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Transforming Communities (Sandhya Rani Jha) - A Review

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TRANSFORMING COMMUNITIES: How People Like You Are Healing Their Neighborhoods.By Sandhya Rani Jha. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2017. 144 pages.

                Government has a significant role to play in creating a just, safe, and productive community, where everyone is included in the benefits of community. However, government cannot do it all. There is need for grassroots community efforts, and religious communities play a significant role in creating communities of healing and justice. Every faith community has gifts and resources to contribute, no matter how large or how small they might be. Indeed, a community of fifteen parishioners could be the catalyst for something rather powerful. The question is, will we hear the call and respond?
Perhaps what is needed are stories of ways in which faith communities have stepped into the gap. Before we get to the how to, there is need to see what is possible. Sandhya Jha is just that kind of story-teller. She is a Disciples of Christ ministe…

Fierce (Alice Connor) -- A Review

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FIERCE: Women of theBible and Their Stories of Violence, Mercy, Bravery, Wisdom, Sex, and Salvation. By Alice Connor. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017. Xii + 182 pages.


Men figure prominently in the biblical story. Yes, there are women who appear in the story, but the figures who come to mind most often are Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Peter, and Paul. Women play supporting roles—important yes, just not A list important. More than likely, when women come to mind, it is because they play the role of temptress (like Eve or perhaps Rahab and Tamar). But even in the cases of Rahab and Tamar, do we stop to think about why these women are forced to take up these roles. Sometimes, as with Mary Magdalene, it is tradition that turns them into sinners. So, here’s the thing—does the word “fierce” come to mind when you think of biblical women? If not, then I have a surprise for you. There is a new book that emphasizes the fierceness of some of the very women I’ve already mentioned. What is needed is a…

Unafraid (Benjamin Corey) - A Review

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UNAFRAID: Moving Beyond Fear Based Faith. By Benjamin L. Corey. San Francisco: Harper One, 2017. 227 pages.

                You have heard it said: "Put the fear of God in him (or her)." Unfortunately (in my estimation), Christians have often used scare tactics to gain converts or enforce social norms. While parents will put the “fear of God” in their children to get them to behave (or tell them Santa is watching to see if they’re naughty or nice), religious communities have been known to evangelize non-believers with a message of: "If you don't believe in Jesus then God will send you to hell, where you will burn forever." One must ask whether this is a wise course of action. Is it in accord with the way we see God? That is, if we believe that God is love, is this something God would do simply because one is unable or even unwilling to make a confession of faith in Jesus?
Benjamin Corey, the author of the book under review, notes that many Christians expressed…

An American Conscience (Jeremy Sabella) -- A Review

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AN AMERICAN CONSCIENCE:The Reinhold Niebuhr Story. By Jeremy L. Sabella. Foreword by Robin W. Lovin. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017. Xvi + 153 pages.
Edgar DeWitt Jones was Reinhold Niebuhr's colleague from 1920 to 1928, as Niebuhr served as pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church. During their eight years serving in the same city, Jones got to know Niebuhr first hand. Jones founded the church I now serve as pastor and wrote a book about American preachers of his day, among whom he numbered Niebuhr. He notes that "Niebuhr claims to be a 'tamed cynic,' but he is neither cynical nor tame. He is one of the few shining intellectuals among the preachers of America who are both radical and deeply religious" [American Preachers of Today: Intimate Portrayals of Thirty-Two Leaders, (Bobbs-Merrill, Co., 1933), p. 249]. Niebuhr came to Detroit as a young man, fresh out of seminary, called to serve a small German Evangelical Church, which exploded under his l…

O Come All Ye Faithful! - A Song for Christmas Day

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It is Christmas Day. If this is for you a day of celebration of the coming of Jesus into the world, as is true for me, may the day be blessed. May the day be blessed for all, whom God calls children. In honor of the day, I share this video of the Celtic Women singing "O Come All Ye Faithful.


May the day be blessed as God is glorified in the message that we have been visited by God in the person of Jesus, born in Bethlehem, as Scripture records.

Wonderful News - A Meditation for Christmas Eve

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Luke 2:1-20

Charlie Brown always struggles with holidays. This is especially true of Christmas. One Christmas, since he was feeling rather blue, he went to Lucy’s psychiatrist booth for advice. Lucy decided to work through a list of phobias, to see if he was afraid of something.  When she  came to pantophobia, which she defined as the “fear of everything,” Charlie Brown shouted out: “That’s it.” Yes, Charlie Brown is afraid of everything. After Lucy got up from the ground, she came up with an idea—Charlie Brown needed a job. She decided he should direct the Christmas play. As you may remember, this didn’t go well. When he got to the auditorium, he gathered the cast and crew, handed out parts, and gave directions. Unfortunately, no one paid attention to him, because they were more interested in dancing than practicing. Since that wasn’t going well, Lucy decided to send Charlie Brown off to find a Christmas tree. When they got to the lot, Charlie Brown picked out a rather small and forlo…

Glory Be to God - A Sermon for Advent 4B

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Romans 16:25-27

According to Luke’s Gospel, angels appeared in the sky near Bethlehem on the day of Jesus’ birth. With only shepherds and their sheep in attendance, the angels sang: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors” (Lk 2:14). The angels sang this song of praise to God, because this child would be the messenger of peace and divine favor to all of creation. 
According to the church calendar, we must wait a little longer before we can hear the angelic chorus. Although we stand at the eve of Christmas, we gather this morning to celebrate the Fourth Sunday of Advent. This is one of those strange years, when we light the fourth candle of Advent and the Christ Candle on the same day. We have already lit the fourth candle, which symbolizes love, and soon we’ll light the last candle, which gives off the light of God’s glory revealed to us in Emmanuel, the one born in Bethlehem. The four Advent candles, which we have already lit, invite us to liv…

War and Religion (Edgar Dewitt Jones)

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What follows is an article posted by Edgar Dewitt Jones, once the pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I now serve that church, though it exists in a different location. Jones was an important figure among the Disciples in the first half of the 20th century. From my reading of him, his heart was tuned to the call to peace, but he also found himself supporting in one way or another the American war effort in both World Wars, though by World War II he was much more circumspect. I was going through a box of his columns (he wrote a daily column for many years for the Detroit News titled "Successful Living,"), and found this one, which I think makes some sense. It was written during World War II (the clippings are not dated, but I'm guessing in 1943). I invite you to ponder his words:
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An eminent prelate in Germany describes the churches there as crowded with worshipers and cites this as one evidence of a return to religion. Othe…

Charities Feel Christmas Fear -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

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Congress passed its tax cut bill yesterday and the President signed it. So, it's now law. Whatever its merits or demerits, one question raised by the bill relates to charitable giving. The bill doesn't get rid of it, but with the change in deduction (doubling it), there may be less incentive to itemize, which might lead to less incentive to give to charities. We must wait to see. My sense is that very few people give to churches for the tax deduction, but that may be less true of other charities -- like Public Radio or the local art museum. In any case, Martin Marty ruminates on the possible implications in this end of the year Sightings column. I invite you to respond, but I would ask that if you do respond that you stick to the question of charitable giving and not on the merits of the tax bill as a whole. There is a time and place for that, but this isn't it. The point here is what causes one to give to charities? I will note that in my case, most of our charitable givi…

The Letter to Philemon (Scot McKnight) - A Review

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THE LETTER TO PHILEMON (The New International Commentary on the New Testament). By Scot McKnight. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017. Xxxii + 127 pages.
                Slavery is America’s original sin. That is the verdict of our time. If slavery is America’s original sin, its perpetuation in this land for some three hundred years was abetted by readings of Scripture. In the modern age those interpretations have been contested. Many have argued that a passage like Galatians 3:28, which suggests that in Christ one is neither slave nor free is a signal that slavery did not align with the message of the Gospel. Indeed, Jesus is recorded as declaring that part of his own call to ministry included setting the oppressed free (Luke 4:18). Thus, while slavery was rampant in the first century, the seeds of its demise was embedded within the Gospel. Though one must admit that there are other messages, in places like Ephesians and 1 Peter that tell slaves to submit to their mast…

The Eternal Throne -- Lectionary Reflection for Advent 4 B (2 Samuel)

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2 Samuel 7:1-16 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts…

Table Talk (Mike Graves) - Review

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TABLE TALK: Rethinking Communion and CommunityBy Mike Graves. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017. Ix + 163 pages.


I am an ordained minister within a denomination that practices weekly communion. I'm not sure everyone is on the same page as to why we do this, but most Disciples of Christ church members, at least long-termers, cannot conceive of a worship service without communion being eaten. So, on any given Sunday those who gather at Disciples churches will share in communion, which will likely consist of a morsel of bread, along with a thimble-sized cup of juice. Most likely, this will be undertaken with a high degree of solemnity, for we gather to remember that Jesus died for our sins. The moment is somber and quiet, perhaps with the organ accompanying our meditation. This might be typical for Christians, but is it true to the earliest Christian practices? Might there be reason to restore a different form of communion, one that includes a full meal, and might even be presided ov…

Give Thanks Continually - Sermon for Advent 3B

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1 Thessalonians 5:12-28

We have reached the Third Sunday of Advent. We have lit the rose-colored candle, which symbolizes the message of joy. The Psalm for the day declares that “The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.” Then in the closing verses of the Psalm, the people sing: “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves” (Psalm 126:5-6).
As we gather to celebrate this message of Joy, we hear the words of Paul to the church at Thessalonika. If you want to get a sense of what the church looked like in its earliest days, this letter to a Macedonian church is a good place to go, since this is believed to be the oldest part of the New Testament. What we have read are Paul’s final exhortations and benediction. There’s a flurry of information here that can overwhelm the reader and leave the preacher puzzled as to how to deal with it. Fortunately for this pr…

Disciples of Christ Gathered at Table - A Theological Reflection

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Having laid out a view of Disciples and Baptism, I turn to the second sacrament (ordinance), that of the Eucharist/Lord's Supper/Breaking of Bread/Holy Communion. With this contribution I will conclude my conversation about the Sacraments. While not all Disciples affirm the nomenclature of sacrament, I feel it is the most appropriate description, and one we share with the larger ecumenical community. 
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The Lord's Supper If Baptism is understood to be the starting point for the Christian journey, the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist is that rite that nourishes the disciple along the journey of faith. While baptism initiates one into the covenant community, when the community gathers at the Table the covenant is renewed. The Table is a place where the family gathers, but it is also a place of hospitality where the nations are invited to share in table fellowship. Although this act of worship is called by a variety of names, each name helps define what happens at Table. Thus…

Disciples of Christ and Baptism - A Reflection

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In my previous post I spoke of Disciples sacramental thinking, noting the discomfort with the word sacrament and thus the choice of the word ordinance. Alexander Campbell chose the word ordinance to indicate that Jesus had ordained these two practices as means by which God’s grace was conferred to believers. Campbell could speak of the “ordinances” as being “pregnant institutions filled with the grace of God.” He spoke of baptism as being filled with “special grace” [Royal Humbert, ed., Compend of Alexander Campbell’s Theology, (Bethany Press, 1961), p. 183]. I would agree with Mark Toulouse who notes that Campbell’s use of ordinance rather than sacrament was “more a semantic change than a substantive one.” Unfortunately, over time Disciples, as Mark notes, lost this sense of the “ordinances” serving as means of grace, but Campbell’s understanding of these two signs was reflective of Reformed thinking, and the Westminster Confession “used the word ordinance interchangeable with the wo…

The Disciples of Christ and the Sacraments -- Initial Comments

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Note: This post is a continuation of exploration of theology from within the context of the Stone-Campbell Movement/Disciples of Christ. The church is a body that is marked by its sacraments and rituals—two of which have become preeminent within Protestantism: Baptism and the Eucharist. The Stone-Campbell Movement, of which the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is a branch, have placed great emphasis on these two sacraments, though by tradition that have been referred to as ordinances rather than sacraments. The word sacrament was seen as non-biblical and carried baggage of tradition that early Disciples like Alexander Campbell sought avoid. Nonetheless much of the Christian community speaks of these two elements of Christian experience as Sacraments.

Good News of God’s Favor - Lectionary Reflection for Advent 3B (Isaiah 61).

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Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
61 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,     because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,     to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives,     and release to the prisoners; 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,     and the day of vengeance of our God;     to comfort all who mourn; 3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion—     to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning,     the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness,     the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. 4 They shall build up the ancient ruins,     they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities,     the devastations of many generations.
8 For I the Lord love justice,     I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense,     and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. 9 Th…

Awaiting the King (James K. A. Smith) -- A Review

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AWAITING THE KING: Reforming Public Theology. (Cultural Liturgies, Volume 3). By James K. A. Smith.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017. Xvii + 233 pages.

                Preachers are cautioned to steer clear of politics. Not only is there the issue of tax exempt status, but going political can cause dissension in the congregation. Stick to religion and stay out of politics. The only problem with this advice is that the biblical story is very political. Jesus himself was executed as political figure. The Romans didn't care about the intricacies of Jewish theology, but they did pay attention to talk about alternative kingdoms and kings not on their payroll. So, Pilate had Jesus executed. Then there are the prophets of Israel, who often stepped on the toes of the political establishment. Politics and religion have long been connected for as long as there has been human history, even if the relationship is often tenuous. This leads us to the book under review, James K. A. Smith’s Aw…

Divine Patience - A Sermon for Advent 2B

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2 Peter 3:8-15

If you’ve been out Christmas shopping, you may have found yourself standing in long lines. The same might be true at the Post Office. When it comes to calling customer service or tech support, time may slow down to a crawl. The occasional reminder that a representative will answer as soon as possible doesn’t make the wait any easier. So, what should you do while you wait? How do you keep yourself occupied, when half an hour seems like a day? Having a smart phone may prove helpful, at least while waiting in a line at the store or the post office. At least I can check Facebook and Twitter, and if the line is too long, I can open a book on my Kindle app.  But, what if you’re waiting for God to act?  
This season of Advent is by definition a season of waiting. We pray “O come, o come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel.” Each year we sing these words of expectation, while waiting for Emmanuel to be fully revealed to us, not as a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, but as the re…

What is "Essential Kenosis"?

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How should we understand how God interacts with creation? Is God all powerful, and therefore able to do anything God desires? Are there limitations, even if self-generated limitations? In other words, does Gods' character define how God engages creation? In the view of Thomas Jay Oord, any conversation about the actions of God must be understood in the context of God's "uncontrolling love." Tom explores this concept in his book The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence (IVP Academic, 2015).He then invited a number of people including scholars and pastors and lay persons to respond. Those responses appear in the book Uncontrolling Love: Essays Exploring the Love of God with Introductions by Thomas Jay Oord,(SacraSage Press, 2017). [Note: the cost of the paperback has been lowered from 24.95 to 11:95 on Amazon until Christmas Eve]. I contributed one of the essays to that book.  Now, as part of an effort to broaden the conversation abo…

Disciples Ecclesiology -- Part Two: Marks of the Church

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The New Testament uses several images to describe the church. One of the most compelling is Paul’s description of the church as the “body of Christ.” Other important descriptors include vine and branches, bride, and family. Regarding the body of Christ, Paul reminds us that there is but one body, with many members, each with its own purpose/gift (1 Cor. 12). As Alexander Campbell, remarked in the Millennial Harbinger, “all Christian communities to stand to each other as individual members in the human body stand to each other in giving or receiving pleasure or pain, . . . honor or dishonor” [Royal Humbert, Compend of Alexander Campbell’s Theology, (Bethany Press, 1961), p. 160].
While biblical images have important power in illuminating our understanding of the church, historically the church/churches have affirmed four marks of a true church. Four markers that are named in the historic creeds that one should look for in determining whether a church stands in line with the historic tr…

A Disciples Ecclesiology: The Nature of the Church

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Note: This post is a continuation of my Disciples Theology series. This will be the first of two on ecclesiology.   ************

Ecclesiology plays a significant role in Disciples theology. Our divisions as a tradition have often been rooted in differences in understanding about how close contemporary churches should come to the earliest forms of church. There has been a tendency in at least parts of our tradition to read the Book of Acts as providing a blue print that must be restored if the church is to be truly Christian. In the next few reflections I’d like us to think more deeply about what it means to be church. Standing at the heart of this conversation is the question of whether the church is simply a human institution or more than simply a human institution? Is polity, the way we organize ourselves a matter of indifference, or is there something inherently spiritual to the way we organize ourselves? Another element inherent in the conversation is whether the church can be sepa…

The Glory of God Revealed - Lectionary Reflection for Advent 2B (Isaiah 40)

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Isaiah 40:1-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
40 Comfort, O comfort my people,
    says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and cry to her
that she has served her term,
    that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins. 3 A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all people shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” 6 A voice says, “Cry out!”
    And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
    their constancy is like the flower of the field.
7 The grass withers, the flower fades,
    when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
    surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers, the flower fades;
    but the word …

Fearless Dialogues (Gregory C. Ellison II) -- A Review

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FEARLESS DIALOGUES:  A New Movement for Justice. By Gregory C. Ellison II. Foreword by Parker J. Palmer.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. Xiii + 170 pages.

                We live in a polarized age, where productive and transformative conversation rarely occurs. We seem more at home talking within our silos. We may feel better about ourselves being on the correct side of the issue, but we nothing really changes. In part this lack of conversation is due to a fear of the other, including the stranger. We have, apparently, learned too well the warning of our parents, that we should not talk to strangers. But change and transformation, will require a willingness to sit down with the stranger and with the person with whom we do not share common perspectives. It will require an ability to listen, and pay attention to people who get lost in the crowd, allowing them to speak for themselves. To get there, we need wise guidance and a process that will remove boundaries and move t…

Out of Adventism (Jerry Gladson) -- A Review

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OUT OF ADVENTISM: A Theologian’s Journey. By Jerry Gladson. Foreword by Edwin Zachrison. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2017. Xx + 306 pages.

People’s experiences of religion are not monolithic. For some participation in a religious community can be very positive and life affirming. They can also be destructive spiritually, emotionally, and physically. For some a particular community can be supportive, while that same community can be spiritually abusive to others. In other words, we need to take seriously the testimony of those who have been abused, while recognizing that not everyone in a particular community has had the same experience.
This book is the testimony, the story, of a person who was deeply involved in the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Jerry Gladson was a theological educator, an Old Testament scholar and theologian, who taught at one of the Adventist’s colleges. He was an ordained minister as well. At one point, early in his career, he was a rising star, but in time he ran…

Restore Us O God! a Reflection on Psalm 80

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Psalm 80 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) To the leader: on Lilies, a Covenant. Of Asaph. A Psalm. Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
    you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
    before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might,
    and come to save us! Restore us, O God;
    let your face shine, that we may be saved. O Lord God of hosts,
    how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears,
    and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbors;
    our enemies laugh among themselves. Restore us, O God of hosts;
    let your face shine, that we may be saved. You brought a vine out of Egypt;
    you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
    it took deep root and filled the land.
10 The mountains were covered with its shade,
    the mighty cedars with its branches;
11 it sent out its branches to the sea,
  …