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Thursday, March 31, 2011
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
These words of wisdom and reflection are taken from today's Office of Readings in The Liturgy of the Hours:
If you hope for mercy, show mercy. If you look for kindness, show kindness. If you want to receive, give. If you ask for yourself what you deny to others, your asking is a mockery. – St Peter Chrysologus
Friday, March 25, 2011
The earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis in Japan, on top of widespread political unrest and economic uncertainty throughout the world, have fueled apocalyptic speculations among many. The following is from another sermon (this one back in 1999) which could have been written yesterday....
Matthew 24 is one chapter in the Bible where Jesus himself tells about the last days and the end of the world as we know it. (Actually, Matthew expands what Mark reports in chapter thirteen of his Gospel.) This is fascinating reading, partly because it is clear enough to be partially understood and yet vague enough to be mysterious. It is unfortunate that many well-intentioned believers have taken what Jesus says here and sensationalized it so that the main point Jesus makes is forgotten or even overlooked.
The setting is the temple. Jesus, responding to the disciples' awe of the building that represents the God of Israel, says that the whole building is to be destroyed. In the minds of the disciples, this means the end of the world; they are the ones who put the two ideas together in their question to Jesus (v3): when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?
Then Jesus begins by talking about "wars and rumors of wars, famines and earthquakes." This has led many believers to think the end of the world was imminent whenever disasters, either major wars or natural catastrophes, seem to dominate the news. It is crucial to hear what Jesus is actually saying. Some translations make it plainer than others. As he so often does, Eugene Peterson casts a clear nuance to Jesus' words when he puts them this way:
When reports come in of wars and rumored wars, keep your head and don't panic. This is routine history; this is no sign of the end. Nation will fight nation and ruler fight ruler, over and over. Famines and earthquakes will occur in various places. This is nothing compared to what is coming (24:6-8, The Message).
This is not to say, though, that horrible happenings have no spiritual relevance. Certainly we are aware of horrible things. Natural disasters seem to abound more than ever. Then there is the context of humanly-motivated atrocities. Alongside the large-scale issues of race, religion and politics are the local neighborhood calamities in our own country. Los Angeles reports that more than four people a day are killed by guns (most of them drug related). And while some form of strict gun control may eventually need to change the freedom granted by the Second Amendment, guns really are not the problem. Guns have been part of American society for 200 years, most of those years with hardly any restrictions. Current public criticism and safety awareness have probably restricted the availability of guns in the average household far beyond what it was a generation ago... and yet public schools did not worry about guns forty years ago. What has changed? The "times."
Does this mean we are living on the verge of the end of the world? As more than one person has unwittingly observed: "We are nearer to the end of the world than ever before." That, it should go without saying, is not saying a whole lot!
The truth is, both natural disasters and rampant human evil are often symptoms of God's judgment on societies which have ignored his ways. This is not new. The Old Testament both teaches and models this over and over. The prophets called attention to natural disasters and human-based atrocities as signs of God's judgments. (Note, for example, the first chapter of Amos, which chronicles the sins of Israel's neighboring nations and the promise of God's judgment.) Another example is the list of curses which God promised Israel if they broke his covenant and spurned his commands. Deuteronomy 28 says God will send blight, plague, disease, enemies and more on the society which goes its own way in defiance of God.
We do not need to jump to end-of-the-world hysteria to take seriously the awful things which happen in our world today. The person who is sensitive to God will see in the horrible happenings a warning from God –– a warning that is always an invitation to repentance.
Do any of us discount that? Do we doubt that God has reason to send some startling wake-up calls to this society in which we ourselves live? Have you seen (or at least heard of) the billboard campaign meant to spark a bit of God-awareness? One of them says:
"Keep taking my name in vain and I'll make the rush hour even longer" - God
And that is actually quite mild compared to the kind of message God sent through his prophets. Have we become so accustomed to foul language that we just don't care when we invite such a thing into our homes through television programs? Do we merely resign ourselves that movies directed at our young people are making a mockery of morality even as they encourage sexual promiscuity? What kind of culture allows –– much less enjoys -–– something like The Jerry Springer Show?
Can we not see that something is wrong when the focus of life in our society is almost totally on ourselves? In a popular context, there is little concern for the past (which means there is no perspective and no wisdom). There is little hope for a future, especially when there is a sanctioned urgency to live life now. So we focus on our bodies: physical fitness (which is good in a limited context; even Paul said physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things ––1Tim 4:8), but preoccupation with a "perfect" body is an empty and foolish thing. But that is one thing our culture is captivated by, as further evidenced by bodily ornamentation (piercings and tattoos) and sexuality for its own sake. And rooted in that is the now common practice of abortion for birth control.
It is obvious that there is no basis for respect of human life. Even the culture is beginning to see that maybe it is sick. Our society is truly perverted in its fascination with violence. What has happened when almost any expression of spirituality is allowed –– even encouraged -–– except that which is rooted in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures? New Age... paganism... the occult... witchcraft... Wiccan... satanism... all are fair market.
The whole message of the Bible warns that God allows judgments to fall on societies which brazenly embrace the very things he hates. When awful things happen in the world, the remedy is not found in treating symptoms. Notice carefully the preamble to that great verse in the Old Testament which invites repentance:
When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locust to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land (2Chron 7:13,14).
But when God's people point out that the problem is sin, all hell breaks lose. Jesus warned his disciples: you will be hated by all nations because of me (v9b). That is happening today. Tolerance" is the ultimate value, except there is no toleration of true Christianity because commitment to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has no tolerance for those things which are an abomination to the righteousness of God.
The world cannot stand to hear about a Jesus who will come to judge the world. A Jesus who "loves" –– and leaves people as they are –– is fine. Yet, that is not the Jesus of the Bible. There is no Jesus other than the one who is revealed in the Scriptures... the Jesus who came to reveal God to a world who otherwise would never know who God truly is. And look what Jesus goes on to say.... the theme of chapter twenty-four is continued into chapter twenty-five, and chapter twenty-five concludes with the separation of the sheep (the righteous) and the judgment on the goats (the wicked): Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life (25:46). And note, too, why the goats were "wicked." It was not because they were mass murderers or pornographers or vicious tyrants. It was because they did not love "the least of these."
To bring it to today, it's the people who are trying to develop perfect bodies or furnish the perfect house or give their kids perfect opportunities who are also too busy to be able to give any attention to the things God cares the most about. How can I say that? Listen again to Jesus:
As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away (Matt 24:37-39a).
In other words, they were just living life –– life, as understood in a "here-and-now" context. That's all it takes to incur the judgment of God.
Now I want to come to the main point of this sermon. Jesus did not tell his disciples these things so they could know the future. There's little detail of the future here. The Holy Spirit did not preserve these words of Jesus in the Scriptures so we could read the newspaper and figure out what God was going to do next. Jesus was as blunt as he could be about "the end of the world" when he said: No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father (v36).
So if we cannot know whether we are living in the critical time of earth's history, what is Jesus saying here? He is saying that his people should be able to recognize when their time is a critical time. Any time that sin runs rampant is a critical time. Any time society is upset by moral chaos and violence is a critical time. Any time that natural disasters loom large on our consciousness is a critical time.
And yes, it can be argued that in an age of electronic communication we are more quickly and easily made aware of disasters. On the other hand, sensationalists can try to say all of this means the end of the world. It can be a mistake to make either too little or too much of these things. What we need to do is listen to what Jesus actually says.
As I’ve meditated on these words of our Lord, it seems that verse twelve sums up the heart of what Jesus wants his followers to hear: Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold.... This warning comes to us on at least two levels.
The first is more obvious. Wickedness itself pulls people's hearts away from God. It can be overt wickedness like the occult or immoral sensuality. This is the appeal of immediate gratifications like power and pleasure. This is the in-your-face kinds of attitudes and behaviors often modeled on MTV. Or, it can be subtle wickedness. Subtle wickedness is that which doesn't appear wrong. Maybe it's not intrinsically wrong. Subtle wickedness is the "good" thing becoming an idol because it supplants God. That was the tone of Jesus' warning about the ordinary person living in Noah's day: eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage. Here were people who allowed life-in-this-world to be more important than God. But God's judgment fell on them, and it was too late.
A second way this warning can be applied is more subtle yet. This warning is for those who are actually trying to heed the warning, but in doing so, allow fear to destroy hope. That is one of the worst things about "sensationalist" interpretations of prophecy. If our first loyalty is to Jesus and his kingdom, then God's judgments are just as much signs of hope as they are incidents to be feared. We can know in our hearts that if catastrophe strikes close, it is still not the ultimate tragedy. True faith gives the awareness that this world in its present form is passing away (1Cor 7:31). If we lose property, health or even life, true faith knows the most important thing is being able to say, "it is well with my soul." That is not to say we do not fear at all; we are human. But maintaining a vigilant spirit through our commitment to Jesus will balance our fear with the hope that God gives to all who truly belong to him.
Am I saying, then, that faithful Christians should not have nice possessions? that faithful Christians should not listen to any secular music? that faithful Christians should not plan for the future? that faithful Christians should basically withdraw from sinful society? No. Jesus himself prayed, My prayer is not that you take them out of the world, but that you protect them from the evil one (Jn 17:15). But at the same time, Jesus also said, where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matt 6:21). When the world is falling apart, a person can easily identify his treasure. When bad news comes, where is your heart focused? On the horrible thing itself or in the assurance that God is still in control?
In this verse in Matthew 24:12, Jesus is warning that all the things which happen in an evil world –– both the evil itself and God's judgments on it –– can cause a person's heart to turn from God. A heart can be enticed by the evil; a heart can be turned selfishly on itself in self-protection.
I do not know what certain catastrophes and other events mean in terms of the end of the world. No one does. If we believe Jesus, we won't try to say "here" or "there." But, if we truly believe Jesus, we will let increasing wickedness and calamity and fear drive us all the more to the One who is a refuge and strength to all who know and trust him.
Further in chapter twenty-four Jesus says, Therefore keep watch... (v42). We are to keep looking.... not just (or even mainly) at all the "stuff" going on in the world, but we are to keep looking to Jesus. We start each day by telling Jesus all over again that we want to be his... that we want him to go with us through our day... that we do not want to say anything, do anything, go anywhere that would make him feel unwelcome. We invite Jesus to live his life through us... to love people, serve people and witness to the Father through us just as if he were in our bodies –– which he is, in us who believe. And when things happen (and of course, things happen every day), we ask Jesus to let us know what he is wanting to do in us because of those things. That is what it means to live with faith in Jesus.... and that is what it means to keep watch.
The warning that Jesus gives is for all who do not live unto him in this way. The warning is not to allow other things to pull our hearts away. The end of the world could come personally for any of us in a moment's tragedy. On the other hand, it doesn't matter when the final end of the world will come if we are keeping watch in our souls and living in faithfulness to Jesus. People who do that will be ready –– no matter what. So hear again what Jesus says to his people in this context of last things: Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.
Are you responding to Jesus each day so that you will stand firm to the end? Or has the wickedness of our days caused your love to grow cold.... for whatever reason? This is a warning from Jesus.
Thursday, March 24, 2011
Part of yesterday's readings from the Magnificat daily prayer guide included the following Scripture and observation:
Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us;he sets himself against our doings,Reproaches us for transgressions of the lawand charges us with violations of our training.He professes to have knowledge of Godand styles himself a child of the Lord.To us he is the censure of our thoughts;merely to see him is a hardship for us. (Wisdom 2:12–14)Disciples who follow Jesus faithfully must expect to follow him into dislike, ridicule, even persecution from those who find the Gospel threatening to their ways of thinking and acting.
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
A realist knows we live in a hard world, and all of us are going to die; a Christian realist knows we live in a hard world, and all of us are going to die.... but Jesus has overcome the world and has gone ahead of us to prepare a new world, so we can even now begin to live in the eternal life that gives us hope, peace and joy.
Friday, March 18, 2011
The awful news from Japan and throughout our contemporary world brings up the issue of suffering. Christians need regularly to revisit our understanding and our hope. The following is a sermon I gave in 2004 in my former congregation:
A couple of decades ago Harold Kushner wrote his book, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. Philip Yancey wrote Where Is God When It Hurts? and eleven years later followed it with Disappointment With God. He interacts with three questions most people struggle with, but are seldom brave enough to ask: Is God unfair? Is God silent? Is God hidden? People who suffer ask those questions.
With the release of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, critics have been pushing the question, “Who killed Jesus?” Many who are unacquainted with Christian teaching have asked, “Why did he have to suffer so much?”
We live in a suffering world. We live in a world where death ends every life. We live in world where nature does horrible things — storms, fires, earthquakes. We live in a world where accidents and illness cut lives short. We live in a world where some people intentionally mistreat other people in brutal ways. We live in a world where husbands and wives who pledged to love each other until death have to deal with betrayal. We live in a world where children are abused. In those situations and more, people hurt. People cry and curse and try to find some way to numb the pain. Some people try to retaliate. Some people shrivel up and live empty lives. Some people truly quit living. Some people are able to see past the pain and believe that God is working — loving — even though it doesn’t look or feel like it.
Few people seem to give a lot of thought to what we might call invisibilities. By that I mean the unseen world of demons and angels that the Bible says are active all around us. And not only are they around us, they are fighting over us. C.S. Lewis once wrote, "There is no neutral ground in the universe; every square inch, every split second is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan" (Christian Reflections, p33).
Most people, though, are too concerned about this world to give much (if any) thought to a world they cannot see. And even though they are constantly bombarded by things that are rooted in the unseen world, they call it "bad luck" (or occasionally "good luck"), and keep their focus on their immediate circumstances in the world around them. This is basically what the Bible would describe as living without faith.
The Bible tells us that God did not intend life in this world to be that way. Long ago humanity made the choice to live life without God — to be our own boss and choose for ourselves what is right and wrong. That is sin, and that is why something is wrong with this world. The Bible also tells us that God did not abandon us. He could have responded immediately with judgment, or he could have left us to self-destruct. Instead, he chose to do something to save us. He became one of us in the person of Jesus Christ. And when people killed Jesus in anger because his life revealed the evil of their own lives, God let it happen. Jesus took the evil, and even death itself, and absorbed it. Then he rose from the dead to show that God is bigger than evil and death, and God invites everyone to believe it.
But this is not merely something to be understood and believed with our minds. There is a spiritual dimension at work. There are powers and influences that we cannot see. It is an issue of spiritual ownership and control. Every human being on earth gives spiritual allegiance either to God or to powers that are opposed to God. Because of sin's power in our lives, the only way to belong to God is to invite Jesus to come into our lives and exercise in us the power that he displayed when he rose from the dead and triumphed over evil and death. When that happens, people who belong to God are able to break the awful cycle of sin's destruction and pain — at least in their own lives. People who intentionally and continually live in ways that go against God and hurt others do not belong to God. Conversely, God's people are people who let the life of Jesus come into and flow out of their lives.
Now it might seem that God's people would have it easier in this world. With Jesus having defeated death and hell and with the Spirit of Jesus living in those who belong to him, shouldn't life be happy and convenient for Christians? Well, it is almost just the opposite. Until God brings this present world to its end, Satan is still "the prince of this world," and Satan's hatred of God has not lessened. Satan hates everything God loves, and that means God's people. We still live in a world under the power of the evil one. As much as we want to avoid it, suffering is an inescapable fact of life.
The question, then, is how to understand this. I want to consider three questions: Why is there such cruelty in this world? What does the suffering of Jesus mean? What can Christians expect from God in the context of suffering?
First there is the nature of life in this world. Why is there such cruelty in this world? This world is not as God intended it. A Christian word for this is fallen. The world is broken because of sin. God created people to love him, but love requires choice — “forced love” is an oxymoron. Humanity chose to go its own way rather than love (and submit) to God. Disobedience to God always brings a curse. God’s first curse on disobedience is found in the third chapter of Genesis — early in the biblical story. That opened the door for all kinds of things to go wrong. When things go wrong in this world, the result is suffering — all kinds of suffering. Paul told the Romans: the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice. . . we know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time (Rom 8:20,22). The natural order is in turmoil. People are twisted. Evil powers exacerbate and inflame it. Every act of injustice and every cry of pain is a witness to an existence cut off from God. Cut off from God, people live for themselves. They want to be secure and comfortable, regardless of what it does to others. Once they find something pleasurable, they want more and more of it. If others get in their way, they are prepared to over-power and even kill.
One of the worst effects of our brokenness is being cut off from God and not knowing it. We cannot see wrongs for what they are. We cannot easily sense God’s presence; we cannot understand his ways. So when suffering comes, a first impulse is that God doesn’t care. We instinctively blame him. The effect of sin in us is that we do not want to be responsible. That only multiplies sin and suffering.
What is God to do when we cannot easily perceive him and his ways? What is God to do when we blame him for the suffering instead of seeing (and grieving) what is only judgment for our own choices? What is God to do when we cannot fathom the depth and seriousness of sin?
What God did was send his Son. When Jesus came he was God in human flesh. He told one of his disciples: Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father (Jn 14:9). One might think that a God-man would dazzle everyone in a way that would compel belief; that is what many asked for (and still do today). But on another occasion Jesus told his disciples explicitly: the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mk 9:45). One way to understand everything Jesus taught is to comprehend the implication when he said, the man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life (Jn 12:25). One cannot understand the suffering of Jesus apart from this.
What does the suffering of Jesus mean? When Jesus Christ went to the cross he was modeling his teaching. The suffering and death of Jesus was a picture of how God sees sin and what sin really does to us and all of creation. Sin causes pain and death. When we disobey God, thinking we are choosing something that will make us happy, we are actually choosing to embrace the kind of suffering that took Jesus to the cross.
Why did Jesus have to suffer so much? Who killed Jesus? Those questions that have been so prominent recently can be answered in two words: my sin. Every time we hear of an atrocity. . . every time we find ourselves in emotional or physical pain. . . each and every situation that brings human suffering. . . it all says one thing: the rebellion of sin. That is why we live in a suffering world.
But where is the hope? First, there is the incredible assurance that Jesus took upon himself the curse of our disobedience — he suffered and died — and then came back to show that sin does not have the last word with God.
Hear the Scriptures:
For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God (1Pet 4:18a).
In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. . . Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him (Heb 2:10; 5:8,9).
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (1Cor 5:21).
But this does not answer all our questions. If Jesus took the suffering of sin upon himself and saved us, then why do people — especially Christians — still suffer? And why is obedience to God still important if Jesus “paid it all”? Paul anticipated the question in his Romans letter: Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? (Rom 6:15).
What are Christians to expect from God in the context of suffering? First, we can expect God to have the same attitude toward sin that we see when sin is judged in the suffering and death of Jesus. Sin will always cause suffering because sin is in conflict with God. As long as people have the freedom to disobey God, sin will exact its price of suffering — and people will have the freedom to disobey God until Jesus returns to finalize God’s forever kingdom. And at that point, people who are choosing sin will be lost forever. In the meantime, the whole creation — and everyone in it — continues to “groan.”
How do Christians respond to this fact of suffering? Human nature says “run from it. . . avoid it at all costs.” Here are a few things the Scriptures say:
They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name (Acts 5:40,41).
if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps (1Pet 2:20b,21).
we rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance. . . (Rom 5:3).
. . .we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory (Rom 8:17).
But no one can respond this way apart from faith. Christian faith sees suffering as a result of sin; even worse than the pain suffering causes us is the affront sin is to God. Christian faith takes its greatest hope in the belief that Jesus submitted to suffering — to the point of death itself, but then came back from the dead proving that God is greater than the worst sin can do. Christian faith then faces suffering believing that as we follow Jesus, God will do in those who follow the same thing he did in his Son — raise him up, victorious over sin and death, and alive forever. And so the Scripture continues: our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us (Rom 8:18).
This still doesn’t mean it will be easy. It wasn’t “easy” for Jesus. We live in a suffering world. But if we do not know God’s diagnosis. . . if we do not know what God has actually done through his Son. . . if we do not know what it means to follow Jesus, then how can we truly believe — and follow — as we live in a suffering world?
Father Jerzy Popieluszko was a Catholic priest in Poland in the early 1980s. The pale, gaunt priest had a two-fold message: Defend the truth, and overcome evil with good. People responded and overflowed his church. The secret police followed him everywhere. He began to receive threats and, finally, one night after celebrating Mass and preaching, Father Jerzy disappeared. About ten days later, as 50,000 people came to Mass and to listen to a tape of his last sermon, they heard that his body had been found in the Vistula River — badly mutilated by torture. The secret police braced for an uprising. But on the day of Father Jerzy's funeral, the huge crowd that walked past their headquarters bore a banner and shouted what it said — "We forgive." Father Jerzy had taught them well.
Only Christians, men and women who are touched by and understand the suffering of the Cross, can possibly respond to suffering today, regardless of how it comes, by trusting God. If we don't, no one else will. As Christians our calling is to follow Jesus, first in his sufferings and then to his resurrection glory. We live in a suffering world. . . we follow a suffering Savior.
Thursday, March 10, 2011
Thou art the source and centre of all minds,Their only point of rest, Eternal Word.From Thee departing, they are lost, and roveAt random, without honour, hope, or peace.From Thee is all that soothes the life of man,His high endeavor and his glad success,His strength to suffer and his will to serve.But oh, Thou Sovereign Giver of all good,Thou art of all Thy gifts Thyself the crown.Give what Thou canst, without Thee we are poor,And with Thee rich, take what Thou wilt away.– William Cowper
Wednesday, March 9, 2011
I've said this before but it seems worth repeating. I like Lent.
Maybe that is why Lent is so good — in my battle for holiness I am reminded throughout Lent, in a special way, that I do not fight this battle alone.
First and most of all, Jesus experienced the depths of human temptation. As in every part of being human (except for sin), Jesus has gone ahead of me to make a way. The forty days of Lent invite me into the life of Jesus Himself.
Second (but it’s the only way I know who Jesus truly is and what He has done), Lent is an incredible time to experience the reality of the Church. I do not struggle against sin alone. I am part of a People of God who bear witness to the truth of Jesus, who support me in the fight against sin even as they suffer with me, and who (with those saints who have gone ahead) assure me that victory over sin is indeed a reality for those who persevere in faith.
So, I go into Lent with an intense awareness that I am not alone. I enter my disciplines with a joy of anticipation, both of sharing this time with other fellow pilgrims now and of the hope of growing in holiness for my own good and the glory of God. Following Jesus — in His fight against sin, in His death, and in His resurrection — means becoming like Jesus.
It’s not easy, but it’s exhilarating. I like Lent.
Saturday, March 5, 2011
From David C. Downing's "Inkling" novel, Looking for the King.....
"apatheist" – someone too caught up in the here and now to be concerned with the not-here and the after-now....
What a description of too many in our society!