Start with the Sand

Monday, The First Week of Advent

gobi-desert-sand

Is peace among nations possible? Given both the current state of this nation and the record of world history the probability seems bleak. Yet, every year, all around the world on the first weekday of the Advent season, Christians hear Isaiah’s prophecy of nations coming together in peace. And what does the prophet say will bring about this peace? It is the end of war.

Those who learn the ways of the Lord, Isaiah tells us, have no cause to “raise the sword against another” and those who seek to walk in the Lord’s path don’t need to “train for war again.” The prophet’s poetic imagery even suggests a post-war industry that would conserve resources and nourish its inhabitants:  the weapons of war and death will be transformed into agrarian tools such as plows and pruning hooks. [IS 2:1-5]

In his vision for the future of  Judah and Jerusalem, the prophet proclaimed that all nations will “stream towards” the Lord’s mountain; men and women would say to one another: “Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.” [IS 2:3]

Can we imagine our world with its myriad cultures, political systems, economies, religions, and dangerous and hawkish leaders encouraging one another with sincerity to learn the Lord’s ways, and walk in the Lord’s paths? Can we envision the end of war and a society focused on feeding one another? Isaiah could. Jesus could.

Truth be told, there’s a miserable pessimist living rent-free in my brain and it’s crowding out my inner optimist. How can peace be possible if we can’t even accept the basic rights of others, much less talk to them without resorting to ad-hominem insults or “unfriending” them? I am guilty!

When it comes to matters of faith (after all, this is a blog about discipleship) it must be understood that the Lord’s generous and loving ways are universal, and the Lord’s path is abundant and open to all who seek to walk it. God is for everyone. No one faith tradition possesses God, and that is a fact that too many religious leaders, groups and individuals willfully distort for their own ends.

Speaking of universality and all nations, Jesus’ universal mission is hard to mistake in Matthew’s gospel for the first weekday of Advent. The Roman centurion, an outsider, recognized Jesus’ authority which led him to approach Jesus about his paralyzed and suffering servant. To reiterate, the centurion was an outsider; he was not one of Jesus’ followers, yet he saw what all the others failed to see. Jesus’ response to him reminds us of Isaiah’s vision of nations streaming to the mountain of the Lord: “Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I say to you, many will come from the east and the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the Kingdom of heaven.” [MT 8:5-11]

The nations that Isaiah envisioned streaming towards the mountain included men, women and children who belonged to the differing tribes of Israel. Each person turns to the other with encouragement as they climb the great mountain to learn the Lord’s ways and walk in the Lord’s paths. Today, we think of nations, cultures, and religions as solid units; we glom everyone together under a single heading and dismiss those with whom we disagree. I don’t know about you, but I for one, do not want to be pureed into any single group. I prefer salad.

I think this glomming of people is one of the errors underlying the question of why we can’t all just get along. We see groups rather than individual human beings. Birds of a feather may very well flock together, but that doesn’t make them one giant bird.

I am reminded of the well-known lesson first introduced by Steven R. Covey in 1989 in which he demonstrated the art of prioritization by fitting what appeared to be an impossible volume of sand, stones and rocks into a single bucket. He did so by attending to the rocks first and ending with the sand. The point of Covey’s “Big Rocks of Life” lesson is, of course, that all parts fit together when they are addressed in the order of importance. In the nearly three decades since its publication, Covey’s method continues to be popular among students and professionals interested in time management, rocks, stones, pebbles, and then if there’s any room left, the sand.

The problem is that it is the exact opposite of this model that is needed if we are ever to live peacefully.  “Rocks first” affects the way we treat one another. We see groups, not individuals; we see rocks, not sand. And because the sand is the lowest priority, it is neglected. This advent, lets put the rocks aside and start with the sand.

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For ideas on how to get to know the other over a meal, I present Elizabeth Lesser’s TED talk, “Take the Other to Lunch” https://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_lesser_take_the_other_to_lunch

Also related to mealtime, see journalist David Brooks moving article entitled “The Power of a Dinner Table” https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/18/opinion/the-power-of-a-dinner-table.html

If you live in Chicago, lucky you. Check out the Catholic Common Ground Initiative: http://www.ctu.lib.il.us/bernardin-center/catholic-common-ground-initiative

Maybe there is a Commonweal Local Community in your area, and if not, find out how you can start one. https://pages.commonwealmagazine.org/clc/

Readers of this blog with suggestions for how we can get to know one another better are invited to share their ideas in the comment area.

Probing Belief: Facing our Doubts

2nd Sunday of Easter (A, B, C)

I admire Thomas. I can relate to him. Thomas, also known as Didymus, the twin, was one of Jesus’ twelve apostles, but his designation as “the doubter” that has followed him throughout history is a trait that many of us share. At least, it is one that I share.

Most everything we know about Thomas comes from the gospel of John, He seems to be one of the more introverted apostles, he is a fact-gatherer and a deep thinker, and his coming to belief is an intentional process, one which he discovers happens best in community.

“Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.

So the other disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord.”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” [John 20:24-25]

Doesn’t it make sense Thomas would want to see Jesus with his own eyes? After all, (more…)

May we all be One

Feast of Christ the King (B)

Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” [John 18:37c] These are the words that Jesus spoke to Pontius Pilate at his trial, the night before his crucifixion. These are the words that conclude the Sunday readings for Year B on the Feast of Christ the King, which Christians celebrate this weekend.

Do we listen?

The truth is love. Love for God, and love for neighbor. Do unto others, and so forth.  Christians know this, but there are times when we struggle mightily to hear Jesus’ voice over the cacophony of our own.

These are pretty tough times for those who listen.

On Friday, November 13th ISIS suicide bombers attacked six densely populated locations in Paris, killing 126 people and injuring more than 300, leading French President Francois Hollande to declare war and commence bombing ISIS targets in Syria. This came one day after two suicide bombings, also the work of ISIS, killed 43 people and injured more than 230 in southern Beirut.

Both incidents were the continuation of a succession of unspeakable and violent attacks on civilians by the terrorist organization, ISIS, but the attack on Paris hit many Americans as if it had occurred on American soil.

Almost immediately an outpouring of heartfelt support blossomed on the internet. And, almost as quickly, social media sites were polluted with the hate-filled opinions, memes, and videos of armchair “experts” on ISIS, Islam, the Syrian refugee crisis, immigration, and Muslim American citizens.

By Monday, I was stunned into silence. The hateful rhetoric worsened with the added voices of “news” personalities and certain politicians. I had no words of my own to describe the depth of shame I felt. This growing pile of garbage—racism disguised as patriotism—exuded a stench that was shockingly similar to what it purported to reject. It did nothing if not to foment more fear and increase divisions between neighbors. If one of the goals of terrorism is to polarize its victims, we are effectively handing ISIS its success on a platter.

I write about Christian discipleship: what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. I write about the need to press on, to remain focused and hopeful and unafraid, even, and especially in times of extreme hardship. But this week I felt as if my senses were being crushed by the sight, sound and smell of the world’s flesh being torn and mutilated on social media sites.

My struggle to form a single, hope-filled thought in response to so much hate speech, ignorance and fear-driven rhetoric left me dry. I believe I belong to the truth as lived by Jesus, but I also know that before these truths can be heard, ears need to be able to hear. And it seems to me that everyone is currently cutting off their opponent’s ears.

After 9/11 I wrote to my grandmother, who was 86 at the time and who lived another ten years, and asked her, in light of all that she had seen and experienced since her birth in 1915, to tell me how people managed to remain hopeful through such difficult times. What did people do to keep their hearts filled so that fear could not overcome them? In response to my question, she wrote, “We pulled together and supported one another,  because we were all suffering the same. We helped our neighbors, and we stuck together. And those hard times passed.”

My grandmother’s words consoled and assured me that as dark as those days were, hope remained alive. What she told me was that despite having good cause to be frightened, her generation learned to cope not by pushing away from one another, but by drawing closer together.

Jesus prayed on the night before he died that all might be one [Jn 17:21]. Facing his own death, Jesus prayed for us. In a speech on Christian Unity, Cardinal Walter Kasper said, “When Jesus uttered the words “may they all be one”, they by no means represented a vision or a dream. Jesus said these words on the eve of his death. This was not the time for triumphal utopias. The Galilean spring, when the enthusiastic crowds overwhelmed him, was over. They no longer cried “Hosanna!” but ” Crucify him!” Jesus was well aware of this, and predicted also that his disciples would not be one, and that they would be dispersed. What else could he do in this situation than to leave the future of his work in the hands of his Father? Thus, the words “may they all be one” are a prayer, a prayer in a humanly perceived hopeless situation.”[1]

We live in frightening times; it is true. And it is all too easy to succumb to fear and circle our wagons to keep others out. Turning against one another out of fear creates lies and leads to hatred; it separates us, and empties our hearts of hope.

Instead, let us turn towards one another and fill our hearts with the truth. Listen for Jesus’ voice, and may we all be one.

Today’s readings can be found here.

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[1] Cardinal Walter Kasper, May They All Be One? But How? A Vision of Christian Unity for the Next Generation, Keynote speech given to the Conference of the Society for Ecumenical Studies, the St Albans Christian Study Centre and the Hertfordshire Newman Association at St Alban’s Abbey, Hertfordshire, England on May 17, 2003

When the end is the beginning

33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

I love this time of the year. Of course I mean autumn. Yes, the growing season’s grand finale rarely disappoints, especially here in the Northeastern part of the United States where the relatively subdued trees and shrubs of summer break out in a neon-jacked riot of color. Autumn represents the colossal success of nature—a job well done. As if to say, “There, you see? This is what I’ve been working on all year.”

Autumn is a time to reflect on what we’ve been working on all year, too. In the waning and waxing hours between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, it is good to pause and think deeply about our personal growth, both intellectual and spiritual. We can ponder our little epiphanies, our joys, our sorrows, our victories and our failures, and the endings and beginnings which represent all of the above. Autumn is also a time to look forward, to make plans for the coming winter, and to renew our annual vow that this year we will keep things simple and really enjoy Christmas.

There’s another reason I love this time of year. Ecclesially (churchy business) speaking, we are drawing to the end of current year’s liturgical calendar. My fellow liturgy nerds, can I have an Amen? This weekend is the second to the last week of Year B—the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time—and next Sunday we reach the pinnacle of Ordinary Time with the Feast of Christ the King.

I loved Year B, spending time in the desert with Mark’s gospel, reflecting on Jesus’ identity and mission, why he died, what his passion meant then and what it means for us today. But I also love the gospel of Luke, which we will read in Year C (beginning January 10, 2016). I am excited to delve into the gospel writer’s emphasis on the hope, inclusivity and liberation of all people as revealed through Jesus’ life and message.

Every liturgical year starts with Advent and Christmas. In two weeks we will experience the advent (pun intended) of Year C. This is a season of anticipation, of preparation and patient waiting, of readiness and expectation of the events which have been promised. Christians prepare their hearts not only to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but to anticipate his second coming, which is the subject of weekend’s gospel [Mk 13:24-32].

The season of Advent goes by quickly. And if you aren’t attentive, the four weeks dissolve into one another. Before you know it, it’s Christmas day, or more likely, it’s the day after Christmas, and you sit there in your messy home, deflated, exhausted, and wondering what the heck just happened. How did you allow the artificial chaos of the holiday season to interfere with your plans to celebrate a real Christmas?

Endings and beginnings—the turning of seasons, a new Gospel, and a promise to do things differently this Christmas—tie into this weekend’s gospel. Yet, unlike the second coming foretold by Jesus we know exactly when the liturgical year ends and when the celebration of Jesus’ birth will be.

Jesus says “Learn a lesson from the fig tree.” [Mk 13:28a]. Mark wants his community to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ forewarning of the Temple’s destruction [13:1-2], an idea that was incomprehensible to the disciples, given the Temple’s prominence. Mark wants his community to hear Jesus’ instruction to attend to the signs [13:8], and to be ready for the coming persecution because they themselves lived in a time of rising chaos. Mark encourages his readers to pay attention, to be steady, focused and fearless, and to attend to Jesus’ teaching because when the time comes—like the emerging buds on the fig tree—it will be too late for pruning and tending. To follow Jesus—to be a disciple—is a journey of service, of humility and sacrifice for the sake of others. Mark provides hope for his readers; he assures them that their sacrifice will lead to redemption, just like Jesus’ did.

Our lives provide never-ending opportunities to be people of hope, and to perfect the message of which our life speaks, as if to say, “There, you see? This is what I’ve been working on all year!” Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P. wrote, “At the end of the church year, therefore, as at the end of our life, our vision ought to be of new heavens and a new earth, of new bodies and souls as innocent and good as the Spirit of God who indwells.” [1] In the next few weeks we will be presented with an opportunity to recraft our vision for the coming year and begin again.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

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[1] Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P., Biblical Meditations for Ordinary Time-Weeks 23-34, Paulist Press, New York/Mahwah, NJ 1984. p 386

Give until it hurts?

32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

Think about the poor widow who gave all that she had to the Temple. Shouldn’t we, who have so much more, do the same?

Stop right there.

It is easy to interpret the story of the poor widow [MK 12:38-44] and her contribution of two small copper coins as either an example of piety and generosity, or an admonishment to those who can afford to give more. This traditional interpretation might have some merit in terms of financial stewardship, but was this Jesus’ message?

The story takes place in the Temple where Jesus had been teaching since he and his disciples entered Jerusalem. Among his listeners were several religious leaders who were intent on trapping Jesus. After lobbing responses to a series of questions related in one way or another to his teaching authority, Jesus points to the scribes, who were both trained in the law as well as theology. Jesus says, “Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets. They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers. They will receive a very severe condemnation.” [MK 12:38a-40]

In your face, scribes!

(Keep in mind, though, that Jesus does not condemn all religious leaders. For example, in the course of this Temple teaching Jesus praised another scribe’s articulation of the greatest commandment, saying “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” [MK 12:34])

Jesus then moves to another part of the Temple, opposite the treasury. The word “opposite” describes Jesus’ position within the Temple both literally and figuratively. The Temple treasury can be compared to today’s collection box, except instead of a slot for money, treasuries were topped with a kind of funnel, or trumpet, into which donors could toss their coins. The sound of coins reverberating off the sides of the trumpet made giving a very public act. Hefty donations made an especially loud racket, but the clinking of two copper coins entering the treasury would also have been unmistakable.

From his vantage point, Jesus could watch the wealthy dropping their contributions into the treasury. After witnessing a poor widow deposit just two coins, Jesus summons his disciples and makes an economic comparison. The widow’s contribution was the largest. She gave 100%, whereas the others gave from their surplus. “(t)his poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.” [MK 12:43b-44]

Jesus’ Kingdom economics begs us to answer the question, “What’s wrong with this picture?”

Jesus does not use the word good when he speaks of the widow’s contribution. He does not praise it. He merely states the facts. Nor does Jesus make the widow’s resulting impoverishment a value judgment on the contribution of the wealthy. Why? Because this is a story about institutional greed and injustice, it’s not about tithing.

In biblical times, women who were widowed did not inherit their husband’s wealth. And unless they were supported by their children or husband’s family many were left destitute. Jesus recognized something in the poor widow’s act of tossing her entire livelihood into the Temple treasury: an institution that allows its poorest members to impoverish themselves in order to support it is no different than the scribes who devour widows’ houses; the condemnation will be the same.

Would Jesus make the same comparison today? Isn’t some aspect of the scribe, at times, in the person we see in the mirror? Consider the pervasive nature of domestic and global economic systems that devour the weakest members of society. What can we, as good disciples do to correct it?

Today’s readings can be found here. 

In the end, we are the same

All Saints and All Souls Days (B)

I recently had a conversation with a new friend about how many facial features and physical characteristics are shared by people of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern descent. My friend, who is a first generation American of Palestinian heritage, told me that he is often presumed to be Italian. I’m half-Italian but look more like an everything bagel, or better yet, a pizza with all the toppings. Hard to tell.

The conversation with my Palestinian-American friend led me to mention my interest in National Geographic Magazine’s “Genographic Project”, which has the fascinating end goal of identifying the geographic origins of human life. I really want to participate in this study. In exchange for a smear of saliva and $199 to cover the cost of the kit, (so worth it!) I can, according to the website, identify the migration paths that my ancestors followed “hundreds—even thousands—of years ago” and determine more accurately if I actually am the chopped salad of Italian/Danish/German/French/English/Russian heritage that my previous genealogical research (see below) revealed. My new, wise friend said, “In the end, we are the same.” Yes. Yes, we are.

This Sunday, November 1, we honor in a special way every known and unknown Saint, and on Monday, November 2, we honor our deceased family members and friends. All Saints and All Souls. As baptized Christians we are called to be the former; as human beings we can’t avoid becoming the latter. In the end, we are the same. Last year for All Soul’s day I wrote about the discovery I made doing my family history. I have chosen to re-post it because it speaks to that human interconnection which my friend named.

A Soul’s Legacy (first published Nov 1, 2014 and worth re-reading Nov 1, 2015)

Early in my marriage, when my husband was in law school, I decided to trace my family history. Stories about stout-hearted immigrant ancestors who scraped together the fare for passage, and willingly left their families and everything they knew for what they hoped was a better life used to break my heart. But those stories also inspired me. These were sturdy and brave souls; braced for whatever awaited them on the distant shore. I felt compelled to know them better because I shared some of those traits.

c1848-ottocatherinekidsraus_cmyk

My great grandparents and their children. My grandfather is seated on the right.

At that time there were no online immigration records. Research involved letter writing, contacting distant relatives for copies of pictures, marriage licenses, birth certificates, and the hand written details inside the old family bible. It included working with translators who could communicate with village churches in the old country, and countless Saturdays spent in the New York Public Library combing through rolls of microfilm for census records, city directories, and vital records. It involved studying maps and taking road trips. It was a treasure hunt that led me to an amazing discovery.

My research began with my four grandparents, which turned into sixteen extended families. On and on it went. Through the process of collecting and weaving bits of data into family stories I actually developed a relationship with my ancestors. I felt I knew them somehow, and I did.

Incredibly, I was able to piece together vignettes of life through historical records: addresses and occupations, the age and number of children, whether they rented or owned, if they lived in a flat, over a store, with other relatives or took in boarders, and whether they had received their sacraments. All of these things plus what was happening locally and globally helped me “know” them.

For most, life was difficult. Many were poor. I located news clippings and obituaries for children hit by a streetcar, or runaway horse, or who succumbed to an illness that is no longer a threat. I learned about their neighbors and what part of town they lived in, and if they were active members of their church or community.

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My great-aunt on her Confirmation day.

In addition to facts, my research generated questions that had no answers, like how they spent their day, if they did acts of charity, who were the silent saints among them, and who might have been affected by a simple kindness, or a friendship between neighbors that changed a life for the better.

I discovered a profound level of human connection that revealed our divine union with God. I realized what I was doing was in fact honoring the lives of those who had passed, and ultimately honoring God, of whose great plan they were a part. Were it not for this divine union we would not exist. I honor them with my prayers in a special way on All Souls Day.

The legacy we leave begins with living in right relationship; it dwells deeply in the life of every single person with whom we share a moment, a kindness, or a generous act, as well as in the things we do to ensure a future for those souls who are with us and those yet to be born.

Happy All Saints and All Souls Day.

I want to see

30th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

Last Saturday, my husband and I attended the vigil mass at our new parish church. We were running late, but my initial worries about making an entrance during the procession (or worse while the mass was in progress) were relieved when I saw the celebrant, cross-bearer and ministers still standing in the narthex waiting to process in. We slid unnoticed into a pew.

At that moment we realized something was wrong.

A man called out loudly from the side aisle; his garbled words echoed against the marble.

All the assembled, standing for the start of the mass, turned in their pews to see what was happening and then turned quietly back, heads lowered. They remained standing, some looking at their hands, or nervously leafing through the bulletin, or exchanging glances with one another. Some, unable to ignore the commotion turned toward the small crowd of people surrounding and attending to the man.

I asked a woman in the pew behind us if she knew what was happening. She shrugged and said, “A man is shouting.” As a newcomer to this urban parish who is not used to this much pre-mass excitement, I wondered if the woman’s casual response meant this was a common occurrence in this faith community.

The man’s incoherent ramblings continued. I prayed for him and for the priest and pastoral staff who quietly spoke with him.

A few years ago we attended an early morning Easter Sunday mass in a Jesuit parish located in the Flatiron District of New York City. This glorious sacred space was packed with worshippers. Somehow my husband and I managed to squeeze into a front pew where I observed a woman wrapped in a blanket blissfully asleep on the floor in front of us. She awoke during the opening rite and participated from her place on the floor. I noticed she was wearing a pink sweater and had a bow in her hair for Easter. When the time came for the sign of peace, one, two, three, then a steady stream of people, including the presider, came to greet and shake the hand of this woman, who clearly was a known and loved member of their community.

Both of these examples remind me of this weekend’s gospel, the story of Bartimaeus, the blind man who sits by the road leading out of Jericho, begging Jesus to have mercy on him. [MK 10:46-52]. Bartimaeus’ loud and persistent attempts to gain Jesus’ attention disrupts the crowd so much so that “many rebuked him, telling him to be silent.” [Mark 10:48]. But notice, when Jesus asks Bartimaeus “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus begs not for food or money; he says, “I want to see.” [MK 10:51]

For the past seven weeks (the 24th through 30th Sundays in Ordinary Time), the Sunday Gospel readings have drawn us into Jesus’ teaching journey with his apostles and the larger group of disciples following him to Jerusalem. Along the way, Jesus attempts to help his followers to see—to guide their comprehension of his identity—and to reveal the conditions of discipleship.

One of the many things I love about studying Mark’s gospel is noticing who “gets” Jesus. It is a testament to the subtle brilliance of the writer that he positions two miracles of restored sight at either end of Jesus’ teaching journey. In both cases, two blind non-followers receive the sight that the disciples have yet to gain. In the first, a nameless blind man is brought to Jesus by others for healing. Jesus restores the man’s sight, but not immediately; the man’s comprehension requires time and coaxing from Jesus. [MK 8:22-26]. The second case is different. Here the blind man has a name, Bartimaeus, and his faith and desire to know Jesus gives him particular insight into Jesus’ identity. Immediately upon receiving his sight Bartimaeus becomes a follower of Jesus. [MK 10:52].

I like to think, with my longing to understand who Jesus is and how I can be a good disciple, I am more like Bartimaeus than the unnamed man from Bethsaida, but that would be untrue. I’m like both of them: a little confused but enthusiastic; and I’m like the disciples on the journey: dense but promising. I think that is what Mark is trying to tell his readers. There is hope for us.

Turns out the man who disrupted the procession at my local parish last weekend was known to the community, just like the woman who had been sleeping on the floor of the Jesuit church was known to the members of her congregation. In both instances, I received new sight. The compassionate response of my pastor and fellow parishioners attending to the disturbed man’s comfort, much like the beautiful witness of an Easter people showering love on a woman our culture pretends not to see healed my blindness and allowed me to ‘get’ Jesus in a way I had not expected to.

How badly do we want to see? Persistence like that of Bartimaeus is the plow that clears the way between seeing who walks alongside us, or remaining in the dark. As for myself, I have moments of spiritual clarity and moments of blurred vision. But I know the Christian life is a journey of coming to see. There is hope for me.

Today’s readings can be found here.