Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Pastoral Transitions


This is the week in most annual conferences in the United States known as “transition week.” Pastors who are moving to another assignment typically begin on July 1. There is a period of welcome and adjustment to a new environment, a new group of people, a new place to live and all the million things that go into a move.

Many pastors have spouses and children who transition with them, so it is not just the pastor who has many adjustments to make. Churches too have new things to get used to as they welcome new pastors. And there is often a bittersweet mixture of “good-byes” and “hellos” in the hearts of church members.

I ask that you do the following things listed below. (These suggestions are based on concerns that come up every year during transition week.)
  1. Pray for those in transition: pastors, families and churches
  2. Churches need to welcome their new pastors and new families with as much hospitality and love as they can muster. 
  3. Pastors need to leave their churches when they leave their churches, and not continue to have pastoral ties with families in ways that interfere with the ministry of the new pastor. At least a one-year window of absence from all contact is requested, unless one is invited back by the new pastor for some reason.
  4. Parsonages need to be left clean and repaired. 
  5. Pastors should attempt to learn about the new church before changing the worship style and things that people are used to doing. There is plenty of time to make changes, once people get to know the pastor and everyone understands each other. 
  6. Contact the district superintendent if there are any concerns about salaries or promises made at the pastoral take-in. They are there to help. 
Remember to pray for our retired pastors who may not be assuming a pastoral assignment in retirement. They are starting a new journey of life and need our support as well.

The itinerant system of moving pastors is not perfect, but it has many advantages. The gifts of pastors vary greatly. With pastoral changes churches get to enjoy a variety of expressions of worship and styles of ministry that can bring health, strength and imagination to our congregations.

The most important thing is to keep the goal of preaching the gospel and making disciples as the driving passion of the church. God will lead both pastor and church into new, potentially exciting opportunities for spiritual growth and outreach.


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

To love and welcome all


Bishop Johnson (right) with the Rev, Herb Snyder
I had not planned to attend the Philadelphia Gay Pride Parade on Sunday, June 18.  Even though it was mentioned in one of our annual conference resolutions as a place that the church should be present, I imagined it to be a secular and not very sanctified event.

Since I was leaving to travel to Pittsburgh for an NEJ College of Bishops meeting that day, I was sure that time would not permit me to join the parade. However, God had other plans for my day. 

My husband Mike was asked to preach at Historic St. George’s UMC in downtown Philadelphia that morning. A member of the church told us the Gay Pride Parade was in walking distance of the church, and it would begin just around the time church service was over. Down 4th Street and onto Market Street we went with our faithful church member, who served as both our walking guide and our interpreter about the LGBTQ community. 

What I saw was much of what one would expect: a colorful, Mardi Gras-like celebration with much dancing, music, beads and candy tossed to onlookers.  What I did not expect were the many floats and marchers who were there as support groups that offer health care, education, family resources, counseling and yes, spiritual guidance--practicing what we so often preach.

There were people of all ethnicities, ages, and abilities present. A number of churches and interfaith groups were marching in the parade, including several of our Eastern PA Conference churches. Their message was about being welcome and sharing the love of God with and for all people.  I am so glad that the Church—our Church—was present there proclaiming this embracing, life-giving message.

I respectfully acknowledge, with every ounce of my bishop’s heart, that there are Christians of goodwill in our conferences who do not agree about issues around homosexuality and gender identity. Nonetheless, we are mandated by our Discipline to be in ministry with all people, and all means all. 

All means all 
All people includes this part of the world’s humanity. God makes the Judgment call at the end of the day, whatever that will be; so it is not our job. For far too long we have been arguing over particulars, authoring and amending resolutions, and speculating about a church schism. But all we are asked to do is simply to love and welcome all people. 

I encourage all our churches to exercise our denominational mandate to be inclusive. There is grace to be found when you meet and listen to the stories of people who are different from you. Be willing to stretch beyond your “comfort zones” and go there to listen and connect with them.

Christ calls us to invite and welcome folks—different folks—into our churches and activities. It means we need to go into communities and engage people where they are—where they live, celebrate, suffer and struggle daily to gain dignity, human rights and loving acceptance.


Editor’s Note: At the Eastern PA Annual Conference June 15-17, Resolution 2017-11 encouraged all churches to practice Radical Welcome to LGBT persons. It explained that, “practicing radical welcome can be defined as holding or participating in special events in June (Pride Happenings) and October (Coming Out Happenings) to let LGBTQ people in our churches and communities know that they are welcome in our churches, and by offering special prayers for the LGBTQ people and their families in our churches and communities on a special Sunday in the months of June and October.

The resolution further recommended “that the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference invite the Reconciling United Methodists of Eastern Pennsylvania and other interested churches to represent the Conference as a welcoming presence at Pride Parades and Outfests in their communities in June and October 2017. Presenters withdrew the resolution after efforts by some conference members to amend it with deletions during debate.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A response to the opioid epidemic


When we hear the word “epidemic” we typically think of a disease like Ebola or some virus or infection that spreads rapidly and causes much illness and death. In the case of the current opioid epidemic, the disease is addiction and the results are as catastrophic as any killer disease.

Our country is currently experiencing a staggering pandemic of drugs that is taking the lives of millions and causes misery and sorrow to millions more family members and friends of the victims. The statistics are unbelievable. According to the health department, in 2016 there were 4,642 drug overdose deaths in PA (up by 37%); in Maryland there were 830 cases (up by 66%); and in Delaware 308 people died (up by 30%).

Nationally the number of overdose deaths in 2016 exceeded 59,000 (up by 19%). All are reporting increases in deaths happening in the suburban areas of their states. This epidemic is crossing all lines of class and culture. The Philadelphia Inquirer (June 1, 2017) reported that librarians are being trained to administer the lifesaving overdose antidote Narcan as part of their job. “Overdose drills” are as common as fire drills in public library facilities like the one in Kensington.

Recently I visited the Lebanon Women’s Detention Center and Chaplain Marilyn Nolte, with the Eastern PA Conference Cabinet. I met a number of inmates. Many of them are incarcerated because of drug offenses and have a history of drug addiction.

Most shocking to me was the large pink heart we saw on the bulletin board that was cut in two to indicate a broken heart. On the heart were the names of at least 100 women who had been in the prison, had done their time and gotten out, and had either committed suicide or died from drug overdoses. These are our young people, each one a precious daughter, wife or mother, trapped in the chains of this disease. I thank God that we have a UM chaplain there working with these women.

It is easy to throw up our hands in despair when we read these statistics and hear these stories. But as people of faith, every one of us can do something to light a candle of hope. The recent “UNITE Quakertown” anti-drug abuse rally, sponsored June 10 at a local park by Quakertown UMC, brought together interfaith partners, human service agencies and community groups, along with musical performers and speakers. All are helping to spread the word about this terrible epidemic of opioid abuse and offer some practical things people can do.

Here are some of the “take-aways” from this day-long community festival:
  • View addiction as a disease and not a moral failure. 
  • Decriminalize and offer more treatment options instead of prison time. 
  • Set up more Narcotics Anonymous and Celebrate Recovery groups in churches and communities.
  • Teach elementary school children about the dangers of drugs. 
  • Offer after-school and summer programs for at-risk young people. 
  • Partner with hospitals to support drug-addicted mothers and their addicted newborns. 
  • Pray for and with addicted people and their families.
  • Promote laws and governmental policies that keep funding for health insurance and Medicaid that assists with drug addiction remedies.
At our Lenten Day Apart for clergy next February, in both the Eastern PA and Peninsula-Delaware annual conferences, we will have more conversation about drug addiction. The Rev. Dr. Barry Steiner-Ball will present some of his work in this area of community outreach and treatment.

The root cause of drug use and drug abuse is pain. We experience physical pain, emotional pain and spiritual pain in life, and drugs may at first take away that pain. But with continual use and increased dosages it can easily become an addiction.

People of faith can come alongside people suffering pain, all kinds of pain, to offer healing, encouraging community support and helpful spiritual resources that no pain pill can offer. As followers of Christ and loving ambassadors of the gospel, we can bring the words of life to this drug world of death. Always offer people Christ and make your church a place of welcome and support.

Monday, June 5, 2017

June is Gun Violence Prevention Month




Violence is such huge part of our world right now that one can rarely listen to the news on radio or TV without learning of a new incident of horrific violence. We are still reeling from the recent terrorist bombings and mass stabbings in England, and attacks on other innocent people in our own country.

Gun violence is particularly prevalent in our country. I believe it is important for our churches to teach about this epidemic and promote healthy ways of preventing senseless harm.

The 2016 United Methodist Book of Resolutions encourages our churches to make “preventing gun violence a regular part of our conversations and prayer times.” It goes on to say, “Gun violence must be worshipfully and theologically reflected on, and we encourage UM churches to frame conversations theologically by utilizing resources such as Kingdom Dreams, Violent Realities: Reflections on Gun Violence from Micah 4:1-4, produced by the General Board of Church and Society.”

(The 'Gun Violence Prevention' page on umcjustic.org is another helpful resource: www.umcjustice.org/what-we-care-about/peace-with-justice/gun-violence-prevention)

It also encourages us to “partner with local law enforcement agencies and community groups to identify gun retailers that engage in retail practices designed to circumvent laws on gun sales and ownership, encourage full legal compliance, and to work with groups like ‘Heeding God’s Call’ that organize faith-based campaigns to encourage gun retailers to gain full legal compliance with appropriate standards and laws.”   (2016 Book of Resolutions, page 394)

As a church we can also become politically active by promoting local and national level laws that prevent or reduce gun violence in some of the following ways:
  • universal background checks on all gun purchases;
  • ratification of the Arms Trade Treaty;
  • prohibiting from purchasing guns all individuals under temporary restraining orders due to threat of violence;
  • banning large-capacity ammunition magazines and weapons designed to fire multiple rounds each time the trigger is pulled; and
  • and promoting new technologies to aid law enforcement agencies to trace crime guns and promote public safety.  (2016 Book of Resolutions, page 395).
Finally, my word to you today is to consider anger. The basis for much of the violence we see in this world today is anger. Jesus speaks of anger against one’s neighbor in a dramatic way in the “Sermon on Mount.”   

He said, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:21-22)


These are strong words based on much wisdom. Anger gives birth to murder and violence. Churches are also a place where we can teach faith-filled ways of dealing with anger through conversation, mediation, forgiveness and restorative justice. 

Every one of us can do something to curb the violence in our world. Ask God to lay on your heart what you can be doing to promote peace and end this scourge of murder and mayhem in our world.  Use the month of June, which is “Gun Violence Prevention Month,” to make some concrete plans.  We are to be the salt and light of the world! 


Monday, May 22, 2017

Ascension Day – What are you waiting for?



Thursday, May 25th is Ascension Day. It is the day in the Christian calendar when we remember Christ’s ascension into heaven. It happened 40 days after the resurrection (Easter) and it is recorded in the Book of Acts.

Jesus was telling the disciples that they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and all the ends of the earth. Then Jesus ascended and a cloud took him out of their sight. “While they were gazing into heaven two men stood by them in white robes and asked, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:10-11)

During the recent Council of Bishops meeting I had a conversation with Bishop Christian Alsted from Denmark. He explained that in his country Ascension Day is a national holiday. Some of the churches have torch-led processions around the church building to remember Jesus’ ascension and to officially end the season of Easter. They also bless fruits and vegetables at the churches, and people have an off-day from work.

It is interesting to me how little we observe Ascension Day in the United States in our churches, when truly, this is a day of great significance. The men in white, who spoke to those first apostles have a message for us as well: “Just don’t stand there looking up, get busy.”

Jesus is coming again and we need to be about the business of being witnesses for Jesus in our day and time. We need to be out of our church buildings and into the world blessing not only fruits and vegetables but the lives of people in our community and the world.

We have not fully completed our celebration of Easter if we are not making the church visible to the world by our witness of words and love in action. This is time-sensitive business. Jesus is coming again and unless we tell the story people will not know the good news of Jesus’ life-giving grace for all people.

So what are you waiting for? Tell your story, tell Christ’s story, and see how far the good news will spread.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

God bless the Babushkas


Recently I had lunch with two United Methodist pastors from Russia who are visiting some of their supporting churches. 

The place of the church in Russian in the 21st century is better than in the past when the Communist revolution swept into the country. But according to the Christian Science Monitor, Russia has emerged nowadays as the most God-believing nation in Europe.

The missionaries I spoke to credit much of this to the Babushkas*, who kept the faith alive during the state-sponsored repression. They were the grandmothers, with head-scarves and wrinkled faces, who were dismissed and ridiculed by the Communist leadership because of their religious belief. But they refused to give up their faith and kept it alive in secret and through their witness.

As we think about mothers during this Mother’s Day weekend we need to reflect on the faith that women, mothers and grandmothers often bring to a godless world. Often it is the quiet voice that is the most tenacious and strong. I give thanks for those faithful women in Russia who never gave up on their faith in God.

Never underestimate the power of your faith, even when you are seen as insignificant, misguided or old-fashioned. It will strengthen, sustain and save you in the end, giving you victory when all else fails and has fallen away.

*Babushkas are literally head scarves worn by Russian women that cover most or all of the top of their hair and heads, leaving their faces uncovered.

For another testimony about the faithfulness of the Russian, Christian women often called Babushkas, read the Christian Forum blog post "Thank God for the Babushkas."

Monday, April 10, 2017

Good News or Fake News?


There is a lot of talk recently about “fake news” with various reports of false information being projected as truth in our media outlets. 
During the U.S. presidential campaign there was a fake news account of a child abuse ring happening in a pizza parlor in Washington, DC, that was allegedly the work of one of the candidates. This story prompted a 28-year old man to drive six hours to investigate and retaliate. 
He came into the pizza parlor firing an assault rifle because he believed the story was true and was trying to help the abused children. This is an extreme example of what can happen when fake news is out there posing as truth.
Fake news is not a new thing. On that first Easter Sunday the tomb was empty and guards witnessed the resurrection. The Gospel of Matthew records that “for fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.”
Later that day these same guards met with the chief priests and explained what happened.  Then the fake news was invented. The guards were bribed to tell people that Jesus’ disciples came by night and stole his body while they were asleep. 
Fake news are manipulative lies often founded on fear and hatred that seek to spread the negativity of misdeeds, death and despair.
Good news, on the other hand, is the power of God to transform death into life, turn despair into hope and cast out fear through perfect, divine love. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is the best news ever witnessed in the history of humankind. 
Because Jesus lives, we too can live forever after our mortal death. We can live our lives for Christ fearlessly and hopefully now because of this promise of resurrection. 
Each of us has a choice about Jesus: either we believe he arose from the dead, and we inherit his gift of eternal life through faith; or, we believe death is the last word, and life here on earth is all there is. 
Good news or fake news. If you have chosen the “good news” path, then it is your responsibility to pass on this good news, to share this gift, that others may know of this ultimate blessing.
I see Facebook postings of good news every day: new grandchildren, graduations, birthdays, vacations, weddings and engagements. Clearly, good news is meant to be shared!
When was the last time you told someone that Jesus Christ is the Lord of your life and that you live for him because of the good news of his resurrection and yours?  That is the testimony people need to hear so that they might seek to learn about Jesus and come to have faith in him. That’s the stuff new and revitalized churches are made of: souls delivered from bondage, hopefulness found in the midst of loss and tragedy, loving acceptance that can heal loneliness.
Moreover, don’t just tell the good news. Be the good news. How? By the way you act in this world, by the kindness you offer, the generosity in your giving, the forgiveness you offer no matter how difficult, the Christian value of inclusiveness that you honor among people who are different from you. 
Be a “sermon in shoes” wherever you walk, by your active testimony of holy living.  Fake news produces confusion, hatred and fear.  Good news instills courage and hope, life and love that goes on and on and on into eternity.  Celebrate Easter by proclaiming to all the good news—outstanding news—of Jesus Christ in word and deed.

            

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

From House to House

On the morning that the e-mail notice came informing United Methodist bishops that Bishop Felton E. May* had been diagnosed with cancer, I immediately texted him with assurance of our prayers and support. Bishop May called me a few minutes later and we had a memorable conversation, one that I will never forget.

It was the last thing he ever told me. He said, “When I was a child growing up in Chicago some missionaries from a Baptist church came to my family home and brought in a flannel board and told us stories about Jesus.

“They came to the people telling the good news. It had a profound effect on my young life. Tell your pastors and churches to do that. Get out into the streets with this message.”

What good advice, what a timely word for us, because we live in an era of “personal-pan pizzas” and concerns for privacy. Likewise, the things of faith are so often kept quietly locked inside of church buildings.

People back then, and still today, do not all come flocking to the doors of our sanctuaries. We need to intentionally go out to peoples’ homes. Bishop May’s words need to be in all of our hearts, as we continue the ministry God has set before us.

As I met with the new ordination class for a time of reflection and prayer recently, we reviewed the Historic Questions of John Wesley that are asked of every person seeking full membership and ordination. Among them is this question: “Will you visit from house to house?”

The centuries between John Wesley’s time and ours perhaps make us pause about the practicality of this mandate. People are not always welcoming of visitors in their homes. Some people are often not even at home much of the time. And some pastors are not comfortable visiting peoples’ homes for a variety of reasons.



In his book Have you Faith in Christ? A Bishop’s insight into the Historic Questions asked of those seeking admission into full connection in the United Methodist Church, Bishop Ernest Lyght reminds us that “it is still appropriate for pastors to visit from house to house in today’s culture, with all of its limitations. There is no substitute for personal contact with one’s parishioners. However, one must understand local culture and govern oneself accordingly.” He gives this further advice:

“Visit from house to house in all the places where this is acceptable to your parishioners. Use the telephone to call people and let them know that you are thinking of them. Invite small groups to come to the parsonage for dessert and conversation.


“Have a breakfast meeting with a small group of people. Visit people at their work site by appointment. Go to the places where people gather in your community (post office, general store, volunteer firehouse, and so on). God to places where young people gather (sporting events, school plays, concerts). Make contact with the small groups that are a part of the church’s program. Participate in town meetings and community events. Cautiously use social media as a means of communication with people. Get involved personally in an ongoing community project. Join a civic club, or participate as a volunteer in a community organization.” (p. 61)

I urge you, along with the wisdom of Bishops May and Lyght, to “visit from house to house.” Clergy as well as our lay leadership will further the cause of Christ as we do. We never know whom we might visit that might later become a great leader in our churches and communities.


*NOTE:  Bishop Felton Edwin May passed away Feb. 27. A Memorial Service for him will be held on Saturday, April 1, at 11 AM, at Asbury United Methodist Church, 926 11th Street, NW, Washington, DC. The Washington Area Episcopal Office has secured rooms at a nearby hotel. For information contact Joyce King at bishopeasterlingoffice@bwcumc.org.

Read UM News Service’s obituary: Bishop May, ʽholy boldness advocate, dies at 81. Read our coverage of Bishop May’s passing

Monday, March 27, 2017

‘United Nations of the World’—Doing God’s work and ours

I am a Baby-Boomer, born of parents who experienced World War II. My father was a tail gunner in the Air Force on the island of Guam.  After the war, in 1948, the nations of the world decided to start the United Nations for the purpose of working for diplomacy that would prevent more world wars in the future. 

In elementary school I learned about this wondrous building in New York City, and I remember clearly the music teacher bringing her piano on wheels into our classroom and teaching us this song:

“United Nations of the World, United Nations flags unfurled.
When there is trouble brewing, don’t run for cover, Let nations get together and just talk it over!”

While in high school, in 1968, I went on an annual conference youth bus trip to New York City to visit the UN Building. Again, I was struck by the enormity of the task.  We learned about apartheid on that trip, and I wondered greatly about this process of diplomacy versus war.  It would be a long time from 1968 until the end of apartheid in South Africa, but it happened.

Last week I attended the Spring meeting of the General Board of Church and Society.  I serve on this board along with five other bishops and many lay and clergy from around our connection.  The Rev. Megan Shitama Weston, of the Peninsula Delaware Conference, is one of the clergy from our episcopal area serving on this board with me. 

So much has changed since 1948 and 1968. But the theme is still the same. Talk things over. Come together around common goals for the planet. Have respect for all people.  This is none other than God’s work!

In 2015 the United Nations established the “Seventeen Sustainable Development Goals to Transform Our World by 2030.”  They are as follows:
  1. No poverty
  2. Zero hunger
  3. Good health and wellbeing
  4. Quality education
  5. Gender equality
  6. Clean water and sanitation
  7. Affordable and clean energy
  8. Decent work and economic growth
  9. ndustry, innovation and infrastructure
  10. Reduced inequalities
  11. Sustainable cities and communities
  12. Responsible consumption and production
  13. Climate action
  14. Life below water
  15. Life on Land
  16. Peace, justice and strong institutions
  17. Partnerships for the goals
Many in The United Methodist Church and the Church universal believe and work toward these goals. There is something that each one of us can personally do.  We can engage in diplomacy in our local settings to promote equality and peace. We can share our means to help eradicate hunger and inequalities.  We can advocate and vote for laws that protect our environment and promote health care for all. 

The leaders of the General Board of Church and Society are asking us to ask our U.S. Ambassador to the UN, a United Methodist herself, to promote these development goals.  Please write to her at:

H.E. Nikki R. Haley

Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary

Permanent Representative

U.S. Mission to the United Nations
799 United Nations Plaza
New York, NY  10017

In this way, your voice can be heard to promote peace in this world.  It is the responsibility of all of us.

The ending of the song that I learned in elementary school goes like this:
“UN, we know that you’ll build peace and understanding. 
We know the toughness of the job that we’re demanding. 
So let all our flags be every unfurled!
The United Nations of the World.” 

This is the world that God made and loves and wants to redeem. It is slow work.  It is our work.

Photo by Levi Bautista, GBCS.
Read more and see photos about the General Board of Church and Society’s recent visit to the UN in the UM News Service story, “Active legacy: United Methodists at the UN.” Learn about the Church Center for the United Nations, the United Methodist-owned building where the board’s directors met and where ideas are crafted and taken to the UN conference rooms and assembly halls across the street.

The Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, top executive of Church and Society, recalled her first visit to the United Nations in 1967 as a 16-year-old. “Seeing King Hussein of Jordan walk into the U.N. immediately following the Six-Day War (in the Middle East) changed my world view,” she said during a report to directors. “The church gave to me the vision of what a global Christian and citizen might look like.”

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Persevering Prayer

Jesus told a parable about a man who was in need of bread to serve some unexpected guests. The man went to the home of a neighbor and continually knocked on the door until the tired, reluctant neighbor got up and gave him the bread he needed. Jesus concludes the parable by saying, “Ask and it shall be given to you, seek, and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you.” (Luke 11:9).

Does this mean that if we ask enough times we will get the answer we want?  Does this mean that God is a sleepy, reluctant neighbor who will not respond to our needs until we nag him to the point of annoyance?  Or does this mean that everything we ask for will be granted sooner or later, like a celestial mail-order house?

The answer to all of these questions is “No.”  God loves us too much to allow our prayers to be answered in any way but the best way. It is difficult to watch a tragedy and question why God does not intervene. But the meaning of prayer has more to do with the “sifting of wheat” in our souls during the process of prayer than merely “getting” the answer we seek.

It takes time to pray. Prayer is slow work, as is the molding and shaping of our wills to God’s will. It takes time to pray; and as we do, our prayers can come into alignment with God’s will so that we are praying in the Spirit of God, rather than our own human desires. It means that soulful prayer—like many human conversations—needs to be a lot more listening and a lot less talking.

I often find myself on conference calls using a toll-free number to connect various callers onto one conversation. One of the rules of conference calls is to use the “mute” button when you are not talking so your background noise does not interfere with the conversation. When the “mute” button is pressed your voice cannot be heard but you can listen.

As we pray we need to put the “mute” button on and listen to what God is saying about the things we are praying about. God’s perfect will sometimes is for us to wait; and sometimes it is a different goal or plan altogether. Sometimes the answer is “no.”

In the act of persevering prayer we do hear back from God. As we do, we can often find that our disappointment is actually an appointment to a better plan given to us by the loving hand of God. We can trust that God cares enough to give us the very best answer, often one more blessed than we could have imagined.