Kingdom Seeds

Last week, we heard “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God:” that the kingdom of God is near! We saw in Mark 1 how Jesus not only proclaimed this good news, but put it into effect: Jesus cast out demons and cured diseases, clearing out the powers of sin and death in order to make room to establish his reign on earth. In this morning’s passage, Jesus teaches the crowds about this kingdom, and even more, about the character of the king. This morning, we join the crowds as we gather to Jesus, and listen for the good news of his kingdom. Let us listen to the voice of Jesus for what God is saying to Emmanuel Reformed Church, and to us individually.

Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge. He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.”

Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

10 When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. 11 He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables 12 so that,

“‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
    and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”

13 Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? 14 The farmer sows the word. 15 Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. 16 Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. 17 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 18 Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; 19 but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. 20 Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.”

There are layers to this morning’s text: 1. Jesus teaching the crowds, and his disciples, about the kingdom; and 2. The farmer sowing seeds. The layers overlap. The farmer is Jesus, the seeds sown are the parables, and the soils are the crowds. If we consider the first layer, the story of the gospel, then we see that, though Jesus is telling this parable to all of them, not all of them receive it the same way.

The Soils Sown

Some among that crowd are hardened by life, tired from being constantly trampled on by kings and governors, tax collectors and soldiers, so that they are unable to receive the kingdom message that Jesus is preaching.

Some are eager enthusiasts, following the fad of the day to hear this up-and-coming rabbi Jesus’ teachings; but they have no foundation, no root-room for his teachings to germinate and grow, and the parable stirs their imagination only for a moment, but evaporates before it makes any lasting difference in their lives.

A third group in the crowds were listening to Jesus for dear life, needing to hear about this wonderful kingdom of God: in which the last are to be first; in which the mourners are to be comforted; in which the poor are to inherit the earth. But after they hear this impossible good news, they are immediately reminded that this world does not work like that: the first fight and kill and grasp to stay first at any cost; the mourners continue to mourn, often alone and forgotten in their grief; the poor receive nothing, while the rich gain more than they know what to do with.

And then there are those among the crowd, those blessed ones, who hear Jesus’ words, receive in them the message of the kingdom, and gradually but surely begin to grow and change and show the evidence of a changed life, in accordance to the message they have taken to heart. And the impossible, in-breaking kingdom of heaven takes root on earth in them.

The Incompetent Farmer

Jesus tells this parable, like all his parables, as a lesson about his kingdom, to explain further what this new reign, this new way of living, will look like. For us to hear this lesson, we need to listen again to the second layer, the story of the farmer, and listen specifically for how this strange story about an incompetent farmer can teach us about God’s incredible kingdom, and about God as our king.

The story is a simple one. Most of Jesus’ parables were simple, short, easy to remember. They were meant to stick in the hearer’s memory, to sound and resound there, pricking the imagination until it affected some kind of change, some important realization. The story of the farmer is no different. A farmer goes out to sow his seed. We aren’t told what season it is, how large his field is, whether he’s done any preparation, like tilling or weeding or clearing. A farmer goes out to sow his seed, and apparently has no idea what he’s doing. The picture we get is of a man with a bag of seed throwing it everywhere, without regard for where it lands. Some lands on the road, some on the rocks, some in the ditch with the thorns, and only some makes it where it’s supposed to go. If you saw your neighbor planting his corn like this, you would shake your head and laugh, and probably feel compelled to cross the road and explain to him how farming works.

The same is true back then. I’m sure farming looked very different 2000 years ago, but any sensible farmer would have known what soil was good soil, ready for the seed, and sure to produce a harvest. This farmer seems totally unconcerned with this, but sows abundantly, generously, prodigally. And then the farmer considers his work finished: no fertilizing, no cultivating, no watering, no weeding. The farmer trusts that the seeds will grow without supervision.

But if we consider that Jesus is teaching the crowds about himself, that Jesus is the farmer, this makes a bit more sense: Jesus continues to teach everywhere, to everyone, whether they are prepared to listen and respond or not, whether they are hostile to his message or accepting. Jesus is the farmer, sowing the message of the kingdom without regard for the condition of his audience. And Jesus doesn’t follow up with anyone, nervously micromanaging the gospel. Jesus trusts that the message will work by God’s power to change the hearts of those with ears to hear.

But this parable is about more than how the good news spreads. This parable is ultimately about the character of the king, and his kingdom. Recklessly scattering seed is foolish in a farmer, but Jesus uses that image to teach us about the prodigal abundance of our king. Our King is sowing his kingdom at all times, wildly, recklessly, abundantly, so that every moment is laden with seed-like potential to bear the kingdom, if only the seed takes root and bears fruit.

And this is the key of the parable. This is the point that the story hinges on as it turns from simple story to kingdom announcement. Jesus asks at the end of his story: “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” Jesus calls those of us who are able to listen, to make room for the seed of the kingdom to take root and grow and bear the fruit of the kingdom in the world. Jesus knows the different “soils” of this world, then and today. Some are hardened, some are eager but fickle, some are desperate but distracted, and only some are truly ready to hear. We come to Jesus to hear the good news, here in worship each week, or in our personal devotions, but we are often unable to really listen and really receive what he says as good news. The reality of our lives, the harshness of our worlds, or the distractions around us, resist and drown out the message of God as King come to earth.

And still, the good news for us in this parable is the image of a farmer sowing seed everywhere, indiscriminately. Every moment, even those moments choked with thorns and laden with stones are moments in which the kingdom is being sown, stretching its roots, and bursting forth. We may think it foolish to sow without a guarantee of a harvest, but that is the foolishness of our God and King. God sends his kingdom, and his own Son, Jesus Christ, into the world who turned from their Creator and King for their own futile kingdoms, and no longer recognize him. Into the unprepared and unyielding world, God’s kingdom comes, and it seems to take no hold. The world continues as it will, thorns and rocks and roads in tact. The kingdom seeds fall on all kinds of soil, and still our King, Jesus Christ, reigns in absolute confidence.

Soils Become Seeds, Seeds Become Sowers

And the message still resounds: “The kingdom of God is near!” Even though the message of the king falls on such unyielding, un-accepting ears, the kingdom of God grows in secret, takes root in season, and sprouts up in surprising places. The kingdom of God is made near, when even a single the kingdom seed takes root, grows, and produces a harvest. This is how the Church has persisted for thousands of years in a world that either hates and resists it, or tempts it away from its true purpose. This is how the kingdom is revealed in our midst, when even the most unyielding of people, the rockiest, thorniest heart, discovers within it the seed of the good news, that a new kingdom has come to earth, accepts that seed, and allows it to bear its fruit in his or her life. That’s the power of the seed: a slow, gradual, hidden power to grow, and to produce a harvest.

As Jesus is explaining the parable to his disciples afterward, he tells them that the seeds are the word. We hear this, and I think we often take it to mean that we are the soils. And that’s certainly part of this story. But it struck me as I was reading this this week that as Jesus explains the soils, he doesn’t say that some people are like the path, or like the rocks, or like the thorns. Jesus says that people are like the seed. At first, I do think we are the soil, hearing the message and receiving it. But the call to soil is to sit there. Jesus can’t call soil to clear itself, to move its own stones, to burn its own thorns, or to become good. Dirt is dirt. Dirt is static, it’s passive, it cannot act.

But Jesus says we are like seeds. The seeds of the kingdom are planted in us, and then we become the kingdom seeds in our world. And so the call to his disciples, to those who hear the parable, the Word, and understand it, and take it to heart, is to be seeds. Seeds cannot choose where they are sown. They cannot pick themselves up and put themselves in better soil. Seeds have a pretty straightforward itinerary. At the beginning, they are to enter and be immersed in the soil where they are sown, to become buried and hidden in that soil. And then they are to wait attentively, to respond to the soil and the season and the inner compulsion it senses to burst open and take root. And as the seed draws in its nutrients from the soil in secret, it begins to put forth it stalk, reaching up and out during the growing season. And then, in the fullness of time, the seed-come-plant bears it fruit until harvest.

We who have received the good news have been placed in our soils by the hand of God; we don’t have much control over our families, or personalities, or even maybe where we live or work. And yet the call to us is not to simply sit there. The work of a seed is not extravagant, or explosive, or extraordinary. The work of a seed is to grow in secret, to germinate in season, to become rooted in the place where we are planted. We are called to grow up, as well: to grow into maturity and strength, and to bear good fruit in season.

We were talking about this last week in our sermon discussion class, that the Christian’s life is one of service and activity, but in seasons. The colors here in front of church are teaching tools help us see and sense these seasons. It’s been white up here for the last several weeks: white is the color of celebration, of joy and victory. We see white here on our major holidays: Christmas, Easter, All Saints’ Day. Before that we saw purple: purple is the color of preparation and repentance; we see purple during Advent and Lent. This morning we see green: green reminds us to grow and bear fruit of good works and service for the kingdom. There’s a pattern to our seasons: purple, white, green. Repent, Celebrate, Grow and serve. These are a tool to help us sense the seasons in which we are to dig deeper into the soil, to rest and get ready, and to grow.

This is the parable, not of the soils, but of the Sower, and of his seeds. God in Christ came not only to die for our sins and save us for eternal life – the gospel is not less than that, but there is more! The gospel of God the Sower is that he came in Christ to establish his reign on earth, to begin the kingdom work on earth. This kingdom didn’t begin with war and ruin and conquest, totally demolishing what was in order to build what will be. No, Jesus says our King is like a farmer, sowing the seeds of his kingdom into the mess of the world, abundantly, foolishly, confidently, because he trusts that seeds will do what seeds are called to do: take root, grow, and bear fruit. As God’s kingdom takes root in us, it takes root in the world around us. This is how “the Kingdom of God is near.”

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear this good news.

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“Opinions”

Lectio: Romans 14:1-12

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike.

Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God. We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

Meditatio: “Opinions”

What if that’s all they were, just opinions? How often we have communion; what songs we sing during worship; which clothes we wear on Sunday mornings (or Sunday evenings, or Saturday evenings, or Saturday mornings, or…); whether the preacher is behind an ornate pulpit or an old music stand. What if that’s all they were, just opinions?What if that’s all they were, just opinions? Whether the small group should spend the first fifteen minutes praying, or talking about the football game Friday night; whether the women’s circle should give their money to the church fund, or to the woman down the street whose husband is in the hospital; whether the youth group paints the home of the neighbor who doesn’t come to our church, or paints the youth room? What if that’s all they were, just opinions?

The Christian college I attended was a dry campus, no alcohol or drunkenness permitted. This, of course, was a great comfort to many concerned parents, and a great bother to many of my peers who insisted that “freedom in Christ” gave us license to participate in any sort of behavior we wished. But does it? Does our “freedom in Christ” really permit us to behave any way we wish? I’m not sure, but I do have an opinion. I’m sure you do, too.

Paul doesn’t give us his opinion. This sort of surprised me, because he hasn’t been afraid of giving us his opinion all letter long. But he does instruct us to not judge one another, nor to quarrel over opinions. There is a Judge in heaven whose job it is to condemn those He will, and to pardon and welcome those he will. Our job, then, is simply to “live to the Lord,” and “die to the Lord.”

Oratio

Lord, remind us always of your wide embrace of the sinner, the poor, the outcast, and the weak: of us. And let the memory of our adoption drive us to welcome and care for our outsider neighbors. Grant us the patience of your provision and the peace of your protection to welcome and love people as they are, and to live and die to You.
Amen.

Contemplatio + Incarnatio

The Good and Beautiful Life: Putting on the Character of Christ

“The Good and Beautiful Life: Putting on the Character of Christ,” by James Bryan Smith. The second book in the “Apprentice of Jesus” series.

There are two primary reasons we judge others: to fix people or to make us feel better about ourselves. (These two often occur at the same time.) Though we may say we have good intentions, when we judge others we demonstrate that we care more about ourselves than the person we are judging. If we really cared, we would adopt another approach…

Condemnation engineering. When we see someone who is at fault, caught in sin or behaving badly, we often turn to the method the world commonly uses to “fix” people: condemnation engineering. A verbal assault, we think, will set them straight, and it appears to work. We reason, If I give so and so a good talking to, they will shape up. It is a very powerful weapon in our arsenal. The people we judge or condemn often shrivel, get angry or cry when under our judgment. Once in while a person makes some changes, which reinforces the narrative that this method works.

Seeing it work increases our confidence in the power of condemnation as a means of correction, and it has become the primary method people use all over the world. Parents, educators, coaches and bosses take this route to fix the people under their authority. Many people believe it is the only way to help others change…

Condemnation engineering fails because it doesn’t come across as loving, it doesn’t allow the person to own the need for change, it doesn’t offer help toward change, and it may be entirely inaccurate…

If we really want to see people change, we have to be willing to come alongside them and participate with them, to make sacrifices of our own time and energy. I am so thankful that I have the privilege of prayer and the resources of the kingdom of God.

~ from The Good and Beautiful Life, by James Bryan Smith

“The Armor of Light”

Lectio: Romans 13:8-14

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Meditatio: “The Armor of Light”

I have read Paul’s Letter to the Romans through 3 or 4 times, and I have never noticed this phrase before — which is surprising, because with my fantasy-fueled imagination, “the armor of light” conjures whole worlds and storylines and epics to mind. I probably missed it, because this passage is somewhat overshadowed by the first 7 verses of Romans 13, where Paul instructs the Roman Christians to submit to the political authorities. Fascinating what the Spirit holds up for us at certain moments in our lives.

“The armor of light.” Paul talks further about such armor in Ephesians 6 — more well-known to most Christians — and holds in his mind this surprising image of how we Christians are to live in a world that is hostile to our message, just as it was hostile to our Lord. We are to put on armor — of light, of God, of Jesus Christ.

cardboard armor 1

One of the dorm events at Northwestern College, the Cardboard-Duct Tape Battle

I have never worn (real) armor, nor, I thank God, felt that I really needed to. I have, however, put on pretend armor, and while I’m sure it’s like comparing an apple to the wax facsimile, I did feel that somehow the armor changed me. And that makes sense: costumes help make the character, and we make a change in wardrobe to help us mark a change in identity. I’ve had to buy some new clothes now that I’m going to be “Pastor Cody” instead of “Student Cody.” We don’t like admitting this, it seems, because we’ve seen too many movies that all told us “it’s what’s inside that counts.” And then we all got excitable when Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins says, “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.” I think Paul understands that both are true, that we are a complex mix of our inner character and outer comportment.

Another year's Cardboard-Duct Tape Battle, featuring a gladiator-style Sword and Shield pairing.

Another year’s Cardboard-Duct Tape Battle, featuring a gladiator-style Sword and Shield pairing.

And armor, like any external accessory we attach to ourselves, teaches us how to wear it, and that has an impact on the way we behave while we wear it. You can see it in these funny college photos. There’s an aggression and intent that gets put on with the armor. It seems to me that this aggressive posture is what most preachers understand Paul to mean when he teaches us to “put on the armor of light.” It’s even more suggestive when we read Paul in context, where he pairs his instructions on God’s Armor with his instructions on how Christians engage social and political powers. The macho-preachers want us all to strap on our Jesus armor and either form our defensive line against the world’s onslaughts of temptation and backsliding, or take our religious war to Washington and take back our country. But when we read all of Romans 13, or all of Ephesians 6, and Paul is talking about the Christian posture toward power, but he is not giving instructions to seize power aggressively, or resist power defensively.

This is why I love lectio. Today’s lectionary reading of Romans begins with love. Reading and re-reading and meditating ties together two contradictory images: armor, and love. The armor of light is not a militant posture toward the world, with its powers and dangers. Nor is the armor of light a defensive posture against the world, with its threats and temptations. This is not what it means to be disciples of Christ. When we “put on the armor of light,” we are choosing to act in radical faith that the Lord of heaven and earth is, in fact, Lord, and is even now reigning, so that nothing on earth can shake us from his protection or his provision. When we “put on the armor of light,” we are choosing to act in radical hope that our Lord and Savior is not done working for our good, but is even now drawing all things together — yes, even terrorist attacks and political truancy and economic recessions and world wars, if we can believe it — toward the promised new heaven and new earth. And most of all, when we “put on the armor of light,” we are choosing to enact radical love toward God, and therefore, toward God’s good world, which is the summary of the commandments and “is the fulfilling of the law.”

This is how armor can be all light, when it reflects into the waning night the day that is near. We must reflect into our murky worlds the light of the day that we know to be near. This is our task, and our identity.

Oratio, from Ephesians 6

Lord, arm me with your love, that I may boldly welcome the world anew, and see it for its coming glory, waiting to be revealed.

Fasten the belt of truth-spoken-in-love around my waist, so that I may temper the words of my mouth with your love for those who hear them.

Put the breastplate of righteousness over my calloused heart, that I may be prepared to embrace those who are different from me.

Put shoes of love on my weary feet, that will make me willing to cross the threshold of my comfort zone, and make me ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.

Give me the shield of faith, not to protect me from others, but so that I may defend the powerless, and quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.

And put on my head the helmet of salvation, so that my ears may hear the cries of others in need and not hear the lies of the evil one, and that the vizor might direct my eyes away from “the works of darkness,” anything that might be “provision for the flesh,” and direct my eyes toward the day that is near.

And train me to hold the sword of the Spirit, which is your Word. Let me hold your Word with respect for its edge, and with discipline for its careful use.

Amen and amen.

Contemplatio

 

 

“Enemies”

A Prayer for Seminarians, at the Start of a New School Year

Lectio: Romans 12:9-21

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Meditatio

This week is the first week of classes at the seminary, and the first “first week of classes” I will not be attending in 20 years. It’s strange. I love school, and I excel in that environment, so I am sad to not return. At the same time, I graduated in May: I have achieved what seminary has offered, and the skills and education that I have received have a purpose, a trajectory, an end — ministry. I am somehow finished with formal preparation, and I stand on the verge of entering formal (read “full-time, ordained”) ministry. I am ready and excited and anxious and retrospective.

As I read Paul’s instructions to the Christian communities in Rome, I can’t help but hear them as instructions for the Christian community I am leaving behind (and, of course, the Christian community I will soon be leading).

city of godOratio

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; God-in-Unity,

Let love reign at Western Theological Seminary this year. In classrooms, offices, and library study carrels, let love for you, love for one another, and love for your Word and your people guide and go before faculty, staff, and students.

Proclaim your Good News every morning in Mulder Chapel, through the voices of middlers and emeriti alike, so that all members of the Western community might outdo one another in holding fast to what is good, and persevering through the weekly tasks of readings, papers, grading, and meetings. Send your Spirit upon them all, so they do not lag in zeal, but serve you diligently. Let them rejoice during breaks, be patient during exams, and persevere in prayer for one another always.

Thank you for all those who have been involved on summer maintenance crews, and who are eagerly working to provide housing to new students. Protect and provide for those who care for the buildings, for the internet and other technological resources, and for the coffee in the bookstore. In your hospitality toward them, move the students, staff, and faculty to extend hospitality to the strangers who frequently share this space.

And in those moments when frail human love fails — when blessings turn to curses; when hospitality is withheld; when institution comes before individuals; when grades are a tyrant, rather than a servant — go before and go between those who are hurt. Interpose your grace, that all may receive it, and give it to one another, and forgive one another. Raise up advocates and counselors and listeners, who might rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Let your love guide the members of the body of Western to live in harmony with one another, and live peaceably with all.

Where Satan sows the temptation to be relevant, to go along, to be popular, remind them of the sufficiency of your grace as the font is filled each morning. Let assimilating and conforming cease, and foster by your Word and by your Spirit a community where no one feels they must surrender their differences to belong or be valued.

Where Satan sows the temptation to perform, to compete, to impress, remind them of the sufficiency of your grace as the bread is broken each Friday. Let posturing and presuming cease, and foster by your Word and by your Spirit a community where no one feels they must claim to be wiser than they are.

Where Satan sows the temptation to oppose, to malign, to be against, remind them of the sufficiency of your grace as the cup is poured each Friday. Let gossiping and demonizing cease, and foster by your Word and by your Spirit a community where no one feels they must repay anyone evil for evil.

Surprise Western Theological Seminary with these sacraments, where the wrath of God pours out against all enemies to unity and love in small, simple ways. Overcome the subtle and secret evils among the community with your good gifts.

For all of these things, and for all the ways you stand ready to lead and love Western Theological Seminary, we pray with thankful praise and eager anticipation. In our Lord Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

Contemplatio