A Gift Worth Boasting About

Sunday, May 31, 2015
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
John 3:1-17

Last week the church celebrated Pentecost – the coming of the Holy Spirit not just to the disciples a long time ago, but to all of us disciples here and now. Pentecost is still happening. The Holy Spirit is still speaking and moving. In fact, Jesus said, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Jesus is not just speaking to Nicodemus in answer to his question – “how can a person be born again?” – but to us today.  Jesus is saying that the Holy Spirit is responsible for this process and yet we, like Nicodemus, have a hard time understanding this.

This Sunday the church celebrates Trinity Sunday – the believe in the three persons in one God. We profess it in our Creeds. We believe in God the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth. We believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord. We believe in the Holy Spirit.  Yet this – like the question Nicodemus asked – is another question whose answer leaves us with more questions than answers. How can we explain the Trinity? Many have tried, yet the best theological minds cannot explain it. They are left with more questions.

I’ll never forget the answer to one important question asked in seminary. One of the professors, Dr. Sterjna asked, “Why are you a Christian?” Many answers started coming forward: Because my family is Christian and they raised me in the Christian faith, because of my Sunday School teachers, through reading the Bible, friends who led me to Christ….the list went on. These were all good answers, but Dr. Sterjna pushed us further. But why are you a Christian? Again, many theological answers were voiced. She finally said, “You are a Christian because of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has led you to Christ.” We never forget that. We are Christians not because of what we have done in the past or what we do now to earn that title, or what someone has taught us, but we are Christians because the Holy Spirit has led us to Christ. The Holy Spirit has revealed God to us by initiating the belief in our hearts. God in the person of the Holy Spirit has sought us out and called us to faith. Exactly how the Holy Spirit does that we don’t know, but Jesus says, “the wind (or Spirit) blows where it chooses. We can’t control it. We can’t try and figure it out. It just is and we are caught up in the blowing or dancing of the Spirit and as a result the dancing together of the Trinity.

You see the Trinity is all about relationships. God the Father is in relationship with the Son and the Son with the Spirit and all of them together. Combined they form the one God whom we profess to worship. And this same God created us to be in relationship with God too. There’s room in God’s family for all people and the Holy Spirit is continually calling and drawing all people into this relationship with the triune God.

This is why we in the Lutheran Church baptize infants. We baptize infants because it is not our belief that brings us into relationship with God, but it is the presence of the Holy Spirit that draws us into a relationship with God. Through water and the Spirit we are born again, as Jesus tried to explain to Nicodemus. It is not our intellect that brings us close to God, but it is the wisdom that we receive through the Holy Spirit that brings us to faith and feeds us spiritually on our journey of faith – a journey to be in a closer and deeper relationship with God every day of our lives.

God always comes to us. We do not go to God. God is always seeking us out. As John 3:16 says,“For God so loved the world that he sent his only beloved Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” God loved us that much. So much that God became one of us – in the flesh in Jesus Christ – in order that we would be saved from the punishments of sin and death and brought back into a relationship with God. God left eternity, so that we would also have a place in eternity.

I think it’s hard for many people to grasp that concept because we don’t know what eternity looks like. We know our physical experiences here and we know the joys and sorrows we experience here. So to grasp that we have a place waiting for us when our journey is ended that will be a place of eternal joy – well, we don’t know what eternal joy feels like. Our joy here on earth has a finite time span, but joy in eternity with God is forever. That is an unfathomable concept for our minds to grasp, but we need to believe it because that is what God has promised to us in the person of Jesus Christ.

Today we celebrate the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing Marshall Harrison into an eternal relationship with the Trinity. He will be baptized in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He will be sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. He will forever be called a child of God – not because of what he does or will do, not because he will lead a perfect life without mistakes because he won’t, not because he will understand all there is to know about God, but because God loves him. Plain and simple. God loves Marshall Harrison and God loves each and every one of us. It is a gift – unearned and undeserved – and that is why it is called grace. St. Paul says in Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” This gift of God is something to boast about. It is something to tell people about. It is an amazing and wondrous gift that no one can take away from us. We don’t have to have all the answers. We don’t have to live perfect lives. We only have to live lives of thanksgiving and praise for this amazing grace that we have been given. That’s a gift worth boasting about!

And it gets even better, because not only are we called children of God, but St. Paul in Romans says that we are also heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” Like someone who receives an inheritance here on earth, we are given the inheritance of belonging to God’s family and everything that is Christ’s is ours as well. Through our baptism – made possible by the wonderful leading of the Holy Spirit, we are part of this great relationship with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We too are part of that mysterious and powerful Trinity. Wow!

The Holy Spirit has called us – personally – and gathered us together, and sends us out to live lives of gratitude as we journey in faith with courage not worrying about what the future will bring, but trusting in the promises of God for we are born of water and the Spirit. What impact does this great inheritance and gift have in our lives? How will it change how we live today? This is a gift worth boasting about! Let’s journey in faith. Let’s journey in hope. Let’s journey in love. Amen!

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Catching the Wind

Sunday, May 24, 2015 – Pentecost
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

“Nevertheless I tell you the truth; it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” I’m almost certain that when the disciples heard these words from Jesus before his death they probably said, “I don’t think so. How can it be better for us if you go away?” Being separated from the ones we love can never be a good thing. I’m sure we would all agree with that. Yet Jesus is saying that he had to leave in order for the Advocate or Helper, or Comforter or …the Holy Spirit – to come he had to leave. Those words couldn’t have felt comforting to the disciples because they didn’t even know who the Advocate or Holy Spirit was. They had never met this Spirit. What would it be like? How would it help them see the truth? How would it help them see reality? When you’ve never met someone you don’t know what to expect. Jesus’ words hardly seemed comforting to the disciples.

And they weren’t expecting what happened when they experienced the Holy Spirit! John says in his gospel account that after the resurrection Jesus breathed on them and they received the Holy Spirit. Yet in our first reading in Acts, Luke tells us that when the day of Pentecost arrived that there came a loud sound like the rush of a violent wind. There were tongues like fire over each of them, and they began to speak in strange languages. People thought they were drunk because they were behaving so differently. That kind of change causes a lot of people concern. What about us?

What do you think of when you hear the word Pentecost – the 50 days after Easter- the outpouring of the Holy Spirit? Can you feel the rush of the wind around you or is it only something that happened to the disciples over 2000 years ago? The disciples – men and women – gathered together after Jesus ascended into heaven – gathered together in one place and then whoosh………………………………….it all started. The Holy Spirit descended on them and they would never be the same again.

What voice comes to you when you hear the word Pentecost? Do you see visions and have dreams? Or do the words of the prophet Joel only speak about a time that has already gone by? “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophecy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” The Holy Spirit, which means breath or wind is an unpredictable force and perhaps that’s why people in our churches don’t like to talk about it because we want to be in control and you can’t control the wind, but you can’t avoid it and it does draw you in.

Zoey is eight years old and she loves to stick her head out the car window and feel the rush of the wind in her face. When I’m riding in the car with her, I always get a little nervous when her mom rolls the window down a little too much. I’m afraid she’ll fall out. But Zoey loves the feel of the cool wind against her face. The faster you go the more she loves it. She loves to breathe in that wind to the point where she almost can’t breathe. It’s exhilarating and a little disorienting at the same time ….even for a little dog like Zoey.

That’s how the wind is. It’s unpredictable – exciting, yet able to cause a lot of damage too. We try to harness the wind with turbines and use it for energy. It feels wonderful when the cool wind touches our skin on a blistering hot afternoon. Yet when the wind violently tears up nature and buildings in a hurricane or tornado, we don’t like the destruction it causes. So while we may love the wind on the one hand, we are also a bit afraid of it as well. The wind is a formidable thing, and the Holy Spirit, which means breath or wind is formidable as well.

Wild wind that takes your breath away, tongues of dancing fire, visions, dreams, prophesies, noise…..these are the experiences of Pentecost when the Spirit is poured out and nothing is the same. Things are stirred up. Doors are unlocked. People do things they never imagined doing. They are changed, transformed, and change is scary for many of us even if it is prompted by the Holy Spirit.

But Jesus was right. We need that Holy Spirit. Jesus had to go away from this earth for a while and there are those we miss who have gone on to be with God before us, yet Jesus has not abandoned us. He has sent the Holy Spirit to breathe new life into us. Pentecost is not something that happened 2000 years ago. Pentecost is happening today! Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit to be with us and in us. Next week Marshall Harrison will be baptized and he will be sealed by the Holy Spirit. It will be Pentecost for him. And it is Pentecost for us as well for the Holy Spirit is here among us. Can you feel it? Can people feel the presence of the Holy Spirit in our congregation or are we afraid to call upon the Holy Spirit? Are we afraid that it might take our breath away and cause us to feel disoriented, confused, upset, lost, or out of sorts? Maybe some are feeling that way right now. Maybe you’re at a crossroads between the past and the future and you don’t know where to turn, or what to do next. You don’t know how you can go on living the way you are. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. Maybe that is the Holy Spirit working within you to transform your life. We don’t always have to feel terrific to know that the Holy Spirit is working in our lives. Faith is not about feelings – faith is believing even when our feelings and our intellect tell us something different. Faith is trusting in God even when we are in the midst of a whirlwind of chaos and uncertainty. We may not know what the future holds, but we don’t have to know. We only have to believe Jesus when he tells us that the Holy Spirit or Advocate is here to help, comfort, guide, and transform our lives. The Holy Spirit is the bridge between the past and the future – the ultimate time traveler – whose power is in embracing the now. The Holy Spirit is the one who will lead us to all truth. Sometimes the truth may be hard to comprehend, but the truth will set us free.

Jesus said that there were things he wanted to tell the disciples before he ascended to God the Father, the Creator, but that he knew they weren’t ready to understand them yet. But he promised that the Holy Spirit will teach us the things we need to know when we are ready. Are we ready? Are we individually and collectively as the body of Christ ready to let the Holy Spirit teach us? When we pray for the Holy Spirit to come among us we need to be ready to be changed into who God wants us to be – witnesses of the gospel – the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The Holy Spirit will help us to lead courageous lives of faith by showing us the truth – the truth of the mystery of grace that surrounds us even when we cannot feel it. The truth of the sense of awe of God’s majesty found in the simplest things – the stars in the heavens, the colors in a flickering flame, the kiss of God from the cool wind against our face. These are the truths of the universe that we can only see with the eyes of faith and the Holy Spirit will lead us to a deeper faith, a deeper relationship with God that cannot be reached by our intellectual searching.

The Spirit of Truth that the Holy Spirit reveals to us uncovers the grace and beauty in life. The Spirit opens our eyes and helps us to see that there are more possibilities than we can imagine. The Spirit takes away our worries and infuses us with hope. The Holy Spirit will open us up to listen to our dreams and visions. Like the character Ray in the movie Field of Dreams who heard “build it and he will come”, God has dreams and a purpose for each one of us. The Holy Spirit will help us to realize those dreams God has for us.

Visions and dreams are not things of the past. They are manifestations of the Holy Spirit active today. We need not fear them. We need not fear the Spirit, for it will guide us into all truth. Christ Lutheran Church has a collective dream and mission here in this world. We exist to be the instruments through which we will make Christ known in ourselves, our community and the world. Pray for the Holy Spirit to blow through your life, to blow through this church. If you don’t know what to say when you pray, that’s okay. The Holy Spirit is praying for us with “sighs too deep for words.” Trust in that promise.

Pentecost is available each and every day – ready to transform us, ready to continue the movement of what Jesus started and carry it wherever we go. Just open the window to your heart. Close your eyes and feel the rush of the wind in your face, the wind of the Spirit that wants to give you new life. Breathe it in. Breathe in courage. Breathe out fear. Breathe in hope. Breathe out desperation. Breathe in joy. Breathe out guilt.  Breathe in peace. Breathe out sorrow. God is with you always. Breathe in the Holy Spirit and live fearlessly! Amen!

One Voice

Sunday, May 17, 2015
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
John 17:6-19

Our Lenten journey began focusing on prayer and today as we celebrate the last Sunday in Easter we come back to that focus.  Only today, it’s not us that’s doing the praying, at least not in the gospel text. Today we hear one voice. (I’m trying not to break into the Barry Manilow song, One Voice right now!) We hear one voice – that of Jesus, praying – for us.

Did you hear what I just said? Jesus – who walked this earth in the flesh 2000 years ago, who on the night He was going to be handed over to suffer and die for us, who had to be overwhelmed with emotions – was praying to God not only for the disciples back then, but for us today. For us!

Today’s gospel text is like reading someone’s diary from thousands of years ago, or listening to a private conversation that we almost have no business hearing, yet, here it is in black and white. Jesus prays, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word…” Over two thousand years ago we were not only on Jesus’ mind, we were on His heart, as he was on the way to the cross and He asked the God the Creator that we “may be with me where I am.” He took us – our sins – to the cross so He could also take us to His glory. I don’t know what to say. How do you respond to such love?

How do you respond when people pray for you? When you know that despite all they may be going through they take the time to pour out their hearts to God for you so that you may be made whole. I was speaking with a colleague this week about this very topic. We wondered if as pastors our congregation members had any idea of how much we pray for them. How much you are on our minds? I want you to know that you are – each and every one of you. When you are going through difficult times, my heart aches for you, and I pray to God on your behalf. When you experience great joy, I too rejoice. We are connected – pastor and congregation – and there is not a day that I do not lift each and every one of you up in prayer.

And today we hear that Jesus is pouring out His heart and soul to God for us so that we may be made whole. That is the reason Jesus came into this world. God saw that we were lost in sin. The cries of God’s children did not fall on deaf ears. Jesus came down to earth to suffer and die and rise again so that we would be one with God. And today we hear him praying to His Father, “that they may be one as we are one.”

The unity that Jesus prayed for is a unity as close as Jesus is to the Father – a relationship so close that they are One. We believe in a Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – yet One God. Jesus prayed that we – though many, and different, and distinct with our various ideas and practices – may be one Christian church, one body of Christ, called, gathered, and sent out into the world to spread the Good News that Christ died for us and is risen and will come again. We are called to be the living hands and feet and voice of Christ here on earth. We have been blessed to spread the kingdom of God here on earth, yet how easy it is to forget that.

How easy it is to forget that we are one body of Christ because we want to have things our way instead of God’s way. We pray “thy kingdom come” but often what we really mean is “my kingdom.” We want God to work things out the way we think it should work out. And we forget that it’s not just about us. Our lives as Christians are about following Jesus, and ultimately following God.

Mother Theresa had a great saying that speaks to this:
People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.
Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.

What Mother Theresa is saying is that we need to keep our focus on how God wants us to live. We are not in competition with one another. We are to be in unity with one another. We are called to one-ness. We are called to be there for one another.

We are called to celebrate in each other’s joys, to embrace one another in our sorrows, to ease each other’s pain, to walk with one another through life, and death, to love one another as deeply as God loves us.

How deep? Death on a cross deep! It would be like someone today jumping in front of a bullet for each one of us. Well, Jesus saw that bullet of sin and death coming at us, trying to destroy us, and He jumped in front of it. Love doesn’t get any more real or deep than that! And He did it so that nothing would ever separate us from the love of God; we would be one.

Yet like us, I wonder what it must feel like to Jesus that His prayers have not been answered. He’s prayed for unity yet we Christians fight among ourselves over things that we think are important, but are they important to God? Instead of seeking to understand one another our beliefs sometimes separate us instead of bringing us together. It separates us because our focus is on what we believe rather than on Who we are following – Jesus. When we take our focus off Jesus, then it all falls apart. But when we keep our lives focused on Jesus, we have hope, and peace, and true joy no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in.

Today we celebrate with five of our young members as they are confirmed today. In baptism they entered into this family of God, this one body of Christ. Today they speak in their own words how the Scriptures speak to them and how it will help them follow Jesus. Their journey of faith has not ended, but is continuing in a deeper and more mature way. Now as adult members of this congregation, their voices will be heard in new and stronger ways. We pray for and with them today as they continue to grow and walk in their faith and bring their light into the world. And we pray for our graduates who have achieved a great deal in completing high school and now begin a new journey in their lives. Jesus prayed that we all be one – and today we celebrate with those younger members of the body of Christ. For their success and their joy is also ours.

So one voice, praying in the darkness over 2000 years ago, prayed that we would all be one. What if we joined that One voice? What if we all prayed for unity? Maybe we might finally be the answ

Best Friends Forever

Sunday, May 10, 2015
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
John 15:9-17

Opening the mail the last couple of weeks I’ve been bombarded with letters soliciting donations. They range from sending money to support the local Northeastern Emergency Medical Services to conservation groups. While these are all worthy causes, I am struck by the way they address their letters to me. The letters don’t begin with the usual salutation that we were always taught, “To Whom It May Concern.” No, instead they begin with Dear Friend. These organizations, to whom I am not a member, or to whom I have not previously endorsed, address me as “friend.” They don’t know me. I am simply the person who lives at the address attached to the mailing list they have somehow obtained. To them I am a future donor, a possible volunteer, a hopeful benefactor, but not friend. Yet that is what they call me. It’s a useful manipulation of rhetoric and marketing to get me to feel somehow connected to them
in the hopes I will help their cause. Yet, I am not persuaded. The use of this word “friend” seems instead like a violation of trust.

In fact, in a clever marketing ad by JC Penney, I received a notice in the mail pertaining to an offer for a credit card that said, “Say hello to your wallet’s new best friend.” Now honestly, I love making new friends, but my wallet? My wallet does not need a new best friend, that will as they say give me “one more thing that you can feel good about.” Since when are credit cards our new best friends? Some people may think they are – and if used wisely they can be of some help – but if not monitored carefully credit cards can leave a person with one more thing not to feel good about. They can be a source of instant gratification and lead us down a path to worry and financial ruin. That’s hardly a description I would use to describe a friend.

So what do we mean when we call someone a friend? Is it just a simple greeting that applies to everyone, like hello? Do we go around calling everyone friend, and if so are there different levels of friendship? I’d certainly agree that some of our friends are closer than others. Some people are merely acquaintances that we know briefly. Others are people we can share some aspects of ourselves with yet not too deeply. There are those people we call friends, who know quite a lot about us and our personal lives. And then there are those BFF’s – Best Friends Forever – those people who know everything about us – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and they love us no matter what. They are there for us to help us through the very worst of times, and they are there to celebrate our joys with us. They love us not just when we are dressed nicely, but when we wake up in the morning with crazy bed hair and baggy pajamas. They love us – unconditionally – flaws and all. Our best friends are the ones we can call no matter what time of day or night and know that they will be there for us and we in turn for them. We can remember the first time we met them and I don’t think any of us would say we chose each other to be friends. Sometimes, you meet someone and you are friends right away, but that deep level of friendship takes time. And it’s a joy to call someone a friend. A friend is one of God’s greatest blessings in our lives.

In our gospel text from John today, Jesus is talking with his disciples one last time before his arrest and crucifixion. Although it’s the 6th Sunday of Easter, we recall these stories in light of the resurrection. We can see in hindsight the real meaning of what Jesus was saying to the disciples at that time, and to us today. Jesus called the disciples from all different vocations to follow him. He knew their flaws; he knew they would make mistakes and even deny him, but he chose them anyway. And when he was talking to them one last time he told them how important it was for them to understand that their main purpose was to love one another as he loved them. He was going to lay down his life for them – and for us – and yet they didn’t quite get that yet. He shared with the disciples all the things that God, his father, shared with him. Jesus shared with the disciples God’s wisdom, God’s peace, and God’s Holy Spirit. Jesus shared all these things with the disciples because as he said, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” The disciples had been with Jesus for three years non-stop. They didn’t just visit with him for a few weeks out of the year; they were with him constantly. They heard him teaching and preaching, they witnessed his miracles, they experienced his love, and now they were no longer servants or apprentices of Jesus, they were his friends.

What does it mean to be a friend? When I was away this past week to visit my mom, I had the opportunity to see a couple friends of mine who invited me to go to their church to a workshop they were having on relationships. The topic on the particular night I went was on friendship. And in this workshop we discussed the six golden rules of friendship:

  1. Friends invest time – they show up; they make their friends a priority.
  2. Friends earn their trust – trust is something that takes time, but a friend acts with integrity
  3. Friends listen with empathy – they don’t just have sympathy, they put themselves in the other person’s shoes. They try to imagine what it feels like to experience what they experience. They don’t just hear, they listen.
  4. Friends accept their flaws – they know the other person is not perfect, and they don’t nag them or expect them to be. They love them as they are.
  5. Friends celebrate wins and losses – good things don’t happen to each of us all the time and so if we celebrate the wins of the other person, then we always have something to celebrate and be happy about.
  6. Friends bring out their best – they compliment them when they do something good, and they speak the truth in love, kindly, when the other person needs an honest answer.

Did you ever meet someone so great that you said to yourself or others, “I wish I could be their friend!” In the case of the disciples, they didn’t choose to be Jesus’ friend; Jesus chose them. Wow! Jesus the perfect model of what a true friend is chose them! He chose them knowing they would mess up, knowing they wouldn’t understand him, knowing they would deny him and betray him, knowing they would choose fear over faith time and time again. And still, He chose to share with them all the things that God had revealed to him and teach it to them. He chose to breathe into them the Spirit of peace and joy. He chose to die for their sins so that they would never be separated from God. Jesus chose to die and rise from the dead so that death would not have the final victory and we would have eternal life. That is a real true friend and that is the kind of friend Jesus was to the disciples, and is -to us – his disciples today!

Jesus is the model of these six golden rules of friendship. He is the ultimate true friend. Jesus shows up each and every time we need him. He is present here in this place of worship today and in the Holy Meal we will share. Jesus has earned our trust because he is faithful to the promises he made to us – the promise to never leave or forsake us. He listens with empathy and answers our prayers in God’s perfect time. He accepts our flaws and loves us anyway, just as we are. Jesus celebrates with us and cries with us. The most powerful example of Jesus empathizing with us is when he wept at the death of Lazarus. Jesus knows and feels our pain. And he brings out the best in us. This is why Jesus gave us the commandment to love one another as he has loved us, because love will transform us. Love like Jesus’ love will bring out the best in us. It will show forth the glory of God and will transform the world.

Jesus called his disciples friends. He calls us friends. And we can call Jesus our true and very best friend forever because he died and rose again that we would have life with God forever. Jesus, God incarnate, calls us – God’s creations – friends. Unlike the letters we may receive in the mail that call us friends out of some slick marketing campaign, Jesus calls us friends from his heart. Jesus knows who we are – sins and all – and still calls us friends. What an honor to be called Jesus’ friends. And what a blessing of grace to call Jesus our true friend, our Rock, our salvation. We could receive no greater gift today or any other day than the gift of God’s Son, Jesus the Christ, the source of true joy, our best friend forever. Amen!