Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh – or what?

THE FEAST OF THE EPIPHANY

1st January, 2012

St Matthew’s, Guildford

Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

As some of you are aware – and the rest are about to be – St Matthew’s was broken into sometime between 10.30 on Christmas morning and 4 o’clock Wednesday afternoon.  J had the more-than-uncomfortable experience of finding the vestry door levered open, and she, B & C and G & D found several brass items and much of our sound equipment stolen.

If you’ve ever experienced the results of a break-in at your home, you know that there is a dreadful sense of violation; and if things have been stolen, you feel the loss of your “treasure”; not forgetting the inconvenience of having to report to police and insurance, and, often, of having to clean up the mess left behind.

In the case of this week’s break-in at St Matthew’s, I am thankful that there was no messy, mindless vandalism, such as is often experienced in break-ins, and such as happened here a good number of years ago and remains in the corporate memory .  I am thankful to those who discovered and sorted out the results of the burglary, including G, who has repaired the vestry door and significantly increased its security.

As to what we have lost, initially, the missing items were the candlesticks from the altar and those on stands behind the altar, the smaller of our processional crosses (the “Mothers’ Union” one) and the big brass cross which sat on the rear wall behind the altar, as well as most of our microphones, leads, the sound mixer and the remote microphone and transceiver.

All of the sound system stuff can be easily enough replaced, and undoubtedly will be through our insurance.  The brass items, though are of greater significance, due to their age and/or to their – what antique dealers call – “provenance”, by whom and in memory of whom they were given.  Their value as “treasure” lies more in the “sentimental value” than in the actual metal from which they were made.

Yesterday morning, the P’s and R’s and, I think, K, were in the vestry and found – in the robe cupboard, of all places! – the MU cross and the candlesticks which you can now see back in their rightful place behind the altar.  I’m certain that these folk were, like the Magi in today’s Gospel, “overwhelmed with joy”!  🙂

All this has me thinking about what we each regard as “treasure”.  The Magi brought treasure of “gold, frankincense, and myrrh” to present to the infant Jesus and his parents.  While we may see various ways of interpreting the meaning of the individual gifts, the simple fact is that these visitors “from the East” gave things which were expensive and highly prized in their world.  They gave of their treasure to show honour and respect to “the child who has been born king of the Jews”.

On many items to be found in churches everywhere, one can often read inscriptions like “AMDG” (to the greater glory of God) and/or “in memory of….”.  When a new church is built, individuals and other congregations often give gifts for God’s service in that new building.  And there are many such gifts here in St Matthew’s – the most recent being the memorial book stand here in the sanctuary near the organ.  It is right and good that such things be given, and it is right and good that such things be treasured by the church in perpetuity.  We serve God and give God homage by such gifts.

At the same time, we always have to beware of valuing any ornament or building of the church too highly.  The line between honour and idolatry is sometimes very fine.  Witness the way in which many more fervent Protestants decry the Catholic use of images and statues in church.  Many of the more critical will call all such things idols and accuse the good Catholic of “worshipping” the statues and the Saints, while the good Catholic knows that such items are an aid to the worship of God.  History tells us that the Puritans, under Oliver Cromwell and the “Republic” in England, put great effort into destroying much of the church’s finery and ornamentation.

Yet, in last week’s Psalm, we read, “Worship the LORD in holy splendour”, which in the KJV and one of our old hymns reads, “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness”.

And, if you read of the splendour of the Israelite “tent of worship” (the Tabernacle) and the later Temples of Israel, you cannot but be overwhelmed by the descriptions of fabrics, garments, utensils and gold-covered ornaments found therein.

When something of the “treasure” of the church is stolen, vandalised or destroyed, we are appropriately distressed.  And it is right that we seek to restore and replace where possible.  We are, after all, only ever “trustees” of this place and its treasures.

But, hurt and violated as we inevitably feel, we cannot and must not lose hope, nor let damage and theft take us down.  We are God’s people, and we do not cease to be because of loss or damage.  If St Paul were writing his letter to the Romans to us, his chapter 8 would say, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, – nor break-ins, nor burglary – nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Perhaps this week’s intrusion can help us to focus (? refocus) on what is the real treasure of the church, and especially that of St Matthew’s.  In our recent “visioning” process, we enumerated the assets of the parish, including our beautiful church and hall, our wonderful location in the middle of a superb park, in a “heritage town”.  Within this building, we have many treasures of brass and wood, and plaques commemorating people and events.  But, above, all, we have people!

The story is told of the deacon, Lawrence, who was martyred in Rome in the year 258.  Wikipedia has it thus:

After the death of [Pope] Sixtus, the prefect of Rome demanded that Lawrence turn over the riches of the Church. Ambrose is the earliest source for the tale that Lawrence asked for three days to gather together the wealth. Lawrence worked swiftly to distribute as much Church property to the poor as possible, so as to prevent its being seized by the prefect. On the third day, at the head of a small delegation, he presented himself to the prefect, and when ordered to give up the treasures of the Church, he presented the poor, the crippled, the blind and the suffering, and said that these were the true treasures of the Church.

Week by week, when we come to church, we bring our offerings – not usually gold, frankincense or myrrh! – but certainly money for the work of the church; and many bring food for distribution to those in need through Anglicare.  It is good and right that we bring these – please keep doing so!

More importantly, though, the treasure we bring is that which St Paul calls in Romans “spiritual worship”.  His twelfth chapter begins, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

As we begin a new year and many of us make “New Year resolutions”, how about taking a little time to review what you intend giving to God, of yourself, of your time, of your money, of your energy and or your abilities?

Thus we can properly look after all that has been entrusted to us in these buildings and their contents; thus we’ll be able to care for one another; and thus we’ll be able to reach out beyond the buildings, beyond the park, to those who have yet to encounter the one born to be King.

The Lord be with you!

Wishing You a Messy Christmas!

With thanks to Archbishop Rowan Williams for the idea, here’s my sermon for Christmas 2011:

+ In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Messy Christmas!

[pause]

Yes, Messy Christmas!

“Oh, dear!” they say.  “He’s been at the Christmas cheer way too much already!” they say.

In fact, if you’d seen me typing this before I used spell-check, you’d be sure of it!

But, no: I really mean to wish you a Messy Christmas!

Ten days ago, Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, said this on the BBC Radio 2 “Pause for Thought” programme:

The story of the first Christmas is the story of a series of completely unplanned, messy events – a surprise pregnancy, an unexpected journey that’s got to be made, a complete muddle over the hotel accommodation when you get there…Not exactly a perfect holiday.[1]

When we look at the way we go about our preparations every year for Christmas, there are always aspects that get messy.

My KT is brilliant at shopping for Christmas gifts.  She usually makes the list of “giftees” in January, and spends a lot of shopping time through the year to get the right present for everyone.

For several years now, I have chosen the design and ordered the printing of our Christmas cards in November or December of the previous year and they’re all in the cupboard ready by February.

And, thanks to our very good friends, Karen and Peter, we don’t have to do any real preparation for Christmas dinner: Karen plans all that and leaves us free for the “church stuff’.

All in all, don’t we sound well-organised?

But then reality hits!  As Robert Burns is said to have penned,

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy
!

At midday today (Saturday), KT was still frantically wrapping presents.

Last Saturday evening, I was up till about 11.30 writing Christmas cards – last chance to give to parish folk without needing postage stamps! I should also mention that after the best part of twelve months in my – apparently damp – study cupboard, the envelopes had mostly irretrievably sealed themselves.  So I had to head for Officeworks and buy new envelopes earlier in the week.

And about 4.30 this morning, I woke up feeling very ill with what seemed like terminal food poisoning!  And KT was only a couple of hours behind me!  A messy Christmas indeed!  🙂

This medical inconvenience threw a few more plans into chaos, as much extra sleep was needed.

Returning to my sermon about lunch-time, I discovered that “person or persons unknown” – probably a cat or two – had managed to delete all of my notes from the laptop en route for the biscuit tray. 🙂  Which may, in fact, have been fortunate, because I think I had not been writing much worth preaching!  Perhaps this is a little better!

Now, for a few moments, let’s go back to the first Christmas – a word which no-one present that night would have thought of using, I imagine.

All that Joseph and Mary knew was that their life over the past nine months had been thrown into what I might call “Burnsian chaos”.  Joseph, a man in his twenties, or maybe a little older, was engaged to a young girl of perhaps fourteen years, and the planning for the wedding was in full swing.  By the end of this month, I will have conducted twenty-five weddings for the year; so I know a bit about preparing for weddings.  It’s a lot of work and planning, much of it precise and not easily adaptable to change.

And then, as we heard from Luke’s Gospel last Sunday, the Angel Gabriel comes to Mary and puts a spanner in the works!  Mary is going to have a baby, but not in wedlock and not by Joseph!

This is beginning to get messy!

According to Matthew’s Gospel, the angel goes on to tell Joseph all about it, and he thinks of breaking off the engagement and leaving Mary to her fate.  But he accepts the angel’s message of Jesus’ divine parentage, and so keeps Mary, marrying her after the baby is born.

And today’s Gospel reading, from Luke, throws yet another spanner in the works!  The Emperor of Rome, Augustus, regardless of the inconvenience to his subjects, including the hapless Mary and Joseph, commands a census to be taken of all people in the Empire.  And for good measure, people have to return to the towns of their ancestry.

This means that Joseph and the nine-months-pregnant Mary must leave behind the well-prepared nursery and the undoubtedly finely-crafted cradle at home, and travel a hundred-and-thirty kilometres to Bethlehem, probably on foot, but possibly with a donkey (though, certainly, no such luxurious transport rates a mention in the Gospel story).

And because so many people count their heritage as being Bethlehem, the city of David, there is “no room for them in the inn”, even if they could have afforded a suite.

So a stable, possibly a cave carved in the side of a hill, becomes Maternity Central!  And in the animals’ feeding trough is laid the new-born King of the Universe.

Being both male and without children, I have never had to go through the process of childbirth, but I am told it is usually pretty messy.  And Mary goes through the same messy process to give birth to the Son of God.

And, talking about messy, just when the new parents and the little one need a bit of peace and quiet to recover from their ordeal, in come a bunch of bedraggled, dirty, smelly shepherds, rattling on about a vision of angels!  Now Mary and Joseph had had their own encounters with an angel; but this message about “a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!”

Jesus, Immanuel – God with us – Son of God and Son of Mary, comes into our world in a time of chaos and uncertainty.

And Jesus, Immanuel, Son of God and Son of Mary, come to us this evening/this morning in the midst of our lives just as they are, whether calm and ordered, or – more often and more likely – chaotic and somewhat agley.

Jesus comes to us where and as we are, and loves us and forgives us and reconciles us with God and with one another.

This is what the Apostle Paul is saying in tonight’s Epistle reading: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all”, and what the angels are singing in their “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!”

I finish with the final words of Archbishop Rowan’s talk:

“… in the complete mess of the first Christmas, God says, ‘Don’t worry – I’m not going to wait until you’ve got everything sorted out perfectly before I get involved with you.  I’m already there for you in the middle of it all, and if you just let yourself lean on me a bit instead of trying to make yourself and everything around you perfect by your own efforts, everyone will feel a little more of my love flowing’.

I’m never sure whether to wish anyone a peaceful Christmas, because it hardly ever is.  But I can wish you joy in the midst of the mess, and every blessing from the God of ordinary, untidy, surprising things.”

The Lord, Immanuel, is with you!

The Wounded Healer?

It’s forty-eight years today since my Mum died.  It wasn’t until I wrote the date on something mid-morning that it connected.  And – darn it! – the tears came again.  Strange, isn’t it, that loss can have such a lasting and recurrent effect on us?

I was eleven; it was the last day of school before the Christmas holidays.  This was in England; so I rode my bike home from school in the dark.  Arriving home, I found policemen there, looking after my little brothers (9 and 7 years old).  Dad came home after an hour or so, and somehow told us Mum was dead.  She had been suffering severe mental illness for several years and had attempted to take her life a few times before; though I’m not sure I was entirely aware of that.  This time – inevitably, it seems – she succeeded.

I do know that she often went wandering, and as the eldest, I would follow her and make sure she got home safely. I felt responsible for her.  Now, it seemed to me, I had failed.  I had spent the afternoon at an end-of-term concert, singing in the choir (I was briefly quite a good treble!)  It had been fun; but when I realised that I had been having fun while Mum was dying, I felt seriously guilty.

Dad was, naturally enough, unable to offer much support or consolation to us boys, being deep in his own grief and loneliness.  He, too, felt an immense sense of failure.  He has often said to me, ” I had to go to work, and I thought I’d done everything to prevent her doing it.”

In my adult years since Mum’s death, I have done quite a bit of work with a couple of psychologists to address the many issues which arose because of Mum’s protracted mental illness and suicide.  And I have been immensely helped through those sessions.

Sadly, my Dad has always steadfastly refused any professional help; and I think that from day one, he has rarely spoken with anyone at length about it other than with me.  There are complex issues with Dad’s understanding of what happened.  Suffice to say that much of his reaction during Mum’s illness and subsequent to her suicide was about it’s being a “spiritual” matter.  Relatively little was known about mental illness fifty years ago, and medications for what probably began as post-natal depression were only really in their infancy.

In my own life, especially over the last twenty-five years or so, I have been grateful for, and much helped by, appropriate medication and professional counselling and therapy.

Talking with my Dad this morning, and acknowledging this anniversary, I could sense so much in him that is unresolved.  He still, of course, hurts; but there is such a reluctance to address his own sense of failure and a lack of understanding of the process of grief.

I always wish I could help him; but he is a man of his generation, I guess.  I love him, but can’t get close.  And perhaps that will never be.

More importantly, I reflected again today on my own journey from that hurting eleven-year-old to my being almost sixty and still experiencing some grief.

My Dad used to tell me of his visiting his grandfather about six weeks after his grandmother died, and asking, “Are you over it now, Granddad?”  To which Granddad replied, “You don’t get over it, son; you begin to get used to it.”

By and large, I have got used to Mum’s death.  And I am grateful not to have got over it.  Occasional moments of experiencing again the sense of loss help me to remember the good things of Mum’s life and a few really good memories I have of her.

And from all this I have learned that it is not why things happen to me that matters, but what I learn from these things and how I can help others through my experience.

Henri Nouwen has a book, The Wounded Healer, which I read at least once a year.  Isaiah 53 has the line, “By his stripes we are healed”.  And I – with Nouwen and many, many others – have found that it is out of my own woundedness that I can help others in pain and grief. That I have been through the loss of Mum in such circumstances – and have been helped to work through that grief – is a major reason why I am able to get alongside the people with whom I deal in pastoral situations.

The writer to the Hebrews (2:18) says of Jesus, “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”  I sure ain’t Jesus, but this is my experience too.

And this is what Christmas means for me.  This is what incarnation is all about!  God comes alongside us, God Immanuel takes on real human flesh and blood and experience and pain and emotions.  God incarnate, having experienced weakness, helps us in our weakness; God incarnate, having experienced pain, helps us in our pain; God incarnate, crying out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”, helps us when we want to cry out in similar tones.  And God incarnate overcomes even death and the grave and rises to live above and beyond all of the pain.  As, too, can we.

Thank you, God, for my Mum, who led me to you, and – through and despite her own pain – showed me your love!

“Let it be to me according to your word”

Here’s tomorrow’s sermon twelve hours before the congregation will hear it.

ADVENT 4B – 18th December, 2011

ST MATTHEW’S, GUILDFORD

SERMON NOTES

“’That’s the way it’s done,’ the Queen said with great decision: ‘nobody can do two things at once, you know. Let’s consider your age to begin with — how old are you?’

‘I’m seven and a half, exactly.’

‘You needn’t say “exactly”,’ the Queen remarked. ‘I can believe it without that. Now I’ll give you something to believe. I’m just one hundred and one, five months and a day.’

‘I can’t believe that!‘ said Alice.

‘Can’t you?’ the Queen said in a pitying tone. ‘Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.’

Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said ‘one can’t believe impossible things.’

‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’ “[1]

After this sermon, we are going to make a series of statements, each beginning with, “We believe…”  We call it the Nicene Creed, and it almost always follows the sermon in our Sunday Eucharists.   And pretty much everything we profess in that Creed is potentially an “impossible thing”.

But the angel Gabriel tells Mary that “nothing will be impossible with God”.

On Thursday, the famous – or “infamous”, depending on your point of view – self-proclaimed atheist, Christopher Hitchens, died, at the age of 62, of complications from cancer of the oesophagus in Houston, Texas.  He had spent a very large part of his life declaring, “I do not believe”, especially in relation to religious faith and the existence of God.  The nasty bit of me wants to ask what he’s saying to God now that they have met!  But that’s probably unhealthy and certainly too speculative.  Again and again, I need to remember that God is grace-ful and amazingly forgiving.  So we can safely leave Christopher Hitchens to the grace of God.

On an ordinary day in a very ordinary village in an ordinary little captive nation under the rule of the mighty Empire of Rome, comes an anything-but-ordinary angel – the Archangel Gabriel, no less! – to a very ordinary early-teenaged girl, with an anything-but-ordinary message.

Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.

And Mary simply asks, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”  Which, in my view at least, is a fair enough question!  I don’t know if she’s had her breakfast yet, but this is a pretty impossible thing to believe at any time!

When we think of the culture and people to which Mary belongs, the “how” is the least of the questions one might expect her to be asking.

She is, as we’ve said, a young woman, girl really, in a world where virginity is highly treasured and honoured, where betrothal and marriage are sacred, and where adultery is potentially punishable by stoning to death.  A pregnancy occurring before the wedding would be regarded as clear evidence of Mary’s having “been with another man”; for Joseph would know for certain that he had not been involved.

Matthew’s Gospel tells us that when Joseph learned of this mysterious/miraculous pregnancy, he seriously considered “putting her away” – breaking off the betrothal and exposing Mary to all the shame that a village society could heap upon this hapless young girl.  The intervention of the “angel of the Lord” telling Joseph that the child is God’s Son prevents Joseph’s doing this, but we need have no doubt that rumour and innuendo followed the Holy Family for many years afterwards.

So, Mary has been told of what is to occur.  And then, as if Mary hasn’t already had enough to believe before breakfast, she is told of another impossible thing which is already happening!

And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.”

The story of children – always sons, it seems! – being born to long-barren women is not uncommon in the Hebrew Scriptures (our “Old Testament”).  We can think of Sarah, mother of Isaac[2]; of Rebekah, mother of Esau & Jacob[3]; of Rachel, mother of Joseph and Benjamin[4]; of the mother of Samson[5]; of the Shunemite woman who offered hospitality to the prophet Elijah[6].

Mary would undoubtedly have heard all these stories in the synagogue and at her own mother’s knee as she was growing up.  But for a child to be born to a virgin – that was stretching all credibility!

The fact that her cousin, Elizabeth, old enough to be past child-bearing age, is really six months pregnant seems from the angel’s point of view to be the clincher.  What he has told Mary about the child she is to bear is “proven” by the impending birth of the one whom many will come to know as John the Baptiser.

If God can do this, God can do anything!

So Mary – Oh, so sweet and innocent!  Oh, so trusting and willing!  Oh, so obedient and faithful! – Mary answers the angel with those unforgettable words:

Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

It is such a simple acceptance of what God wants: almost, but definitely not, a “Whatever!”

Actually, when I read the passage for about the fifteenth time last night, I noticed that neither Gabriel nor God has deigned to ask Mary if this “overshadowing” and “conception” meet with her approval.  Gabriel’s message is a statement, not a proposal or proposition.

“Mary, you have been blessed/favoured/given grace, which will come in the form of a baby who will be God incarnate, God in human form and human flesh”.  No please or by-your-leave or plan B in the whole process!

There is probably little or no value in pondering what God and Gabriel would have done if Mary had said “No!”  But I’m so grateful that she was able to say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

In the Old Testament, many times God calls men – sorry, it always seems to men! – to serve God and God’s people.  Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Jonah and several others respond to God’s call by declaring their own inadequacy – “I’m too young, too old, a poor speaker”, or even, “Here am I, please send someone else!”

And I know that when God first called me to ordained ministry, I did everything I could think of to avoid, or at least delay, responding to that call.  We can always see how inadequate we are and how much more qualified and/or appropriate someone else is for whatever God calls us to do!

One writer says that Mary is not chosen by God because she is “full of grace”: rather, she is full of grace because she is called by God. Her response is proof perfect that God has got it right!

And this Advent, and this Christmas, God chooses to be born again through us.  God chooses to be revealed again through ordinary people in ordinary places like this church and in the families and communities and schools and workplaces and recreational settings in which we find ourselves every day.

To and through each one of us who bears the name “Christian”, to every one of us who have been baptised and expressed faith in God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – through us Christ again takes flesh and reaches out to the world into which he first came in the baby born in a feeding-trough in a cave on the outskirts of another, ordinary little town.

Our Advent study group has been focussing on the much-loved Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”.  The last verse of the carol says,

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born in us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel!

It may seem, even now, to be another “impossible thing”, but you’ve probably already had your breakfast!

As we hear Mary’s, “let it be to me according to your word”, may we respond in similar words and commitment to bring Christ – his love and mercy, his justice and peace – to everyone whom we encounter in this “festive season” and beyond.

Amen.  Come Lord Jesus!


[1]Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking-Glass”, chapter 5

[2] Genesis 18,21

[3] Genesis 25:21

[4] Genesis 30:22

[5] Judges 13

[6]

Best Job in the World!

After being called something particularly uncomplimentary by a mother-of-the bride, who didn’t “get” my sense of humour at a rehearsal this afternoon, I went into a deep gloom for a few hours.  I am very thankful for a goodly number of Facebook friends who responded rapidly and affirmingly when I made comment on this event on fb.

In particular, a Facebook friend shared “100 Rules for Reverends” from the blog of Jeremy Fletcher (http://jeremyfletcher.wordpress.com/ ), and much of what Jeremy says has renewed my sense of purpose and value.

Two “Rules”, in particular, hit the right spot:

#20. No other role gets you involved in the highest and lowest points of people’s lives, especially not all in the same afternoon.

and

#30. Who else can pronounce a blessing on people and say it’s work?

I am often reminded of how precious it is that people allow me into their lives and hearts and homes in times of both pain and joy.  Hence the heading of this, my first post.  I am privileged – even though not everyone likes my sense of humour!

***********

I hope to post here from time to time, probably telling some of the stories of things which have happened to me – or to which I have happened! – in almost 29 years, so far, of ordained ministry.  Maybe, just maybe, someone will be amused, cheered or even inspired.  Who knows?

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Finally, for now, I really like Jeremy’s Rule #54. “You drink more Communion wine than anyone else. You owe it to yourself to make it decent.”  Colleagues, read mark learn and inwardly digest!  🙂