Return to the God Plot

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Well it’s a few weeks since many of us* have begun to emerge from the restrictions of lockdown. For me and my ministry it’s meant I’ve been able to return to the community allotments, and once again see them as a space where people can come to be together (albeit with new safe distancing and hygeine guidelines in place). During lockdown, and whilst we’ve been away from the polts, we’ve had plenty of sunshine and a fair amount of rain too making perfect growing conditions ….. including for all those weeds, the past few sessions have all been about clearing weeds, forking over the soil in the beds, and at last getting some more of the things we want to grow into the ground. But of course even without us tending the space it’s not just weeds that have grown; we’ve got apples and pears in the orchard, raspberries and the first few blackberries just beginning to ripen up, nature and creation have a way of doing fine without us. The thing is, it’s just needs a bit of graft – the paths, the beds, the structure is all sound still, the soil is still good, it just needs some attention, some pruning and weeding and all will be good.

Returning to the allotment feels like its got a lot of similarities to how we’re returning from the rest of lockdown; the world we’re coming back into doesn’t look exactly like the one we left in March, it’s all got messy and tangled and we can see the all weeds and the stuff that just like the bindweed on the plots is threatening to choke everything else out. We can see it, and we know it needs up rooting; we see the racism that for years we (white folk) have chosen to ignore, we can see the poverty and inequality that has meant people in UK and elsewhere forced to rely on charity to feed themselves, their families and their children, we can see the way our consumption levels and use of fossil fuels is choking the life from the planet and creating the climate crisis.

We know what we need to do – we know what is right, as Micah 6.8 says:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

In the world, just as on the allotments, we need to pull out the weeds; the weeds of racism, of rampant consumerism, of poverty and exclusion …. we need to get the garden right again.

 

 

*It’s important to remember that a significant number of people in UK are still “shielding”

 

 

Why do we build statues?

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This weekend has seen an overwhelming outpouring of anger, sadness, grief and protest across the world following the murder of George Floyd by white police officers in Minneapolis. Those protests have spread quickly, and the words Black Lives Matter have turned from a simple social media hashtag into a collective statement of defiance and repentance.

Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to streets of towns and cities across UK (even in the midst of the Covid19 pandemic) to show their opposition to racism, and to acknowledge the reality of the day by day racism experienced by so many black people. In one city, Bristol, one event has become a particular flashpoint and symbol for the protests; the statue of Edward Colston a Bristolian slave trader was erected some 150 years after his death as a celebration of percieved “civic” pride, it has now been toppled by street protests supporting the international Black Lives Matter movement. The action has polarised debate for many; with more conservative voices condemning the action as simply“criminal damage” and “mob rule”, whilst protesters and others see the event as “historical” and “overdue” and a failure of the civic process that should have seen it’s quieter and more peaceful removal years ago.

So why do we build statues?

The short answer is that we do so in order to honour and celebrate the person or event they are built to comemorate. That was part of the very problem with the Colston statue, it honoured and celebrated the life of someone whose wealth was built entirely from the trade in humans, captured and sold as commodoties through the transatlantic slave trade. Bristol had other benefactors, they were not remembered in this same way. People like; Robert Thorne, John Whitson, Robert Aldworth, William Chester, Richard Reynolds (a Quaker ironmaster who actually donated far larger sums to the city than Colstone ever managed)*.

But statues in the public realm also serve a bigger, more powerful purpose, they help shape the civic story, and indeed the national story. Colstons statue was not so much simply a  celebration of the man, but a celebration of British maritime and mercantile power. To those who erected it (not by the way the ordinary people of Bristol, but a small elite group of wealthy men*) the purpose of the statue was to incorporate and legitimise a power and wealth born out of a trade in slaves, a trade in human misery founded upon white supremacy and racism, a trade that had been made illegal only some sixty years previous in 1833. When it was brought down by protesters this weekend, it was this symbolism they were attacking.

The public statues we build speak about who we are, and who we aspire to be …. they are not simply, or simple “history”. The ever present danger is that in allowing them (knowingly and unknowingly) to shape our wider narrative about our identity, we turn them into idols.

We are witnessing, I believe, epoch changing times – the nature of global pandemic and pressure on our economic systems and on our very planet, make them so. I do not know the direction what will finally take, whether it will see an opening of our eyes to the injustices of past and present or not, whether we will witness greater commonwealth, love and hope, or whether it will end elsewhere. But this I do know, in Biblical times, when the nation of Israel finally entered into their new and promised land, it meant ending the ways of the past, if a new world is coming, then the old idols must fall ….

Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places. Deuteronomy 12.3

 

 

*See this article from Bristol Radical History group for more on Colston and Bristol

Myths within myths… Edward Colston and that statue By Roger Ball

 

 

The battle of the narratives ….. (Part Two)

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A month ago I wrote a blog piece here* about the importance of  how narratives become framed in the stories of our lives, our communities, and our nations, another month on and in the wake of yesterdays announcement from the Prime Minister to “Stay Alert” I’m feeling the need to return to the topic.

Stories are powerful, they convey truths, images, hopes and dreams that facts and figures simply cannot. Of course they can also speak into our fears an insecurities, offering us either challenge or comfort. Humanity has been framed by stories from the outset of what we might call “civilisation”, but I would imagine they were being shared long before that, they are perhaps a large part of what makes us human, and how we make sense of the world around us, it’s past, present and it’s future.

As a person of faith I know that our sacred stories have been told and retold, written down in our Bibles and other texts and are to us a revelation in stories of how we (and other generations) see and encounter God in the world, stories of how we see our relationship with God, and how we believe we should live in the world in our times. The “truths” are eternal, but the stories get re-told, and re-framed from age to age.

Just as we need to actively engage with those sacred stories as we reflect and grow in our spiritual journeys, so to should we engage with the political and societal stories that surround us and likewise question and reflect on what may lie behind them.

The UK is in a period of major narrative formation ….. the Brexit debate (remember that) has largely been dominated by it, and so too now is the Covid19 pandemic.

I was attending yet another zoom session last week, this one organised by Church Action on Poverty, we were discussing the power and importance of stories. One thing that struck me in those conversations was just how much of the current media coverage of the UK pandemic experience has been couched in terms of “heroes” and “victims”. NHS and Care Home workers, foodbank volunteers, and fundraiders are shown to us day after day “heroically” doing all kinds of things (and I’m not disputing that many are), but then there are the “victims”; the old people, the sick, the dying, the ones who are struggling with lockdown. Much of the narrative places you in one camp or another, whereas for many of us we sit between the two, neither hero or victim, just doing what we can to get by.

A second key narrative being pushed at the moment is a populist nationalist narrative,  which seeks to portray Britain as a “nation alone” with strong “martial” nation tradition at it’s heart. By that I mean a nation whose history and culture is one of military pride and victory, even in times of relative peace. So we see whole framing of “the battle” against Covid19 crisis is filled with stories of “heroism” “the frontline” and countless other military metaphors …. it is why Capt Tom Moore is so feted (not that I begrudge his effort) but we need to understand that he is feted, in part at least, because he is a “Captain” a “war hero” and fits the narrative.Other people, other senior citizens have raised thousands of pounds during this same period and have gone largely ignored. The Queen evokes memories from world wars as she (and the nation) celebrate the anniversary of VE Day, and a nation sings “We’ll Meet Again” in the midst of a public health lockdown.  Likewise, there are attempts (with varying degrees of success) to draw comparisons between Boris Johnson and a war time PM, Winston Churchill, and in the narrative our “finest hours” are re-run ….. and re-written.

Today I also read something that talked about another developing narrative, the piece by Jon Alexander** explains how the Governments revised strategy announced last night by Boris Johnson attempts to shift focus from a Government responsibility to protect people, to and individualisation of the responsibility to “stay alert” and basically look out for your own health.

There were signs of this earlier of course, when the Government slightly amended it’s fifth condition for easing the lockdown, from: “avoid a second peak” to “avoid a second peak that overwhelms the NHS”. A small difference in words, but as we now know more than 30,000 people in UK have died from Covid19 in this first wave and the NHS was not overwhelmed, therefore those simple words could allow for a further 30,000 to die and still be framed as sucessful by the Government. The infamous “herd immunity” is back on the stage, if in the shadows, and peoples need to use  “common sense” is re-emerging as the well worn phrase to mark that shift from public to private. So if you’re feeling a little confused right now …. you’re meant to be and it’s all your fault! Okay so maybe thats being overly harsh, but the narrative being framed is clear; Government has done it’s bit, now it’s over to you – use common sense, if others aren’t then blame them.

All this matters of course, not just because it risks putting more lives sat risk (as long as those numbers are manageable in the Government scenario), but also because it will help frame the world we emerge into beyond the pandemic. The narrative very much matters, now and into the future.

 

* The battle of the narratives …. (Part One)

** Jon Alexander blog

“Little Clay Folk”

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Today I sent out the “little clay folk” (the people of God) into Parson Cross around Care Homes, Churches and other community spaces to be a blessing in these times …..

In these strange times, as the nation (and the world) experiences the Covid19 coronavirus pandemic, and we face isolsation, lockdown and restrictions around our day to day lives, it is sometimes been hard to think about how we might “minister” into this situation. Our church buildings have been largely closed, except where they are being used for frontline activities such as foodbanks, our worship has been taken online and into our homes, we continue to offer support to those grieving and mourning to the best of our ability – but it is all hard. The conversations through telephone or on social media  offering pastoral support have been crucial, but they miss out still on so much that is really important in our regular human interactions – the touch of a hand, a silent nod of sympathy, the embrace and hug of friendship, and so much more – all these things are largely absent at this time, and it hurts for so many of us.

In such a time I wanted to think of visible signs of embracing the community I serve in, the communities of Parson Cross, Southey, Foxhill and Longley in North Sheffield; then I remembered some work that I’d connected with some years ago towards the start of my time in the area. Back in 2011 Ric Stott* had produced a series of 40 clay men as part of an exploration of Lent, one of these clay men found its’ way to Parson Cross. We borrowed the idea again with a series of Advent Angels made by adults and children at Mount Tabor that we placed across the estate.

Over Easter I’ve been looking online at a few “Godly Play” resources, and came across the “people of God” figures, for those not familiar they are small wooden figures in various poses, with no recogniseable features and they are used in story telling to be the exactly what it says the “people of God”.  Now, I’m not one who thinks play (Godly or otherwise) should be the pastime only of children, and so I thought that combining these two elements – our “clay men” and the “people of God” might offer one way that I could offer a blessing to the area.

The first group of five (pictured above) were made at home, and each given a tiny placard to hold with a special, but familar, messages; this morning I took time to place them in various community spaces, with prayers and blessings in each space they were left. One was at Mount Tabor, my base in more usual times, I pray for a return to life that this place usually contains, a return of the people who value it as a place of love, hope grace and inclusion. A second was placed in the public space at Chaucer, it’s a space that normally would see people wandering through on their way to Asda, Farmfoods or one of the other local shops, they’d be waiting at the bus stop for a trip into town or down the road to Hillsborough, there’s the library and housing offices, and at the start and end of each school day the space would be filled with students from Chaucer School – but right now it’s empty, apart from the “little clay folk” I left; I pray that one day it will be safe again to enjoy the hustle and bustle of lively public spaces. A third figure was placed at St Pauls, on Wordsworth Avenue which has become the temporary home to the emergency foodbank in Parson Cross run by S6 foodbank and supported by PXI Projects; still around 40 households each week are coming to that place for food, which feels shocking to me that there is still such a reliance even in these most desperate of times. I pray that as we emerge from the pandemic that the country will re-assess why there is such a need in what is still such a rich nation, I fear however we may not and that demand will simply grow even higher. The final two “people of God” we placed outside care homes in the area (Deerlands and North Hill Road) – it is more and more evident that our care homes have been devastated throughout this crisis, their workers often left without inadequate protections and their reseidents left vulnerable to infection and early death. I pray for better protection, I give thanks for the love, care and dedication of the workers in these homes, I pray that families may soon again be able to visit, hold hands and hug those they love.

Love your neighbour, keep one another safe and I pray you keep well.

 

* Ric Stott – Clay Men (2011)

Another three weeks …

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As readers of this blog will know, I normally tend to fill these pages with theological / political polemics rather than personal messages or reflections, but today it feels I just need to share my own short reflection and message as we enter into another three week period of lockdown in UK due to the covid19 pandemic. In those first three weeks we’ve all had to deal with a variety of concerns and challenges – for the very gravest as they have lost loved ones in the cruellest of circumstances often without even a real chance to say goodbye, for others this first three weeks of isolation “lockdown” have raised issues around childcare and “home schooling”, or food insecurity and shopping, or any other manner of issues. For me I’ve struggled most trying to explain to my 25 year old with learning disabilities and austism, that although his regular visits to see us aren’t now allowed – it doesn’t mean we don’t want to see him, and certainly isn’t that we don’t care. We’ve learned to replace physical contact with more use of Skype and Zoom, it’s all been very unfamiliar to so many of us.

Alongside those personal challenges at home, the “lockdown” has also had a significant effect on my work and ministry. For a month now the day to day activities, from community allotmenting to the social cafe organised through our PXI charity have been suspended. We’ve even had to combine our foodbank with another partner for the duration of the covid19 pandemic in order to try and ensure it can cope with the current circumstances. Those decisions have each been truly painful (especially after 10 years of building them up to what they have become), but especially painful as it has – alongside the social restrictions brought in by Government – greatly reduced the level of contact I have with the people my ministry serves. So tonight I felt the need to share this personal (perhaps you might say pastoral) message.

“Tonight we’ve had the announcement of another three weeks of lockdown ….. many of us out there are finding it hard; some have already lost friends and family members to the virus, others are worried for their own safety or that of others. A number of us are in self isolation because we feel ill, and others are isolated because they are being “shielded” from infection; each of us experiences this time from the perspective of our own context, needs and concerns.

There will, no doubt, be more upsets along the road – more people will become ill, sadly more people (perhaps even more of those we know) will die because of Covid19.

But it will all end one day – and we will once again be able to hold hands, hug one another and do those things we so desparately yearn for at this time.

Even now, we still celebrate, still mourn, still love …. but for now, for a time longer we must show our love from a distance, with no less passion or meaning than at any other time, but not in the way we might choose.

Stay safe, and may God bless us now and evermore.”

Nick

 

The battle of the narratives …. (Part One)

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The battle of narratives has begun; and the UK Government, in it’s version, seems hell bent on planting in our minds the seeds of blame on others.

In their narrative, the  spread of the virus, the reason for the ever growing death toll, is the “fault” of somebody else – all the Government is doing is “following the scientific advice”, meanwhile;

…… Too many people are sitting in parks, going for exercise at the same time as other people

…..Maybe the NHS (even our brave doctors and nurses) aren’t being careful enough …. even wasteful of “precious” PPE.

…… International competition is making it hard for UK to source the testing and other equipment it needs.

Of course, in the narratives pushed by the Government, none of it is the fault of the Government – well I’m sorry but it is. It’s the fault of austerity policies and ten years of cuts to public spending, it’s the fault of years wasted through chasing an ideologically dogmatic vision of a particular Brexit, it’s the fault of a PM and Cabinet that had word as far back as January (at least, but in fact years in more general terms) that this pandemic was coming and do too little too late.

The press and media too seems content to play their part so far in continuing the Governments narrative. Yesterday they we full of the “good news” that the Prime Miniter was on the mend from his time in hospital with Covid19. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m he’s recovering, this illness is nasty and I would not wish it upon anyone. He is a father, and is expecting another child soon, and no one wants to see a child deprived of its parents in such a cruel way. But when the press and media talk of how the Prime Minister is recovering well and is in “good spirits”, I ask; “really”? Is he really in “good spirits” on the day that UK deaths passed the European record for those  in a single, a day when close to 1000 UK citizens died because of this virus, day by day the UK edges towards the highest death toll in Europe ….. “good spirits” really?

A day on from Good Friday and it all reminds me of Pilate “washing his hands”  as he tried to pass responsibility on for the crucifixion of Jesus.

“When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” (Matthew 27.24)

It seems like those in power have always tried to find ways of passing responsibility for their own culpability on to “others”, whoever they may be.

 

 

The Great Leveller

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You’ve heard it said that Coronavirus is no respecter of wealth and status ….. and indeed it is true to an extent at least. We’ve seen in recent weeks Doctors and nurses who have cared for the sick and dying, falling to the virus themselves, and in the Uk we’ve had news that those in the highest positions of privilege and power; Prince Charles, Prime Minister Johnson and others have succumbed to Covid-19. However, it’s not the full story is it?

Human tragedy is universal no doubt, as is mortality itself – but whilst all of us throughout the world are clearly at risk from this virus, some of us are more able to mitigate against it’s full consequences. In those economies that can, we have been able to a large degree, support citzens in order to enable them to survive even without work, we’ve got housing stock that (mostly) provides people with a relatively safe space in which to withdraw from the world outside, we have a strong and viable health service (which for us in UK at least is free and available to all) but even this is groaning under the strain of the demands this virus brings. Of course there are, even here, advantages that money, power and wealth seem to bring – the ability perhaps to pay for private Covid19 tests* or perhaps even private health care, and easy access to doctors appointments. Of course it’s not just that, with power, wealth and privilege comes improved access to other services that make the survival of isolation so much easier; whilst I may be stuck in my two bedroom house**, others will be isolating in houses with private gyms and swimming pools, with en suite facilities in every room, and other spaces to spend this time. Privilege is always privilege – we’ve heard much about the vulnerability of people due to age, or underlying health conditions (and these are vitally important for us all to understand and respect), but we’ve heard very little about the vulnerability of poverty.

Last Friday afternoon I stood (physically distanced) to the people in our local foodbank queue, many of which I’ve now known for a number of years. I know something of their stories, of how they have ended up at this time reliant on charity to supplement their incomes with food. I met a young man with MS, and recovering from addiction who had walked some distance just to get a bag of food as he’d not been able to get all he needed in his shop this week, I met a Mum struggling with two young children*** at home, trying to keep them both occupied and safe at a time when neither of the children really uinderstand what is going on at all. So many people and so many stories; stories of struggle and of resilence, but stories where their inability to “buy solutions” in this current situation was desperately affecting the physical and mental well being. To this point, the UK Government does not list “poverty” as a factor anywhere in it’s Covid19 guidance, and volunteers and charties are still meant to feed people with ever more stretched resources.

On a global scale the issue of poverty and the pandemic is even more stark. I cannot even start to imagine how you observe “social” and “physical” distancing in a township in Port Elizabeth, or in a favella in Rio, or indeed in war torn Syria or Yemen where health and other infrastructure resources are already devasted. Meanwhile it seems that the fact that many  “rich nations” are framing this as a “national crisis” does not bode well for a fair global response that values all humanity equally. The virus is, as I have said, no respecter of the riches of this world; but neither are those riches respectful of  humanity, some lives it would seem are still regarded, by some, as more valuable than others.

 

 

*£375 will buy you an imeddiate Covid19 test at this Harley Street practice: https://privateharleystreetclinic.com/products/covid-19-clinical-testing-service
** And yes I’m only too aware there are many without even that degreeof comfort
*** Both children are under ten and on the spectrum for autism and have special education needs

“Whether one may flee….”

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In 1527, the church reformer Martin Luther faced an outbreak of the plague in his        community. In response he wrote a letter called “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague,” in which he said these words:

“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbour needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God. If you wish to serve Christ and to wait on him, very well, you have your sick neighbour close at hand. Go to him and serve him, and you will surely find Christ in him.”

Luthers words have a resonance with us today as together we face the global pandemic created through coronavirus (COVID-19) and are worthy of further reflection, for even though it seems the proportions of this pandemic are not on the scale of those witnessed by him, they nevertheless are already (and will still further) demanding genuine choices from each of us about risk and responsibility to ourselves, our families and others.

I’ve spent much of the past week in conversations with friends (and the media) about how those of us involved in foodbanks in Sheffield are likely to cope with the effects of the pandemic. The isssue is not just a Sheffield one of course but is echoed throught UK at this time. We’ve already taken decisions that effect our support to people in need – the closure of our Social Cafe and decision to provide Grab and Go food parcels, limiting the amount of one to one and group contact, we’ve entered into discussions with other foodbanks about partnership working, central warehousing and pooling of volunteers, we are preparing for further changes.

This pandemic will test us and the resilence of our communities, services, and civil society; it will show the shortcomings of years of cutbacks in public services, and the real cost of austerity on our neighbourhoods and nations. We do not know how long it will take us to get through it, and for a time we will need to behave in ways that are not our “normal”; we will be asked to put a social distance between us that we are not used to in order to slow the spread of the virus, but in all this it is important that we do not let social distancing lead to even greater social exclusion.

 

………………………………………………………………………………….

Added after tonights announcements by UK Government:

So now I am confused even more, the Government has told us to be restrained in our social lives (pubs, cafes, and even churches I guess). We’ve been told “work from home” when this is possible in order to restrict the speed of the virus spreading. I understand the point to a point but it raises so many other issues:

1. What about those who cannot work from home, and those who are needed to rush headlong  into contact and potential contact with the virus. The doctors, nurses and care staff …. the cleaners and refuse collectors, the retail workers and delivery drivers, the school teachers and nursery workers?

2. What also of the people I spend my time with the volunteers, particularly in the foodbank. They “can” stay at home, they are not obliged in any sense to work – but is the Government asking them to, or not?

3. Many of our volunteers are from “vulnerable” and “higher risk” parts of the population, therefore the question for them is even more crucial. I could not, and would not, ask them to work at risk to themselves as well as others.

4. Where does all that leave those who need the foodbank for support. I spoke earlier to a journalist from the Independent, I said I worried for families who were being asked to isolate for 14 days if someone fell ill; I’m worried that many do not have “separate toilet facilities” (as the Government has mentioned) do not have a “spare room” where the ill family member can remain. I worry that staying in all day for a fortnight will have additional costs on fuel and other things, I worry additional meals will be needed by kids who would usually have a free school meal each day.

These are testing times indeed – and they are already showing the fractures lines that have been created by years of austerity and division. No doubt there will be and end point and we will emerge on the other side, but the world we will face when we do will still be full of questions and be in the need of better answers.

 

 

 

Beyond the now

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14th March 2020

Dear family, friends, and neighbours ….

It now seems inevitable that we will all be affected in one way or another by the current coronavirus (COVID19) pandemic. Many of us will become ill, most of us will recover, some of us sadly may not.

There will come a time to reflect more fully …… time to re-assess the value we’ve come to attach to the latest i-phone or other consumable over the value of quality public healthcare, the value we’ve attached to persuing individual security and personal wealth over collective welbeing and communities of love and care, the value we’ve given to pursuit of economic growth and increased profits over fairness, care and compassion for the planet and for all of humanity. There will be time for this and more, in a time beyond now.

Now is the time to simply love and be loved …. it is time to remember that beauty and sacredness of every breath, of every smile we share, and of every conversation with those we love. Now is the time to keep each other safe, to care for those who need us, to show restraint and consideration in the way our actions may effect others. It is time when we are likely to witness both the best and worse of humanity, we each need to choose well. Remember you are loved, and that we are all surrounded by something that is greater than ourselves.

Keep safe – and I pray you stay well, beyond the now.