How The Light Gets In

Today, we will step onto a road that will lead, painfully and inevitably, to a hill just outside Jerusalem and to the witness of a political execution that we do not understand.

There is a busy week ahead. There are feet to be washed, and a mob coming, and a church to be made gleaming, and I am actually working all seven days of it, too, and if I were to look closely around the cathedral I’m sure I’d find that all manner of loveliness has been stashed away, in case, in a week’s time, just in case, we might wake up early and find that an impossible thing has happened.

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Photo: Gordon Smith

I can’t think about all of that too hard. This is a week where at least trying to take things one day at a time is the only way I can keep from going mad. One of the qualities that I least understand but most admire in my clergy friends is their ability to write an Easter sermon before the Easter Vigil.

I was told nine years ago that if I kept Holy Week and the Triduum at St Mary’s Cathedral, it would change my life and it would change the way I experienced my faith.

And I didn’t believe it.

Easter Day is Easter Day, a festival filled with joy and light and wonder, and, where I celebrate it, Prosecco. The events that led up to it were just something that happened — they happened two thousand years ago, and I knew the story and I understood generally what had gone on and I truly saw no reason to get mixed up in it any more than that. I knew what had happened, and my dwelling on it was hardly going to change that, or me, or the world.

But the following year I was around and I was a server by that time, anyway, and I thought I might as well see what this Holy Week business was all about.

“If you keep Holy Week and the Triduum in this place, it will change your life and it will change your faith,” he said, again.

Still, I didn’t believe him.

Imagine how taken aback I was four days later to taste the hot salt of tears streaming down my face as I sat on the cold tile by the Garden, as the foot traffic of a bank holiday weekend in the west end of Glasgow clattered by outside the walls and his friends all ran away and left him. And to taste them again in the empty echoing hollowness of a sanctuary that come Friday morning has been desecrated. The pain of realising that I hadn’t understood anything — and that I still don’t, not really.

The events of the next eight days are raw and real to me, every single time. The thing I didn’t understand, back then, was that the story of the events leading up to Easter Day were a story of the world we live in and of right here and right now. The thing I still don’t understand is how we keep ending up back here. That’s what I keep asking myself. That’s what I’ll spend long hours over this week thinking about: how the world keeps ending up here, and how we can make the world a better place.

And as for that thing about Easter Day and its joy and light and wonder?

It turns out I hadn’t understood that either.

That the ecstasy is nothing without the agony. That the Hallelujah Chorus is only notes on a page unless its set against the backdrop of the wail of the blues. That you can’t properly savour the Prosecco until it’s washing away the bitter taste of hyssop. And that the crack in everything is how the light gets in.

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Photo: Gordon Smith

That promise was true. It has continued to be true. It will be true again this week, and its truth will be in ways that I cannot possibly begin to know yet.

It did change the story, and it did change me, and, yes, if we let it, it can change the world too.

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Advent 1: Waiting In Darkness, Longing For Light

 On Advent Sunday in 2013, I wrote about beginning this season of watching and waiting and longing in a place where only a couple of days earlier a helicopter had fallen out of the night sky. The tragedy that took place in the air above the Clutha that night and then on the ground rang through the consciousness of Glasgow and her people. The cheerful decorations and the bright shop windows were out of place, in a place that was the voice crying out in the wilderness. A place that needed an Advent God more than ever.

I thought about that tonight.

I don’t think I can say this year that what we need is an Advent God.

It’s what we might want, I guess. The benevolent and twinkly man who comes down to Earth to put the world back to rights, quietly fixing all the things that we messed up. Or else a holy reset button that God can push on Christmas Eve and we all get another chance. It’s tempting. It’s not what God is about, though, and that makes Advent difficult.

And then tonight I went to the Advent Carol Service and heard it said that maybe, maybe this year, this Advent is about the voices of the people who are crying out into the wilderness. And without knowing that that would be exactly what I needed to hear, that was exactly what I needed to hear.

There is pain and anger echoing around the whole world.

We feel it ourselves. We hear it.

Indeed, it sometimes feels like this year there’s been nothing but helicopters falling out of the sky.

In these last weeks of 2016, we live in a world that is less tolerant, less giving, less loving, and scarier than the world many of us had thought we lived in, and we are less and less sure of what the future looks like. In every corner of the world, from the Middle East to the cradles of Western democracy, there are people who no longer know if they have a future of any kind.

Orlando. Nice. The outcomes of the EU referendum and the US presidential election, and the legitimacy that has been claimed by people who want to reverse the tides of social justice and global inclusion. The rise of fascism and the rise in hate crimes across the Western world. Aleppo. The role that the Church continues to play in maintaining the inequality of women and LGBT people. The lives taken by natural disasters. Brussels. The increasing difficulty of speaking truth to power in a time when the act of speaking truth at all seems more and more to be that desperate cry into the wilderness of a world that doesn’t care.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in darkness – on them light has shined.

The light looks very dim, doesn’t it?

There is no benevolent twinkly gentleman coming to set it all quietly to rights. That isn’t what God is about, nor is it what happened.

In a few weeks, a child will be born in Bethlehem, homeless and the son of a poor unmarried couple. He will live under threat of ethnic cleansing and he and his parents will become refugees. He will have a dream of changing the world. He will grow up and try to push back against oppression and injustice, working hard and under difficult circumstances. He will be persecuted and ignored and derided. His story will end with condemnation and crucifixion. But he will try to change the world anyway.

That’s our Advent God.

If we, the people crying out into the wilderness, are to be his Advent people, that is the responsibility that we take on.

It’s not to wait, not to watch, not to hope that someone else will come and fix it. It’s to accept that the world is as it is and then to get on and try to change it anyway, be that through taking political action, or giving financial support, or acting as an ally to people who have less systemic privilege than you do.

And in honestly working to change the world, that’s where we’ll find God and where we’ll find that light in the darkness.

For I can look out and see a great number marching into the great eternity, because God is working in this world, and at this moment. And God grants that we will get on board and start marching with God, because we got orders now to break down the bondage and the walls of colonialism, exploitation, and imperialism, to break them down to the point that no man will trample over another man, but that all men will respect the dignity and worth of all human personality.

Martin Luther King, The Birth of a Nation
(extract from the Advent Carol Service, St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow)

After Orlando

It is difficult to know where to begin.

This has been an uncomfortable week to occupy space in the world.

As a person whose identity is bound up in being female, being LGBTQ, believing in liberal democracy.

A little over a week ago, I gave a speech in which I called upon people to play their part in dismantling systems that have kept the oppressed oppressed. I was speaking particularly about the place of people who are gay and lesbian in Scottish Episcopal Church, but I was also speaking about all people of all races and religions and nationalities and sexualities and gender identities and all differences that have led to the Church as seeing them as Other.

I did not know when I said that that less than 48 hours later, there would be a massacre of the LGBTQ community in Florida. In the supposed land of the free and the home of the brave.

And nor did I know when I said that that this week there would be a political assassination on a British street, of a woman of conviction and principle who died because she believed in justice and equality and the possibility of a better world.

Why do I think that marriage equality is important? Why do I still think in the face of death and destruction and chaos that this is something still worth fighting for?

Because every time we declare that marginalised people of any kind are less important, are less than fully human, are not equal but are equal but must be separate, every time, that voice lends legitimacy to racism and misogyny and small-mindedness and homophobia.

And every time we say fuck that, that voice makes the world a little bit better.

In church this morning, all three people on the altar were LGBT. It wasn’t on purpose. It isn’t the first time. It probably wasn’t noticed by three quarters of the people in the congregation. It wasn’t a statement, but it felt like one anyway.

I am aware that I speak from a place of extraordinary privilege — a place of being white, being Western, being middle class. I am aware that when I say it has been an uncomfortable week, I am also saying that I cannot conceive of the ten thousand times anger and pain of my lesbian and gay sisters and brothers who are Muslim and Latinx nor of the real fear of migrants and refugees in the UK that they now have a target painted on their backs.

It’s only politics, they tell me.

Except, we know — we have always known — that “only” politics is “only” a matter of literal life and death.

This week, in all the confusion, in all the not knowing what to say, I’ve been looking for God. For a God who doesn’t exist in the ephemeral or in the thoughts and prayers and best wishes. For a God who exists in the helpers. In the emergency services and the bystanders. In the people and voices that have taken this week onto the street and the airwaves to say that hate will never ever win. In my own queer family. In the voice of Jo Cox, and the creed of decency and humanity that she died for and that I hold to be Gospel truth.

We remember and hold before us the legacy of people who swore to change the world — from Birstall to Orlando, from the Stonewall riots to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, the saints and martyrs who have gone before us.

It’s up to us now.

Dust and Ashes

You are only dust and ashes.

The world was created just for you.

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Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

At last week’s CNN Town Hall for the Democratic presidential candidates, a rabbi from Nashua posed a question to Hillary Clinton. He related the oral teaching of Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peschischa, who said that everyone must have two pockets and must keep a note in each pocket, so that a person in dark times might reach into their right pocket and find the words, “for my sake the world was created”, but that in times of success and plenty they might be able to reach into their left pocket and be reminded, “I am but dust and ashes.”

“I want you to think about what you would tell us about your two pockets,” said the rabbi in the audience.

You are only dust and ashes.

The world was created just for you.

The first place I heard that story was in an old article in the BMJ, based on advice that had been given to the inaugural students of the Hull York Medical School in 2003. I’ve never forgotten it. As doctors, the contents of our two pockets are together a contradiction and a truth that we carry with us every day of our lives. The right pocket, to carry the weight of profound responsibility and an awareness of incredible privilege. The left, a gentle reminder that we can do only what we can do and that it almost never feels like enough.

You are only dust and ashes.

The world was created just for you.

In my religious tradition, the season of Lent is about the realisation of these truths that are Gospel and the acceptance of what they mean for each one of us. The dust of Ash Wednesday begins a journey that will end on Good Friday, and at the end of that journey none of us will ever be the same. Today, we come to God in all of our humanness, with all our flaws and our imperfections, with none of the sparkle or the razzmatazz, and we are told that God loves us anyway. And that there is nothing, nothing in the world, that we can do to change that. And maybe we won’t believe it yet. But maybe when we have met God in the breaking of the bread and in the tears that we shed and in the fear that, somehow, is always real, and then when we have met him again in the rising sun on Easter Day, maybe then we will start to believe it. A contradiction that isn’t a contradiction, but the most straightforward and profound of truths: that you are loved, and you are blessed, and nothing and no one can take that away.

Remember you are mortal, formed of the Earth; from dust you came and to dust you will return. And remember too that God so loves you and so loves the world that he will give his only Son.

You are only dust and ashes.

The world was created just for you.

For The Souls Of Our Departed

For empty spaces at dinner tables. For graduations and weddings and birthdays not attended. For family not met. For hugs that will never be given and calls that will never be answered.

For all the saints who’ve known your love.

For those who died trying to make the world a better place, and for those who died trying to make a better place for themselves in the world.

For those who have died in the broken heart of this city.

For those who have died on the battlefield.

For those who have died as a result of racism, or homophobia, or sectarianism, or gender inequality.

For those who have died at the hand of their own demons.

For the people whose hands I’ve held as they died. For the people who I couldn’t bring back to life.

For the times I send someone into a room to say goodbye to their person, and the ones I can’t get there in time.

For the person for whom the wail of a siren broke from Great Western Road into the middle of Psalm 23, a brief invasion of chaos to remind us that the tragedy goes on, always, and that our humanity is in grieving it, yes, but in fighting it too.

For the names and the names and the names of the people we have remembered by name. For the safekeeping of those names throughout the year. For the people who they were loved by, and are loved by.

For the people who I love and see no longer.

For those who die alone.

For those who will die tonight.

For those who die with no one else to pray for them.

For all who here sought and here found him, whose journey is ended and peril is past.

For everyone who we have ever loved who is now safe with God.

For the tears we cry tonight, and for the promise of the Resurrection too.

Alleluia, Alleluia.

Return To The Lord Your God

A number of years ago, I was asked by a friend from a different faith tradition to talk about Holy Week. He said that he knew what Easter was about and he understood why we made a big fuss over that, but that no one had ever told him what this week leading up to it was really about. He asked if I could explain.

I couldn’t.

Oh, I told him the names of the festivals — which he already knew. And probably I could have offered a historical account of the events of the week according to Mark, if I had been moved to do so. And while stumbling over my own incompetence I may have slipped in a, “… and then on Holy Saturday we clean everything.” 

We ended dinner with him more baffled than he had been and wishing he hadn’t asked, and the reputation of informed intelligent Christians in tatters on the plates before us.

You must understand that I used to avoid Holy Week. I knew the story of the Passion, but I didn’t live it; and I had a theoretical knowledge of what each of the services was supposed to be re-enacting, but I didn’t really get what it was about. I slipped into a back pew for the big festival service on Easter Day, when the flowers were in bloom and the place had been polished to within an inch of its life and, so I was told, a miracle had happened. I hadn’t been a guest at that very particular Eucharist. I had never witnessed the tearing apart of the temple, or been the friend who fled when they came out to arrest him, or wept at the foot of his cross. I had never crept out of my house in the dark and stillness of a Sunday morning to visit a tomb, not knowing whether there had been a resurrection.

I had not yet taken seriously the promise that had been made to me that if I kept Holy Week in the place where I now keep it, that it would change my life and change my faith.

And so I didn’t know.

I didn’t know what it was like to have incense in my nose and cold tile against my face and adrenaline in the back of my throat, and to lie there silent and terrified and furious.

Or about the love and the joy and the betrayal and the fear and the anger, and that I would experience all of those things in a few short hours.

Or why Judas betrayed him, or why Peter denied him, or why Thomas doubted him. I didn’t know why he didn’t just run when he had the chance. I didn’t know that they were all just as human as I am.

I didn’t understand why it was important.

That it might be about something that happened in Jerusalem two thousand years ago, but it’s about things that have happened in Germany and Rwanda and Bosnia and the Sudan. It’s about what happens in Jerusalem today and in Syria and the Ukraine and in Glasgow too.

I didn’t know that it’s about being willing to live it.

I didn’t know that it’s about being broken up into a thousand pieces and hanging onto the faith that tells us that in the dark and stillness of a Sunday dawn, we will be put back together.

And I didn’t know that I would never ever be the same.

Thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness;
that the bones which Thou hast broken may rejoice.

Here Comes The Sun

Today is the Winter Solstice.

It is the mid-point of winter, the darkest and longest of these dark days and long nights. It is the time of year when all the major religions of the world celebrate, in their own way, the coming of the light into this dark world. It is the moment when everyone on Earth stops and tells each other that we have come halfway out of the darkness.

We have had some terribly dark days, these last few weeks. We have had days when I have thought that that Advent God for whom we wait must look at his church with dismay and believe us to have abandoned all that he lived and died for.

On this final Sunday of Advent, we turn our eyes to Bethlehem, to the star that has appeared in the East, and to the promise that dark days give way to light and that, yes, yes, the age of miracles is not yet past.

For from these days of darkness has emerged a new dawn of hope, in the will and testament and action of the ordinary and now extraordinary people of God. They are people who work for the promise of that Advent God; of the bravery of Mary and the compassion of Joseph and of all that that child in the manger might yet do.

It isn’t simple. It won’t be easy. It’s not anywhere near done yet.

But as we look into that light, it becomes just a little easier than it was last week to believe that we will get there in the end.

Stir up in us O long-awaited God the will to join your revolution, to change your world, and to be in word and deed your living Body and the rock on which your Church can be rebuilt.

Everyone Lives

Out on the street tonight there are ghosts and ghouls, hobgoblins and foul fiends, witches with wands containing a core of dragon heartstring and boy wizards with scars shaped like lightning bolts, and Marvel superheroes and Disney princesses. In one of the local supermarkets tonight when I was doing my grocery shopping there was a surgeon wearing green scrubs, a theatre hat, and a white coat with blood on it. “I’m really worried, I don’t know if he’s real or if it’s for Halloween,” someone said to me. I am not even kidding. I gaped a bit and failed to lend voice to the thought that if he were “real” he wouldn’t have been let out of the door dressed in those — trust me, I’m a doctor, and all that.

Halloween isn’t really my thing. The commercial parts of it, the trick-or-treating and the wee beasties and the pumpkins. Eh. I don’t disapprove of it (and there is Haribo on my kitchen bench, should Elsa or Iron Man come a-knocking). I don’t think it’s evil or that it’s glorifying evil, an accusation that has been levelled at it by at least one Christian commentator this week. It simply isn’t my cup of tea, in really much the same way (and for a number of the same reasons) that neither zombie films nor Valentine’s Day are my cup of tea.

But there is an awful lot of nonsense around at this time of year about the un-Christianity of Halloween. Well, pish-posh, I say to that.

I’ve been having a think about what the night before All Hallowstide really is and what it might mean to someone like me. The eve of an ancient festival when we remember all the saints of all the ages and all the souls that we have loved and lost. It is not an unusual thing in Judeo-Christian traditions to keep the eve of a festival as much as the festival itself. On Christmas Eve, remembering Mary and Joseph as they journeyed towards Bethlehem. In the tradition that I keep, the dusting and polishing and vacuuming of Holy Saturday is an observance and a service every bit as important as the rolling away of the stone from the tomb on Easter Day. And I remember the first time I learned about Erev Yom Kippur: that on the eve of the great Jewish festival of repentance, before Jews can ask God for forgiveness on Yom Kippur, they must first ask their fellow humans for forgiveness on the day before.

This weekend we keep the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. A pair of feasts that sit alongside each other and are very different in their own ways: one resplendent with the splendour and razzmatazz of the Kingdom, the other peaceful with the memory of all those who have gone before us to a place where there is no pain and no suffering. And at the same time a two-day season that is all mixed up together, all part of the same thing, remembering that there is no way of separating out the saints of our lives and the souls of our departed.

This weekend, I will think about St Luke, the patron saint of physicians, whose own feast day was celebrated just a couple of weeks ago. As we sing for all the saints on Sunday morning, I’ll waft up some smoke especially for him. As I remember the work that Luke did, I’ll also think about the work that I do and the people whose lives and deaths I was a part of. I’ll remember people who died peacefully and people who died awfully and people who I never met until they had already died, and I’ll think of the people they left behind. There are some who I will remember particularly. I said on All Souls Day last year: I take the time to sit, this weekend, with all of the not-forgetting that I do, every single day, through all the rest of the year.

I will think, as I always do for a while, of George Wilson, who I met in the first church I ever called home. He was a chorister there for 78 years and besides that there was one sunny morning in June 1953 when he was a chorister for Queen Elizabeth at her coronation. I think about George because I am certain that he is there with the saints, dancing and singing and having a blast on the heavenly organ.

I will think this year of Nelson Mandela, a saint for this age and to all the world. He too loved and was beloved, and left behind people who see him no longer. It is right and important that he is remembered with the souls of the departed, just as it is right and important that he is celebrated with the saints of the ages.

I will think of those who have died in the service of their country, and those civilians who have died as a result of war. It never feels like a coincidence that the next thing we’ll be remembering is the Armistice and they who shall grow not old.

I will think of all the people whose names we read out at St Mary’s on All Souls Day and whose names we keep safe on the High Altar through the year, every one the name of someone who is missed.

I will think of the people who I love and who I see no longer. I’ll remember the good times and the bad times and the times at the end, and I might even get cross at them for a little bit about the times that they’ve missed. I’ll tell them that they are loved still. I’ll remember that they aren’t gone, not really. I’ll remember them in the tears and I’ll remember them in the holy glitz, and I’ll send up a waft of smoke for them too.

But before we remember the saints of the ages and the souls of the departed, there is a thought that suggests that the practice of dressing up like Lord Voldemort or Jacob Marley is less about the Haribo on my kitchen bench than it is about being able, on this night, to look death in the face, to laugh at it, and to declare that it shall not win. As the veil between heaven and earth lifts, it is that thought that is at the root of all that is holy and all that is true:

That death is not the end.

That it shall have no dominion.

That the people we remember are those who lived and who died and who will rise again in glory.

And that until that day, all is now well and everyone we love is safe with God.

Give rest, O Christ, to your servants with your saints:
where sorrow and pain are no more;
neither sighing but life everlasting.
Alleluia.

On Holy Ground

In some parts of the Christian church, there is a tradition of welcoming a person into their church on the night before their funeral is held. It is a short and meditative and very lovely service, and it is a time for them to be with the people who knew and loved them best before all the clamour and intensity of the next day. And afterwards, they remain in the sanctuary, safe and sleeping in the company of God and all His angels.

At the end of one such service, the person’s granddaughter told us how much the church had meant to her grandparent and how pleased she was that they would be able to spend this time in this place that they had loved. I thought that that sentiment expressed a great deal of what we might hope a church can be.

There are occasions in the life of the Church when we are told to remember that we stand on holy ground.

Last night at Evensong, I sat down in an old and well beloved building. I listened to the old stories of Michael and of Moses. I heard the familiar song of Mary. I let the cadence of the words wash over me. As the sun set on a weekend of which the best that might be said of it is that my grumpiness was not without just cause, I became aware of the angels carrying away my troubles.

I wonder what we mean when we remind ourselves that we stand on holy ground.

I think that very (too) often it is meant as a way to tell us that this is a place of “don’t”: don’t touch that, don’t run, don’t bring that person here, don’t ask awkward questions, don’t let children talk too loud, don’t laugh, don’t argue, don’t make a spectacle of yourself.

Really?

Nick Page writes an evocative passage about a visitor to Jerusalem emerging from the Lower City into the light and noise of the Temple Mount. About the livestock market and the business deals and the purification places and the chanting and singing and the lively discussions about the finer points of law. A place where all life is to be found.

In that is an idea that I recognise more in the church than the idea of “don’t”.

It is a place where all life is to be found.

Yesterday, as a song was sung about a dragon that once was slain, I found myself thinking about the life that is to be found in this church.

It is a place where I have ceilidhed the night away.

And spirited away six glasses and a bottle of fizz to the sacristy.

And dripped ice cream on the tile.

And cooked sausages on the dying embers of holy fires.

It is a place where I’ve thuribled backwards amid a shower of rose petals.

Where I’ve smiled.

And giggled.

And mourned.

To this holy ground we have welcomed a man who was arrested in Canterbury Cathedral and a bishop who was shunned by the Lambeth Conference.

And a rooster.

And a cat who I had to retrieve from beneath the feet of an organist.

Right in the middle of the sanctuary, we have held AGMs.

And debates and votes and elections and a Parliamentary hustings.

I’ve sat cross-legged on the floor at the high altar wearing rainbow-striped socks and no shoes, and getting silver polish all over everything.

I’ve washed feet and spilled Radox on the floor.

And spilled wax on the floor.

Once, I nearly set the sacristy carpet on fire in the middle of a service.

(It’s a wonder they ever let me back.)

We are the home of musicians and knitters and Tai-Chi and Alcoholics Anonymous.

And, originally, of the LGBT Switchboard.

I’ve had arguments there.

And had my feelings hurt and I’m sure hurt the feelings of others in return.

And loved and I know been loved in return.

I’ve been there in ecstasy and in anger and in joy and in grief, and even when I’ve thought that I’m maybe not quite feeling it.

I’ve been there in the darkness before dawn.

And in the darkness after midnight.

And in the light of day.

It has seen births.

And covenants.

And deaths.

And a resurrection.

A church is not polite society. It isn’t Granny’s front room, where you can’t eat anything sticky or talk about politics or get your shoes on the furniture. For me, it is a place that is loved and lived in and worked in, a little bit battered around the corners, and maybe best described by the Maori idea of turangawaewae: an old word that means our places of being and our places of belonging, the places where we feel empowered and the places that we are connected to, a place of home.

It is the place where we meet Jesus – a Jesus who was fully human and who himself experienced all the wonderful terrible mixed-up spectrum that comes with just being a person. It is where he demands nothing of us other than that we be wholly ourselves, with no masks and no pretences and no need to be someone or feel something that we’re not. It is where we bring the best of us and the worst of us and all the ordinary stuff in the middle too.

Perhaps it isn’t really a wonder that I’m allowed back.

So when you stand on holy ground, remember that. It isn’t an exhortation to mind your company manners, or to keep your shoes off the furniture, or to tie yourself in knots being diplomatic. It isn’t a place where you can do the wrong thing or say the wrong thing or be thought not good enough. It is a place where in the safety of God and all His angels and in the company of the one who knows us best, we can find all of life and call it home.