Posted on August 3, 2016
No one likes to be wrong, and often admitting we were wrong seems like adding insult to an injury, yet it is an absolutely crucial ability for humans to foster. When we consistently refuse to cultivate humility we instead cultivate an inner person of pride.
The true impact of our pride
When we observe pride within ourselves and often more easily in a family member that cannot easily hear truth about themselves, we play it down. We say, ‘well so and so is just like that’. They then give non-verbal cues and passive aggressive attacks towards those in social situations who conversationally risk moving towards those areas in their life, character and relationships. Our pridefulness must increasingly hold a mask of our own faultlessness up until we have tricked ourselves with our image consciousness and cannot discern the real from the imagined.
When our pride is in a room everyone becomes aware that conversation must stay in the shallow end of the pool of life. Anyone who attempts to venture into the deeper end of things will be met by the abandonment of silence or a short harsh yank back to the shallow end again. While we make excuses and explanations around nature and nurture for the way pridefulness acts, it destroys a sense of connectedness in a room, and more painfully in our families and friendships. It creates disconnection and isolation that leads people to talk about us being there but not actually ‘present’.
I’m wanting to break the mirage of harmlessness that we pick up about pride, it is not harmless it is endangering our very souls and shared abundant life. I believe the outbreaks of fear, anxiety, depression and suicide in our societies trace themselves to the relational disconnections and aloneness that result. Pride is not harmless.
Interpersonal pride is one thing, but we increasingly live in a world where there is an epidmeic of pride that characterises the very institutions that govern our societies. As fear dominates the international politcal landscape we see leaders engage in brinkmanship and insist on their often self-deluded image of themselves and their nation. Their pride and the corresponding lack of ability to admit any wrongness is literally leading people to their deaths in wars, coups and riots.
The person of pride is not a bad person but a pained person
Now, as you consider the ones you love, not least yourself in this diagnosis of pride I do want to keep something before us. The person of pride is not a bad person, they are a pained person. This person will not be served by purely rebuking them in some fire and brimstone fashion. People retreat into pride as a mechanism of self-protection, what these people need is to be loved. But loved enough not to swerve the invisible road blocks that are put into place but to be engaged.
Again, I want to excercise caution in how you engage the person of pride. Very often we have built up a great deal of resentment to the unspoken tension the person of pride creates and engaging them can very quickly become letting them have it and that will causes even deeper levels of retreat.
If you are going to confront someone in a moment where you observe pride rearing it’s ugly head, you have to be motivated for the person, their transformation, and for the liberation of their relationships that are in bondage to this pattern of control.
A person with pride is not a bad person, but instead someone who’s pain has overcome their ability to do the necessary work on the inside. So what does it look like to overcome the person of pride in ourselves? That’s the good news and what I’m writing about next week!
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Often I’ll say, and hear others wonder aloud ‘Where did the time go?’. I marvel at how life has become submerged in one continual tapestry that I can’t quite tease into recognisable components. Other times I observe the opposite in myself and in others; I feel the frantic tendency to want to capture, perceive and hold on to a moment or experience in a way that actually causes it to slip away.
I observe something beautiful; a view, a child’s first steps, a sunset, cityscape, mountain and grab for a phone or camera to immortalise it. I walk away and later reflect on these immortalised pictures and wonder, was I really there? Often in some way I notice, I wasn’t really there, I was not present.
There are moments in life that as children we are taught to recognise and pay attention to, then as adults we learn to perceive something special is taking place; A funeral, a wedding, a commemoration of a moment that has marked common memory. We learn to intuitively understand these moments as set-apart, in some sense holy. Not things to be taken lightly.
Standing to attention
In my first trip to the US I attended a small college basketball game. Before the game began the national anthem was played, people stood and pledged allegiance to their flag and nation. I was enjoying my first experience of the US, a nation I’d only seen before in TV and movies, but it never occurred to me as appropriate or even desirable that I, as someone from another nation would join in this nationalistic practise.1 Within the first line or two of the anthem, a complete stranger turned around and virtually lifted me to my feet, I decided not to resist. As I reflected on it, I though how extraordinary that a stranger was so moved by the significance of this moment that he man-handled someone he had never met to enjoin him in his holy moment.
As children we are shoe-horned into the many rules and etiquettes of these ‘holy-moments’, but by adulthood we reflect back on our lives and these moments gain a luminescent quality without the needed prompting from others 2. We remember that wedding, that party, that funeral, that public commemoration. Whether we recognise it as literal divine presence, we begin to recognise a type of set-apartness, a type of holiness that exists in these moments.
While I’ve increasingly come to affirm these moments and recognise something of the glory of God existing through many of them, I’ve often reflected and reminded myself, isn’t everything holy? Isn’t every person an image bearer of God and therefore holy? Aren’t all places created and sustained by the Christ who holds all things together? Doesn’t God want us to perceive himself in every moment, in every person and in every place?
The Holy has torn through the curtain
In many ways this was the achievement of Jesus’ life, His presence, His life, His holiness showing up everywhere especially the places we don’t expect him. Jesus is revealing the God who drinks wine with the wrong kind of people, welcomes even the hated samaritans to be included in God’s great plan of rescue and adoption. His very death tears the veil of where the Holy used to live and then in His ascension He sends His Holy Spirit on flesh of every nation to prophecy and priest God’s good kingdom on earth? Isn’t the story of God showing us His desire to include the world, in ever increasing circumference the domain and reign of His Kingship. While that is an arresting and often stirring perception of God’s activity I find myself realising how impossible it seems for every moment to be ‘set-apart’. If everything is holy, then can anything be?
Do we only know the Holy in contrast to the profane? More practically, is God’s intention that we walk around our days in consistent awe and slowness? Well, certainly we would be helped if we did in fact spend our days staying open to holiness in each thing but the question I am increasingly asking is not just, is everything holy? But what kind of Holy is it? In what way is this moment, this person, this place set-apart? If to be Holy is to be set-apart, then Holiness is surely to respond rightly to the value and grace God has placed in that particular person, experience or place.
To walk by the Spirit means to recognize him in everything you do and to expect his action. You set your mind on the things of the Sprit. – Dallas Willard
How to observe the particular holiness that is present
To walk through our days in this way takes a kind of reflectiveness that our world has forgotten about. One of the simplest ways we can learn how to reflect is to practise it. There is an ancient christian practise called the examen. The intention is for it to be placed at the end of the day, and to literally examine your day in the presence of the Lord. As simple as it sounds, this is what is required in a world where we rarely slow down to understand what kind of holiness is present and called for in response.
1. Recall you are in the presence of God.
2. Look at your day with gratitude.
3. Ask for help from the Holy Spirit to search your day to observe where you participated in God’s holy action in the world and where you failed to.
4. Reconcile, Restore and resolve with the Lord.3
We desperately need a people and a Church that perceive the type of holiness that is required. Childhood is made holy because it is set apart from adulthood, Sabbath is made holy because it is set apart from work, Music is made holy because it is set apart from silence, Family is made holy because it is set apart from strangers. All of these things are holy, but all are not holy in the same way. In the same way we wonder at the beauty of the actions of a child, those same actions become profane in adulthood. The core of holiness is not a set of rules to live by, but an understanding of how we should properly relate to something or someone given God’s own revealed personhood.
When we mistake or blur the distinctions between these forms of holiness we lose the ability to observe its particular grace. Part of our maturing as people in Christ is that we will learn to reflect on, respond to and begin to intuitively recognise the particular holiness in front of us and that is how we live in holiness. When we devolve our understanding of holiness to ‘abiding by the rules’4 we lose God’s intention for humanity. Not simply to be obedient to an arbitrary standard of holiness, but to participate in human flourishing which understands, in each moment, how to relate to created things through the God who was before creation.
- I do have to admit to an underlying adolescent theme of classic british-passive-aggressive detraction at this point. ↩
- I’m thinking more of Weddings, funerals than basketball games at this point. ↩
- Read more on the examen here ↩
- although I don’t be any means advocate a marcionite throwing out of rules, but rather a realisation that rules are there to train us to perceive the foundational revelation of God’s character that rules or laws can only gesture towards. ↩
Posted on June 30, 2016
Often in conversations where people speak of Jesus, it seems like Jesus’ lifestyle and behaviours were effortless to Him, downloaded as it where. Now while that might be an attractive idea for our current instantaneous generation, I actually believe the gospels and our own lives in Christ indicate to us that Jesus in fact apprehended his behaviours through much of the same resistance and effort that we engage in to see transformation.
I don’t mean to say that Jesus in any way attempting to earn salvation or strive in ways that were sourced from an insecurity within, but that in fact the very nature of humanity is that we are potential that needs to be cultivated, even before our falleness.
Certainly for us, our fallenness creates barriers to transformation that require the grace of God, namely the indwelling presence of God, but that too requires our participation and the ordering of our desires. This, as anyone who has ever tried can attest, is simply hard work. It is good work, but it is hard work.
So, what might Jesus’ learning and growing phases of his life looked like?1 Well, while there are only fleeting glimpses of his childhood collected in the canonical gospels and the non-canonical gospels such as the ‘Gospel of Thomas’ paint fanciful and falsified pictures of Jesus’ childhood2, we are left to make projections based on the shape of 1st century jewish education that we can know from other sources and make some informed projections from there.
1. Jesus learned in family
Whilst there are many passing remarks based on a presumption that Jesus would have been involved in some formal rabbinnic schooling, there is actually very little evidence that there was formalised school systems for all. Especially someone of Jesus’ status could have very well been schooled almost entirely at home by his mother and father in torah, vocation (likely some kind of builder) and the work of everyday sustenance.
The shape and size of this educational environment is something I think is worth reflecting on and thinking about it’s implications for modern discipleship. Education here is not simply a transferance of information but a participation in a relational group which passed on knowledge on interpretation (both of torah, surrounding events) and living (putting the knowledge into practise in observing ritual and living a set apart life). This is a key way that we as humans are made to learn, amongst knowing, nurturing, and practising relational groups.
Some implications for discipleship
It is very easy to get drawn into arguments on whether the size of churches matter, and I don’t think that there is inherent worth in whether a faith community is large or small. What I am assured of though is that we only grow through a relational participation of life within a group that resembles the size of a nuclear or slightly larger family. So, no matter whether your overall church size is 5 or 5000, within those numbers there needs to be a group that you are truly living life alongside.
We are shaped by and bear fruit in the relationships that are nearest to us, which is why, although I listen to lots of teaching and training through the internet, I don’t check if I am bearing the fruit through the internet, I have it reflected to me by the people in closest relational and geographical community with me.
Now I know many of us, myself included at times, will want to resist that. We have been taught, predominantly through our interactions with technology that we can trascend our physicality and our geographies. This particularly serves us well when our physicality and geography causes us pain, becomes uncomfortable, offends our feelings or simply do not reflect to us our sense of importance. But, as obvious as it sounds to say, we can be nowhere other than where we actually are.
I don’t mean to throw out the many benefits of friends and mentors that might live at distance to you, but too often it is easy to project a onesided editorial of our lives in ways that communicate that we are the victor or victim when in fact those around us and close enough to us can observe that as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said;
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
We need family, we need neighbours, and we need people who can reflect the true shape of our lives back to us. The most powerful transformation, for both good and bad comes from family and family-level relationships.
2. Jesus learned through the mundane
Life in the 1st century near east was extremely different to 21st century life. I know that seems like an obvious thing to say, but just consider it for a moment.
We live in an automated and information economy but in 1st century palestine there wasn’t running water or supermarkets. I don’t just mean that they didn’t have schools, hospital or the internet, but things we consider basic and archaic technology like good water, sanitation, food and fire were the jobs of every person in the family unit.
Most 1st century palestinians like Jesus had a huge variety of now-forgotten skills just to sustain their lives. Collecting water, building fires, killing and preparing animals, preparing grain, constructing implements and buildings, delivering babies, cleaning, and almost everything imaginable that we now take for granted were piece-meal skills that were crafted through necessity. As a jewish boy Jesus would have been involved in serving the running of his family life through mundane tasks seemingly disconnected from his own upbringing for the sake of his family and community.
These days, especially in the west, the only serving children do is for parents to keep them occupied, entertained or to grow them in character. Households no longer regularly rely on child-labour to get daily necessities done. We are not talking here about industrial revolution-style child labour, of getting children up into chimneys or in factories, but the mundane mechanics of 1st century life like preparing food and cleaning.
Some implications for discipleship – part 2
So what does this have to do with Discipleship? Well, in our automation of modern life, we have much to be thankful for. I am grateful that I did not have to risk my life or miss out on an education to sustain my family during my childhood. It is easy to over-romanticise historical times without recognising that there existed a harshness that we are delivered from in modern times and I don’t want to do that here. But all of our automating of actvities for sustenance gives us a hierarchy of activity;
We have activities we want to do, and activities we have to do and we far prefer the former. The problem with getting to do all the things we want to do scarcely needs describing, but a consistent diet of comfort ends up leaving us numb. Numb to the cost of our comfort, to the pain of others, and ourselves. The seeming mundane can teach us the disciplines, the trustworthyness and stick-ability that is required to truly thrive as people made in the image of God.
It is in the midst of the mundane that God works out our salvtion, where our character grows slowly like an oak tree rather than a fibre-optic 3 second download. Yes, God meets us in the moments but faith is expectation, over time; faithfullness. We need both the seemingly special and the seemingly mundane to grow us up in God.
- Much of the historical basis for my projections on the childhood of Jesus came from this teaching from NT scholar Scot McKnights short treatment on what 1st century jewish education might have looked like. You can listen to that here ↩
- these were created to further a divisive theological interpretation in the early church rather than to give faithful account. ↩
Posted on June 23, 2016
Last week I wrote about how we are caught between the tension of equipping people to step out of poverty but not wanting to agree with the values of an economy that strips culture and language from people for the purpose of economic gain.
This is potentially where our life as the Church can come in, to at least be the type of place where we can exist in tension together. The Church, as has been popularly troped many times before, is to be in the world (so not to simply dis-engage) but not of the world (so not to assume the values and ‘goods’) of the culture.
The Church is meant to have it’s own narration of ‘the good life’ and is meant to equip the lives of disciples to be marked by that. So, the Church is supposed to be the place where resident aliens are reminded to live for home. We are meant to be a prophetic witness to a surrounding community that there are deeper things in life than economic prosperity, pragmatism and things that are commonly defined as successful. At the same time we are to equip the saints to live this prophetic witness while operating as participants in the surrounding society.
So, how should the church live in order to be a prophetic witness to the surrounding culture?
Because our life together is the very witness through which the surrounding culture can see a living alternative, we need to be reflecting on the assumptions, shape and honour that exist within our life together as the Church;
In capitalist economies, the economy excludes or resents the existence of those who do not contribute to the economy. How are those who are unemployed treated amongst you? Are they tolerated as needy in the ways they are in society? How about those who may never contribute to the economy such as the disabled, mentally ill, ex-offender and elderly? Are they ushered to the edges of what is happening in your community life? Why is that? Often we have not taken on and represented the vision of the kingdom that the beatitudes offers us.
Those who the surrounding society see as weak often reflect to us our own insecurities and fears about powerlessness and so we’d frankly just prefer not to have to be reminded of this part of the human condition. Why are we so afraid of these people who image a humanity we would prefer not to be? I don’t think it can simply be that we are afraid of the pain they experience. It could also be that our identities are formed more by what our surrounding societies say about success than God’s pinnacle of desire for humans; to know Him and enjoy Him forever.
Do the predominant demographics that hold the positions of power in your society also hold the positions of leadership and influence in your faith community? Could it be that the most qualified and spiritually mature people in your community are all male and white? I doubt it. Suffering and marginalisation teaches people a great deal about the Spiritual life and the kingdom that is both here and not yet.
Leadership appointment is not as considered and honestly reflected upon as you would think. I have been so aware that in the few moments when I have had the opportunity to appoint a leader or work with someone I have wanted to make the decision at a gut level. This is commonly known as ‘confirmation bias’; the idea that we want ourselves reflected back to us. People who are the same as us reflect to us our own sense of assuredness about how the world really is, and that makes the world a more confortable, safe and reassuring place.
Difference is inherently painful, but although diverse leadership teams experience more conflict, they also end up healthier than homogenous teams. I am not proposing an affirmative action policy or an empty tokenism, but instead a reflecting on bias’ that exist in our guts more than our heads and making hard but right decisions. We all want to work with people we enjoy, but sometimes we have to make decisions to work with people whose emphasis on certain values might be different than you, but they will fulfill your very present weaknesses.
I once heard someone say, “What you celebrate, is what you multiply’ – this must be why insecure leaders create environments where only people like them can flourish. We have to learn to celebrate the ‘other’. As I mentioned in my previous blog post on culture, we often read our own bias’ for values into bias’ that simply aren’t in scripture. Westerners will be infuriated by non-westerners seeming lack of value for plain-spokenness (particularly around the issue of time), and non-westerner will be infuriated for westerner’s consistent disregard for the people and relationships in the midst of a task.
There is no biblical basis for one of these values trumping the other, but each side often insists their culture is the one that should be honoured in a given circumstance. As ever, Jesus leads the way for us as he counts his equality with God as something to be set aside in humility for the sake of the other (Phil 2:7).
The role of reversing the tide of our culture’s assumptions of what is good, useful and worthy is not an easy vocation. But the Church and the vision of God’s coming kingdom are the only places with the resources to provide true living alternatives to the injustices of our culture and economies.
For us to embody a living alternative to the surrounding culture our churches are going to have to take a difficult look at themselves. We are going to have to discern whether our assumptions, our shape and what we speak honour for enable us to look more like God’s diverse bride pictured in revelation or simply our own reflections looking down a dark well of sameness.
What do you see as the greatest barriers for us to become this image bearing community? Can you suggest some practical ways we could enact a new prophetic witness?
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Posted on June 16, 2016
Even 5-10 years ago I remember a common optimism that we lived in a progressive and tolerant society, that the intolerances and systemic injustices of slavery, gender and culture were issues overcome in our recent past. In history classes we would read about the civil rights movements of the 1960’s, women’s right to vote and the abolishment of slavery with a sense of optimism that these ills has been conquered and overcome.
In the last 5-10 years though increased awareness has been raised there are more people bought and sold today than ever before in history, that women continue to feel excluded from competing for positions of power and people of colour experience themselves marginalised and discriminated against. In light of these awarenesses the romantic idea of progress has faded.
The reality today is that if you are white, male and educated (like I am) in most parts of the world, you have more opportunity and freedom than the majority of the population experience. Ironically because of these opportunities and freedoms we are also the least aware of the invisible boundary lines and glass ceilings the rest of the world’s population encounter on a daily basis.
On top of this, because of the radically individualistic lens our culture operates with, we are sure that if we don’t feel we have discrimination or bias, and no one we meet admits to having it, then it can’t exist. This blinds us to seeing how our collective unspoken and unreflected-on bias’ create the cultural conditions for there to be great levels of injustice and at the same time a society-wide denial of the causes of this injustice.
My role and motivation for being in South Africa connects me in friendship with many people and communities that were on the receiving end of the apartheid system of segregation and oppression. As a white european male it has been an enriching and often horrifying eye opener to both the subtle and overt oppressions that exist both here in South Africa and globally on the basis of race and gender.
One of the hangovers of South Africa’s history and the impact of colonialism more globally means that speaking english is a basic requirement to enter into participation in the economy and to find employment. This creates a tension for us, as Christians we believe that there are aspect of all cultures which represent the beauty and glory of God, even aspects that are crucial to be retained for the benefit and witness of the global body of Christ.
At the same time, for people to become upwardly mobile in an economy and relieve the impact of poverty, they must become skilled in ways that help them participate in the surrounding economy. The economy as a system has little respect for the background of it’s participants and it’s rules and whims are created by those who hold power. For better or worse, those who hold power, or at least those who set the game up in history valued a homogeny or sameness to exist to create a well-oiled system.
While we are motivated to see people be liberated from the oppressive bonds of poverty, it can often seem like they are exchanging one bondage for another when systems of education and economic participation encourage them to be stripped of cultural and linguistic heritages simply in order to progress.
As I have written before on this blog, the goal of homogenising culture is the pride of babel and God’s envisioned future is one where all gather in unity but in their diversity at the end of time, praising God in their tongues and tribes. So this creates a tension; we have a kingdom impulse to help see people economically uplifted from poverty, but also a kingdom impulse to see culture and language honoured and redeemed.
Many studies have shown that humans have an innate lack of ability to live in tension and will resolve and simplify if at all possible, but the cost of resolving this tension is great. On one hand the kingdom impulse adopts the economy’s pragmatic value to become a good economic worker bee, the other option is to value the distinctness of culture and opt-out of the surrounding systems of society. It can feel like we either have to assume the economy’s values wholesale or opt out from society more generally. Neither of which seems like a solidly kingdom option for the here and now.
Part II will be posted here next week.
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I was whisked through my theology undergraduate work at such a pace and such an accelerated specialisation I never got to properly engage the atonement. It was like taking a coach tour of London by driving the ring road (M25) and never getting off the bus!
Atonement is basically the theology of what Jesus Christ has done for us, how he has taken on and defeated our sin and made a way for us to be reconcilled to God. It can often become fairly technical, so not being an technician myself I will try to speak about it as clearly as I can muster.
The title of this view kind of gives it away, Jesus dies in our substitute, in our stead. Different versions of this claim to describe the mechanics of how this takes place, but all of the sub-views basically agree that Jesus is on the cross as an innocent dying for the guilty, those that turned from God, You and me.
Christus Victor View
The title of this one is obscured because it is usually rendered in latin, but essentially it means, Christ is victorious. Victorious over what you ask? Well, over Powers, Principalities, Evil, Death, and the Devil. This view while including the cross obviously includes the ressurection (otherwise it would be hard to argue Jesus’ victored over death you see).
Moral Example View
Not sure what the true title of this view is called. Usually it is the straw-man view of evangelicals because it is seen as the ‘Jesus-wasnt-God-but-a-good-guy’ and we should try to live like him. While I understand why we want to push back on the whole Jesus-wasnt-God thing, we miss alot of the significance of Jesus’ example to us in life and death if we concentrate on solely one or both of the previous views. They leave us with a Christ who dies and rises for us, but not a Jesus we can follow.
The difficulty of the penal substitutionary atonement view
More recently one particular view within the subtitionary atonement view has been out of fashion. Namely the penal substitutionary, this is partly because it has previously been so popular and central that it is almost the only one evangelicals could articulate. The penal substitionary view is basically that we, humans have guilt from our sin which God the Father must judge and so He sends Jesus to take on that sin and punishment in order for us to be set free.
The unfortunate thing about this simplistic explanation of penal substitionary atonement is that God the Father comes out looking like a pretty un-good God who is angry and needs a place to take out his anger, which ends up being on his son. Not the rendering of the Gospel that sits well with most.
Now I knew that smart, sincere and pious people have been involved in formulating, articulating and defending this view, so I knew that there must be a much more articulate and well-reasoned way of unpacking this view of atonement. Well, now I came across one in a quote I happened across from Miroslav Volf;
Let us beware that some accounts of what it means for Christ to have died on behalf of the ungodly—what theologians sometimes call his “substitutionary” death—are deeply problematic. If we view Christ on the cross as a third party being punished for the sins of transgressors, we have widely missed the mark. For unlike a financial debt, moral liability is non-transferable. But Christ is not a third party. On account of his divinity, Christ is one with God to whom the “debt” is owed. It is therefore God who through Christ’s death shoulders the burden of our transgressions against God and frees us from just retribution. But since on account of Christ’s humanity he is also one with us, the debtors, it is we who die in Christ and are thus freed from guilt. Christ’s oneness with both creditor and debtors leaves only two categories of “actors” and thus negates the notion of his involvement as a third party. (Miroslav Volf, “The End of Memory”, p.117)
If that left your head spinning, then here is gist; Christ is not the third party and God is the second party who is expressing his anger, God is Himself taking on the debt. Every act of one member of the trinity is an act of them all. Therefore God takes on implication of the wrong that we have done, He does not transfer it to another somehow.
Which view is the right one?
Finally, I’m sometimes asked which view of the atonement I believe in, to which I fustratingly answer, “all of them’. It seems to me you can proof text your way to back them all. This is much like the elephant that three blind men are asked to describe by touch, and then insist the part of the elephant they can feel is that inherent defining aspect of the elephant.
We read and experience aspects of the overwhelming size of Christ’s atoning work and then get stuck arguing for our perceptions. Instead of an either/or dilemma I think to many atonement theories we can say both/and.