The Dude Abides

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Ryan LaRock about the readings for the 14th Sunday After Pentecost (1 Kings 8.22-30, 41-43, Psalm 84, Ephesians 6.10-20, John 6.56-69). Ryan serves as one of the pastors of Christ UMC in Fairfax Station, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including movie quotes, reminding God of God’s promises, dwelling places, mundane worship, unhappy people, dressing up for Jesus, passive Christianity, and offensive grace. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Dude Abides

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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).

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Devotional – 2 Samuel 6.14a

Devotional:

2 Samuel 6.14a

David danced before the Lord with all his might.

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I love to play the drums. And in particular, I love to play the drums during worship. It all began when I was in high school and was asked to begin playing for my home church’s contemporary worship service, and from the that point until I was appointed to a church after seminary, I played drums in worship nearly every Sunday.

I love playing drums while worshiping because it requires just enough thought to block out everything else, but I am also able to let myself go and really experience the profound nature of worship. Whether I’m playing simple rhythms on a djembe while a choir sways back or forth, or I’m laying down a solid two and four to encourage people to clap during a hymn, it is something I cherish.

When I was in college I played regularly for a contemporary service and every once in a while we were asked to play at a different location based on need. And on one such occasion, I set up the drum-kit in a dimly lit auditorium and we waited for a group of high-schoolers to enter the space. The energy was palpable that night and we played longer and harder than we usually did such that by the end of our set, I closed my eyes for the final song and really let myself go. And when I finally hit the last cymbal crash to end the song, I opened my eyes, and saw blood all over my drum-kit.

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Now, lest you think this is the beginning of a horror story, during the final song I accidentally opened up a blister on my hand and it went everywhere. However, because I was playing with all of my might, I had no idea what had happened until it was too late.

There are times in our lives when we, like David before the Ark or like myself behind a drum-kit, commit ourselves to the Lord with all of our might. Sometimes it happens when we’re singing a particular hymn, or when we hear a powerful refrain during a sermon, or when we get to experience the sound of sheer silence, and when it happens its unlike anything else.

David was able to dance before the Lord with all of his might because God had been present in totality with David from shepherding in the fields, to defeating Goliath, to being anointed king over Israel. God’s presence with us is what enables us to be fully committed to the divine in such a way that we lose sight of who we are, and begin to realize our fullest identities in Christ.

Suffering Envy

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for Ash Wednesday [Year B] (Joel 2.1-2, 12-17, Psalm 51.1-17, 2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10, Matthew 6.1-6, 16-20). Todd is the pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, Oklahoma and he is the host of the Patheological Podcast. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the day of the Lord, true repentance, weeping in church, hiding in the bushes, prayer in public school, and being forced to act like a Christian. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Suffering Envy

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Devotional – Psalm 29.2

Devotional:

Psalm 29.2

Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor.

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It is rare for me to face the altar during worship. Unlike lay people, I spend most of my Sunday mornings staring into the faces of a bunch of people rather than at just one person in a robe. Worship, therefore, becomes a time when I try to guide people along a path that leads all of us to discover more about what it means to love God and neighbor, though I do it from a slightly different vantage point than everyone else in the sanctuary.

However, on Christmas Eve, we all joined together for at least one moment as we held our candles and the words of “Silent Night” filled the sanctuary.

Because the moment only comes once a year, I do whatever I can to savor it. After lighting the ushers’ candles so that they can spread the light throughout the sanctuary, I quickly made my way over to my wife and son and we all sang together. At some point I stopped signing and just listened to the harmonies wash over me. At some point I glanced around the room to rest in the glow of candlelight reflecting off the faces of the young and old alike. Christmas Eve, and in particular when we sing silent night, is one of the moments where it really feels like we worship the Lord in holy splendor.

I think it feels so special because it is so different from everything else we do. Usually, we do whatever we can to avoid the darkness of life by surrounding ourselves with devices that shine brighter than any flame – we stream music all the time to the degree that it becomes difficult to appreciate a single song for what it can convey – we move so quickly through this world that we don’t enjoy the presence of strangers, nor do we appreciate the beautiful complexity of humanity all around us.

But on Christmas Eve, it’s a little different.

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I am grateful for the experience I had on Christmas Eve, but I also want to find ways to experience that same feeling of difference regardless of the holiday. I want to live and move in this world such that I can truly appreciate my God and my neighbor without taking them for granted. I want to ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name each and every day so that I can remember how blessed I really am.

God has been so good to us, and I hope all of us can appreciate what God has done more than once a year.

We Start With The End

Luke 1.46-55

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

There’s a grocery right around the corner from my house and I go there way too often. I’d like to blame it on the strange hours of church work, or my incredible cooking skills that sends me off looking for strange and rare ingredients, but honestly having a toddler requires visiting the grocery store with regularity.

I go enough to know when not to go. For instance: Sunday afternoons are the absolute worst. They are the worst because people like me remember all the things they forget to pick up earlier in the week and decide to go at the exact same time as everyone else.

And during the holiday season, it’s all the worse.

So, of course, it was on Sunday afternoon that I found myself at the grocery store with the always wonderful assortment of necessary items in my basket: baby wipes, chocolate morsels, and deodorant.

And I was not alone: every aisle was filled with families and individuals frantically seeking out all the items on their list. Some moved at a snail’s pace checking all of the nutritional values for every single item, while others were just swiping items into their carts indiscriminately. Like all stores around this season, there were older couples smiling at babies, young couples avoiding the babies, and babies crying at everyone.

I held my requisite items and dashed as quickly as I could to the “10 Items or Less” aisle which, of course, was filled with many people with way more than 10 items. And so, I practiced my Christian virtue, and I tried being patient and non-judgmental.

And that’s when the fight broke out.

Four people up from me in the line stood a young woman having just shoved the cashier across the conveyer belt. From my vantage point I could only make out brief words and lots of loud noises. There was some disagreement about payment, and then insults started flying, and then arms started moving, and the rest of us in line just stood there doing what we do best when we go to the grocery store: we distracted ourselves with the trite headlines on bad magazines, we glanced at our watches, and rechecked our email inboxes on our phones for the third time in a row.

Eventually, after the items had been sorted and the argument came to its conclusion with the manager stepping in, the young woman began weeping. “I’m just so hungry,” she said, “please let me take something.” And the cashier politely responded, “Ma’am, if we gave you something for free we’d have to give something to everybody.” And with that, they told her to leave or they’d call the police.

And we all stood there, doing nothing.

Today is the 4th, and final, Sunday of Advent. Some of you are here because you’re eagerly awaiting tonight and tomorrow morning, some of you are probably thinking more about what’s under the tree than what’s in store for worship, some of you are waiting in deep grief thinking about how all the best Christmases are behind you, and still yet some of you are here with the hope that you will receive a little more hope.

This is the day when the pre-Christmas frenzy is at its zenith. Many of you will rush out of church this morning to take care of all the remaining items on your list because Christmas hits us like a brick wall tomorrow. And it is at this precise moment, with all the fear and fervor, that we are treated to the voice of a poor young Jewish girl with a song of praise.

Mary sings her song in declaration of the new arrival of God made manifest in her womb. She not only accepts her call to bear God in the flesh, but also marvels at God’s amazing grace that will, and perhaps already has, come to fruition in the promise in her womb.

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Mary’s song, her Magnificat, begins by celebrating the greatness of God: among the entirety of the world, God chose to bestow God’s favor on Mary, a lowly servant of God. Then she proclaims God’s liberating compassion for the poor. She declares that God will flip the expectations of the world upside down, and that nothing will ever be the same. Mary identifies the God growing in her womb as the God who identifies with the poor, the marginalized, and the outcast.

And, at its best, Mary’s song is just another verse in God’s great song to humanity. A song that begins with “Let there be light” that transitions to “I will be your God, and you will be my people,” and finds its chorus in, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

But the tense has changed.

            In God’s initial covenant it is all about what will come to pass, but in Mary’s song, God has already acted and changed the cosmos, prior to Jesus’ birth.

Mary sings amidst a world suffering under oppression, and even though we are far removed from the days of Mary, things can look pretty grim these days as well.

I’ve come to find that because we know the story of Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph’s arrival in Bethlehem, the angels and shepherds, all of it so well, that it no longer shakes us the way that it once did. Instead of being rocked by the fulfilled promises of Mary’s Magnificat, we imagine Christmas as portrayed by little children wearing bed sheets and pipe cleaner angel wings.

But the story is as real as the person sitting next to you, and it demands our attention and reaction.

On the front of your bulletin you’ll find a modern Mary and Joseph.

I am almost positive that the image will offend most of us in church this morning. But, to be frank, if you’re here in worship on a Sunday morning that also falls on Christmas Eve, you’re probably the kind of Christian who can handle the offense.

The image shows Mary and Joseph as if they were waiting outside the 7-11 down the street from our church. And the attention to detail is what shakes me when I see the image: Mary wears a Nazareth High School hoodie, reminding us that she was truly a young woman. She wears an engagement ring around her finger, given to her by Jose, otherwise known as Joseph. There’s no vacancy at Dave’s City Motel (The city of David: Bethlehem). And Mary even rests under the star, though this one is neon and serves as an advertisement for an adult beverage.

This image might come across as upsetting, and if it does, it’s only because we’ve lost sight of how offensive the Christmas story really is: God chose these people to bring the incarnation into the world. God chose these people to right all the wrongs committed by the world. God chose Mary’s womb to start the story that ends with an empty tomb.

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I am not proud to admit that we all kept standing there while the woman in the grocery store ran away out of shame, fear, embarrassment, and hunger; a hunger that I will probably never know; a hunger that most of you will probably never experience. But I’m positive it’s a hunger that Mary knew.

Mary was the “least of these,” a phrase we throw around far too often without contemplation. She, in the midst of a frightening life, perhaps among the pangs of hunger, declared that in her womb was the coming change that would reverse the doom.

She, as the favored one, saw what would be accomplished by God’s promise before it even happened. She, like us, knew the end of the story. God’s story in Christ, in Mary, is offensive simply because it is so contrary to the world’s expectations, and even our own.

If we encountered the couple on the front of our bulletin, there’s a good chance that we would treat them the same way that others and I treated that woman at the grocery store: with indifference.

We’ve got our own problems to worry about: children to feed, presents to wrap, in-laws to impress. We haven’t got time to feed the hungry when we’ve got bills to pay. It’s hard to think about bringing down the mighty when we feel so powerless.

And you know what? That’s okay. It’s okay because this transformative work is God’s business. We get to participate in this work with God for sure, but in Mary’s song she rightly points away from herself to the one who is, was, and is to come:

            God’s mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

            God has demonstrated his incredible strength.

            God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

            God has brought down the powerful from their thrones.

            God has lifted up the lowly.

            God has filled the hungry with good things.

            God has sent the rich away empty.

            And God did, and does, all of this in Christ Jesus, his Son, our Lord.

Like Mary, we start at the end. We read the Magnificat in the knowledge that the tomb will be empty. We hear Mary’s song as a triumphant declaration about how God changed, and changes, the world in the incarnation and the resurrection. In these words we experience the past, present, and future of God’s reign.

The great challenge of following Jesus is cultivating the ability, like Mary, to see God’s promises as already having come to pass. Such that, instead of ignoring the woman at the store, or the couple on the corner, we see them as intimately involved in God’s toppling of the powers and principalities; that, instead of accepting the status quo, we recognize how all of us are works in progress; that instead of passively accepting this song, we hear it for the controversy that it truly is.

Our God is scandalous. Our God chooses an old couple in Abraham and Sarah to mark the covenant between God and humanity, a couple we might relegate to a retirement home. Our God chooses a little shepherd boy named David to bring down the mighty Goliath, a boy we might chastise in church for being too loud. Our God chooses an unwed pregnant teenager to bring about the one who will lift up the lowly and bring down the mighty, a girl that we might judge from afar without offering assistance.

We are so steeped in the world of our own making that we forget how scandalous our God truly is. This season in particular has the capacity to bring out the very best, and the very worst in us. But Mary, in her remarkable song, reminds us that wealth and power have no ultimate influence in the realm of God’s kingdom. In fact, they are used to serve the lowly.

            That’s not a popular message to bear during Christmas, but it wasn’t popular during the time of Mary either. In fact, that’s the message that got Jesus killed. But, thanks be to God, we know that what started in the womb was also there in the empty tomb. Amen.

Faith and Politics From The West Wing

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A few months ago my friend Jason Micheli recorded a conversation for our podcast Crackers & Grape Juice with the former White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry about what it was (and is) like to balance faith and politics while working in the West Wing. McCurry served as the Press Secretary during the Clinton years and enrolled at Wesley Theological Seminary following his time working in the administration. The conversation offers a lens into the inner workings of the most powerful office in the land while also addressing the deep challenge of being a political Christian. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: From West Wing To Wesley 

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Why Do We Give?

Matthew 22.15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

When I was in my final year of seminary, I had a friend who asked me to fill in and preach at his church one Sunday morning. He had labored for the previous years as a full time student and a full time pastor and needed a little break. Also – he was given tickets to a Carolina Panthers football game, though I was forbidden from telling his church that where he was instead of with them on a Sunday morning for worship.

The tiny United Methodist Church was in the middle on nowhere North Carolina, and I was nervous about leading worship for a congregation that I had never met. However, I figured God is good and that God would show up even if my sermon fell flat.

The sanctuary was simple and charming with white walls and florescent lights hanging from the ceiling, there was a cross above the altar that was draped with an American flag, and it was so quiet I actually thought that maybe I had showed up at the wrong church.

However, within a couple minutes, the lay leader of the church arrived and greeted me enthusiastically as if I was a first time visitor of the church, only to later realize that I was the stand-in pastor for the day. He quickly guided me through the sanctuary, gave me the grand tour (he even showed off the recently renovated bathroom) and then informed me that he was the head usher, the liturgist, the organist, and the treasurer.

From what I can remember the service went fairly well, through most of the congregation was utterly bewildered by academic deconstruction of an apocalyptic prophecy from the book of Daniel (something I thank gave up doing that day), and there was an infant who wailed throughout the entirety of the sermon. I like to think that she liked my preaching so much that it drove her to tears.

When the service ended, I finally had a better chance to look around the sanctuary and I noticed a list on the wall behind the pulpit for the hymns of the day, the offering brought in from the week before, and the deficit regarding the annual budget. There in big numbers for everyone to see was how far away they were from keeping up with their plan, and it was a staggering amount of money.

On my way out I thanked the lay-leader/usher/organist/treasurer for the opportunity to preach and asked why the church felt the need to display the deficit for everyone to see every Sunday.

I’ll never forget how casually he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Guilt is the only way to get them to give.”

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Why do we give? Taking time to talk about financial giving in the church is about as awkward and uncomfortable as it gets. Money, in general, is one of the taboo topics of normal conversations. We don’t ask how much someone makes in a year, even if we’re curious. We avoid asking for financial assistance or help because it requires too much vulnerability. But then we take the taboo subject of money, and put it together with religion (another taboo) and we get the double whammy of things we don’t like talking about.

It seems some things never change.

The Pharisees and the Herodians wanted to trap Jesus in his words. “Tell us,” they said, “should we pay our taxes to the emperor, or not?” There’s no good answer to the question. If Jesus said, “Yes, you must pay your taxes” it would cause a rift among those who suffered under the weight of dictatorial Roman rule. And if Jesus said, “No, you don’t owe the government anything,” his critics could have charged him with insurrection and he would have been executed.

And it was all about money.

Jesus however, answered in a way that has captured the hearts and minds of Christians for millennia: “Bring me a coin… whose head is this and whose title?” The people responded, “The emperor’s.” And Jesus said, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And when the crowds heard his response they were amazed and they went away.

2000 years later and taxes and money and giving still drive us crazy. It’s a hard subject to talk about. I certainly don’t enjoy it. We, and by we I really mean you and we, we would rather have a service about grace and mercy than one about sin and sacrifice. Which is strange when we consider the fact that Jesus talked about money more than just about anything else during his earthly ministry. For Jesus, money was a subject worth confronting because it had taken over the lives of his peers and it was leading them on a path of disappointment, regret, and fear.

We don’t like talking about money because what we do with our money is personal and private right?

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A UMNS photo illustration by Mike DuBose. Accompanies UMNS story #099. 3/20/12.

To talk about giving in the church, to address the subject of why we give, we have to get personal. It would be shameful for me to stand here each and every week calling for the gathered body to give your gifts to God if I, myself, was afraid to talk about my own giving. If we want to be a church of gifts, then we must first be a church of vulnerability and honesty.

Before I became a pastor, I rarely gave to the church. I have vivid memories of sitting in church throughout my adolescence, and feeling waves of guilt as I passed the offering plate over my lap to whomever else was in the pew. It helped that I was a kid and had no money to give in the first place but the guilt was still there.

It is a powerful thing here at Cokesbury when the children come up for their message and they place their offering in the plate. They are creating a habit of generosity that was largely absent from my childhood.

By the time I made it to college and seminary, I still attended church but rarely gave to the church. I certainly volunteered my time, led mission trips, and taught bible studies, but giving money to the church was not on my radar.

Then I was appointed to my first church. I had a steady income, and Lindsey and I started to tithe. And honestly it was really hard. We were a young married couple with seminary debt, and then we had a baby. Yet, we covenanted with God and one another to give 10%. In the first months it was harder that I thought it would be. I would find myself thinking about those thousands of dollars that I could have spent on other things, but we got into the habit and we kept giving. And after a while it became pretty easy because I just withheld the 10% from my paycheck and after time I stopped thinking about it at all.

But then we came here. We had to move and buy a house. It was easy when the money was taken out automatically, but now we needed to write a check and place it in the plate. There is a place of power and privilege that comes with being a pastor of the church, particularly when it comes to money. I get to sit up here while the offering plates make their way throughout the sanctuary. But the covenant to give is not one for pastors alone, nor is it for laypeople alone. The covenant to give is one made by all Christians, one that is challenging, but one that is ultimately what faith is all about.

My conversion toward tithing did not happen in a big shiny moment, but was a gradual transformation. The more I give, the longer the habit continues, the better it becomes, and things start to change.

            Instead of imagining what I could do with the money I’ve given to church, I’ve started tangibly witnessing what the money I give is doing for the church and for the kingdom.

Give, Donate, Charity

Giving to the church requires a conversion; it is built on a vision where we recognize how our blessings can be used to bless others. It is built on the knowledge that we give because so much has been given to us. It is built on the call to give not out of guilt, but out of generosity.

We are called to give because we have a shared vision and are invited into the mission of God through the church. Even a seemingly small act of generosity can grow into something far beyond what we could ever imagine – The creation of a community of love in this world.

Our generosity helps God build the kingdom here on earth.

But, we should not be expected to give, nor feel inclined to give without knowing why or to what we are giving. To just stand before you and say, “give give give” or to have a sign on the wall about out finances prevents us from developing strong relationships with the people and programs we serve. So, here are just three aspects of what our church does with our gifts.

At Cokesbury we believe in providing meaningful, fruitful, and life changing worship every week of the year. We plan months in advance, connect messages with the music, and look for imaginative ways to respond to God’s Word in the world. This means that we keep our sanctuary in the best shape possible for the worship of God, and use the great gifts of all involved in the church to make it happen. As a church we regularly welcome first-time visitors to discover God’s love in this place and help to develop professions of faith in Jesus Christ.

At Cokesbury, we believe in nurturing those in the midst of their faith journeys. We spend a significant amount of time and resources to help disciples grow in their faith and love of God and neighbor. We have numerous classes and opportunities to study God’s Word, whether its through Sunday School, Thursday Night Bible Studies, or Vacation Bible School. Everyone that participates in any of our groups is able to take what they learn and apply it to their daily lives whether they’re eight or eighty.

And at Cokesbury, we believe in witnessing to our faith in service beyond ourselves. We strive to serve those in need through a mosaic of opportunities in order to be Christ’s body for the world. Every year we have apportioned giving that directly impacts people in our local community and across the world. We provide support to agencies in our area like Hilda Barg and ACTS, and others. We help people with acute needs through discretionary accounts. And we have a great number of other missional activities that are all focused on helping other experiences God’s love through the work of the church.

We give from our abundance to bless others. Whether it’s the people in the pews next to us who gather for worship, kids from the community who show up for church events, or the countless people around the world who need help. We give out of generosity because so much has been given to us.

Sometimes when we read the story about Jesus’ response to the question of taxes, we liable to water it down to something like: Jesus leaves the choice up to us. Rather than falling into the trap of the Pharisees or the Herodians, rather than siding with the empire or inciting insurrection, Jesus breaks down the question and put the ball in our court.

But that leaves the passage without saying much of anything and prevents it from ringing out the stinging truth: We can put all of our trust in our money, we can use it to do all sorts of things in the world, but if we think that it all belongs to us, or has come to us simply because we deserve it, then we’ve failed to recognize the One from whom all blessings flow.

This passage about money isn’t so much about whether or not we should pay our taxes. Instead, it calls into question what we are doing with our money, and why we are doing what we are doing. It forces us to confront whether or not we believe God is the source of our being, or if we believe material objects can bring us satisfaction in this life. It begs us to reconsider what we’ve spent our money on, and if it helped the kingdom at all.

Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. Yet, as Christians, we believe that we, and everything we hold dear, belong to God. Amen.