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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Physician, heal thyself: the story of Super-Christian Patrick

My sermon this week was based on Luke 13:10-17.

Do download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

Many of us can probably relate to feeling like we have a weight on our shoulders.  Whether it is the weight of worry, depression, hatred, sorrow, anger or illness, most of us can probably relate to feeling like there is something in our lives weighing us down, and we can also likely relate to feeling light and free when that situation is resolved.

Today's Gospel passage has to do with Jesus healing a woman who is bent over double, and the image I get in my head is of someone who is literally and figuratively bent over by her problems, and of someone who can finally stand up straight again and enjoy life when that weight is lifted off her shoulders.

Now this woman was physically ill, so despite the ancient belief that physical illness was the result of sin, I don't think any reasonable person can indict her or anyone who has a physical illness.

But it seems to me like there is someone else in this Gospel who is carrying a weight that is quite literally of his own making, and he fails utterly to shrug it off, and that is the Synagogue leader.

When I was a teen, I worked at a Christian summer camp.  I would not have called myself a Christian then: I did not go to church, I was not asking the big questions, I was not interested in God, and in fact I considered myself an atheist.  But I had no objection to the religion of others, I needed a summer job, and several of my friends worked at the camp.

Part of what we did every day was Chapel.  This happened right after breakfast, and it consisted of a little morality story and some energetic songs to get the kids pumped for morning activities.  I played guitar, so I was one of several people who led the music for chapel.

Super-Christian Patrick was another music leader.  He was about my age and was as faithful a person as I have ever met, hence the reason I called him Super-Christian Patrick.

Although I liked Patrick as a person, there was something that bugged me about him.  At chapel, I would glance over at him as we were playing guitar, and although I was having fun, Patrick was LOVING it.  His eyes were closed and he was smiling and blissed out as we sang these songs about God.  He was loving God and God was loving him.

The thought in my head was, "You idiot".  I thought he was thoroughly naive and brainwashed, and at first I thought I pitied him for this.

As the summer went on, I came to realize that I was actually jealous and angry at him.  I was jealous and angry because he was happy.  He knew that God existed and loved him, and he loved him back.  I didn't have those things, and I have to admit, I wanted them.

My self-absorption robbed me of the ability to rejoice with Patrick.  My own feelings of anger and jealousy prevented me from being happy for Patrick that he was so easily able to bask in God's light.

What a weight I was carrying!  And what weight must the Synagogue leader have been carrying!  Rather than stand in awe of God's power, rather than sit down and learn at the feet of the man who had performed a miracle, rather than rejoice along with the woman who had been freed from her ailment, he instead rains on everyone's parade, accusing Jesus of breaking the law by healing on the Sabbath.

Maybe the leader was jealous because Jesus was able to do something he couldn't.  Maybe he was angry because God seemed to be working through someone other than him.  Maybe he just didn't like sharing the limelight.

Either way, one of the truths about human nature is that sometimes we resent the successes and joys of others.  We feel somehow that their success or joy takes away from our own.  We feel like if we are not happy, no one else has a right to be either.  We feel like there is a limited amount of joy and recognition to go around, that God has only a finite amount of love to divide up between all of humanity.

Nothing could actually be further from the truth.  Love, joy, success and recognition are not finite quantities, and I think we would actually find that we can derive great joy from celebrating with others in their own joys and successes.

The weights we carry prevent us from enjoying our own lives and from celebrating the joys of those we love.  Much of the time, these weights are of our own making, and can just as easily be unmade.

I hope and pray that whatever weight we are carrying around on our shoulder, whether it is sadness, depression, fear, anxiety, jealousy, a fractured relationship, that we can make a decision and take steps to come out from under that weight.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Bridges, not walls

My sermon for today was based on Luke 12:49-56.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

Before I was ordained a priest, I worked in a drug and alcohol rehab for teens and young adults.  I am not proud to admit this, but every once in a while, a kid would come into the program that I just didn't like.   There was one kid in particular, let's call him Chris.

Chris was just weird.  He dressed weird, he did weird things and said weird things.  He had a weird sense of humour and he interests were weird.  I could find nothing in common with which to connect to this kid, and I am usually pretty good at that.

At one point, I was talking to the boss about how I felt about this kid, and I expected him to agree wholeheartedly with me.  What he actually said brought me up short.  He said, "Sound like you are the one with the problem".

"What do you mean?", I said, not really appreciating his tone.

"Well, he's just being who he is.  If you have a problem with that, it's YOUR problem, not his".

He recommended I make an effort to get to know him, so I took him out fishing for a couple of hours, and as it turns out, he was actually a pretty neat, smart kid.  But had I been left to my own devices, I would have left that wall between us and missed out on the opportunity to get to know him.

The Gospel passage for today speaks of walls, of how we connect and divide ourselves from one another.

I have trouble with the Jesus in today's Gospel passage, incidentally.  I have an image in my head of Jesus, tender, meek and mild, the Prince of Peace who suffers the little children to come unto him and so on.

The Jesus in today's Gospel passage speaks of dividing families and bringing fire.  In have trouble putting the two images together.

The reality is that we can't catch inflection and tone of voice in the written word.  I don't think Jesus is saying these things gleefully while rubbing his hands together like a mad scientist.  Rather, I think he is saying it in a tone of weary resignation, with the realization that no matter how much peace and love he preached, human being would find a way to screw it up, that even families would be divided over how to show love.

And how religion has divided us over the years!  How did we do this?  How did we take the fundamental message of most religions, that we are all one, and turn it into an excuse to judge, condemn and divide?

Do we really think that God cannot tolerate a little difference?  Do we really conceive of a God who is so small and so petty that he cannot handle different viewpoints, different worship styles, different interpretations of Scripture?

I think Jesus came to help us embrace and celebrate our differences, but he was aware that doing so takes a fair amount of courage, far more than many people seem to have.

The problem is that it is so easy to build walls and say, "You are not of me, you are not of us".  We do it all the time.  We do it to women, LGBTQ+, immigrants, refugees, other religions, other ages.  I did it to Chris.

I suspect the real reason we build walls is not that we really have an objection to other people, but because we lack the courage to embrace their differences.

When we stop and think about it, how much reason is there really to build walls between other people?  People may have different skin colours, recite difference creeds, have different political views or sexual preferences, but in reality, we all love our children and our parents, we are all afraid of the future, we all laugh at pretty much the same things and cry for pretty much the same reasons.

In reality I would say that are more things that make us similar than make us different.  I am pretty sure if we could just get past the walls we build around ourselves and others, we would find great gifts in other people.

The bricks we use to make walls can also be used to make bridges.  I pray that today we would all have the courage to tear down walls and build bridges with them instead.

How do we live our lives when we think no one is watching?

My sermon for this week was based on Luke 12:32-48.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

I saw a t-shirt a few years ago that I regret not buying.  It said, "Jesus is coming!  Look busy!"

This was a joke about the the Second Coming, of course, and although the Second Coming is not current theology in most of Christianity, this shirt did put its proverbial finger on what I think are nonetheless poignant questions:

How and why do we live our faith?  How much room do we make in our lives for our faith?  What are we doing to make room for God?

Like many people, I drifted away from the church when I was younger, partially because I felt I had to fear God.  It seemed to me like the only reason to be a person of faith was to avoid eternal damnation, and consequently the main reason for being a person of faith was fear: fear of God and fear of Hell.  There was something that just struck me as wrong about that.

Not that those things do not deserve to be feared, but I felt deep within me that if I was ever to come to God, it should be out of love and not fear.

I was once told that love was something you had to make room for, and that really resonated with me.  My wife and I are expecting a baby, and I realize as we get ready for his/her arrival that a baby is something that you have to make room for.  Babies are small, but they are prop-heavy, so our basement currently looks like a maternity garage sale.

I think part of the problem is that we expect God or Christ to just pop into our lives, or we pick them up and put them down when it is convenient for us.  We seem to think that religion and/or faith are things that only happen for an hour or so on a Sunday.  We expect God make his own space in our lives, when in reality we are the ones who have to make room for him.

If Jesus was to walk into our church on a Sunday morning, sit next to us and ask, "So.  What do you do around hereto honour God?", what would our answer be?

I think for a number of churchgoers, that answer might be easy: we are wardens, we are in the choir, we cook for the bake sale, and so on.

I think, however, that the answer to that question might be much less evident if Jesus was to show up at our house or place of work and ask the same question.  What do we do from Monday to Saturday to honour God?  What do we do to preach the Gospel?

I am not suggesting that we all invest in a soapbox and head for Rideau Street, but what I am suggesting is that we follow the advice attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words.

Honouring God is less about outward displays of piety or being able to regurgitate Scripture passages like parrots.  It is about how we live our lives when we think no one is watching.

Our daily lives are the best testament to our faith, or the worst as the case may be.  The integrity of our Christianity is demonstrated in how we treat complete strangers in our daily lives.

It has been said that we should be vigilant in our words and behaviour because we might be the only Bible someone reads, the only Gospel someone ever hears.

The Gospel passage for today speaks of good and bad servants: the good ones remain vigilant while the master is away from the house, doing their duties and taking care of the master's property and possessions; the bad servant slack off in their duties and are not ready to receive their master when he returns home.

If we believe (as I firmly do) that we are stewards of God's creation, that we are responsible for taking care of God's people and his "stuff", that means we need to be vigilant all the time.  We need to be engage in acts of justice, mercy, truth, love and forgiveness 24/7, not just for an hour on Sunday.

Today, I hope we can all remain vigilant and that we can all live our lives with integrity, courage and honesty.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The collateral damage of sin

My sermon for this week was based on Luke 12:13-21.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

Ok, we need to talk about sin.  I know, it's not popular, it sounds Catholic or at least Baptist, but we have to talk about it.  We have to talk about it, not for your own good but for the good of those around you.

When most people talk or think about sin, they tend to think about "those things that make God angry at me".  They think of sin as something that is only between them and God, and as something that only impacts them personally.

Take the Seven Deadly Sins, for example: pride, envy, wrath, gluttony, lust, sloth and greed.

If we look at each of those sins, superficially they would seem to only affect the person committing them.  If I am prideful, nobody gets hurt, its my problem.  If I am gluttonous, I get fat and have health problems, but they are my problems.  If I am wrathful, I am the one who is angry, my problem.  If I am slothful, I am the one who is lazy, nobody else should care.

What often goes unnoticed with each of these sins and others, is that there is most often collateral damage to sin, a cost to others for our own sin.

Most people who are prideful, for example, buy their pride at the expense of shaming someone else: "Look at my nice car.  I don't know how you can drive that little thing.  Look at my nice house.  I don't know how you can live in an apartment".

If I am gluttonous, for every meal or snack I have that I don't need, mathematically there is less food available for those who don't have enough to live on.

If I am a slothful employee, my employer suffers, our clients suffer, as does the business for which I work.

My wife is occasionally wrathful.  I suffer.

All this to say, we are not the only one who suffers when we sin.  There are other people who are caught in the blast zone, and even if we don't much care what God think of our sin, we should at least care about the impact we have on other people's lives, especially about those we claim to love.

The Gospel passage for today has to do with an inheritance and greed.  Jesus is talking to a crowd, and someone says, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me".

We know a few things about inheritances in those days.  First of all, it was a matter of law.  Sons had every right to expect an inheritance if there was one, and fathers were obligated to divide their estates among their sons when they died.

Second, the eldest son was typically the 'executor' responsible for dividing of the inheritance along some pretty strict guidelines:  the eldest son got a double portion, either because they had less time to enjoy it it, or because the older son typically took over the family farm/plantation/business.

What we can infer from this situation is that the eldest brother is a holdout.  He has control of the family estate and he is not following the law.  He is not giving what his younger brother what he deserves.

I have preached on this passage a number of times, and I always assumed that Jesus was addressing the Parable of the Rich Fool to the man who asked Jesus to intercede for him.  Now I am not so sure.  Chances are, the older brother was also in the crowd, perhaps standing right beside him, which is why the younger brother made his request in the first place: they are treating Jesus like a lawyer or a judge.  I now think Jesus is probably addressing the parable particularly to the older brother, warning him of the collateral damage of his greed.

Here's the thing: yes there is law, there is what is right and what is wrong, but in the end, what must the relationship have been like between these two brothers in the first place?  How fractured and ruptured must their relationship have been for the eldest to withhold the birthright of the younger, and for the younger to feel compelled to drag out the dirty laundry in front of a crowd?

Law is all well and good.  I am a big fan, we need it, I don't want to abolish law at all and neither did Jesus.  But Jesus was not about law, he was about love.  We write laws down, like "Don't kill", "Don't steal", "Don't lie".  If we could, as Jesus admonishes us to do, love God with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength, and love our neighbours as ourselves, we would have no need for law because love for one another would already have us acting in a way which would make law irrelevant.

Law is needed simply because we can't, as a species, quite seem to do that.

I think Jesus would tell us to follow the law if and when we could not find it in our hearts to love one another, but I really think what Jesus is trying to get these brothers to do is look at and fix the problems in their relationship that got them to this point in the first place.

Loved ones should not have to quarrel over money or possessions.  We do occasionally, and that is why it is good to have laws in place, but the tragedy of this Gospel situation is that the sin of greed generates casualties.  It likely did not end with the two brothers and their relationship either.  There were likely wives, children, aunts, uncles and cousins embroiled in this battle as well.

Sin is not something that stops and starts at our doorways.  It is something with far-reaching consequences in our families, churches, communities and the world.

Today, let us follow the law of love.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Same as it ever was: reflections on General Synod

As you may have heard, the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada recently passed a pretty momentous vote.  We voted in favour of changing our canons to allow for same-sex marriage.

Ok, you could accuse us of being a few years behind the time, but given the relative speed with which the most religions embrace change (which borders on inertia), this is actually not a bad lapse of time for the church to catch up with.

I should explain a couple of things about this whole process, because it was actually a pretty exciting Synod.  For those of you who have ever attended a Synod or the equivalent of your church or workplace, I realize this isn't much, but this was actually a nail-biter with some pretty profound implications for the Anglican Church in the future.

Briefly, Synod is like the annual general meeting for the church.  Synods are held yearly on a Diocesan level (a diocese is kind of like provincial politics), but every 3 years, we have what is called General Synod, and that is a meeting on a national level (kind of like federal politics).  In other words, at GS we discuss things that affect the entire Canadian church.

Arguable the most important topic of discussion at this Synod was one which has been festering literally for decades: whether or not to change our canons (church laws) to allow for same-sex marriage in our churches.

I will spare you the details, but suffice to say the motion was at first defeated by a narrow margin, then it was found after a recount to have passed by an equally narrow margin.

I should add that this does not mean that the Canadian Anglican Church is immediately going to start doing same-sex marriages.  This vote bought a second reading at our next GS in 2019, where it still runs a chance of being defeated.  If it passes a second time, THEN we will have to look at making some changes.

Almost immediately after the vote, myself and many of my colleagues had to respond to a number of concerns from our parishioners: What does this mean for our church?  What happens now?  Will our church be different?  What is going to change?

The short answer is: absolutely nothing.

Come to church next Sunday.  The building will still be the same.  The liturgy will still be the same.  The hymns will still be the same.  The prayers will still be the same.  Your neighbour next to you in the pew will probably be the same.  The sacraments will still be the same.  God will still be the same.  Christ will still be the same.  The Holy Spirit will still be the same.

We worship communally: we get together, we pray together, we sing songs of praise, we share the sacraments and fellowship, and in that sense, absolutely nothing has changed.  But we also have personal and individual relationships with God and Christ, and I honestly don't think these relationships have changed because of this vote, either.

Don't get me wrong, the vote is momentous, and I'll be honest, I am happy about the vote.  I think this is a victory for human rights and for the church.  Although I would never claim to know the thoughts and will of God, I also personally think that this decision that is in keeping with the will of the Holy Spirit moving in the world today.

I am aware that not everyone agrees with me, and that is OK.

We don't actually have to agree, and that is something that some church folk seem to forget.  We don't have to have the same thoughts, share the same heart or mind on every single topic.  I would argue that conflict and the successful navigation thereof is actually the only place we as people and Christians can possibly experience growth.

We have actually disagreed on a lot of stuff in the past few decades: women's ordination and the new prayer book spring immediately to mind.  And if we look back, we survived that.  We felt the Holy Spirit was leading us down those paths, and we learned and changed and grew together.  We did not give up on each other, God or the church.

Let us learn and change and grow together still.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Why the world needs Christianity

My sermon for this week was based on Luke 10: 25-37.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

Yup, you read that title right.

Even as a priest, I sometimes get bummed out and I start wondering, "Why do I do this?  What is the point of faith, religion, Christianity?  What does Christianity have to contribute to the world?"

The last few weeks have been particularly difficult ones in terms of the news.  The shooting in Orlando, cops shot in Dallas, yet two more examples of police brutality leading to the deaths of black men, bombs in sacred places during holy festivals in the Middle East, and those are just the atrocities that have managed to make it onto Facebook's newsfeed.

I can't speak for anyone else, but sometimes I am just overcome with so much grief for the state of the world and it's peoples.

And then I read the story of the Good Samaritan, and I am reminded that Christianity has stories that I need to hear, and that the world needs to hear and know.

The Good Samaritan is familiar to most people, churchgoer or not, but few of us understand all the implications of the story.

Jesus is preaching and teaching, and a lawyer asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life.  In other words, what must he do to lead a good, moral and virtuous life.  Jesus asks him what is written in the Law.  The lawyer responds with what is the beating heart and soul of Christianity, THE Great Commandment: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself".

Jesus affirms that this is correct, but perhaps wanting to appear clever, the lawyer asks, "But who is my neighbour", to which Jesus responds with the story of the Good Samaritan.

What we have to understand is that Jesus' audience was 100% Jewish, and Jews and Samaritans hated each other.  Sparing you the details, both groups felt that they were the true religion and the other were heretics, such that violence was common between the two groups, and they were forbidden from fraternizing with one another by their respective religious leaders.

So for a Jew to be told that there could be such a thing as a "good Samaritan" would have been as shocking as if someone told us a story of "The Good Nazi" or "The Good KKK Member" or "The Good Westboro Baptist Church-goer".

The story is pretty well-known, as I mentioned.  A Jew going from Jerusalem to Jericho is set upon by bandits who beat him, strip him, rob him and leave him near death on the side of the road.  What rarely gets mentioned is that these bandits are likely Jewish as well, and were probably beating on a fellow countryman, but thieves know no honour, so that is often glossed over by the preacher.

The first person to come across the man is a Jewish priest, a person one would think and hope would be inclined by his vocation alone to be merciful, but he crosses to the other side of the street and passes him by.

I have heard it suggested that perhaps the man was ritually unclean, and that the priest was fearful of becoming ritually unclean himself, but either way, this does nothing to exonerate him.  I think we can all agree he should have stopped to help.

The second person is identified as a Levite, one of the 12 Tribes of Judaism.  The theory is that in describing the man as traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, Jesus is trying to indicate that the man who was beaten is himself a Levite, and a fellow countryman, perhaps even a distant or not-so-distant relation.

Either way, the man passes him by on the other side of the street.

The one person who stops and helps, and who bends over backwards to help by the way, is a Samaritan: the one person who by rights should have actually passed the man by, perhaps even spitting on him as he went.

The man disinfects and bandages his wounds, puts the man on his own animal, ventures into enemy territory to take the man to an inn, pays the innkeep to tend to the man, and promises to return with more money to pay for his treatment.

Look, I am not proud of this, but when I hear stories of Muslim bombers both here and abroad, my first impulse is to be angry at and afraid of Muslims.  When I hear about mass shooters, my impulse is to be afraid of and be angry at gun owners.  When I hear about yet another example of police brutality, my impulse is to be afraid of and angry at cops.

And this is exactly why I need Christ and the story of the Good Samaritan.

Because when I check my reality, I have to confess I have never met a bad Muslim, a bad gun owner or a bad cop in my life.  Sure, I am sure they exist, but I have never personally met one, so I have no actual reason to be angry at or afraid of them.  When I get overcome with the fear, anger and paranoia that actions like those mentioned above are designed to create, I need to be reminded there is good in the world, and in fact more good than bad.

I need to be reminded that as a Christian, hearing the story of the Good Samaritan, I am actually called to a higher moral standard than other people, not a lower one.  I am called to overcome my own personal prejudices and preconceived notions to see the suffering of all of God's children, not just the ones who think and do as I do.

That means gay or straight, black or white or any other skin colour, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Atheist, Agnostic, whatever, I am bound by my faith to love you.  That is what the story of the Good Samaritan is about.

I would like to end with one of my favourite prayers by St. Francis, who may have been inspired by the story of the Good Samaritan:

"Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy."

Let these words penetrate our hearts, and let all our thoughts, words and deeds be informed by them.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Orlando gives me hope

Like all of us, the shooting in Orlando has left me heartbroken.

I am not gay, I am not Muslim.  I am white, male, Christian, and heterosexual.  My family which is of mixed Scottish and Irish ancestry has been in the country so long that people have forgotten we were also once immigrants ouselves, and no one questions my right to be in this country and life my life as I see fit.  All this is to say that in all honesty, I have absolutely no idea what it feels like to be personally marginalized, oppressed or abused for who and what I am.

But nonetheless, I am heartbroken and I grieve for the dead and wounded, and I grieve for and with the gay and Muslim communities who must now and will continue to live with consequences of this event, and the consequences of events like it that happen all too often to marginalized groups all over the world.

The internet can be a terribly place when something like this happens, simply because it seems like most people are out to tear off scabs, point fingers or say "I told you so".

Those who are already against Islam take it as an opportunity to pillory Muslims.

Those who are already against religion pillory all religions and all religious folks.

Those who are already anti-gun pillory gun laws and gun owners.

People pillory the justice system for not keeping better tabs.

People blame our medical system for failing to identify and treat mental illness.

People post that they are praying, others criticize prayer as useless.

We are all left grasping at threads, trying to make sense of a tragedy that is by definition senseless.  We are left trying to find the root cause, trying to find something or someone to blame, and so we blame Muslims, religion, guns, etc.  This is human.  We are a species of problem solvers, gifted with intellect, and for many of us, finding "a solution" or "a reason" distracts us and drives the overwhelming pain we actually feel deeper down inside us.

I am not a sociologist, but I suspect that the problem is more complex than any one of the issues listed above.  I have heard all the arguments, and my intention is not to engage with them because I really don't think there is any point.

Yes, you could eliminate guns, but hatred will still find a way to do damage.  Yes, you could eliminate religion, but people have and will continue to find reasons to hate other people.  Yes, you could tighten up surveillance, but that would be at the cost of personal freedom and liberty.  Yes, you could stop people from praying, but sometimes that is all someone has at a time like this.

But in the end, "the solution" or "the reason" does not seem to be forthcoming, and we are left with pain.

I am not the most hopeful or optimistic of people at the best of times.  It is hard for me to look at the frequency and barbarity of this and other acts like it around the world and feel like there is reason to hope.

And yet there is.

I have seen footage of people lined up around the block in Orlando, waiting to donate blood, and those people were quite obviously from many races, creeds and colours.

I have seen footage and still photos of vigils around the world.

I have seen world monuments lit up with rainbows.

I have seen people posting messages of brotherly and sisterly love addressed to the LGBTQ and Muslim communities.  I have seen both of those communities posting messages of love to one another.

I have seen people refusing to hate, refusing to isolate, refusing the seek vengeance, refusing to demonize.

I have seen people ask and be informed how they can help or be of service.

I see people reaching out to people, regardless of who they are or what demographic they correspond to.

Don't get me wrong, there is most certainly evil and hatred in the world.  But there is also great love and great hope.

I have hope.  I have hope that we will someday be able to put away hatred in every form. I have hope that people will dance again at Pulse.  I have hope that people are already dancing elsewhere.  I have hope that people are coming home to their partners and letting them know how much they are loved. I have hope that more people are learning to love than to hate because more people are teaching their kids to love than to hate.  I have hope that every group or individual who sees hatred and violence as an appropriate response to anything will see that love is and will always be more powerful and will always win.

I have hope.