Becoming

Acts 9: 26-31; John 15: 1-8

If you know anything about Paul’s conversion story from Acts, of which we catch the tail end today, it’s that he was the number one threat to the followers of the Way, which was the name used before Christian.  He was enemy number one and a threat to their way of life.  Not only that, but just prior to his conversion he was responsible for the death of one of the most beloved of the Way, Stephen, who was stoned to death and then on Paul’s travels has this radical transformation.

It should be no surprise then when he shows up in Jerusalem today they’re very skeptical and fearful of him.  He still looks like the Paul who was responsible for the death of many followers and early disciples and now wants to be one of the group after believed to have gone through this conversion experience.  Just think if we were in that situation, knowing all that Paul was capable of, we too would be fearful and skeptical.  He could have been trying to infiltrate the group in order to blow them up from within or to dismantle them at his own doing.  It will be, though, only as they lock arms with one another, walking through the streets of Jerusalem, will there finally be a public affirmation for who Paul had become as fellow follower and disciple.

Ironically, for the man who had become blind through this experience of radical transformation, Paul’s blindness in turn reveals the blindness of the followers of the Way and their own fearfulness and judgment.  This experience of Paul is not a one-time deal, but a call that the disciples will have to continually embrace, this call to conversion and radical transformation.  In some sense, Paul stands as the change of tide for this community for he was not an original and did not have the first-hand account of Jesus as people like Peter did and so it often created conflict as to how they understood the faith.  One thing, though, that linked them, despite their differences, was when there were difficulties, the community would pull them and draw them back into their source of life, to remain, abide, to stay with the Lord, as Jesus reminds us in today’s Gospel.

This is not to say that they all lived happily ever after.  It is well known that Paul was somewhat of a hellion!  Again, his lived experience was very different from the original disciples and so there were often misunderstandings within the community.  It makes you wonder that when we hear at the end of the reading today that he’s shipped off to Tarsus as if it wasn’t intentional!  Paul, though, understood, as we know from his writings, of that necessity of Jesus’ farewell discourse in John about where it is he receives life.  He no longer has to look at the world through the eyes of fear, narrowness, violence, or even death, but through the eyes of his own lived experience of Christ crucified.  He has to keep returning to the vine for the true life and he knows that no matter how difficult it may become or the many obstacles they will face as a community, they will be seen through when the keep returning and abiding and being nurtured by what and who gives them life.

I don’t know the exact account but that message of return, abide, and stay with is quite dominant in these chapters of John’s Gospel.  It’s almost as if Jesus knew he’d have to say it in a thousand different ways and days in order for it to begin to sink into the minds and hearts of the disciples that despite the hostility of the world that they are going to experience first-hand, there is still a greater life that you pursue in becoming his disciples.  Over and over again, like in Acts, they will be called to critique their own calling and what it is that is going to need to be surrendered and let go of, whether it’s fear creeping in or their judgments towards people like Paul or the world for that matter.  It’s so easy to become part of the problem by our own unease of the unknown and to give into fear, choosing fear over faith and love.  Over the course of their lives it will continue to be revealed to them what it means to be a disciple.  What it means today will be very different for them when that community begins to form but no matter what, they will return in order to be fed, nurtured, and to be given life.  They will become disciples and will be a presence of love to a hostile world.

Paul’s story as well as the disciples is very much our own story of becoming disciples.  It’s always changing, evolving, and being called to radical transformation ourselves.  However, at times we still cling to vines that no longer feed yet still disguise themselves as life.  We cling to our own fears, judgments, and even violence, rather than allowing our own blindness, like Paul, to be revealed to and through us in order to move us to a deeper sense of discipleship.  In a world that so often is torn by violence and division, driven by politics and individual agendas and ideologies, we must stand together with locked arms, like the followers of the Way, in order to bring about transformation to a hurting world.  We may never change the institutional structures in which we live and operate, but we can be witnesses to a changed heart, a free heart, that models not violence and fear but rather faith and love.  It is in that way that we continue to become his disciples.

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Heart’s Unfolding Mystery

Exodus 20: 1-17; I Cor 1: 22-25; John 2: 13-25

The Cleansing of the Temple that we hear this weekend is not unique to John’s Gospel.  We hear it in all the gospels so there is some historical accuracy to the account, but the other evangelists place it near the end of the story upon Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  We’ll hear that on Palm Sunday from Mark’s Gospel.  John, though, changes it up and places it near the beginning as the gospel opens with the first of three celebrations of Passover.  It’s also rather crazily placed between the Miracle at Cana, the water into wine, just prior to it, and then follows with a rather intimate dialogue with Nicodemus just following this event and so it’s smack in between these stories.  After this great celebration and the sign at Cana it’s as if things get turned upside down.

It’s placement almost seems as if to throw people off.  As they begin to understand who this Jesus is in John’s Gospel, he seems to move which knocks everyone off kilter, almost appearing as if he’s creating these conflicts or certainly this tension where things seem to happen and change occurs.  You know, at first glance there really is nothing wrong with what’s going on at the feast of Passover at the Temple.  It was customary for people to sacrifice animals and so to be sold in that vicinity was common and so Jesus seems to overreact to it all when he shows up in Jerusalem for the feast.  As he makes this move it seems to begin to cast doubt and almost chaos into the lives and hearts of the people he encounters.  But maybe that’s his point all along.

Like any people, but in particular those he encounters today, we gradually become comfortable with what is and we begin to lose sight of the deeper realities that we’re being invited into.  It’s what creates this misunderstanding in this passage and beyond in John’s Gospel.  We become blind and deaf to things, where we can no longer see nor hear beyond the surface of our own hearts.  Gradually it becomes a market place, as the writers note, but in that gradual process of becoming they in turn lose sight of the bigger picture and the deeper reality.  Rather than becoming more like God and participating in that mystery, they become participants in this sham of a market place while their own gods are created.  Christ entering the scene turns it upside down, literally and figuratively, to make them aware of what they have become and invite them to become something more, this deeper lived reality that can only come through Christ.  He will enter into dialogue with them, push them, and be on the move.  Of course, in all he encounters it requires a willingness and an openness on the part of the one encountered to change, to deepen, to see and hear with the heart.

It’s the message Paul conveys over and over again but in particular to the community at Corinth that we hear today.  He reminds us that Jews demand signs and Gentiles wisdom but in the end what they really look for is proof in their own ways.  They want to cling to what they know and to be able to hold onto something rather than enter more deeply into this mystery of faith.  It is, as Paul reminds us, the paradox of the Cross.  It’s the lived reality, as with John, to not become comfortable, because just like the encounters with Christ in that Gospel, God has a way of throwing us off kilter and remind us who’s really in charge of this life and all we can do is enter more deeply into the mystery as it unfolds within and beyond us.

The Ten Commandments, as we know them, come from the passage from Exodus today.  However, what we hear this weekend is much more poetic than what we become accustomed to as kids growing up and the ten rules we’re expected to follow and somehow all is right with God.  But just like the people John introduces us to, we often, over time, lose sight of the deeper meaning and purpose for what we do and are brought back in order to enter into dialogue once again.  This is not to simply remind ourselves of the rules, like the ten commandments, but to enter into relationship with the unfolding mystery that lies within them, their deeper meaning, that the writer tries to convey.  How easily we become blinded by our own lives and our own agendas that we to get stuck which is just another way of casting shadow on sin.

As we continue this Lenten journey and now enter into the Gospel of John, we’re invited into the experience of the cleansing of the Temple and allow ourselves to get knocked off kilter.  We too become comfortable and blinded in our own lives where we can no longer see nor hear the deeper meaning and mystery.  It may lead us into conflicted hearts or even the experience of tension, but as the gospel reminds us, that’s exactly where God works best because it shows an openness on our part to change and to deepen.  We pray for that grace today, in our own misunderstandings as we hear in the gospel, our own comforts, our own blindness, may be torn from under us in order that we may fall freely into this unfolding mystery of the Christ.  It’s what we truly desire and it’s the fullness of life that God continues to promise.

Rubber Hits the Road

Acts 6: 1-7; IPeter 2: 4-9; John 14: 1-12

For the first four weeks of Easter much of what we’ve heard from Acts of the Apostles were these great speeches of Peter on Pentecost, reminding the people of what they are about as followers of the Way.  It’s about Christ crucified, raised from the dead, and the descent of the Holy Spirit moving them forward.  He was a witness of these events and expresses that experience of this paschal mystery, as the Opening Prayer eluded to today.

But today the rubber hits the road.  We all know from our own lives and experiences that all the talk of Peter can be just talk when it rubs up against the realities of people’s lives.  Despite Peter reminding them of who they are in this deeper inherent dignity that they share in the Christ, today it appears that it’s about to all fall apart around them.  There are these two groups referenced to today in Acts.  There are the Hellenists, the Greek-speaking followers and the Hebrews, the Aramaic-speaking followers and those who we might refer to insiders.  Many were witnesses of the events and hold true to the letter of the law and it begins to push against this new-found freedom of the Hellenists who are taking the community in another direction.  It creates this tension and animosity between the two all hinged on this prejudice that the Hebrews have against the Hellenists.

All of this, over the fact that the Hebrews wanted nothing to do with the Hellenists and wouldn’t help to take care of those in need, in particular, the widows.  They were blinded by their own prejudice and couldn’t recognize the need of the other.  It puts the disciples in a difficult place and they feel overwhelmed by what’s happening and fear an early split in the community and so find a quick-fix.  They appoint and anoint Stephen and these other, now what we call, deacons, to care for the widows who are being neglected.  However, they too are Hellenists and so on a deeper level they never address the real issue.  They don’t address the issue of the prejudice and find a fix to the problem.  It won’t go away, though, and will eventually lead to the first council of the church, the Council of Jerusalem where this tension will come to fruition and will become the stumbling stone to so many of the folks who only saw things one way, creating their own letter of the law, their own blindness.

It is that stumbling stone and cornerstone that Peter speaks of in today’s second reading.  Paul uses that language in his own writings and quite honestly, the stumbling stone and the cornerstone are one in the same, Christ Jesus and what it’s going to be to be followers of the Way.  The resistance they face in that early community is often resistance we face in our own lives.  We become so attached to the way things are done and what we have deemed as the only path that one must follow that we become blinded by our own narrow-mindedness.  It becomes our stumbling stone without even knowing it half the time because it becomes so entrenched in our lives that it becomes our own prejudice that we fail to see.  Like even the early community, for many of us we’d rather die than face the change in our lives that would lead to a fuller life.

That has been the over-riding message of John throughout this season and will be the Way that the disciples will now have to face and decide if they’re willing to confront as the approach Jerusalem and the crucifixion of Jesus.  Jesus is well aware of the difficulty of choosing to follow the Way and so offers words hope to a make-shift community that is about to experience pain and that stumbling stone in the Cross.  Of course we know that they pass through and experience that same freedom as the Hellenists but doesn’t mean it gets easier.  They will quickly learn as a community that this paschal mystery that we speak of is not a one-time deal but a lifelong process of conversion.  The community will have to learn that it must die and recreate in order to become the new creation that the Gospel has spoken of these weeks and to bring to fruition the words of Peter the past few weeks, that deep down, despite this prejudice that has existed and this tension that has risen up in the community, there is this inherent dignity that lies at the heart of who they all are, Hellenist and Hebrew alike, that can only be realized in this process of conversion and transformation, this process of cycling through the paschal mystery of life and death and life again.

It’s not easy for any of us and quite frankly, we become our greatest stumbling stone to change.  Our blinders become so think that we often fail to see the more abundant life that we are created for and allow ourselves to die for the letter of the law.  We become trapped as individuals, community, even nation and world, when we don’t open ourselves up to these tensions and allow ourselves to fall into them.  It’s messy and it’s difficult but it is the path of the Way and it’s what the followers of the Way had been called to.  Sure, maybe there are different paths, but at the heart of it all, when the rubber meets the road, first and foremost it is about conversion and the transformation of our own hearts, creating space within for the Mystery to change us, free us, and lead us to a more abundant life as individuals and as community.

 

Life’s Narrow Gate

John 10: 1-10

One of the final scenes of the movie Up is of Carl, the old guy who is just besides himself, wallowing in his grief.  He lost his wife before they could ever make their way to their dream vacation, Paradise Falls.  It’s all they ever wanted.  Yet, over and over again something happens, life happens, and it never happens and then her life is cut short.  He’s a grieving man who’s lost so much and is now at wits end with the young boy and the bird that have led him down this path that he just doesn’t know what to do.  They have a big fight and go their separate ways, leaving Carl to return to his house.

But something happens at that house that he’s tried to fly to Paradise Falls with balloons.  He begins to look at albums and realizes he didn’t know the whole story.  He was so trapped in his grief and in the way things used to be, his expectations of that dream vacation, that he had lost sight of the bigger picture and realized it was time to let go.  It’s one of the best scenes of the movie because you see him start to throw out the furniture, throw out anything hung on the walls, anything that was nailed down had to go out the door and gradually the house begins to fly once again, not to Paradise Falls as he thought, but a return to this makeshift community that he had grown to love.

It’s what we encounter in today’s Gospel of the Good Shepherd as well.  It’s not the cute, stained glass window good shepherd that we have become accustomed to over the years.  If you go back to the Fourth Sunday of Lent, this is the follow up to the story of the Man Born Blind which ends up in a fight between Jesus and the Pharisees and the staunch insiders that are wound so tight that they too lose sight of the bigger picture.  They think they know it all.  They have their eye on what they think is Paradise Falls, which more often than not was doing things as prescribed in their own way, and yet they grow angry and tired of this Jesus and today is really the continuation of his response to them after he tells them they are the ones that are blind.

Like Carl in Up, as time goes on and they allow things to become attached internally, their vision becomes more narrow.  They become blinded to the true paradise falls, or in John’s case, a return to the Garden of Eden, and the challenge it is to move to such freedom in life.  So once again, even though they still won’t get it, he uses this image of sheep, shepherd, gates, and all the rest which aren’t anything we’re accustomed to in our society.  They best I can come up with is if you’ve ever been to Ireland you can see rows of small stone walls that seem to go on for miles and then every now and then there is this narrow opening.  All the images used by Jesus, though, is taking what they see as derogatory and turning it upside down.  Early followers of the way or of the Christ were often known as sheep, similar to what in our own history we’d refer to people who might live differently or look differently than us might have been referred to as in life.  It appeared that they had blindly followed something that the rest couldn’t quite grasp because of the lack of depth in their own lives.  The followers, these sheep, had been led to the garden, the pasture, this place of freedom which only has one way through, and that’s through the narrow gate.  There’s no jumping over and knocking the wall down.  You can only through the narrow gate.

Like Carl, because of the narrowness of the gate it’s nearly impossible to take anything through with you.  The shepherd literally acts as the gate by lying on the ground and leading them across to this place of freedom.  We become weighed down by our own illusion of what this paradise is that we begin to lose sight like the Pharisees and the staunch insiders.  We begin to think that things can only be done in one way and no other way.  We begin to replace paradise with the American Dream and think it’s about accumulating, the white picket fence, and gathering things that begin to leave us weighed down rather than free to roam about in this life.  But the life and the life more abundantly that Jesus speaks of in this passage has nothing to do with any of it.  We keep trying to get to paradise falls with all our belongings and all we hold onto but end up stuck in life.  The path to a more abundant life that Jesus speaks of is often just the opposite of the American way of life, not about accumulating but about letting go.

One of John’s central themes is to move to this place of a more abundant life.  It’s not easy and it does come only with a passage through that narrow gate.  The path to that more abundant life is by living a life of conversion, of an ever-changing heart that doesn’t allow itself to become weighed down by fear, worry, anxiety, and all else that a life in this culture often leads us to each day.  The great thing about allowing ourselves to enter into this life of conversion is that on some level it gets easier.  The more we learn to let go of in life the less we try to carry through that narrow gate.  What makes the sheep so smart and how Jesus throws it all on its head is that more than anything, sheep trust that one voice, the true voice.  It’s where the Pharisees and the insiders get it wrong.  They worry about how it looks and all the externals of life, but the path John leads us on through the Christ in a dismantling of our interior life, just as it was for Carl.

As we continue this Easter journey on this Good Shepherd Sunday, we pray for the awareness in our lives as to what we still try to carry with us through life.  Where are we being weighed down and are hearts being weighed down by failed expectations, hurts, fears, and all the rest.  Like Carl, and the disciples, we often learn only by going through and not get comfortable with what we think is paradise falls because the Christ promises an even more abundant life when we learn to let go, cease control, and be led through the narrow gate.  We quickly learn, as did Carl, it’s no longer about getting to Paradise Falls.  Rather, it’s about living Paradise Falls in this very moment and quite often in the life of our own community.

Looking Without Seeing

I Sam 16: 1, 6-7, 10-13; Eph 5: 8-14; John 9: 1-41

Helen Keller, who, of course, was not just blind but also deaf had to overcome the obstacle of thinking that she was somehow deficient because of her limitation in hearing and seeing. Many of us have to do the same thing in different capacities over the course of our lives. She goes onto become a great writer as well as activist and humanitarian, despite what she originally saw as a limitation. In the end, she had commented that there was something even worse than being blind and that was having sight and yet still unable to see. How many times has that function of sight really limited us as well, where we have sight and yet still unable to see.

It’s what Jesus is confronting in today’s gospel with the man born blind who sits on the side of the road, a beggar, as John tells us. Mixed up, though, in this story are all these other conflicts that are important to recognize because they will carry through now until Good Friday, and quite frankly, some even beyond that. Of course, there’s the Pharisees. We’re accustomed to that squabble after hearing it week in and week out. They are the legalists. They see everything through the lens of right and wrong, good and bad, sin and not, and in the end, judge and label everyone according to it. In many ways they end up dehumanizing people and strip them of their dignity because of some standard that they hold that pretty much no one else can match, certainly not a man born blind who is a beggar. Quite honestly, they wouldn’t have the time of day for such a person.

The other squabble is with “the Jews”. We hear that language often in John’s gospel which seems rather odd being that they were all Jewish. Why would they need to be singled out when it encompassed the majority? In today’s language, in these passages they really are the insiders. They view everyone as either insider or outsider and have total disregard for everyone who isn’t part of the in crowd. They grow resentful with Jesus and understand that he’s a Jew like them on some level, but also see him as an outsider and look for every possible way as labeling him as such. They too would have no time for the one they label beggar because he’s not one of them. Ironically, Jesus spends much of his time with them and tries to restore them to their place in the community while restoring their dignity.

There is one other conflict though in this passage and that’s the parents of the blind man. It would seem rather odd, I’d think, for a parent to turn their back on their son, despite his circumstances in life. They deny having anything to do with him regaining his sight because, as John tells us, of fear. Fear holds them back from claiming their own faithfulness to Jesus. As Jews they too would have been with the in crowd and want that sense of belonging. Are they willing to risk it to step out and trust their son in the healing Jesus has brought to his life. It doesn’t seem so.

All that said, the blind man, who happens to be a beggar, has no bearing on the life of the community. He’s an outsider. He’s obviously done something grave that he’s been punished in this way. He’s a nobody and no one wants anything to do with him, except, of course, Jesus. He quickly goes from being a nobody into the one who has the spotlight shining upon him in the middle of all these conflicts that are ensuing. But it takes him time as well. He doesn’t quickly come to an understanding of what has taken place in his life or who this Jesus guy is either. The gospel writer reminds us that he first sees him as a man, then a prophet, then as Lord who has transformed his very life and existence. What he had seen as an obstacle becomes the source of grace in his life.

The same in true for Paul who we hear from in today’s second reading from Ephesians. He uses the image of light and darkness. He had to physically become blind in order to see, knowing his own conversion story. He was a Pharisee as well as an insider and so ingrained in that thinking that he couldn’t see anyone else beyond that limitation. For Paul, if you weren’t an insider, the way he had determined, then there was no place for you. God literally blinds him, even though spiritually he already was, and pushes him to sit in that blindness before he can gain sight and begin to see the other as not someone separate from but one with and not much different than himself. Using his language of today, Paul, and us, are often forced into the darkness of our own lives before God can somehow begin to do something with us. We all have blindspots and darkness as long as we are on this earth, but we also like to avoid them and deny they’re there. The blind man today, along with Jesus, begins to expose those blindspots and yet, they still cannot see as God sees.

It’s where young Samuel is led in today’s first reading. He has no intention on heading to Jesse to anoint a new king. He thought all along that it would be Saul and now fears for his life thinking Saul is going to take his life because of the turn of events. Yet, he goes to Jesse, but once there is still trapped in his own way of seeing. He looks for power, for strength, for someone who can overturn the enemies. This is who he thought should be the next king, but, of course, God has different plans. The writer tells us that Samuel, and for that matter, each of us, see by appearance but God sees the heart. There it is. God knows our story and sees the deepest longings of our hearts.

Our sight has so many limitations. We become blinded by what we see and in turn, label and judge. We see color. We see economic advantages. We see what we don’t have. We see lifestyles that we become envious of. We see people that bring things upon themselves. We see what we wish we had and don’t. We see biases. We see insiders and outsiders. We see, so often the sin of the other and ourselves. It’s hard, as Helen Keller pointed out, to have sight and yet see. The Gospel challenges us to be thrown into the story as the blind man and ask ourselves where we are on our own journey of faith. We all have these conflicts alive within us, the pharisee, the Jew, and even the parental voices that remain, that often hold us back from becoming who we really are in life. When we no longer see them as obstacle but as a source of grace, we’re changed forever. We make the journey of the blind man, of seeing Jesus as man, as prophet, and eventually, as our Lord. We pray for the awareness and acceptance of our own blindspots that prevent us from seeing, not by appearance, but as we heard today, of the heart, as God see us. Like Helen Keller, if we surrender ourselves to the change, transformation, conversation that we are being called to in life, what we have seen simply as limitation opens the door to possibility. I was blind but now I see.

What Do You Want me to do For You?

It seems rather ridiculous that Jesus would ask blind Bartimaeus, “what do you want me to do for you” in light of the fact that we are all aware and know his condition, he’s blind. Wouldn’t that be the obvious answer for Bartimaeus or for any of us, for that matter, that I’d want to see? But maybe it isn’t that obvious. What makes this encounter different, knowing that this section of Mark’s gospel began with a healing of another blind guy, where the same question was never posed to him?

I have used that question many times in hearing confessions with people and we often have no idea just how hard it is to answer. I dare say that it carries with it a lot of our baggage, at least what I have been able to tell in talking with people. Our automatic reply is that God already knows what we want. Another response is a thinking that we’re not worthy enough to be asked such a question, holding not a great deal of guilt and shame that prevents us from even hearing the question. It’s not easy to identity the deepest longings of the heart and soul, especially when we really believe that there is something wrong with us, not even recognizing that it’s not only the healing but also a restoration of our dignity in God’s infinite creation.

However, before we even get to the question in today’s gospel there is first a call that takes place. Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus and in turn Jesus calls him. Remember some of the other stories we’ve heard these past weeks. It wasn’t that long ago that we heard the call of the rich man and we know how that ends; he walks away sad, unable to give up his riches. Although the disciples are directly called, they were fighting over who was the greatest, brothers bickering about who will sit on the left and right, unable to give up there thirst for power. And then the call today, from Bartimaeus and to Bartimaeus. Maybe this takes us to that deeper place of the question asked by Jesus, leading to an authentic call and response from the one who has given it all up and then follows the Lord. The one who is powerless in the life of the community, seeks the Lord in his own desperation, humbled and primed for this encounter.

The irony for all of us, though, is we often are not aware of our own blindness and blindspots that we have. The more the Lord calls out, we can continue to get stuck in that question of worthiness, believing the shame and guilt we’ve lived with our entire lives, thinking that’s the way, believing that voice when it calls. Yet, that voice of the Lord will continue to call out and penetrate through the blindness of our lives until the call from within is in union with the call from beyond, an encounter with the living Lord as it is with Bartimaeus.

As we know it was never an easy response for Israel either. They often found themselves being asked that question from within and beyond and seemingly lost over and over again, whether in the Exodus or in exile as many of the prophets write, such as Jeremiah today. Yet, that voice never stops calling them forward. But like Bartimaeus, they too often have to reach the point of desperation and humility, letting go of their own pride and shame before they can respond to the call to return to the land of life. Just at that moment when you think you can’t go any further, the mercy and love of God unfolds, eyes are opened, and we follow on the way.

In the end, the call and response is one and the same, coming from and to that voice of God that calls us out like Bartimaeus. How often do we not have time to even listen to it or get stuck in the worthiness question that prevents us from the free response to the Lord. Bartimaeus provides us the opportunity to sit with your imagination in prayer and to begin to hear the voice of Jesus speak to us, “what do you want me to do for you,” but rather than shying away, allow yourself even to be moved to tears, knowing, like Batimaues, God’s mercy and love has begun to penetrate our blindness and we can be restored to wholeness and holiness. Once penetrated, we too will pick up and follow on the way and our lives will be forever changed.