All I Need to Know About Faith I Learned from the Magi

All I Need to Know about Faith I Learned from the MagiA sermon preached for the Epiphany of our Lord, January 6, 2019 on Matthew 2:1-12 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas.

I have borrowed the title for this sermon from the book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.The wise sages who followed a star to find the Christ child remind us that being a Christian is less about reciting a doctrine, and more about a way of life. What do these foreigners from an ancient religion far from Israel and far from us, have to teach us about living as faithful Christians today? If you have not committed to any New Year's resolutions, yet, you might find a couple of ideas here.

Number 1: Pay attention to the creation. The Magi noticed a change in the heavens and it informed their behavior. The sign of a bright star set them on a journey to find the new thing that God was doing—breaking into human history in the form of a baby that would be King and Savior of all, even above their own religion. What does it mean for us today to pay attention to the changing signs in creation? Rising temperatures, melting glaciers, increasing ocean levels, and more extreme storms, beg us to pay attention to how we interact with the creation, calling us to mitigate human effects on the health of our planet.

In 2006 I heard theologian John Dominic Crossan speak and someone asked him about natural disasters. His response was, “God gives justice to the creation.” This sounds radical, but it’s not a new idea. Twelfth century German mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, said, “All of creation God gives to humankind to use. If this privilege is misused, God’s justice permits creation to punish humanity.” But she also encouraged: “If we fall in love with creation deeper and deeper, we will respond to its endangerment with passion.”

Number 2: Faith is a journey. We need to move out of our comfort zone and traditions and be willing to try something new. The wise men were not kings, but rather Zoroastrian priests and astrologers from Persia, modern day Iran. They had plenty of knowledge and a religion with a rich history dating back as far as 1500 BC. They could have stayed where the were, doing the same old thing. But they had a deep desire for more, for truth, for a Savior. They believed they could foretell the miraculous birth of a divine prophet by reading the stars. So, they left their comfort zone and went on a journey to pursue revelation, to learn truth, to deepen their understanding and experience of God breaking into human life.

What does it mean for us to live a faith as a journey—never satisfied, but instead, always seeking new experiences of God’s Spirit, always looking for signs of God’s love breaking into our everyday, and always willing to grow on a journey where we expect God to challenge and to change us? What new journey might you undertake this year to deepen your relationship with God? After church next week, I am beginning a class with a new curriculum called Rooted which is having a transformational effect in other congregations. The study book includes devotions for 5 days out of the week, as well as a weekly conversation with others on the journey, a service project and time in prayer. It is guaranteed to be a journey like the Magi—one to change, inform and deepen your experience of God coming into the world—your world and your life.

Number 3: Ask for Directions. When the Magi made it to Jerusalem, they still did not know where to find Jesus, so they asked for help. They knew a lot, they could read the stars—they made it a long way on their own, but ultimately, they could not get to where they wanted to go without asking for assistance. I know that asking for directions is difficult for many of us (men) to do, but if the wise men of the Bible can do it, so can you! That’s true both for getting to the right address when we travel (and our GPS isn’t working) and for our life of faith. Asking for help is a sign not of weakness, but of faith and the humility required to open space for God to work anew. There are individual aspects to our faith for sure, but none of us can get where God wants to be without help from others.

For our devotions during our last two Council meetings, we have done something called Dwelling in the Word. It is a style of listening to a Bible passage with each person reflecting on and sharing what they hear God saying. No one is the expert—God gives us amazing insights that arise from each person’s life experience and personality. None of us, including me, have all the answers to our questions of faith or our future in the church—but together—with a spirit of humility and asking for help, God’s direction for our lives and the mission of St. Luke’s will become clearer.

Number 4: Pause for Joy. When the sages saw that the star had stopped, they were “overwhelmed with joy.” Why include such a detail? After a long journey and stopping for directions, you would think they would rush in to see Jesus. But no, the Magi pause, so we can stop with them and experience the joy of God breaking into our human story, anticipating the moment where we see God’s work clearly.

What would it be like to make one of our new year’s resolutions be to “pause for joy?” That’s an experience we can have many times a day: pausing for joy in the moment before we say grace for a meal or taking a moment to watch our child or grandchild sleep. Pausing for joy is snapping a selfie with our best friend or noticing the gift of family being together—whether it’s before starting a favorite show or piling into the car. Pausing for joy is taking in the pinks and blues streaking across the Texas sky at sunset or praying after receiving the body and blood of Christ. In the Gospel of John, chapter 15, after telling the disciples to abide in him as he abides in God, Jesus says, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” God desires us to have joy in Jesus Christ—not that our life is perfect or that everything is working out exactly as we hoped—but that in the midst of life as it is, God keeps breaking into our reality with love, and light, forgiveness and hope, beauty and faith. We can pause and experience joy in God’s presence.

Number 5: Offer gifts. After pausing for joy, the sages entered the house where Mary was, paid him homage and offered their gifts. Imagine these educated, wealthy priests coming to a foreign land, getting on their knees, and publicly worshiping a baby in his poor mother’s arms. How many borders of class, race, culture and social expectation are we willing to cross so that others know that our highest devotion, our allegiance, our worship and our heart belong to Jesus Christ alone? Fr. Richard Rohr writes, “Christianity cannot be bound by ethnicity or nationality. This puts it in essential conflict with any group that wants to domesticate the message for its own ‘patriotic’ purposes.” Jesus came for all nations, all of humanity, all of creation.

Even though God is working salvation out in this grand and cosmic scale, the Magi show us that we need to bring our gifts, our contribution to God’s work of salvation. We may not have gold, frankincense or myrrh, but God has given all of us something to share to build up the kingdom. It may be the gift of financial resources, or it may be time or teaching, administration or accounting, singing or storytelling, leadership or landscaping, computers or carpentry. You may not be physically able to contribute any of these gifts, but no matter your situation, you can offer the most important gift of prayer—prayer for every member, prayer for our mission, for resources, for direction, for deepened faith, and for greater spiritual practices. The sages invite us to our knees in worship and in offering the gift of ourselves to the mission of Christ.

Finally, Number 6: Listen for God. The sages from the East learned from a dream not to share information about Jesus with Herod. We too, can listen to God who speaks to us in a whole variety of ways. In this one story, the wise men notice God’s guidance through creation with the star, the voice of other people in receiving directions, the face of a baby, and now in a dream. How many times do we miss God’s messages to us because we are looking for them in only one way? Throughout Scripture, God speaks through dreams, angels, creation, people, wrestling, hardship, healing, resurrection, hospitality, affirmation, fire, storms, voices, clouds, mountains, foreign powers, metaphors, prophets, teachers, flashes of light, the poor, parables, songs, poetry, inner wisdom, bread, water, pregnancy, children, visions, and I could go on, but you get the point.

Faith is about looking for God-sightings every day and in everything, being open to new ways for the light of Christ and the love of God to shimmer in unexpected places. God can lead us into the next right action when we actively watch for God’s guidance. Because the Magi were open to God, they participated in God’s desire to thwart the evil that Herod devised by going back to their country a different way. Listening for the many ways God speaks enables us to respond daily to how God wants to use us whether it is to thwart evil or to do good.

So, you see, AlI We Really Need to Know about Faith, We Learn from the Magi. Through these six practices, the Magi show us that Christian faith is a way of life. In this new year, as we pay attention to the creation, as we engage in the journey of faith, as we ask for directions and help along the way, as we pause for joy, as we worship Jesus, and share our gifts, as we listen for God in all things and respond, we will experience anew the God who is always with us, the God who saves us with lavish love, and the God who gives us the power and presence of Jesus Christ every single day.

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A God We Cannot Resist: A Baby Wooing Us into Love

A God We Cant ResistA Sermon preached for Christmas Eve for December 24, 2018, St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

Perhaps you saw the 2006 movie, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby with Will Ferrell. Although a complete goofball, Ricky Bobby earned millions as a successful race car driver. In one scene he sits down to dinner with his family and best friend, and Ricky Bobby says grace. He starts out, “Dear Lord Baby Jesus…we thank you for this bountiful harvest of Dominoes, KFC and the always delicious Taco Bell .…” Later he continues, “Dear 8-pound, 6-ounce newborn baby Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant, so cuddly, but still omnipotent, we’d just like to thank you for all these races I’ve won… Dear tiny Jesus with your golden fleece diapers…”

When his wife criticizes Ricky Bobby for praying to the infant Jesus, reminding him that Jesus grew up, Ricky Bobby says, “Look, I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I’m sayin’ grace. When you say grace, you can say it to Grownup Jesus or Teenage Jesus or Bearded Jesus…I like the baby version the best, you hear me?”

Even though it was played for humor, I think Ricky Bobby is on to something. In the frenzy of holiday busyness, have we ever really taken the time to absorb what it means for God to come to us as an 8 lb, 6 oz newborn baby? The God of the cosmos, pressing down into such a minute form, and then coming into the world in the most human of ways, through a young unmarried woman. A newborn infant—so beautiful and innocent, eyes wide with wonder, and so dependent--completely dependent on human care and love for survival. Why would God do this?

Because God knows—no one can resist the draw of newborn baby. God draws near to us in vulnerability to woo us into loving him. God comes in love, through love, because of love, as an infant—God woos into loving him—becoming a God we can’t resist. It isn’t fair is it? Who can turn away from a baby? We’re all drawn to the manger—from the working poor of the shepherds, to the wealthy and wise foreigners following the light that shines over the God of love.

Imagine walking with the shepherds or riding with the sages to the animal shed where angels sing and starlight twinkles. You kneel in the straw and inch forward to see the baby in his young mother’s strong and tender arms. You can’t resist that face—a fresh, holy gift of life. You ask Mary if you can hold her son, and she opens her arms and passes you the bundle of sweet-smelling hope. You hold the Lord God in your arms and marvel at his gaze of wonder, and expectation. God’s gift for you, wrapped in the swaddling cloths of love.

All he needs from you is your love. All those images of God’s judgment melt away, and you remember, you remember that “faith, hope and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.” Our God comes in tenderness, in infancy, to invite you to be love-drawn rather than fear-driven.* It’s the only response we can imagine in the face of a newborn—to be love-drawn. Jesus gazes up at you, dependent, hoping…you lean over and draw him close, and kiss face of God. 

This is the essence of human community: to hold one another in love and behold the face of God—to be love-drawn rather than fear-driven. Every baby we behold—whether our own child or grandchild, a niece or nephew, a neighbor down the street or a child in our Sunday School, is a sacred reminder that God comes to woo us in love. Today, Jesus still comes in vulnerability, depending on us for his survival, and to share the incarnation of his love.

As we hold the baby Jesus in our arms, we can imagine moving into tomorrow and next year letting go of fear and embracing love. The tiny baby Jesus in “his golden fleece diapers,” comes to you in tenderness, asking you to love him in return, and to keep his grace and love alive in the world.

*The phrase, "love-drawn rather than fear driven" comes from Fr. Richard Rohr


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From Frenzy to Love

From Frenzy to LoveA sermon preached for the Fourth Sunday of Advent on Luke 1:39-55 on December 23, 2018 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

I still vividly remember December 21st of 2005. I had a terrible case of the Christmas crazies, trying to deliver gifts to all of my three children’s teachers and the administrative staff at their different schools, get gifts for the mail carrier, the UPS delivery man, our extended family—all of which needed to be mailed—my brother’s birthday gift, as well as Hanukah gifts for our former neighbors.

I had already put ten boxes in the mail, and that morning, my plan was to pick up one more gift, wrap it up at the post office, mail the last three packages and still get to a ten am appointment on time. Needless to say, I had a lot of gift-giving anxiety.

Perhaps your family was like mine when I was growing up—we did not openly express our feelings very often. I once heard Garrison Keillor on A Prairie Home Companion say that we Scandinavians don’t talk about the things that are most precious to us—our faith and our feelings.

This meant that gifts carried a lot of meaning because they expressed feelings for you. They were not tokens; they were it. Love was expressed not just in the gift itself but also in how it was beautifully wrapped with lovely bows. We even had a bow-maker and my sister, Pam, who was very artistic, could make beautiful bows and wrap presents with sharp corners. I was not talented at either.

If the gifts I gave needed to communicate all the love and appreciation, gratitude, affection, and thoughtfulness I felt toward people, my gifts—with their mushy corners and lame-looking bows—were always coming up short.

Thus, gift anxiety—Have I remembered everyone? Have I given them enough? Will they feel loved and appreciated by this gift?

On that Dec. 21st, I stood at the bathroom mirror, rushing to put on my make-up so I could get out the door, and finish the holiday shopping, wrap, and mail three packages before that morning appointment. I turned on National Public Radio and listened to the morning news. They were interviewing Santa Claus on his experience of listening to children tell him what they wanted for Christmas. Santa talked about how much he loved talking to children at this time of year. He remembered one boy in particular: as he sat on his lap, the boy leaned up and whispered in Santa’s ear, and then Santa whispered back. The boy jumped down and ran to his mother in absolute glee shouting, “Santa loves me!”

I burst into tears, mascara running down my face, laying bear the anxiety I couldn’t quite name, nor resolve on my own. I thought I had outgrown my “present anxiety,” but the gift-frenzy of the morning told another story. As I heard those three words, “Santa loves me,” God’s love washed over me. Of course, my family and friends knew I loved them; of course the teachers and neighbors knew I appreciated them because I told them; I also knew they all loved me whether I gave them a gift or not.

More importantly, God loved me, and it was a story on the radio that proclaimed the gospel to me, reminding me that God’s presence and action in my life were more real than any gift I gave or received.

We cannot announce God’s love to ourselves, can we? We need other messengers—people, events, nature, the radio—God can use anything really—to catch our attention and help us experience God’s love anew. These “God-sightings” can come in unpredictable ways and at unexpected times to nudge us and remind us of God’s loving presence and action in our lives. We can’t preach it to ourselves, and much of the time, we can’t even see God at work in ourselves even when it may be so clear to someone else.

Elizabeth and Mary in our Gospel reading are also caught up in the frenzy of life—not the Christmas crazies, because of course, Christmas had not happened yet. But I imagine each of them were harried none-the-less. Elizabeth was unexpectedly pregnant in her advanced age—somewhat similar to Sarah and Abraham. Can you imagine what she was doing? At her age she never expected to have a baby, so she must have been scrambling to prepare—nothing was ready—no supplies, no plan, no cradle. Her husband, Zechariah, a busy priest, had lost his voice because he didn’t believe the nudge God gave him when the angel Gabriel revealed that Elizabeth would conceive and bear him a son, who would become John, the Baptist. Unexpectedly pregnant with a husband who could not speak, Elizabeth must have been just as racked with anxiety and busy-ness as we can be this time of year.

But God knew she needed a reminder of his love for her, of God’s presence and action in her life. It didn’t come from NPR, but from the kick of the baby inside her. When she saw Mary, John—still growing in her womb—nudged her to pause and notice God’s presence and love for her made real in Mary.

Elizabeth could not proclaim God’s love to herself—she needed something or someone else to nudge her out of her busy-ness and worry—and say, “Look! Listen! Notice! God’s love and presence is right here for you. God’s purpose is being fulfilled for you in this moment.”

At John’s kick in her womb, God’s love washed over Elizabeth and she was filled with the Holy Spirit as she spoke to Mary, “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Elizabeth experiences God’s nudge that Mary carries her awaited Messiah.

Mary must have been in even more of frenzy than Elizabeth. She was engaged and planning a wedding—working with her family to gather the dowry, make the guest list, plan the menu, talk with the priest. But then she unexpectedly became pregnant when she should not have—this was not according to the plan at all and could ruin everything. No wonder she went out of town and stayed with Elizabeth for three months. She had to get away from the shame, the gossip, the judgment, and those saying that she should be stoned to death for getting pregnant before marriage. Talk about being racked with anxiety.

Mary could not announce to herself God’s love either. Oh sure, the angel Gabriel came and spoke to her, but as time passed, can you imagine her wondering if that was real? Was that a figment of her imagination? Was she losing it? Was God really in this or should she really be shunned, shamed and stoned? Mary could not raise herself out of anxiety; she needed Elizabeth to give her nudge and say—"I understand it may seem like all is lost—but I know right down to this baby kicking in my womb, that God is at work in you and in your life.”

Elizabeth continued her revelation to Mary, responding to the nudge from the Holy Spirit: “For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord."

Mary needed Elizabeth to confirm God’s presence and action in her life. The angel visitation was real. When Elizabeth confirmed that God loved her and was with her, Mary sings her song of praise, which we just chanted as our Psalm today.

“Santa loves me,” three simple words that nudged me back into grace, washed me with God’s love in a way I could not do for myself. God loves Elizabeth, God loves Mary, and God loves you.

I don’t know how, when, or where your nudge of God’s love will come this season: it may be from the radio, the kick of a baby, or the words of a friend; it may be from an unexpected Christmas card, singing your favorite carol, a conversation with a stranger in line at the store, a cardinal outside your window, or a lady bug inside your car. I had a ladybug sit on my window this week as I went from the hospital to my dad's house, back to the hospital, then to the grocery store and finally home. As I opened the door each time to give the lady bug an opportunity to fly away, she stayed right there and accompanied me the whole afternoon. Some may see it as just a ladybug, but I saw God-sighting reminding of God's constant presence no matter what.

So, I encourage you to listen, to watch, and to notice God-sightings—how God nudges you, how God reaches out to you in the midst of your anxiety, loneliness, grief or whatever it is that can prevent you from experiencing how much God treasures you.

God is patiently and politely nudging you and showing up in all kinds of ways, hoping you will notice the God that leans into your ear and whispers, “I love you.”

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Wake Up!

Mosaic LogoA sermon preached on December 2, 2018 for the First Sunday in Advent on Luke 21:25-36 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas.

“People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” That sounds about right, doesn’t it? The Camp Fire was the most destructive wild fire in California history.
2018 is on track to be the fourth hottest year on record, outpaced by the previous three years.  We can anticipate that the intensity and destructive impact of storms and hurricanes will continue to increase with these warmer temperatures. Children are starving to death in Yemen and so many places around the world. Soldiers are being killed in Afghanistan and conflict persist globally. Migrants are fleeing war or persecution in several countries. It sounds like the end times described by Jesus in our Gospel reading, by the books of Revelation and Daniel and other biblical passages. Is it the end times?

In every single congregation or interim pastorate I’ve served over the last thrity years, someone has commented to me that it feels like we’re living in the end times. Do you suppose that every generation has thought they were living in the end times? I bet it felt that way during the oil crisis of the 1970’s, and during World War I and II. Those who lived through the Civil War probably felt like it was the end times to them. And what about those who endured slavery, or the Inquisition of the 16th century–I bet they saw signs in the sun, the moon and the stars. And the Black Plague in the 1300’s when tens of millions of people died?—that probably seemed like the worst time of distress among the nations.

Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that every generation believes they see the signs the Bible describes, and that they are living in the end times. But it turns out, none of them were right—it’s been over 2,000 years and Jesus has not come back yet. The passage we forget to remember is the one where Jesus says, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32-33). If Jesus didn’t know when he was walking on the earth, you and I aren’t going to know either.

For this reason, I used to think it was pointless to speculate about whether we were living in the end times, and quite frankly, I did not want to preach on another passage about the apocalypse since we had one two weeks ago. But then I began to wonder for the first time in nearly three decades of preaching, “what if Jesus wants every generation to think they’re living in the end times? What if that’s the whole point? What would that mean?

Certainly, every generation has its share of wars and rumors of wars, of bizarre weather events, earthquakes, fires, and nations in distress. It seems like the “fear and foreboding” of such a focus would paralyze us—if all we pay attention to are disasters and the cry of human suffering, we could not get out of bed in the morning. Why would Jesus want every generation looking around at the chaos and calamity of our time and think that the end is coming? Maybe it’s because he wants all of us “to stand up and raise our heads, because our redemption is drawing near!” Maybe it’s because every generation needs to be on the lookout for Jesus--not only Jesus coming in a cloud—but Jesus Christ who is present and active now in the very middle of our struggles and our troubles.

One of the pastors who spoke at my Mother-in-law, Joan’s memorial service shared the following:
A father was tucking his daughter into bed one night and started to say the traditional bed-time prayer:
‘Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I wake before I die—.’

The father stopped, and said, ‘oh, wait a second, I got that wrong.’ His daughter piped up and said, ‘no daddy, that’s right, we have to wake up.’ 

That’s what was remarkable about Joan’s life. Joan woke up. She woke up to the need that was around her; she woke up to discrimination and inequality. Joan also woke up to God’s work of justice and wholeness; she woke up to the truth that we can do something about these inequalities now. Joan woke up and joined in God’s work for good, for love and for hope in the world.

Wake up! Stand up and raise your heads! Look for your redemption! Jesus will return on a cloud one day, but we do not know the time or place—so look for the risen presence of Christ who promises to be with us until the end of the age! (If you have to think it’s the end times to wake up and take notice, then so be it!). God is alive and active today, right now, in the world, in our community, in our daily life, in our work, in the school down the street, in the neighborhood around us, and everywhere we go.

Jesus wants every generation to wake up and to look, not just at the calamity, but to see God’s activity in the midst of it, looking for God’s work of redemption here and now so we can participate in what God is doing! Where do you notice love in action, justice at work, hope engendered, possibilities embraced? What looks like Jesus in your daily life and in your community? And when you see God at work, how does Jesus call us, as a church, to participate? What better way is there to not let our “hearts be weighed down with dissipation and and drunkenness the worries of this life” (Luke 21:34) than to be alert to God’s presence and to join God’s work of love and justice?

We have a new powerful tool to help find ways to do more ministry—to see God’s presence and join in God’s activity. The Bishop mentioned it last week when he was here, and I wrote about it in the December newsletter that just came out. The Council voted unanimously to participate in this 3-year program with Luther Seminary called, Leadership for Faithful Innovation, and it is designed to help us listen to God, to each other, to our history, and to our community so that we might see God’s activity more clearly and join God’s work in our community more fully. It’s a process of training, learning, sharing, and experimenting as we discover new ways to be church in the 21st century in our global region.

If you have not had a chance to fill out the Spiritual Life Inventory on-line using the link from the Reporter or the Weekly Word, please stay for a few minutes after church to fill out a paper copy. It’s anonymous and it provides information about our spiritual practices as a congregation. We’ll take it again in three years to see how our spiritual activities have changed!

The most wonderful aspect about this new program is that it expands what St. Luke’s is already good at. We had a living example yesterday, of how this congregation wakes up, stands up and raises its head to see God at work and finds ways to help. I do not know when, in its history, St. Luke’s started supporting Mosaic ministry with developmentally disabled adults, but at some point, someone said, “look what Mosaic is doing--that looks like Jesus to me.…Mosaic’s group homes and empowerment programs look like God’s love to us, so let’s participate!”

Yesterday the gym was full of Mosaic clients enjoying, pizza, presents, and prizes at the December birthday party St. Luke’s has been putting on many years? There were hundreds of dollars’ worth of gifts donated by all of you—along with music, dancing, games, fun, and love that brought joy and belonging to people society tends to cast aside.

Are we living in the end times? Some days, it sure feels like it. As we look at our world today, there’s no doubt that we need a Savior and that Jesus’s work of redemption is not yet finished. Jesus promises to come again and bring this whole creation into peace, harmony and wholeness. We believe that we either fiber of our being, but it is not ours to know the day or the hour. While we wait and yearn for that time to come, we do so, not with “fear and foreboding,” but we wait with hope, because every day, we wake up, stand up, and raise our heads to see Christ’s love and justice active and present in the world today, calling us to join him in God’s work.

And that’s exactly what we’re going to do.

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Linda Anderson-Little

Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.