Monday, June 1, 2015

What's in a Name?

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In our culture, a name is mostly a means of identification, but in biblical times, a named told you something about a person's identity, about who they were, about their character or destiny. The name which God gives when identifying himself to Moses is YHWH, a form of the Hebrew verb "to be" which basically translates to "I am who I am." Because in Hebrew the verb "to be" denotes activity which defines a subject, YHWH or I AM could also be translated to mean, "I will tell you who I am by what I do." This is why we find so many stories and also so many names of God in our sacred scriptures. They are all revealing more to us about this God, YHWH.

In our faith community I am working through a series on what is commonly know as the Ten Commandments, and yesterday we talked about what's in a name. Exodus 20:7 reads: "You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain" (New King James). Another translation reads: "Never use the name of Yahweh your Elohim carelessly. Yahweh will make sure that anyone who carelessly uses his name will be punished (Names of God Bible). The Hebrew word, shav, translated "in vain" in the NKJV, means emptiness, vanity, emptiness of speech, lying. If I were to attempt a modern, colloquial interpretation of this directive, it would go something like this: Do not empty out the holy significance, character,and authority of the name of YHWH. 

Basically, there are three ways in which people trivialize the name of YHWH. First is by perjury and swearing, both of which have to do with improper use of oaths. To willfully tell an untruth in court after having taken an oath (invoking the name of God) to tell the truth reveals what a low respect one has for the name of God. Swearing has a positive, promise-making sense, such as the oath to tell the truth in court, as well as a negative sense. The negative aspect of swearing relates to using offensive words when one speaks. Basically, it is taking a word which is positive and using it out of context in order to add emphasis, usually in a negative, disparaging way. In Quebec, curse words are primarily church words (tabernacle, the host, the chalice) which reflect Quebec's bitter history and disrespect for the Catholic church. 

The second way is through breaking a promise or oath made to God, such as when the Israelites repeatedly dishonoured the covenant God made with them. I won't go into any more detail on that. The third way is probably the most applicable to our contemporary context, and that is speaking words on behalf of God which he has not spoken. We can use God's name in a way which is contrary to his character, we can invoke God's authority when he has not given it, or we can misquote God, attributing our ideas and words to God in order to legitimize them. R.T. Kendall has some strong words on this topic. 

"One of the hardest habits for some of us to break is saying, 'God told me this' or 'Here is what the Lord showed me.' Is this truly a bad habit? Yes. In fact, I believe it's one of the worst claims perpetrated in churches today, despite being a clear violation of the third commandment... How do we misuse God's name when we claim He told us something? With out intent. Most often we mention Him for one reason: to elevate our own credibility. It is not His name we are thinking of, it is our reputation. Adding the weight of God's name to our words gives us authority and respectability. But the truth is, we're not thinking of God's name and glory when we do this - we're thinking of our own. ... We quote people when we speak to give our own words a higher standing, a greater level of underlying truthfulness. That is certainly why I quote Scripture. In the same way, if I quote St. Augustine or John Wesley, it is to make you feel that I have a greater measure of reliability on my side. But no one likes a name-dropper. They're not a popular type. If I told you I know Oral Roberts or Billy Graham or the pope, who would I be trying to make look good? Not them. It's no different with God." [1]

So how can we go about honouring the intent of the third commandment and not becoming name-droppers? For me, it is helpful to think about how I use the names of people I love and respect most. When I was in college, my roommate had an interesting expression every time things were going wrong or she was frustrated. She would exclaim, "Oh, Martha!" And not in a pleasant tone of voice. That happens to be my name, so I found myself wincing every time she said it. I wanted my name to be associated with joy and goodness, with love and friendship, with truth and honesty, not with disappointment and frustration. 

One interpretation of the directive to treat God's name with respect developed during Second Temple Judaism (about 515 BCE to 70 BCE) when temple leaders decided to place a taboo on pronouncing the name of God (YHWH) and instead, replaced it with Adonai (Lord) or HaShem (the name). This was meant to keep people from trivializing the name of YHWH, but does avoiding the name altogether fulfill the intent behind the command? I don't think so. Though I respect the gravity with which the Jewish tradition approaches the law, I believe the reaction is one based in fear and not love. It does not move one towards intimacy and relationship. Going back to the story of my swearing roommate, I didn't want her to stop using my name, I just wanted her to use it properly. Likewise, if I stopped calling my husband by name, that would be odd, and indicate that something might be amiss in our relationship. Sometimes I say his name in frustration (Argh, Dean forgot to put his dishes in the dishwasher again!). I don't like it when I do that. I want to speak Dean's name with love in my voice, reflecting his kindness and generosity and commitment to me, with a sense of our many years of friendship and delight in each other. 

So how should we use God's holy name? Lovingly, respectfully, with delight, with joy, never emptying it of its wonderful and rich nature, but being mindful of the character revealed in the name, remembering the acts done by the God of this name. Let us sing, pray, and shout to our God. Let us tell of his wonderful mercy and kindness, let us proclaim the good news of his love, and let us call on his name to help us when we are helpless. This is YHWH. Hallelujah!

Matte (Martha) from Montreal

[1] R. T. Kendall,"God Told Me... Really?" in Ministry Today. You can find the whole article here.

Monday, May 4, 2015

worship practice

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Theology is not black and white. It is not cut and dried, whatever that means (sounds a bit like beef jerky). For most of us, at some point, this supposed fuzziness becomes slightly problematic. We would prefer theological answers to be clear. Why can't the actions of God throughout history and the words written about God be more straightforward and obvious? But...sigh... this is not the case. I suppose this might be one of the reasons why worship can be difficult; worship primarily requires submission, not understanding.

I myself am in a season where I am discovering again what it means to worship the Most High God, especially communally. Sunday morning gatherings in my faith community are rarely an optimum time for me: I am usually tired and trying to juggle any number of things like hauling equipment, setting up, greeting people, rehearsing music, trying to get the right words on the screen, or preparing to give a talk. Musically speaking, the old songs seem a bit ragged and tired, and the new songs are too repetitive and, dare I say, maybe a bit trite? That's just my opinion.

But honestly, there will always be an excuse for why I find worshiping God difficult or uninteresting. Worship, when we honour someone or something with extravagant love and extreme submission, is not our natural posture. And yet, it is. (See, not cut and dried!) We were created to worship, to be in communion with the divine (see the creation story). Because we are dependent beings who long for intimacy with God and with each other, we are, in a way, always worshiping. We are always putting our longing and extravagant love out there. It might be for a new car or a bacon cheeseburger or some beautiful and talented person or a shiny golden calf, but we are always trying to give ourselves to someone or something.

But loving and submitting are hard. Really hard. Because they demand that we not be self-absorbed or self-reliant. When we worship God, we put ourselves in loving mode, in surrender mode, in listening and receiving mode. When we worship God, we unite ourselves with the activity of the kingdom of heaven (that's pretty cool!). Worshiping God keeps us honest and truthful as we bring praises, laments, cries for help, proclamations of God's will and ways, and stories of God's faithfulness to the community. Worship, like any spiritual discipline, is a creative skill which requires practice. We don't always do it well, but that doesn't make it any less valid or worthwhile. Loving someone is a daily exercise. Submitting to another means that we are constantly re-submitting ourselves.

This might all sound like a lot of work, like we have to dig deep to get our worship on (I heard that unfortunate phrase used on the radio this past week), but I believe worship is not first and foremost work; to me, it is more like a mirror. Because God has shown us love, we open ourselves up to him, and when we are in open, submitting mode, we experience more of the extravagant love that God has for us. Our natural response to this overwhelming, unending love is to worship, to reflect the love and glory of God back to him. Worship, in fact, is not something that we pull up out of our inner being; it is gratitude and affection fueled by the extravagant and overabundant love and mercy of our divine lover. In the process of reflecting God's glory and love back to him, we (and all of creation in some way) are touched by this glorious presence of holy love. Paradoxically, when we worship God, when we give glory to God, when we submit our own wills to the will of the Eternal One, often sacrificially, we become unexpected recipients, receiving so much more than we give. This is what extravagant love does.

So the fact that I have been finding communal worship rather uninspiring lately probably means that I need to practice putting myself in an open, loving, submissive posture before God. I can take on this posture of worship (love and submission) anytime, anywhere. No need for an inspiring song, perfectly executed vocals, or catchy lyrics. No need for circumstances to be ideal or my attitude to be perfect. I can simply turn my eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace. [1]

[1] Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus. Lyrics by Helen H. Lemmel, 1922.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

is theology helpful?

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The ever candid and refreshing Anne Lamott recently wrote: "Now, two Sundays ago, I had two boys out of three in my youth group that same age [17], who have had brain cancer. One still has it. The other is blind in one eye. At a church with 30 regular members. Right?
(The first thing I am going to ask God when we meet face to face is, "What on EARTH could you have been thinking?". And He or She will know exactly who I am talking about, the many way-too-young who have died or had serious pain so far, in my 60 years here. Who have been raised by closet psychotics. "What was THAT all about?" God will say what God said to Job--"I'm God, and I don't have to explain. Plus, there is a zero chance you would understand. No offense. Rock on.”)
I always teach them that they are loved and chosen, no matter what; that God's got it, no matter how hard and unfair things seem; that all we have to do is take care of the poor, the hungry and thirsty, including ourselves, and give thanks for the tender mercies of our lives. I hugged them goodbye. I said, "Go get em."" [1]
In thinking about the nature of evil and all things horrible, we can soon find ourselves asking, "How in the world did it get this way when God started it off with goodness oozing out of every molecule?" It is a question that is not likely to be answered to our satisfaction, as Anne suggests. This makes me think that it might not be the best question for us to ask. Jon Stovell (Vineyard Canada theology guy) suggests that we might do better to ask a different question. Instead of "Why would a loving and omnipotent God allow evil in his creation?" he suggests that we ask, "Why did he put us into this world before he was done perfecting it?"Jon bases his question on the idea that while God gave creation a really good start in Genesis, it is not yet completed. We see the final fulfillment, the end of the story, the new creation is all its splendour, evident in the final chapters of Revelation. And the answer to this better question, Jon suggests, is this: "To help."[2] In Lamott's words:"All we have to do is take care of the poor, the hungry and thirsty, including ourselves, and give thanks for the tender mercies of our lives."
The recurring themes in the Bible do not revolve around how to make sense of life, nor around providing rational answers to philosophical questions, not even around understanding what God is doing (though we as theologians keep looking for that). The recurring themes have to do with chaos being reordered into goodness and beauty, suffering being infused with meaning and mercy, and death being transformed into new life. I don't understand it, but I can participate in it. And that is the point Anne and Jon are both making. We are here to help the helpless, speak words of comfort to the disconsolate, hug the unloved, and bring beauty and kindness wherever it is lacking in this world. Because that is what God does for us. And to me, that is the task of theology.
"Only a few can be learned, but all can be Christian, all can be devout, and - I shall boldly add - all can be theologians." - Desiderius Erasmus

Matte in Montreal

[1] Anne Lamott's Facebook page, March 23, 2015.
[2] Jon Stovell's Notebook:, February 2, 2015.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Where's Jesus?

You've seen those children's books in which the challenge is to find the small, distinctive figure of Waldo in a highly-detailed, colourful illustration filled with dozens and dozens of people doing various activities. It's not as easy as it seems.  Following Jesus can be a bit like this sometimes, in my opinion. Jesus can be difficult to recognize in challenging, complex life situations that buzz with activity.

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On a recent vacation to Mexico, Dean and I visited Chichen Itza, the most famous of the ancient Mayan ruins sites. Our tour guides informed us that the first century Mayan religion was characterized by the worship of multiple nature gods (snake, jaguar, sun, rain, corn, etc.). This highly sophisticated civilization established one of the first written languages, developed complex mathematics (including the concept of zero), engaged in elaborate astrological calculations pinpointing the equinoxes and planetary orbits, and built some of the most elaborate temples and structures all without metal tools of any sort. One of the most disturbing features of the Mayan religion was the incorporation of human sacrifice as a way of appeasing the gods and ensuring good crops. The clever incorporation of numerology, symbolism, and religious ritual in all their structures reveals an incredibly intricate system which fused astronomy, mathematics, agriculture, politics, sociology, and superstition in an effort to bring harmony between deities and humans and guarantee prosperity and longevity.

The crumbling buildings testify to the futility of it all. I found Chichen Itza to be a bit of a dark place, a sad place, a hopeless place. A place where it was hard to see Jesus. One of the most complex, sophisticated religious systems in human history could not save itself or its people. No amount of blood-letting, sacrifice, religious ritual, or human ingenuity could bring about the desired peace and prosperity.

The day after we returned from Mexico, I heard someone quoting from a book by Jack Klumpenhower entitled Show Them Jesus: Teaching the Gospel to Kids. It brought my experience at Chichen Itza into perspective by showing me my own depraved tendency (as a teacher and budding theologian) to construct a moral system for others to follow instead of simply inviting them to an encounter with Jesus. I have not yet read the book myself, so let me offer a quote from the book cited in a review.

Typical religion is about doing what your god or gods require; it's following your beliefs and methods to achieve some goal or approval ... Let's  face it: Christianity is often packaged this way. Live a good life and things will go well for you. Find the right spiritual resources and you'll be blessed. Ask Jesus into your heart and you'll be saved. This is why many people say all religions are the same. In some sense, they're right. But Jesus didn't bring typical religion. He brought good news... The principle [of news] is, "Here's what happened, and it will change your life." News is not what you do, it's what someone else has done that affects you. The good news means you relate to God based on what Jesus has done for you, not what you've done to prove yourself worthy. If you are a believer, the good news says that God already accepts you fully - he's adopted you as his child - because you're joined to Jesus, who died on the cross for you. Yes, believing this means a changed life. Flat out. You'll have a hungry, iron grip on Jesus. You'll run after him forcefully. But you'll do it because you rest in him. All your effort to obey will be a response to what he's already done, never a performance to win his favor. There's no need for such scheming. No pressure. No false fronts.

The typical lesson for kids isn't like this. Instead, it tends to be what mine were for years - little more than a lecture about some way you ought to live for God. Such lessons create pressure and invite pretending. We've been dispensing good advice instead of good news. Eventually, kids will tire of our advice, no matter how good it might be. We'll wonder why they've rejected the good news, because we assumed they were well grounded in it. In fact, they never were. Although we told stories of Jesus and his free grace, we watered it down with self-effort - and that's what they heard.

The reviewer goes on to say that outward obedience without heart change is dangerous. Ouch! This is pretty much the same thing Jesus is saying in Luke 11 when he rebukes the religious leaders because of their fastidious attention to rituals and laws and their neglect to the things that really matter: justice and the love of God.

I believe one of the reasons why it was hard for me to see Jesus at Chichen Itza and why it is challenging to recognize Jesus in different situations in my life is because I am too preoccupied with other sights and sounds. My vision can be overwhelmed by darkness or confusion. My sight can be obscured by the values of this present culture. My mind can be distracted by the tasks that are always demanding my attention. My view can be distorted by mixed motives in my own heart and in the hearts of those around me, especially those whom I respect. And I can be blind because Jesus is often disguised in humble form, many times in my very own brokenness.

Like the blind man in Mark 8, I need Jesus to touch my eyes so that I can see him. I need a community of friends who will point me in Jesus' direction and who will approach Jesus on my behalf (intercede for me). I need to let Jesus take me away from the crowd. I want to let Jesus touch me in whatever way he chooses (even spit in my eyes). I want to let Jesus control the process of healing, learning, and transformation and not become demanding or impatient. I want to learn to stay with Jesus and let him touch me again and again and again until I can see him clearly.

Where's Jesus? Let me quote part of the prayer known as the Breastplate of St. Patrick.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me
Christ on my right, Christ on my left
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit, Christ when I stand
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me
Christ in every eye that sees me
Christ in every ear that hears me

This is my prayer today.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Pray and Break Bread

I came across an article a few weeks ago which described one of the pedagogical tools used by City Seminary of New York. City Seminary's focus is purposefully narrow: to provide "leadership development for urban ministry in New York, primarily in the city's ethnic and immigrant communities where Christianity is thriving." And one of the ways in which they engage their students with urban ministry is by making the city their classroom; in fact, Professor Emmanuel Katongole, a theologian originally from Uganda, says that, "The city is the seminary." The school's primary focus is "ground up" (valuing experience) instead of "top down" (students sitting in a class and taking notes from a learned scholar). The seminary emphasizes participation and communal settings within an academic setting. The students not only study theology, but learn about New York and its history, and spend time looking at global Christianity.

Green Spot Restaurant in Montreal
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One of City Seminary's initiatives is called "Pray and Break Bread," a series of pilgrimages in which students travel to each borough in New York and spend a few hours there. They learn about the history, demographics, resources, and challenges of the area, they spend some time meditating on scriptures, then they break into small groups and wander around, praying as they go. They finish the time with a meal together at a local restaurant, offering reflections on their time walking the city. Rev. Mark Gornik, the pastor and scholar who launched City Seminary in 2003, remarks: "We're on the streets, learning from one another, having a great time together and sharing food. That is the seminary in a nutshell."

We at Vineyard Montreal pray for our city every week as we gather on Sunday mornings in a local downtown library. We have, on occasion, done prayer walks in our neighbourhood, but are always looking for fresh ways to engage more meaningfully with our city. The model of "Pray and Break Bread" gives us a framework to get on the ground in our city in a number of ways. When I mentioned the possibility of trying a "Pray and Break Bread" event, people in our faith community were enthusiastic about it. So enthusiastic that I immediately had two volunteers who said they would be willing to lead one. They will do some research on a particular neighbourhood in Montreal and present us with their findings, acting as tour guide as we walk around, praying for God's blessing and healing in general and for any people we encounter along the way. And they will select a local eatery where we can share food, support a local business, exchange reflections on our mini-pilgrimage, and experience being part of the neighbourhood for a few hours.

To me, this sounds a lot like the work of Jesus: walking with people, praying for people, eating with people, listening to people, talking to people, visiting people, bringing hope, healing, friendship, and good news wherever we go. Let us be good news for our city as we pray and break bread, whether informally in our day to day lives or in more intentional ways as demonstrated by City Seminary.

All quotations taken from the article by Bob Wells, "The Wonder of It All," in Faith and Leadership, December, 2009. You can read it here.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Defending my Thesis

Sorry for the radio silence. I expect that things will open up considerably next month. Tomorrow I will sit across from four examiners as I defend my doctoral thesis. My thesis is: A Theology of Social Engagement for Evangelicals: An Inaugurated-Enacted Eschatological Proposal. It is a Vineyard contribution to evangelical theology and a set of theological resources for developing better proposals for evangelical social engagement. I'll post some reflections on the whole process after. For now, I would love to feel the support of your prayers.

Frank Emanuel - Vineyard ThoughtWorks

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Slow theology

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I came across an interesting television show this past week. It was produced by the Norwegian public television network, NRK, and it documented a cruise ship's journey up the coast of Norway. In its original form, it was a live broadcast lasting over 134 hours. That's 5.5 days, in case you are wondering. This little network had previously produced a documentary chronicling a real-time 7-hour train ride across Norway. Due to its surprising popularity, the producers immediately began planning the next marathon television event, this time a 5-day cruise. Due to its live component and regular updates via social and other media, the broadcast ended up including thousands of spectators and fans waving along the route.

This trend has become known as Slow TV, a genre of television coverage which follows an ordinary event from beginning to end without a break in the timeline.[1] It is mesmerising and immersive. I can testify to that, even though I have only watched small sections of the 134 plus hours of the cruise broadcast. There were 11 cameras in play so the scenery does change, but not with the quickness we are accustomed to in a half-hour television show or in the movie theatre. The producers kept the camera trained on a cow walking along the coast for 10 minutes. Mesmerising, I tell you.

Anyway, this got me to thinking about other "slow" trends like slow food (in contrast to fast food). The slow food movement encourages people to know where their food comes from and to take a more active and appreciative approach to food production and by doing so, support local ecosystems and traditions. So you start with apples grown in my mom's backyard, slice them up and put them in a pastry crust made with love in my mom's farm kitchen, add a few spices, some sugar, pop it in the oven, then serve it warm on a faded piece of vintage china at my mom's antique wooden table with a cup of tea. That's slow food. Or you can just go to McDonald's and order their mass-produced apple pie to go. Which would you rather enjoy?

Slow and fast come with their own value systems. Fast values mobility, slow values stability. Fast values efficiency, slow values relationships. Fast focuses on activity, slow prefers sustainability. Fast relies on mass produced products, slow values hand-made items.

Things like love, friendship, faithfulness, or wisdom all take a long time to develop. And they are supposed to. A declaration of love after knowing a person for less than an hour carries little weight, but this same statement after 50 years of marriage is awe-inspiring. Things of lasting value can't be rushed.

About a year ago, a book came out called Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus. Authors John Pattison and C. Christopher Smith suggest that our faith communities should follow an incarnational instead of an attractional model. Instead of trying to get people to come to our church, we should be living as the church in our community. The focus is on the daily discipline of "deeply and selflessly loving our brothers and sisters, our neighbors, and even our enemies." And that's slow going, you know it is. In her review of Slow Church, Leslie Leyland Fields offers this summary of the central idea of the book: "Churches should cultivate long-suffering with one another because God himself cultivated his people patiently, over generations. Anxiety over scarcity pervades our culture, feeding competitiveness rather than cooperation. But the church's generosity and hospitality are fed by a God of abundance. The Sabbath allows us to enter God's own time and economy, to 'pause our striving and start abiding.'"

The whole idea of slowing things down instead of hurrying things along is not a new idea. "Don't imagine, dear friends, that God's timetable is the same as ours; as the psalm says, for with the Lord, one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is like one day. Now the Lord is not slow about enacting his promise - slow is how some people want to characterize it - no, He is not slow but patient and merciful to you, not wanting anyone to be destroyed, but wanting everyone to turn away from following his own path and to turn toward God's. So, my friends, while we wait for the day of the Lord, work hard to live in peace, without flaw or blemish, and look at the patience of the Lord as your salvation." - 2 Peter 3:8-15. God's patience is our salvation. Hmmmmm.

Take a look at the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. "The Holy Spirit produces a different kind of fruit: unconditional love, joy, peace, patience, kindheartedness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. You won't find any law opposed to fruit like this. Those of us who belong to the Anointed One have crucified our old lives and put to death the flesh and all the lusts and desires that plague us. Now since we have chosen to walk with the Spirit, let's keep each step in perfect sync with God's Spirit. This will happen when we set aside our self-interests and work together to create true community instead of a culture consumed by provocation, pride, and envy." Galatians 5:22-26. Working together to create community. That certainly doesn't happen overnight.

Slow Church is what we do in Montreal. There is nothing flashy about our little group meeting week after week after week for years and years and years in locations all over the city, doing the same thing over and over and over again. We worship God, we pray for each other, we learn together, we try to form a bunch of rag-tag people into a community where everyone can feel safe and at home. It takes a long time to transform self-centred, frightened, proud, wounded, success-driven individuals into a group of friends who will stand beside each other through thick and thin, good and bad. It takes time because we have to establish new habits and build new pathways into our lives, ones that will keep us in step with the Spirit of Jesus. But God is patient.

So let us be patient as well. Let us practice a theology of slowness. Instead of agitation, let us practice patience. Instead of anxiety, let us practice peace. Instead of being quick to judge, let us practice longsuffering. Instead of being easily discouraged, let practice faithfulness. Instead of relying on our own abilities, let us practice living in Sabbath rest. Let us practice abiding and being present with Jesus. No rush.

Matte from Montreal

All biblical quotes from The Voice translation.
[1] If you want more information on Slow TV, here is a Ted Talk by Norwegian producer Thomas Hellum. And if you have the time, here is the link to the entire 134 hour coastal cruise broadcast.