrong.

He was calling to tell me he had cancer.

It hit me so hard that I had to pull into an empty parking lot because I felt like I had been punched in the gut. 

In that moment I asked him too many questions, I prayed for him over the phone, I even offered to drive over to his house, and the entire time he remained perfectly calm. 

And after a period of silence, a silence born out of the fact that I no longer knew what to say, Kwabe said something I’ll never forget. “It is in God’s hands. I am in God’s hands. And I know the way.”

I know the way.

It’s hard for me to admit, but Kwabe was more faithful that I am. When confronted by the stark reality of his finitude I began to crumble and yet he remained steadfast. 

I know the way. 

I miss Kwabe. I miss his smile and his laugh. I miss the way he was able to calm the room when everyone else felt anxious. I miss the way he would nod at me in the middle of a sermon as if to say, “Good job.” I miss the way he would wait for me after church to ask if we could pray together. I miss him.

I think Kwabe knew a sense of peace in his life that most of us don’t. Regardless of the circumstances at work, or at home, or at church, or even in the midst of his cancer, he felt a calm sense of peace that carried him through some profoundly difficult moments. And I truly and deeply believe that Kwabe’s peace came from knowing the way, the truth, and the life that is Jesus Christ the Lord. 

Kwabe knew, deep in his bones, the place where he was the going, the place where he is now waiting for each of us. Throughout his life he was held in the palm of God’s hand and now he rejoices in the promise of the Good News made manifest for him through Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Kwabe’s heart and soul were not troubled, he was not afraid, because he knew the way.

Kwabe’s death is painful and difficult for many of us to reckon with. There will be days where we will continue to grieve and lift up our clenched fists to the sky. But there will come time when we will laugh as we remember those time that Kwabe made us laugh. There will come a day when we can smile with gratitude for all that he meant to us. And there will come a time where we can rejoice with Kwabe knowing that he is now rejoicing with the Lord.

Christ speaks to us through the scriptures, helping us to see and know what Kwabe saw and knew – there is a place prepared for us. And though we mourn and cry and grieve here and now, we need not be afraid because Jesus is the way and the truth and the life. 

There is a time for everything. Our time with Kwabe has come to an end, but now the time has come for Kwabe to rest in the Lord. We are the ones now responsible for lifting up his lamp, to shine the kind of glorious light that Kwabe did, so that we, and others, can feel the peace that he knew in Jesus. 

So thanks be to God for the life of Kwabena Sakyi, a man who deeply loved his family, who cared for those in his community, and who knew where he was going. Amen. 

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Take What Ya Got And Go With It

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Ryan LaRock about the readings for the 13th Sunday After Pentecost (1 Kings 2.10-12, 3.3-14, Psalm 111, Ephesians 5.15-20, John 6.51-58). Ryan serves as one of the pastors of Christ UMC in Fairfax Station, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including ordination papers, getting outside the church, dreams of patience, God in music, tinkering with prayer, Breaking Bad, literal funeral arrangements, mercy, prodigal years, and being stuck in the kitchen. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Take What Ya Got And Go With It

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Also – The Crackers & Grape Juice team is excited to announce our first book! I Like Big Buts: Reflections on Romans (you can find the ebook and paperback on Amazon).

Devotional – Ephesians 2.10

Devotional:

Ephesians 2.10

For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

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In a few minutes I will leave for a local funeral home to preside over a Service of Death and Resurrection for a longtime member of Cokesbury Church. I never met Frances Tyrrell, and yet I will be the one tasked with standing before her family and friends and offering words of grace, comfort, and hope.

It is a strange and mysterious thing that we ask people to speak on behalf of the dead, particularly when the person speaking never met the person everyone has gathered to celebrate and mourn.

After meeting with the family to begin making arrangements, they graciously lent me a copy of the Woodbridge Women’s Club’s History. Frances was an original member and pioneered a lot of the volunteer work that was done throughout the community. I flipped through the interview she gave and learned all about her life, from her birth, to her marriage, to her children, to her work. But there was one particular section that stood out.

At some point the interviewer, after realizing how deeply involved Frances had been in serving other people asked Frances, “So what does your family think about all this time you’ve given and all this work you’ve done?” To which she replied, “I never asked them.”

Rare these days are the individuals who do good works simply because God created them to be that way. More often we seek to serve such that we can be seen and congratulated for the work we’ve done.

But that wasn’t the case with Frances.

Paul says, “We are who God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before hand to be our way of life.” I can’t help but feel as if we’ve largely lost sight of the truth of this verse from Ephesians. We might think, instead, that our way of life is to earn all we can and save all we can. Or we might think our way of life is about building that perfect house, and having 2.5 children, and constructing a pristine white picket fence. Or we might think our way of life is any number of other things.

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But how often do we consider the fact that we have been made to serve? When was the last time we made the needs of others our priority instead of our own? How often do we help others simply because we were made this way rather than because we think God expects us to?

When we come to the end of our days, when people gather together to remember who we were and what we did, let us pray they remember us, like Frances, for our commitment to others.

Showing Up To Our Own Funerals

Joel 2.15-17

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the people, ‘Where is their God?’”

“By next week I want each of you to have your funeral sermon and bulletin figured out.” My peers and I exchanged strange looks before I raised my hand, “Funeral stuff for whom?” Our facilitator looked at us seriously and said, “You own funerals of course.”

I was in the middle of what we call CPE, clinical pastoral education. It can take place in many ways, but for me in meant serving a handful of 24 hour on-call shifts at Duke University hospital and spending every Monday for an Academic year gathering with a small group to process through the work of serving people near the end of life.

And it was on one such Monday when our facilitator informed us that we needed to create our own funeral services and bulletins.

To be frank: it was miserable. At first I kind of enjoyed thinking about the hymns and prayers I wanted to be used, but then I couldn’t help but imagine the actual people sitting in the pews while my urn, or coffin, rested at the front of the sanctuary. I found joy in flipping through the bible trying to pick one of my favorite verses for the funeral sermon, but then I started wondering who would be the one preaching, and if my life amounted to any profound theological reflection.

The longer I spent working on the assignment the more I hated it.

The following Monday we sat around our table, preparing to share our hypothetical funerals with one another when, thankfully, one of my peers raised what all of us were thinking. She looked at our facilitator and said, “I can’t understand why you would make us do this. It was cruel and frankly unchristian.” To which after giving it some thought he said, “Why do you think we get together every Ash Wednesday if not to think about our own funerals?”

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If we do this service right, all of us will be blessed. We will be blessed because we will get a taste of what the church is really for. In this service, in this time set apart, we will take upon the sins of the world (not by dying on a cross like Jesus) but through confessing our sins and the sins of others. We are here to do the thing that we should do everyday, but we often fail to until we come a little to close to death for comfort.

For it is in the wrestling with our mortality, we catch a glimpse of who we really are, and we wonder about what we could become, should we have just a little more time.

In the end, only God knows the degree to which each of us have participated in, or encouraged, or allowed some great evil to exist in this world. And it is for that reason God sent his Son to be crucified, to be killed. It is God’s judgment laid upon us, that God took away from us.

That, in a sense, is what the strange celebration of Ash Wednesday is all about. It is why we gather together when people from our community die. We, like the prophet Joel says, have been gathered together for a solemn assembly, to be sanctified, to weep if necessary, to call upon the Lord to do spare us, knowing what God did in Jesus Christ.

This is the day, the one day, when we can faithfully admit that we deserved, and still deserve, to be judged. Yet, at the same time, we proclaim that God did not abandon us.

            This is the day that we show up to our own funerals.

Ash Wednesday is time set apart from the regular movement of church time, it is time interrupted, to confront the stark truth: no one makes it out of this life alive. Regardless of every commercial product promising to make you look, feel, and act younger – the bell will toll for us all.

Everything we do here right now, we do in the presence of ashes; these ashes force us, compel us, to speak of death before death in a world where death is denied.

Years ago I was standing by the entrance of the preschool at the church I was serving, greeting all of the children and their parents/caretakers as they arrived for another day of school. I knew every child’s name and their favorite food, color, and television show. I knew more about each parent walking into the building than they ever could’ve imagined, because the kids were like faucets you couldn’t turn off when the doors closed, and they weren’t old enough to know that some things are meant to be kept a secret.

And on that particular day, one of the moms ushered her daughter down the hallway, and made a motion to me that said, “we need to talk.” I, of course, was worried that I was about to get lectured about teaching too many of the strange stories from the bible to the kids, but instead she asked for my help. In less than a minute she told me that her ex-husband, the father of her daughter, had died the night before after being sick for a few weeks, and she wanted me to tell the child that her father was dead. And with a solitary tear streaking down her cheek, she turned around and left the building.

I got nothing done that morning as I retreated to my office and frantically prepared to devastate a four year old girl with news no one wants to here. I thought about analogies and metaphors that might soften the blow, I even contemplated going to the library to find a children’s book on grief, but time ran out, and I had to do something before the day ended.

And so I marched down toward the preschool, sat down at the table with the kids, and asked to speak to the girl in the hallway. I sat down on the floor with her and I spent a couple awkward moments trying to work up the courage to begin, when she asked, “Did my Daddy die?”

Not knowing quite what to say, I just simply nodded, and then she said with maturity beyond her years, “That’s okay. So did Grandma, so did our old neighbor. Everyone dies. Even Jesus died. But he died so that we could be together again right?”

“Right.” I said. And much like her mother, she turned around and went back in the room to play with her friends.

Everyone dies. There’s no way around it. No pill, no procedure, no product can stop it forever. And because no one makes it out of this life alive, we grieve. We weep and wail. We raised our clenched fists in the air and shout, “Where are you God?”

And then we remember the theological wisdom of a four year old; God has answered that question. God answers in Jesus being born like us and among us. God answers in the ashes smeared on our foreheads. God answers in the community of faith that carries us through the gravity of our grief. God answers in the words of scripture, and in the words of prayer. God answers in the truth that we’d rather avoid: We are dust and to dust shall return.

But, thanks be to God, dust is not the end. Amen.

On Not Looking Like A Pastor

Stanley Hauerwas is known for telling his seminary students that they should never marry couples off the street and they should never do a funeral in a funeral home. His instructions to soon-to-be-pastors can sound a bit harsh the first time around but they are worthy commands.

Pastors should not preside over funerals in funeral homes because we are supposed to have Services of Death and Resurrection in the same place that baptisms take place. Our life with God begins in baptism, and finds its new beginning in our death; those two things should not be separated.

However, in my time as a pastor I’ve done a handful of funerals in funeral homes simply because the family was afraid of the cost of having the funeral home transport the body/urn and they were overwhelmed by the total cost to begin with.

But the prohibition to never marry someone off the street is one that I have taken very seriously.

In our current culture, the divorce rate is creeping above 50% which means that by the time I retire from ministry, there’s a chance that half of the marriages I presided over will have already come to an end. This terrifies me.

In response to the continually growing trend of separations and divorces, I have made a concerted effort to spend as much time with couples before their wedding so that whether I knew them before their request or not, they will not be strangers by the time I stand with them by the altar. I insist on having a minimum of three pre-marital counseling sessions and I reserve the right to not perform the marriage if I feel either something is wrong, or that I am not the one to bring them together.

Of all the questions that I ask, (and I do ask a lot) the one that makes couples the most uncomfortable is not the question about sex, or even how they handle money, but about why they want me to perform the wedding. And I don’t mean me personally, but why do they want it to be a religious service.

I ask this question because it is a lot easier (and cheaper) to drive down to the local courthouse and be married by a justice of the peace. There’s no premarital counseling involved, there’s no need to have a packed room full of people and for a liturgy. So, why have a religious ceremony?

Last night I was having a pre-martial counseling session with a couple whose wedding is coming up, and upon asking the question the soon-to-be husband very honestly answered that he is suspicious of organized religion, that my involvement has less to do with his choice than with the family’s choice, but that in the end he wanted it to be religious (and wanted me to do it) because I don’t seem like a normal pastor.

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Drinking Methodist “Champagne” at the Easter Sunrise Service

I hear that kind of thing all the time. I’ll be at a local coffee shop working on a sermon when someone will strike up a conversation and when it moves to the topic of employment, and they learn I’m a United Methodist pastor, they’ll say something like “Are you sure?”

Or I’ll be at a party with mutual friends and when I’m introduced, as a pastor from a nearby church, people will always hide their beer cans or glasses of wine behind their back until they see that I am holding one as well.

Or when I drop off my son at day care after months of learning about the teachers and other parents I’ll be wearing a clergy collar and someone will ask me if it’s a joke.

I, apparently, don’t look, sound, or act like a pastor.

And I think this is a good thing.

I think it is a good thing precisely because of what Dr. Hauerwas taught me: Never marry people off the street. When I am invited into the intimacy that is shared between two people prior to their wedding, when I can have real and vulnerable conversations with them about the sanctity of marriage and God’s ultimate role in it, I can break down these strange stereotypes about what a pastor is supposed to look and sound like.

Being myself, rather than having a presumed pastor-like personality, helps to show the world that Christians (and the church) are not what the world makes of us. We Christians are not all like the Westboro Baptists who are forever picketing certain events, nor are we all like the gay-shaming ultra-conservatives who belittle people for their identity, nor are we all like the quiet, antiquated, and archaic pastors from television shows and movies.

We, Christians and Pastors alike, are more than how the world portrays us. We are broken people who are in need of grace. We are faithful people filled with the joy of the Spirit. We are hopeful people who believe the church is the better place God has made in the world.

So I am grateful for not appearing like a pastor. I am grateful because I believe it will help me help others to see what the grace of God has done for me.

Devotional – Matthew 6.28-29

Devotional:

Matthew 6.28-29

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.

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In a few hours I will gather with members of the community for a Service of Death and Resurrection for one of St. John’s long-time members, Gracie Jackson. During my first two months serving at St. John’s (almost 4 years ago), I tried to visit as many people as possible from the church community, particularly those who could no longer attend worship on Sundays. I want them to know that the church still cared about them and that they were in our prayers regardless of their presence.

Throughout those first months I was welcomed into a great number of homes and learned so much about Staunton and the impact St. John’s has had throughout the decades. One of my first visits was to the Jackson home where I sat and talked with Lenard and Gracie Jackson. But we didn’t sit for long. Instead, they wanted to give me the grand tour including the basement workshop and the green house in the backyard. There were plants everywhere but one in particular was striking and unlike anything I had seen before. Lenard explained that it was a Night-Blooming Cereus, and like the name implies, it only blooms at night. At the time, I casually mentioned my interest in the plant and we continued the door.

However, a couple days later Gracie told Lenard that he HAD to invite me over to witness the Night-Blooming Cereus in all it’s glory. (Lenard recently told me that in his life there were always two ways to doing things, and both of them were Gracie’s!). So at 10pm Lindsey and I drove over to the Jackson house and the four of us sat in their living room in our pajamas patiently waiting for the plant to do its magic.

When the right time arrived, we huddled in the green house with the dark sky coming through the windows and the cactus bloomed right in front of us. It produced the most exquisite scent and filled the room with its glory. And in that moment I was struck by the holy space we were sharing and was reminded of Jesus’ words from Matthew 6: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”

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That Night-Blooming Cereus was one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen and I never would’ve experienced if it weren’t for Gracie’s insistent invitation. Similarly, our faith is something that is offered to us as an invitation. We can read all about the Lord in Scripture, we can pray privately on our own time, but when we share our faith with another person it can bloom in the most exquisite of ways.

I am so remarkably grateful for the time I got to spend with Gracie, and for the many ways she embodied God’s grace for me.

Devotional – Job 19.23-25

Devotional:

Job 19.23-25

O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever! For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.

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Last Thursday, while my wife, son, and I were visiting family in Alexandria, I received a phone call about one of St. John’s long-time members having died. Ruth Cassidy joined the church weeks after it formally began back in 1954 and while it was still meeting in a basement down the road. Ruth was easily one of the kindest people I ever had the chance to spend time with, and she will be greatly missed by our church community, and by her family.

A couple years ago I received a phone call about Ruth’s husband Howard, and it was clear that he was close to the end of his life. And so, I made my way over to their retirement home and when I walked into the room Ruth was sitting next to her husband, she was lovingly holding his hand in hers, and he had just taken his final breath. I, not wanting to intrude on the holiness of the moment, slowly started to back away but Ruth insisted on me sitting down with her on the couch. She immediately started asking me questions about my family and St. John’s and I was still in a state of shock; I was overwhelmed by the totality of the moment, and the fact that Howard had literally just died. Ruth continued to ask me questions, but I wanted to acknowledge what had just happened. It took a couple minutes, but I finally mustered the courage to ask: “Ruth, are you okay? I mean, Howard just died…”

She looked right into my eyes, smiled, and said, “Oh, everything is fine; I know where he really is.”

Rarely have I encountered such faith, such hope, and such love as what I regularly experienced through Ruth Cassidy. Like the biblical character of Job, she had an assurance about the way things really are. In that holy and profound moment immediately after her husband died, I could almost hear the words of scripture floating in the room with us: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.”

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Ruth’s assurance, her blessed assurance, was one worthy of our emulation.

Do you know that your Redeemer lives? What words or thoughts would you want to engrave on a rock forever? Can you feel the Holy Spirit moving and breathing into your life? Are you filled with an assurance about who you are and whose you are?

O that my words were written down and engraved forever! I know that my Redeemer lives! And that at the last he will stand upon the earth!