#rendtheheavens Day 27

Day 27: HELL

Galatians 3:13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”—

I skipped a couple of writing days while I was in Roanoke celebrating with my family this week, and now it is the evening of Christmas Day, the end of all that Advent waiting, the celebration of God’s reign on earth in the form of a tiny little baby boy, and I have to write about hell and hangings.

I don’t know a lot about hell, and I don’t know a lot about hangings.

The first is because hell is a slippery, pseudo-biblical concept that no one living has actually experienced.

The second is because the history I was taught over the course of many (many) years of formal schooling conveniently left out most of the hangings that white Christians orchestrated, attended, adulated and encouraged in American history.

From 1880 to 1940, white American Christians lynched nearly 5,000 black Americans.

And they didn’t do it under cover of night, either. They were not ashamed of what they were doing and, like James Cone says in his book “The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” they apparently made zero connection between lynching their neighbors and the lynching of their Lord and Savior, Jesus.

Cone says:

71tl6zhn0zlUnfortunately, during the course of 2,000 years of Christian history, this symbol of salvation has been detached from any reference to the ongoing suffering and oppression of human beings—those whom Ignacio Ellacuría, the Salvadoran martyr, called “the crucified peoples of history.” The cross has been transformed into a harmless, non-offensive ornament that Christians wear around their necks. Rather than reminding us of the “cost of discipleship,” it has become a form of “cheap grace,” an easy way to salvation that doesn’t force us to confront the power of Christ’s message and mission. Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with a “recrucified” black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.

I am astounded at the ways we lie to ourselves about the righteousness of our own behavior. Parties! People held lynching parties! And this history – the one I am learning, finally, now, the one that I resisted for so many years, the honest and painful one – makes me wonder how many ways white America is lying to ourselves still, today. How many ways am I lying to myself about the righteousness of my own behavior, right now?

God of truth and repentance, open my eyes to the ways I deceive myself, the lies I ignore, the false history I buy into in order to avoid confession. Wash me, so that I might be clean. Purify me, so that I might have the courage to confront the power of Christ’s message and mission.

#rendtheheavens Day 26

Day 26: ROLL(OUT)

Revelation 22:18-19  I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; 19 if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

Everybody’s bidding good riddance to 2016, ready to roll on out and into a fresh, clean new year.

But things don’t look too promising for 2017, either.

Unless, of course, we really are hoping for an apocalypse.

Apocalypse means ‘uncovering.’ It’s not necessarily about explosive destruction, but rather about a revealing of the true realities underneath the supposed powers of the world.

I think that’s happening, and I think it’s painful and necessary.

Hope isn’t optimism, and it isn’t certainty. It is, like Rebecca Solnit says, admitting that we do not know the future. Confessing that we don’t know. Saying out loud that all our assumptions were wrong. Owning up to all the ways that we have been wrong, that we have been overconfident, that we have relied on our own power and safety and comfort instead of cultivating curiosity, humility, and openness.

I once got criticized for using the phrase “I don’t know” as a refrain in a sermon. I was a new preacher, and I probably didn’t wield the phrase very skillfully. But, years later, I am still committed to being that kind of honest in my preaching and in my life. I don’t know when the world ends, I don’t know how, I don’t know why. I don’t know what powers spin what consequences, or why god makes it to rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. I don’t know a lot. Sometimes that opens me up to a shit-ton of mansplaining after I confess it, and sometimes it opens the door for someone else to say “Thank God. I was so tired of having to pretend I knew when I didn’t.”

Jesus himself said that he didn’t know when the world would end, and that we really shouldn’t waste our time thinking about it.

Here’s where I think I’ll anchor my hope, these days: Hope in the things I do not know. Hope in the mystery. Hope in the irrational, illogical, inbreaking of something else. Hope in tucked away corners, like mangers and forgotten towns. Hope in totally unforeseen angles on old, old problems. Hope in reversals, restorations and resurrections. Hope in ways made where there was no way. Hope in a God who would choose to relinquish even the privilege of being DIVINE to be with us.

#rendtheheavens Day 25

Day 25: SCANDAL

Matthew 1:16-17 …and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah. So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.

Matthew’s genealogy is one of the best parts of the bible.

No, seriously.

I read a feminist argument recently, about the ways that in patrilineal societies, women get left out of genealogies. As if any of those begats would have been possible without women’s ovaries, wombs, cervixes, labor. The author alluded to biblical genealogies as a cardinal example of these patriarchal lists.

While it’s true that the begats do lend themselves to female erasure, Matthew is not falling for that old trick.

Matthew includes four women in the genealogy of Jesus.

Of course, there are dozens and dozens more who do get left out, erased from the collective memory, cut clean out of the narrative. But the genealogy of Jesus is not exactly as misogynistic as some might have us believe.

And these four women: hoo boy.

  1. Tamar: after her father-in-law refused to provide protection for her after two of her husbands died, she pretended to be a prostitute, intercepted her father-in-law on the road, got pregnant by him, and forced him into providing her protection as the mother of his heirs.
  2. Rahab: an actual prostitute who lent shelter and secrecy to Israelite spies who were plotting to take over the city of Jericho, winning herself and her family lasting protection once they gained control of the city.
  3. Ruth: wily widow who decided to stick with her widowed mother-in-law instead of returning to her own home and family, tricked a distant cousin into having sex with her and, again, offering inheritance, standing and protection for both her and her chosen family.
  4. Mary: unmarried, teenage pregnant woman, whose lineage and importance were negligible, but who was nonetheless chosen by God to bear God’s incarnation of God’s self.

Talk about scandal.

The “wife of Uriah,” i.e., Bathsheba, also gets a side-eye mention in the genealogy. She’s not mentioned by name, just as the ‘other man’s wife.’ King David saw Bathsheba bathing, lusted after her, summoned her over, got her pregnant, and eventually killed her husband in order to avoid owning up to what he did. Bathsheba’s not a great story of female agency, but the fact that Matthew mentions her and the unconventional turn the lineage takes there at her pregnancy is worthwhile.

The women who get named as vital to the house and lineage that produced Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us, are women who were ignored, betrayed, shunned, widowed, in charge of their own sexuality, makers of unpopular decisions, aiders and abetters of spies and criminals, unwed mothers, boundary crossers, the stuff of scandal.

I’m intrigued that each of these women violated some sexual boundary or taboo, that each one took charge of her own body and her own space in such a way as to secure her own life and, in each case, the lives of others as well.

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by artist Tricia Robinson

Scandal.

I do not understand the church’s insistence on some myth of sexual purity. Where in the world did we get the idea that God wants us to all fall in line with the given sexual assumptions of our day? That’s not what Tamar did, it’s not what Rahab did, not what Ruth or Mary or, really, any of the other women mentioned in the New Testament did.

These women who refused patriarchal rules and regulations ended up making salvation possible.

These women who crossed sexual boundaries were direct ancestors of Jesus – you know, the one who hung out with lepers and eunuchs and women and tax collectors.

These women did not only what they had to do, but what they felt compelled to do – not by external cultural rules or assumptions, but by some divine inner leading, something much stronger and purer and more important than What the Dudes in Charge Told Them to Do.

And if they hadn’t – if they had not broken taboos, sexual mores, cultural expectations and assumed gender roles – well: no Jesus. No incarnation. No life of preaching, teaching, healing, exorcising and raising the dead. No resurrection. No Christ. No Christianity.

I am thinking, these days, about unforeseen consequences of our choices and our actions. I am wondering if any of those women knew how powerful their actions would be, down the line. I am wondering if some of the women in my life know how powerful their choices have been and are becoming. I am wondering what things I agonize over, lament, fight against and feel shame about might be the very places – vulnerable, unexpected and powerful places – where God is doing some incredible thing even while I fuss and wallow.

#rendtheheavens Day 24

Day 24: STATIC

1 Samuel 2:3

Talk no more so very proudly,

    let not arrogance come from your mouth;

for the Lord is a God of knowledge,

    and by him actions are weighed.

Christmas is really not the best holiday. It’s beautiful, yes, and full of family and friends and food and celebration…and expectation. Not all of us do so well with such jam-packed weeks and such heightened expectations of joy. I’d venture to say that maybe the majority of us don’t do so well with it. Nonetheless, December is what December is.

I am an introvert, and something of a homebody, and a 5 on the enneagram (one characteristic of 5s is that we have or assume we have limited stores of energy and have to choose carefully how and when to use it). Being with people, especially big groups of people, exhausts me. I don’t mean that I don’t like it, and I don’t mean that I don’t enjoy people. But after the third or fourth gathering in a row, I am literally weak in the knees, brain-scrambled with an abundance of interaction.

My left eye has been twitching for a solid week, now. It’s what happens when I get overloaded, overextended, overstimulated. It’s December, it happens.

When I get too full like this, all the external and internal channels start to sound like static. Pride, arrogance, posturing – my patience is short for it all, from others and from myself.

I know that I am in need of some silence, some stimulation-free time, a day without a to-do list and an evening without a gathering. I am arguing with myself about when and how to make it happen.

Know what the irony is of all this? I wrote a column about how to avoid it. Literally wrote a how-to on avoiding getting overwhelmed by holiday stress. Pride, arrogance, posturing…I could probably stand to take a bit of my own advice.

So, I’m going to put on some Over the Rhine and stare, unfocused, at my Christmas tree for a while. Maybe the static will resolve itself.

#rendtheheavens Day 23

Day 23: (UN)CONSTANT/(UN)FAITHFUL

Galatians 4:16 Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?

I lost a few Facebook friends this year – but then, who didn’t? My second cousin unfriended me after she insulted a friend in her comments and I called her out on it. A couple of former congregants unfriended or learned to ignore my posts after several heated exchanges about politics and racism. I didn’t get uninvited to Christmas dinner, like a few people I know, and no one assaulted me or fired me or took away my credentials, like some others. But I know my words have troubled some and angered several.

I am, for the most part, okay with that.

Life feels more honest and roomier, these days. I threw off a few constraints on my own speech – both personally and professionally – and others got removed for me. This Advent writing practice has felt, for the first time in a very long time, like me writing myself, in my own voice.

It’s pernicious, the way censors sneak into our own consciousness, the ways we voluntarily oppress and silence ourselves after so long of paying attention to the external boundaries and accepted rules of play. I know that I inhaled, digested and breathed back out some nasty, oppressive, silencing bullshit from former contexts in which I desperately wanted to succeed and for which I was eager and willing to cut myself short.

I’ve just finished (4 more books to go on the 2016 reading goal!) Rebecca Solnit’s essay collection, ‘Men Explain Things to Me,’ about all the ways that women are silenced – casually and violently – in our present-day American capitalist culture. If you don’t know what mansplaining is, read the title essay. Be dumbfounded.

And yet, here I am, a woman given not only permission and privilege but a literal pulpit, a flesh and blood congregation. I preach. I am a preacher. I still get silenced, on the regular. But my day job involves speaking up and speaking out.

13532977_10154837198604918_146601177882045818_nI am sometimes unconvinced about the power of words, even though it has been words that so often changed my life. I struggle to appreciate the power of naming, calling out, reframing, suggesting, wondering, broadening, rebutting, truth-telling.

It’s a thing I do literally every week: this group of committed and faithful people allows me – pays me, even – to spend time thinking and reading and praying and listening for some good word and then writing, editing, speaking and preaching it. From a pulpit. And: wonder of wonders – they listen. They respond. They send me thoughtful emails mid-week about how they are still wondering with me.

It is a huge privilege, to do this for my life’s work. And it is a huge responsibility. It requires – as I see it – a commitment to honesty, and a commitment to rooting out all those oppressive, silencing constraints.

I am lucky, and blessed, and bewildered that this group of committed, faithful people seem to be okay with that part of the deal, seem to be okay with what one brother named this week as ‘the audacity to question.’ It has not always been my experience of preaching, this valuing of questions, truth-telling, wondering, breaking open…this valuing of honesty.

Who knows. Maybe these beloved sisters and brothers will be the ones unfriending me in several years’ time. Maybe that’s how truth-telling works. But maybe…maybe not. Maybe there is a place for honesty, even in this day and time, even in the church.

#rendtheheavens Day 22

Day 22: SWEET JESUS

Matthew 1: 18-25

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
    and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

A sermon:

 

Usually, the fourth Sunday in Advent focuses on Mary – the mother of Jesus, the unwed teenage mother who consents to bearing God’s own son and sings this incredible song of revolt and upside down transformation of power while she does it.

This is almost always the lectionary pattern. Fourth Sunday of Advent: MARY. It’s not just the lectionary, either. Think of all the hymns and songs and prayers and practices that celebrate Mary – who she was, what she did, the way she responded, how she literally labored to bring about the new Kingdom of God, how she spent her life watching her own son grow into such a strange and unique man.

It’s so ingrained in me to celebrate Mary on this fourth Sunday of Advent that our worship team even chose hymns and music to match that scripture. We were going to have this great prelude today – an a capella version of Mary Did You Know, from Pentatonix.

(Side note: yes, Mary knew. An ANGEL came from heaven to tell her exactly all those things the song asks about. She was well-informed, probably more in the know than anyone else around.)

But.

This year, the lectionary doesn’t give us Mary. It doesn’t ask us to reflect on the ways we are called to be like her, consenting, rebellious, laboring and birthing new worlds with our own lives. The lectionary, this year, doesn’t ask us to question whether or not Mary knew what she was doing, it doesn’t give us her beautiful song about the Lord lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things while scattering the proud, throwing down the mighty from their seats of power and sending the rich away, empty and unsatisfied.

And man: was I disappointed when I realized that I didn’t get to preach on Mary and the Magnificat this year. I love the Magnificat. I love that Mary was who she was. I love that Jesus’ birth is announced by an angel who comes to the least likely place in Nazareth, and announces to the least likely person that she – a teenage woman with no social standing or political power, not even a husband or a house of her own – announces that SHE will be the theotokos – god-bearer. And in response, Mary picks up on this beautiful reversal of power and privilege, picks up on the ways God upturns every human expectation, and sings a gorgeous song of revolt, a song of transformation of the very world order.

I would have loved to have preach on all that today. (Notice, how I got some of it in, even while I am telling you that I don’t get to preach it?)

 

But the lectionary, this year, in 2016, does not ask us to reflect on the place and person of Mary.

Instead, this year, we get the story of Joseph.

Huh.

Joseph doesn’t show up at all in the Gospel of Mark, the book that was the first story of Jesus’ life to get written down. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke rely on Mark’s story to shape their own, as well as some other shared source, and Joseph is in both of these versions.

And, if you think about it, Joseph’s presence could be sort of ancillary to the story of Mary getting pregnant by the Holy Spirit and birthing the Son of God. Joseph, as non-biological father, could be extraneous to this cosmic incarnation that the gospel writers are trying to tell.

Some scholars say that Joseph got added to the story to answer the lingering questions about whether or not the Messiah had really descended from the lineage of King David – Joseph was in that line. Some scholars say that Joseph’s presence is important because he provided much needed security for Mary, an unwed pregnant teenager.

I am unconvinced by these arguments. Yes, Jesus’ lineage was an important marker of his Messiah-dom for those first followers. And yes, it would have been true that Mary would have been particularly vulnerable in her pregnancy. But given the ways that God is working in this story, choosing an unlikely person in an unlikely place, choosing vulnerability and creating new worlds out of it, I am unconvinced that Joseph’s presence was necessary for either patronage or protection. If God can bring a Messiah into the world through a vulnerable woman in a totally out-of-the-way place, then God could have handled those questions in other ways.

So: what’s the deal with Joseph?

As much as I love Mary, I do not exactly identify with her. I have a couple of friends who have spent an Advent season or two being pregnant with their children. They tell me that this synchronicity – growing a person in their own body while following the journey of Mary, who was growing a god-person in her own body – was incredibly meaningful for them. They tell me that the experience changed both the way they understood Jesus and the way they understood themselves.

I find that deeply meaningful and deeply beautiful. I rejoice with my friends who found that new perspective and deepened faith.

But I myself have never had occasion to identify with the God-bearer, seeing as how I have never had the occasion to be a mere human-bearer.

That’s not exactly the way identification works, I know. Finding that we relate to a biblical character or story is not a one-to-one correlation. The Spirit works in us in mysterious ways, connecting us to God’s story and God’s presence in unexpected and interesting ways.

Still, I know that the overwhelming focus on Mary as Jesus’ parent isn’t relatable to many of us. Not all of us have been or can be pregnant. Not all of us are chosen as unlikely bearers of God’s birth in such a visceral way. Not all of us can or will sing incredible songs of revolution and transformation that get passed down generation to generation.

So: What’s the deal with Joseph?

Maybe Joseph is here for many purposes. Maybe one of those purposes is to serve as a model for participating in God’s new reign, God’s birth into the world, God’s transforming power of salvation and incarnation – participating even when we are not the so-called ‘chosen’ one, even when we don’t get fancy Greek titles like theotokos, even when the kid is so clearly not ours, even when we could easily choose otherwise.

Maybe Joseph offers a model for those of us who feel a bit distanced from God at work in the world, a bit distanced from the hungry and the poor and the disenfranchised that God promises to fill and lift up and make first in line, a bit farther removed from the action of God’s transformation in real time.

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Because Joseph could have so easily said “no.” In fact, that’s what he was planning to do. He and Mary were betrothed, but when he found out that she was pregnant – and that it clearly wasn’t his kid – he planned to get a quiet divorce. He wasn’t going to make a big scene, he wasn’t going to hang Mary out to dry, exactly, but he was going to quietly walk away and resume his own life, away from this particular drama.

How often are we – the ones who might feel a bit removed from the action of justice and transformation – tempted to walk quietly away and resume our own lives, far away from the drama of world-shaking, power-shifting, kingdom-inbreaking presence of God?

How often? I confess to walking away every single day.

//

 

A few months ago, I went to hear Rev. William Barber speak. Rev. Barber is the head of the NC NAACP and the architect of Moral Mondays here in North Carolina. If you haven’t heard him preach, you should. I knew that he was a powerful preacher and a force for justice here in North Carolina, but I had also felt stuck on the outside of his movement, as a white person newly arrived in the state. I’m not a part of the black church tradition that formed Rev. Barber, I’m not really the target demographic for the NAACP, and even though I am attracted and intrigued by the ways he is witnessing across the nation, I still felt like an onlooker, an outsider, a hanger-on.

But here’s what happened when I heard Rev. Barber speak: he told the story of being invited, several years ago, to preach out in Western North Carolina. You might have read about Rev. Barber being threatened and arrested in various contexts – notably kicked off an American Airlines flight or arrested in front of the state capital. But this story that he told was about traveling into a tucked-away mountain county where he knew the Ku Klux Klan to be active, and where he was quite literally scared for his life. His church sent extra people with him, and the group that invited him took extra security measures.

I cannot imagine doing life like that.

When Rev. Barber got up to speak out in western NC, he said that the crowd was mostly white. He preached – his message about justice and fusion coalitions, connecting people across lines of race and politics to push a moral agenda on those in power. After he spoke, he said, this group of what he called ‘old white mountain ladies’ got so excited that they begged Rev. Barber to start their own chapter of the NAACP.

No kidding.

Rev. Barber’s message of cooperation and justice, mercy for the least of these and accountability for the powerful was so convicting that these white mountain ladies wanted to join the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

That story convicted me, not because I want to join the NAACP, exactly, but because I am from a long line of old white mountain women. I have heard story after story of my great-grandmothers riding up and down the Appalachian hollers, delivering babies and caring for their coal-mining husbands. Rev. Barber laughed a hearty laugh when he told this story, but when I heard it, some door opened in my heart. Maybe, I thought, just maybe there is a place for me in this movement, too. Maybe I can work together with all kinds of different people to make a new world possible, too.

I think that heart-opening feeling must have been how Joseph felt when the angel came in a dream and said “Hey, Joseph! I know what you’re planning – to quietly slip away from the action and go back to your own quiet life. But DO NOT BE AFRAID! Yes, this baby is not your biological child. Yes, you have been a bit distanced from the action. Yes, Mary is the one carrying the child. But there’s a place for you here, too. You have a job! You have an important role in this drama. YOU get to name this child – Emmanuel, God-with-us, Jesus the Christ. Don’t slink away, just yet. There’s a place for you in the new kingdom, even if it feels like you’re supposed to steer clear. Stick with us. It sounds insane, I know, but just give it a chance.”

Maybe a door opened in Joseph’s heard during that dream. Maybe he heard the invitation, like I did, to take his place in the movement of God at work in the world.

What insane invitations are God’s angels whispering to you? To adopt a baby that is not yours? To join an organization that seems to be meant for exactly the opposite of who you are? To endure ridicule and get ostracized for following some absurd intuition? How is God asking you to stick around? Where is God asking you to lean in, instead of sneaking out? What is it that you are afraid of?

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Because God’s word to Joseph is God’s word to us: Do not be afraid.

There is a place for you in this coming kingdom of justice and mercy.

Even if it seems insane, even if it makes no sense, even if no one else around you will understand: stick around. Draw nearer.

Do not be afraid. The Lord is here, with us, and things are about to get messy.

 

#rendtheheavens Day 21

Day 21: TUMULT

John 3:36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.

My mom got ordained this year.

She finished seminary, worked as a hospice chaplain, and on Valentine’s Day, she was ordained to preach the gospel in the Church of the Brethren.

One of the hymns she chose for the service was this one: Jesus Calls Us O’er the Tumult.

The hymn is a summons, an invitation to listen for Jesus’ call to make a life of faithful discipleship our ultimate concern, more important than wealth, busyness, employment, home, family. It mentions the apostle Andrew, who was called to follow Jesus from the beach, where he’d been a fisherman. He left his boat, his net, his livelihood, his family, his home…and followed.

I hate the immediacy of the gospels. I hate that Andrew meets Jesus one day and immediately drops his entire life to follow him. Today’s lectionary text was about Joseph hearing from an angel in a dream, waking up and totally abandoning his entire hard-won, agonizingly discerned life plan. I hate the way plot gets hurried along in scripture, carved down into bite-sized storylines.

Surely – surely! – Andrew and Joseph and Mary and all those other biblical characters who heard a call from God did some soul-searching before they said YES, right? It’s a lot to give up, to choose to follow Jesus wherever he asks, even away from the things we love most deeply.

I know part of that is my particular personality – I am slow to decide and have a bone-deep need to carefully consider all the facts and potential outcomes before committing.

But I think this weight of the reality of a life of discipleship is exactly why my tradition doesn’t baptize babies. We expect people to count the cost of a life lived in pursuit of Jesus. We expect people to be made aware of the heavy decisions that following Christ may require of them. We expect people to commit of their own free will and volition.

A bunch of our ancestors got oppressed, imprisoned and killed for their faith commitments, so the insistence on deliberate decision making is not a pro pro of nothing.

Still, what convinces me over and over that choosing faith and discipleship is worthwhile is the promise of greater life, greater joy, a fullness more than, as Paul says, we can ask or imagine. If I love these this much and they love me, what greater love could be still possible, yet?