One of my favorite Sondheim musicals is Company, and this video from a few years back provides a nice analysis of what makes the musical work and how it’s been reimagined over the years.
I noted in an earlier Friday Feed that you can use people’s end-of-year book lists to figure out some solid picks by looking for repeat mentions. Well, Tim Challies does just that by giving you the consensus picks for best Christian books of 2020.
Last March, the folks at 9Marks listened to the most popular preachers in the country to find out what they had in common. The results were…not great. But it is instructive for those who have the ministry of preaching and teaching.
I love comic-book movies and have been a pretty big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) thusfar, so I was cautiously intrigued when Disney first announced their upcoming Marvel streaming series’ that would premiere on Disney+. Of the shows that were announced, I figured The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Hawkeye would be my favorites, but the one that didn’t make sense at all to me was WandaVision.
Early descriptions of the premise sounded pretty terrible, to be honest. “Wanda and Vision as a couple in a sitcom”? What a letdown from the heights of Infinity War and Endgame–and wait, isn’t Vision still dead? What’s going on here?
A few months back, when the first teasers and trailers for the show were released, my mind changed completely. From the visuals and editing to the music cues and special effects, it was clear that WandaVision was going to get weird–and that got my attention. Okay, MCU, let’s get weird.
Well, we’re now 3 episodes in, and I’m 100% on-board. Here are my early thoughts on the show so far (and yes, there will be spoilers, so if you are waiting to watch the show, click away now):
Initial Disclaimer #1: I’ve only watched these episodes once so far (I may give them another go soon), so this is based on initial impressions and the things I’ve gleaned from the internet after each viewing.
Initial Disclaimer #2: I’m not as versed with the comics versions of these characters, so other than some broad-stroke information (e.g. The Scarlet Witch is the daughter of Magneto), my knowledge base is primarily the MCU version of the characters.
Nick (Fury) at Nite
What struck me from the outset was the outstanding visual direction, set and costume design, and use of sound cues. The production team has recreated the vibe of a classic TV sitcom with each episode, and the care and intentionality of the direction and design is apparent. The first episode all but perfectly recreates the living room from The Dick Van Dyke Show (including a cheeky “ottoman side-step” reference!), while the next 2 episodes change the house to reflect the design sensibility of Bewitched and The Brady Bunch. The use of the canned laugh-track, the writing, and the storylines seem to be ripped directly out of Sheldon Leonard’s old notebooks, and the show looks like it was shot on the DesiLu back-lot. Even the opening credits are created to evoke those era-specific TV shows, often directly referencing the animation or font design of the titles.
What’s more: the “classic” comedy plots and writing work for me. I’ve read critiques calling the storylines hokey or corny, but as someone who grew up on countless hours of sitcom reruns from that era, it hits the spot for me and makes me genuinely laugh throughout–to the point that I become a little self-conscious about it, while watching the show with my wife. The fact is, I absolutely love that era of television. It’s visual comfort food. And the showrunners get it.
Rather than try to mock or parody the genre, the WandaVision team has created a kind of love-letter to that time period in TV history, and the show feels like it would fit right in with the classic Nick-At-Nite lineup of my youth… at least until someone starts choking or cuts their hand, at which point the illusion begins to shatter.
It’s Creepy and It’s Kooky
What makes the show work as part of the MCU is what has (up to this point) been lingering at the edges: certain moments when the audience can see (and the characters themselves begin to acknowledge) that none of this is real. This creates a palpable dread that hovers just off-screen for most of each episode.
The ways this is done are varied and creative: Wanda’s ability to rewind or edit conversations; errant radio broadcasts that break through the musical background; splashes of color during the first 2 “black-and-white” episodes, a la Pleasantville. Even the commercials in the middle of each episode are full of Easter eggs and clues about this ongoing mystery. Then, in Episode 3, the facade falls away, as Vision’s neighbors seem to allude to their being held prisoner in this idyllic town, and Wanda’s friend Geraldine outright mentions Ultron when Wanda begins talking about the death of her brother.
So what’s going on? Here are my current theories, based partly on some things I’ve read about the visual references in the first 3 episodes (and I’m posting this today because I have a feeling the plot’s going to get blown wide open with Episode 4):
I’m fairly sure Wanda’s in control. The times that Wanda uses her powers to “clip” conversations or rewind time tell me that she’s the one in charge (at least, in charge of what’s happening inside Westview–though someone or something else might be controlling her?). The town of Westview is a simulation, a pocket universe, or some sort of reality-stone-style construct. She’s incorporated the classic TV she may have seen as a child in Eastern Europe and used it to create an idyllic “happy ending” for herself and Vision that she feels they deserve and were denied.
I’m not sure Vision is *really* there. At least, not the Vision that Wanda knew and loved in Infinity War. The Vision we see here is either a construct of Wanda’s fantasy, or perhaps an earlier “save file” of him that she was able to get hold of. Either way, he’s as much a prisoner as anyone else in this town.
Wanda’s friends are trying to break in. Geraldine is clearly an agent of SHIELD or is working on their behalf, but when she oversteps and pushes on Wanda too hard, she’s expelled from the fantasy world. It’s clear at the end of Episode 3 that SHIELD (or at least SWORD, which I learned is an office within SHIELD) is trying to protect (Contain? Control?) Wanda, perhaps because she’s more powerful than they can handle at this point.
There isn’t a “bad guy”–or at least, if there is, it’s Wanda. My guess is that once she realizes the illusion will not hold, she may become angry and/or vengeful and may lash out at those trying to bring her back to the real world, unless or until “Vision” talks her down and convinces her that it’s time to let go and move on. This ending will be heartbreaking, but ultimately satisfying.
This opens the door to “mutant” involvement in Phase IV. The background question in all this is how these Disney+ series’ interact with MCU Phase IV. I’m wondering if this show will be used as a way to lay the groundwork for introducing the X-Men into the MCU, since the character of Wanda now firmly has a foot planted in both “worlds.” (Note: I didn’t come up with this idea; one of the “easter egg” posts I read online connected the Episode 3 commercial language about the “goddess within” to the possibility of retconning Wanda’s powers so that they were innate to her as a mutant, rather than created by Strucker and Hydra.)
So there you go: early reaction and theories about WandaVision, in advance of Episode 4’s release. I’m absolutely digging this show, and I can’t wait to see how it ends. If you want me to follow-up with some final thoughts once the series concludes, let me know in the comments and I’ll be happy to oblige you. (I may do it anyway.)
Your Turn: What do you think of WandaVision so far? Is it funny and intriguing? Hokey and slow? Mysterious and spooky and altogether ooky? Let me know in the comments below!
It’s always a bit challenging and emotional to pull up stakes and move to a new place, even within the same city. There are so many lists: things to remember to pack, things to remember to clean, addresses to change, contracts to sign, utilities to transfer. We did our best to prepare our oldest child for the move, like talking about how exciting the new place will be and how we much she’ll like our new neighborhood. We made the extremely wise decision to hire movers to do most of the hauling and unloading (worth every penny!). But in all that flurry of lists and boxes and late nights and phone calls, there was little time to reflect.
We were in this house for over 5 years, and a lot of life has happened within its walls.
We brought 2 daughters home from the hospital to this house, and found out that we were expecting a third.
We lost a baby by miscarriage in this house.
We had to have our beloved dog put to sleep after many good years.
My wife finished her Master’s degree and started an online business.
We joined a new church (my first “new church” in 25 years!), and I later became one of the elders/pastors at that church.
I began earning a little bit of side-hustle income from writing/editing for the first time.
Last March, I made the transition to full-time remote work, and have reaped the many benefits of working from home (not least of which, having a commute of about 5 seconds).
We made countless little memories and habits that formed within the walls of that house.
Yet, even though you think of it as your “home,” in some ways, a rental house is just a stop-over. It’s not meant to be permanent, so you make do with its imperfections. This house was pretty rough around the edges in places, and it wasn’t well-constructed. It had cracks and scratches, places where more care should have been taken. (But so do we, I suppose.)
All in all, despite the problems with the house–the loud neighbors, the scratched up doors and walls, the creaky floor and leaky tub–I can look back with thankfulness on being in this place, at this time in my life and marriage. We had good years there. It was a very fine house.
Closing the Chapter
Here’s why I bring this up today, aside from my own selfish desire to reflect:
It’s now 4 weeks into the new year, but you may still be standing in the shadow of the last one. Perhaps you still blame “2020” (as if it were a sentient being) for things going wrong right now or lingering worries you still can’t shake.
Let me encourage you again today to take a few moments and rejoice in the year God made. Reflect on the good memories. Say goodbye to that year and end the chapter well. Then get ready for what’s next.
My family and I are fully moved in at the new (to us) house now (“fully moved in,” meaning not everything is unpacked, but it’s all under one roof!). It’s another rental, so we won’t be here long-term either. And this house has plenty of…quirks that we’ll need to get used to or overlook. But we’re looking forward to welcoming Daughter #3 into it and creating a whole new collection of memories here. We’re hopeful for the future, because we know that God is good and faithful and kind, so we can rest in His promises and enjoy His goodness.
Since some of you were curious, I wanted to provide a quick update on how we’re doing.
We Joined the ‘Rona Club.
By way of background: In the days leading up to Christmas, I was infected with C-19 and, in the spirit of holiday generosity, shared it with my household. At first, I thought I was dealing with the onset of sinus or respiratory infection (something I’m typically prone to in winter). Then I started hearing about friends from church who were testing positive for the ‘Rona.
I went ahead and got tested a few days later (delayed due to the holiday weekend). It was unpleasant but of course bearable. In the converted trailer that was used as the testing site, they took my vitals before the test, and the nurse said, “Your blood pressure’s up a bit–are you okay?” I thought, Ma’am, I’ve been sick for 4 days, I’m about to have a swab shoved a few inches up my nose, and you’re dressed like an extra from the movie Outbreak. So I may be a little tense, yes.
After the first day of feeling mildly crummy, the symptoms hit hard and heavy on Day 2. Chest tightness and discomfort, sinus congestion, cough, sneezing, and body-crushing fatigue (the kind where you feel like every inch of your body is encased in lead, and just standing up and taking a step feels like a fall risk). A few days later, my senses of taste and smell became significantly muted, though I didn’t realize it at first. I picked up some basic flavors (sweet, spicy, salty), but anything subtle was lost on me (mint chocolate was not minty, pecan- or caramel-flavored coffee tasted like…coffee). Symptoms went up and down a bit early on–better one day, worse the next.
Funny side-note: My family took a quick roadtrip down to one of the small coastal towns nearby where we could enjoy the surf without interacting with people. On our way out, we grabbed some seafood (nothing like fried shrimp and catfish after a day at the beach), but I noticed that it was perhaps the blandest meal I’d ever had. This restaurant received rave reviews online and a rating of 4-point-something out of five! What a bummer! Almost sixty bucks for the family to eat disappointing food! Welp, while we were waiting for the food to be brought out, I got the call that my C-19 test was positive. In retrospect, we may have been too harsh on the restaurant. I didn’t realize until later that it was around that day that my tastebuds took a vacation!
My poor, pregnant wife started showing symptoms a few days after I did, and we were thankfully out-of-sync symptomatically, so I started feeling better as she was getting worse (providentially allowing us to take care of each other!). I think she had a worse time overall, as her divinely-designed body was working primarily to protect the baby, so she didn’t kick the virus as quickly as I did.
Now, a few weeks out, I’m only dealing with some lingering chest tightness related to Covid (along with the typical winter-allergy blaaaahhhs). My household has fully recovered. We are supremely thankful to God for what turned out to be a relatively minor bout–no ER trips, no hospital stays, no major complications. For us (and I emphasize *for us*), it was about equivalent with our round of influenza last February, at least in terms of short-term effects. I suspect this shortness of breath and chest pressure may stick around for a while, if the reports I’m hearing are indicative of the normal long-term effects of the virus.
But at least I can smell my coffee now. And it smells goooood.
So that’s the personal update, for all of you who may have been concerned.
Extrapolating My Experience to Make Public Health Policy Recommendations.
Just kidding. I’m not going to do that. That’d be idiotic.
Having been tangentially-connected to the medical industry for as long as I have, I know enough to know that while you can make some very broad generalizations with enough experience/data, any single person’s experience is still a unique combination of personal history and contributing or confounding factors. It’s unwise to try to make broad applications from a single data point.
In other words, if you and anyone in your immediate circle have gotten the ‘Rona, you’re (at best) an expert on that particular medical experience, but not much beyond it. It would be an overreach to say, “It was no big deal for me, so it’s no big deal for anyone.” It’s also an overreach to say, “It was a really big deal for me, so it’s gonna be a really big deal for everyone.”
With those caveats in place: the big difference in my experience between the flu and C-19 is that ‘Rona is slower to reveal itself and has longer-lasting effects. I’m sure there will be longitudinal studies published years from now looking at the long-term impacts of this disease. But describing it as “basically the flu,” as far as I can tell, is reductive and unwise.
That’s not to say that the total shutdowns of whole segments of society were warranted, much less effective. But just like a person’s individual C-19 experience, the confounding factors are myriad when it comes to the effectiveness of the social lockdown efforts.
Truth be told, I suspect the lockdowns may have done more long-term harm than good, but I also recognize that Covid-19 is just a different disease that influenza, and the slow emergence of symptoms makes it harder to rely on the “just self-quarantine if you feel sick” approach. (I know there are recent “studies” about whether or not asymptomatic transmission is a thing, but the research is REALLY early, so maybe don’t jump right on that yet.)
(And I’m not going to get into the quagmire of dissecting the political and sociological complexities of lockdowns, the outright hypocrisy of political leaders who violate their own mandates, or the decisions made after months of anecdotal data that still seem to be fear-based or power-based instead of evidence-based. That’s a whole ‘nother headache for another day.)
In other words, I don’t know what the answer is for how best to prevent Covid-19. Odds are, unless you’re an epidemiologist or virologist, you probably don’t either. (Frankly, I’m not sure any one member of those lauded professions knows “the answer.”) We’re all trying to figure out the best way to approach how to stay healthy, how to keep our loved ones healthy, and how to keep our communities healthy (medically, financially, and sociologically).
My Actual Recommendation.
What I can recommend, as a bit of generally-applied common sense: Be kind.And I don’t say that in the blithe, kumbayah way that corporate social media brand managers and Insta-influencers do.
When I say, “Be kind,” what I really mean is, “Don’t be a jerk.”
Don’t be a jerk to people who disagree with you. Don’t be dismissive and sarcastic to people who may not have done as much research as you have. Don’t be aggressive and caustic toward people who *have* thought through these issues and have come to a different conclusion than you did. And when you encounter people who have decided to be a jerk about any of the issues surrounding Covid-19, make the decision not to be a jerk back.
If you’re a disciple of Jesus, there’s no wiggle-room on this issue. From our brother Paul:
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
Ephesians 4:25-32 (ESV)
Each of us should examine the facts (as best as we can ascertain them) about the disease and treatments, make decisions for ourselves and our families based on those facts, and then hold those positions with peaceable and gentle confidence until and unless we find compelling evidence and true arguments to change them. But in all of that calculus, it doesn’t benefit any of us to act like an obnoxious jerk to the people around us.
Because jerkiness is even more virulent and contagious than the ‘Rona. And it can hang around a LOT longer than a few weeks.
Feel free to discuss and react, but know that my “don’t be a jerk” policy extends to the comment box. For real. I’m not in the mood to countenance foolishness today. Thanks.
I was struck by a thought during a night of fitful, fretful worrying.
It wasn’t a new insight, or a brilliant observation–just an old truth that sometimes needs to be reapplied to my anxious mind.
As I lay in bed, tossing, turning, fretting over the tightness of my chest, the shallow breathing of my wife, the shadows obscuring my daughters across the hall through our two open doors, the creaks and groans of the house, and all the other things outside of my finite control, the question flashed like lightning in my head:
Is He good?
Of course, He is, I thought. God is good.I’d never say otherwise.
Is He kind?
Yes, He’s kind. He is the very definition of kind.
Do you trust Him to keep His promise to do good to you and your family?
I paused. He promised that He would work all things to bring about my good.He has never broken His promises, because God does not lie.
Can He keep His promises?
There’s nothing He can’t do. He does all He pleases.
Then why do you worry?
That’s the rub, isn’t it. I worry and fret over things I can’t control, because (at least momentarily) I am tempted to doubt that God is good, that God is kind, that God is omnipotent. I’m tempted to disbelieve that He will keep His promise to work all things together for the good of those who love him and are called according to His purpose.
My sinful fretting is a feeble attempt to control the uncontrollable because (at least in that moment) I don’t really trust the One who is all-powerful.
The force of my will cannot heal illness or control the actions of any who would wish us harm. The strength of my worry cannot extend my life by even one hour.
But I serve a God who heals the sick, who turns the heart of man this way or that, who has the number of my days written in His book.
What’s more, this God that I serve? He loves me. He knows me. He cares for me. Because He is kind. He is good. And he is trustworthy.
Sometimes, I just need to remind myself what is true, and ask my soul why it’s so downcast.
The end of December is usually a time of reflection on the past year—and after this year, many of us are perhaps a little skittish at the prospect. I have to admit, I have enjoyed and shared several “2020 is terrible” jokes and memes over the last several months. But a few weeks back, I was reminded of a verse I had memorized as a child:
“This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
As I meditated on this verse, I was reminded that not only did the Lord make “this day,” but He indeed made this week, and month, and even this year. The Bible teaches that the Lord is sovereign over all of human history, seeing the end from the beginning, and nothing takes place outside of His will and divine plan. What’s more, for those of us who are in Christ, all things—ALL things—work together for our good, to shape us into the image of our Savior (Rom. 8:28-30). If all of this is true, then even a year like 2020, checkered as it seems with challenges and even disappointments, has played out as our Lord ordained it to.
This certainly does not mean that it was an easy year. In no way am I minimizing the hardship that 2020 has brought with it. In the last 12 months, most of us have known loss of one sort or another. Many of us have lost family members in death, faced difficult medical diagnoses, struggled with job loss or financial hardship, and wrestled with family conflict.
However, dear friends, the fact remains: this is the year that the Lord has made. And while this year has brought its particular challenges, it has also contained particular blessings.
If you don’t mind, I’d like to share a few things I’m thankful for that happened during 2020.
My wife and I found out we are expecting our third little girl in early 2021, and couldn’t be happier.
I began working from home back in March and have been able to enjoy being with my family every day in a way I didn’t get to in previous years. As a result, my bond with my wife and daughters seems stronger than ever.
The number of readers on this little blog of mine have exploded this year, and as a result, I started my first “affiliate link” partnership with the kind folks over at Monk Manual, which has provided some extra income for our household.
God has opened other areas of provision that have come at just the right time to take care of unexpected bills.
Our church merged with a sister church a few weeks before the initial “shutdown” happened, and somehow we’ve emerged from this difficult season as a stronger body.
In addition to serving as an elder in my home church, I’ve had several opportunities to preach at other area churches while their pastors were away or had retired/relocated.
While it’s easy to be dour along with the rest of our culture at this “horrible year,” I would challenge you (and myself) to change how we think about and speak about the past year. Though the world would say there is little to consider good about 2020, that’s just not true. Despite it all, God has indeed been good to us—we just need to take the time to see it.
The Choice to Rejoice
Psalm 118:24 affirms that the Lord has made this day, and then follows with the exhortation, “Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” This is one of those reminders in Scripture that joy is not only a gift of God and a fruit of the Spirit, but it is also a choice. The psalmist calls to the faithful and encourages them to make the choice to rejoice and be glad in this day of the Lord’s making.
While this verse is written within a specific context (which we will examine shortly), it’s worthwhile to pause and consider: Are there times when I can make the decision to rejoice, in spite of my circumstances? Again, this does not imply a “Pollyanna” sort of naïve blindness to the difficulties of life. Scripture reminds us that Jesus Himself was a “man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). He is sympathetic with our weakness and our suffering.
Yet Paul also reminds us (from a Roman prison cell) in Philippians 4:4 to “rejoice in the Lord always—again, I will say, rejoice”! There don’t seem to be any exceptions in that word “always.” Rather, Paul gives—and repeats—this command. If these are commands from the Lord (and they are), then we will be enabled to obey them by the strength the Lord provides. Indeed, “the joy of the Lord is your strength!” (Neh. 8:10). We can call on the Holy Spirit to help us obey this command and rejoice in what the Lord has done, no matter what circumstances we face.
Thus, when we consider this year that the Lord has made, friends, we can and should choose joy. By the grace of God, we should fight to rejoice and be glad in it. Why? Because the Lord made it, and He has used it and is using it for our good and His glory (Rom. 8:28-29).
“His Steadfast Love Endures Forever”
One of the ways we can move toward joy is by recounting how the Lord has been faithful (as we just did earlier). This is clear in the first 18 verses of Psalm 118. The psalmist calls on God’s people to confess together the steadfast love of the Lord, and then recounts specific incidents in which God has shown Himself gracious.
The Lord is a rescuer (v. 5-6), a helper (v. 7), a refuge (v. 8-9), and our victory (v. 10-12). He will keep us from stumbling (v. 13), be our salvation (v. 14), and do valiantly for us (v. 15-16). Even in His discipline of us, He does not give us over to death (v. 18).
In verse 19, the psalmist asks the Lord to “open the gates of righteousness,” and this begins not only the section in which our key verse is found, but it points us to the greatest good that the Lord bestows on His people—a good that we have been celebrating in this Christmas season.
The fact is, there is nothing coming from us that is innately righteous. “There is none righteous; no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). On our own merits, even at our best, the “gates of righteousness” should be slammed shut in our faces. And yet, God has made a way for us to enter these righteous gates, through the work of His son Jesus, our Redeemer.
Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus
Do you recognize the language of verses 22-23?
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the Cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” (Ps. 118:22-23)
This passage would later be quoted by Jesus in Matthew 21 and Peter in I Peter 2—both describing the ministry of Jesus the Messiah! He was the “stone of stumbling and rock of offense” for those who would not believe, but the rock of salvation for all who would call on His name!
If you keep reading in Psalm 118, you’ll also find these words in verse 26: “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” These were the very words spoken by the people during Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem at the end of His ministry.
Then, verse 27: “The Lord is God, and He made His light to shine upon us.” Or perhaps, as John would put it in his gospel: “In [Jesus] was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Psalm 118 ultimately points forward to the coming of God’s Messiah, the Deliverer who would bless His people and bring them joy and success, a living demonstration of the steadfast love of God. And the coming of that Messiah would be “the day that the Lord has made,” a day worthy of rejoicing!
And what happened when that day arrived? John again tells us: “…light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil…” (John 3:19). Jesus the Messiah stepped into human history, a miracle baby in a manger in a small village. He lived the perfect life of righteousness that God’s Law demands of mankind. He taught the true words of God, did miracles, healed disease, cast out demons, and brought light into our darkness. And the response of the people was to slander Him falsely and deliver Him up for torture and execution.
But even that day was the day that the Lord had made, for it was only through that dark day that our redemption would be accomplished! Because Jesus our Savior was crucified in the place of ruined sinners, He became our vicarious substitute, bearing the full weight of God’s wrath and justice against sin, so that we who believe in Him might be declared righteous before God, one day entering the righteous gates of the New Jerusalem, “dressed in His righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne” (as the hymn goes).
The deliverance of God was made manifest on the darkest of days, a day we call “Good” Friday, because that unfathomable suffering brought us cleansing. It brought us hope. It brought us joy.
The suffering of our Savior was the day of our deliverance. Let us also rejoice and be glad in that day!
Look Back in Gratitude, Look Forward In Hope
The year 2020 is coming to a close, friends. Admittedly, it did not follow any of our plans or hopes for what would transpire. But nevertheless, this was the year that the Lord has made. Let us choose to rejoice and be glad in it—glad in what the Lord has done among us, glad in what the Lord has taught us, glad in how the Lord has shown Himself always faithful, and glad in the knowledge that we have hope because the Lord ordained the darkest of days 2000 years ago as the day of our salvation, for all who repent and believe on Jesus Christ.
Happy New Year! Be blessed this day, and rejoice, my friends! Rejoice!
[I meant to get this posted last week ahead of Christmas day, but I think it still applies. So, here’s something to mull over as we enter the new year.]
The Christmas story has deep roots in the Old Testament. The “seed” of the Woman, Eve, whom God promised would crush the work of the Serpent, was promised to come through the lineage of Abraham the patriarch and David the king. The promised descendant would be Himself a King forever, with an eternal inheritance. Through the house of Abraham and the lineage of David, the glory of God would be proclaimed to all the earth, and all the peoples of the earth would be blessed. This “seed,” this king, would be God’s messiah, His anointed one.
And so, prophet after prophet, century after century, the people of God waited for this sign, this Seed, to be revealed, bringing their deliverance with Him. Curiously, the last prophecy by the last prophet of the Old Testament wasn’t about the Messiah, but about His herald, a forerunner who would prepare the way for Him. After the prophet Malachi’s last word, there was silence for 4 centuries. No new word from the Lord. No new proclamations to the people of Israel. Just waiting.
My friend Edhiel, a native Spanish-speaker, made a beautiful observation after lunch one time:
“There is something beautiful about how you describe a pregnant woman in English. You say she’s ‘expecting.’ In Spanish, we don’t use that word in this way. But I just love that idea of expecting. The husband and wife prepare a place for the child, pick out the name and the colors of the room and the toys and everything. They are looking forward to when the baby arrives…That’s how I want to be with the next year. My expectations are high that I will grow closer to God and know more of His goodness. That’s how I want to live.”
Isn’t that awesome? The idea of “expecting.” And it reminded me of the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were faithful followers of Yahweh. Zechariah was a priest from the family of Aaron in the tribe of Levi, and his wife was also of the priestly tribe. Luke’s account described them as “walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.” By all accounts, you would assume this faithful couple to be blessed and highly favored by God.
And yet, God had decided, in His purposes, not to give them children. Remember, this is a day in which children were considered the greatest legacy one could have, and to be childless was to bear the reproach of the community (and perhaps, some thought, the curse of God). In such a time and culture in which children were considered the greatest legacy one could have, Zechariah and Elizabeth had none. A faithful minister, a faithful wife, an empty home, a barren womb. And though this disappointment could easily become bitterness–and for a time, it may have, we don’t know–what Scripture records is that Zechariah and Elizabeth remained steadfast, even as the years passed and the idea of ever having children became a lost cause.
Even when they had passed their child-bearing years and still had no offspring, this faithful couple continued to trust God. Then, one day, as Zechariah was chosen by lot to enter the temple and burn incense, an angel of the Lord appeared to him and told him that his prayer has been answered.
Which prayer of Zechariah’s was the angel referring to? Deliverance from Rome? The coming of the Messiah? A child (which at this point was practically an impossibility)? The answer turned out to be all three.
Days of Elijah
Consider the message of Gabriel to the past-his-fathering-prime Zechariah:
And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
Gabriel’s announcement is first that Zechariah and Elizabeth will finally have a child, a son on whom God’s favor and Spirit will rest. The angel includes an allusion to Malachi 4:5-6, the last prophecy given to God’s people before the four-century silence–a prophecy of “Elijah the prophet” being sent ahead of his Lord to prepare the way for Him.
The expectations of a faithful minister and his wife–for their Savior, for their deliverance, for their own household–all bound up in this unexpected birth announcement. The announcement of the “second Elijah” meant that the promises of God for the redemption of man were finally coming to fruition, and the faithful couple with an empty crib were going to be part of that story.
Today, it’s not hard to find people making promises on God’s behalf, tossing out “prophetic words” over the coming year like so many Mardi Gras beads. We should be extremely careful not to put words in God’s mouth, or assign promises to Him that He has not made to us directly.
But I wanted to bring up this part of the Christmas story to encourage you that God is faithful to keep His promises to you. They may not come to pass in the way we expect or the timing we desire, but He is always faithful and He is always on time. The past year has been challenging in numerous ways, but through it all, God has still remained faithful. If you are a follower of Jesus, I hope you can see that and hold on to that truth.
If you do not follow Jesus, then I invite you to think about your life: what, if anything, has been sure and certain this year? In what do you have your hope? Because I’m here to tell you that trusting in anything outside of Jesus Christ is like building a house on so many fistfuls of sand that slip away with a gust of wind. If you do not “build your house” on the firm foundation of Jesus and His words, the final storm of God’s judgment will come and blow and beat upon your house, and great will be the fall of it. Your only hope, your only peace, can be found by turning away from your sin and selfish rebellion and trusting in Jesus’ sacrifice to give you peace and right standing with God.
This is a promise you can know for certain God will keep: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” This is the promise of Christmas! The baby in the manger one day became the Savior on the cross, dying like a criminal in the place of sinners like you and me, to rescue us from the wrath and judgment we deserve for our sin and offering us forgiveness and grace, and then rising from the dead in victory over death itself. If we turn to Jesus in humility and repentance, He will in no way cast us out. We can be redeemed, made new, born again with a living hope and the promise of eternal life in Heaven with Jesus.
For all who know Jesus, who have tasted this forgiveness and mercy, it should have been a merry Christmas indeed, and we can look forward to a happy, joyful, blessed new year!
Grace and peace to all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ! Amen!
Sorry for the unexpected radio silence. December has included a few curveballs, but I definitely wanted to get in here before the end of the year and log my annual reading list!
It’s curious to me that in a year where I had more free time due to a change in work habits and less time in transit, I didn’t seem to read as much. Honestly, I really struggled to read much at all during the middle part of the year. It just seemed easier to vege out and watch movies or TV (or my recent addiction: video game playthroughs on Youtube… don’t judge me).
Nevertheless, I was able to complete 26 books this year (thanks in part to a prolific and comics-filled December!), and most of them were pretty short reads (fewer than 300 pages). If you’re looking for something quick to burn through, you might like some of these:
The Whole Christ – Sinclair Ferguson
A Great and Glorious Game – A. Bartlett Giamatti
The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa
The Prayer That Turns the World Upside Down – Al Mohler
Budgeting for a Healthy Church – Jamie Dunlop
State of the Union – Nick Hornby (novella)
Susie – Ray Rhodes, Jr.
The Final Days of Jesus – Andreas Kostenberger
Reset – David Murray
re:raptured – Bartels/Kluck
5 Minutes in Church History – Steve Nichols
re:raptured again – Kluck/Bartels
Church Elders – Jeramie Rinne
The ONE Thing – Gary Keller
We Cannot Be Silent – Al Mohler
A Way With Words – Dan Darling
Leadership Strategies and Tactics – Jocko Willink
Superman Smashes the Klan – Gene Luen Yang / Gurihiru
American Carnage – Tim Alberta
The End of October – Lawrence Wright
Daredevil: The Man without Fear – Frank Miller / John Romita Jr.
Batman: White Knight – Sean Gordon Murphy
Live Not By Lies – Rod Dreher
Superman: The Man of Steel (vol. 1) – John Byrne / Marv Wolfman / Jerry Oroway / Dick Giordano
Daredevil: Yellow – Jeph Loeb / Tim Sale
Daredevil: Born Again – Frank Miller / David Mazzucchelli
It’s been a weird year, and my reading has been a bit less rigorous as a result (for example, 7 of my last 10 titles are graphic novels and/or trade paperbacks of comic-book runs). But here are 4 books that I thought were excellent and certainly worth your time:
The Whole Christ, by Sinclair Ferguson — As I mentioned during #Booktober, Ferguson’s study of the Marrow Controversy was both theologically challenging and soul-stirring. The volume will be referenced fondly by theologians for decades to come. A perfect blend of pastoral and theological prose.
American Carnage, by Tim Alberta — Tim Alberta’s meticulously researched analysis of the Republican Party in the decade leading up to the Trump presidency was both insightful and frustrating. It’s hard to argue that many of the trends he described and warnings he gave have played out in the last few months. While it seems clear Alberta is pretty critical of the GOP in general, his analysis is spot-on and shouldn’t be discounted.
Susie, by Ray Rhodes, Jr. — I adored this biographical look at Susannah Spurgeon, the perservering and long-suffering helpmeet of the “Prince of Preachers,” Charles Spurgeon. Rhodes does a masterful job balancing the focus between Susie’s life as the wife of the era’s most important theologian and as a woman with a long-lasting and meaningful ministry of her own. Rhodes has a follow-up coming out in February, and I’m eagerly looking forward to more like this.
Live Not By Lies, by Rod Dreher — I noted on Twitter a week or so ago that the ideas and themes of this book “rang in my head and my heart like a struck bell.” Dreher sounds the call for Christians to stand against a culture that believes and perpetuates lies, and he gives several examples from Christian dissidents under Soviet rule to describe how we can resist “soft totalitarianism” by choosing to reject lies and live in truth. This book is a must-read, and I look forward to working through it again sometime in the coming year. There was a lot to glean from these pages.
There’s my list. What’s yours? Did you have a favorite read from 2020? I’d love to hear about it. Comment below!
Happy Friday, friends! Here’s a quick round-up of things I’ve been reading and enjoying lately, for your weekend clicks.
As a father of small children who has the privilege of working from home, interruptions are a regular part of life. This reminder from Scott Hubbard to slow down is an important balance to my typical reading about being more productive.
Also from Art of Manliness: a very helpful post about how to choose a biography to read, which considers how the writing of biographies has changed over time. Good points to consider here.
It’s end-of-the-year book list season, so here are some lists from Tim Challies, Russell Moore, Trevin Wax, Darryl Dash, and Jared Wilson. While I don’t necessarily recommend all the books they do, one way to sift through these lists is to look for which books come up repeatedly. That’s usually a good indicator of a book that’s well worth your time.
Hey friends! You know, they say that if you want to be a successful blogger, you should write engaging posts that serve your readers. And believe it or not, I do try to keep that in mind, but sometimes I just want to write something for me. These posts on the recent Twilight Zone seasons have definitely been one of those “selfish content” series, based on readership stats, but I don’t want to leave the miniseries hanging without closure, so today I’ll finish up my brief discussion of Season 2 of The Twilight Zone (2019).
As noted previously, the premise descriptions will be mostly spoiler-free, but my thoughts/response will not be. Let’s do this thing!
Episode 2.06 – “8”
The Premise: Members of a scientific research team in the Antarctic collect a biological specimen that proves far more intelligent than any of them anticipated–and underestimating it will prove disastrous.
The Payoff: To be honest, this one fell flat for me, but I’m not sure it had much of a chance. I watched it during my lunch break (making lunch and trying to get an episode of TV in while my wife and kids were at the park), so I was a bit distracted and rushed. On top of that, the “twist” (not that there really was one) was spoiled for me by accident on an episode of Tom Elliot’s Twilight Zone Podcast, in which some viewer feedback mentioned the reveal (derisively), so I knew going in what was going to happen. But even without those factors impacting my viewing experience, there really wasn’t much to this episode. Essentially, the crew of a science outpost finds a hyper-intelligent octopus that immediately figures out how to kill several of the scientists, use computers, and get smarter? Ehhhh. When your pitch is, “it’s like The Thing, but instead of a monster/alien, it’s an octopus,” I’m not sure it should have been green-lit. I enjoyed Joel McHale in a “non-Joel-McHale” role, and the creep factor (and unexpected gross-out factor) was fairly effective in spite of the premise. But in the end, I just didn’t care that much. I should have gone back and rewatched this with the subtitles on, because I feel like there may have been a lot of details in the dialogue that I just missed in my distracted state. Even so–an octopus?
Episode 2.07 – “A Human Face”
The Premise: An alien creature arrives at the home of a grieving couple, taking the form of their dead teenaged daughter. The couple faces a difficult question: not “Is this actually our daughter?” but rather, “Does it matter if it isn’t?”
The Payoff: I really wanted to enjoy this episode, and appreciated most of it in retrospect…right up until the ending. (Seems to be a recurring theme with this rebooted series.) The performances were gripping, and the idea of an alien using telepathy/empathic abilities to impersonate a dead loved one is horrifying. What made it all the more disturbing is that the alien acknowledged that it wasn’t really the couple’s daughter back from the dead, but still spoke “in her voice” to mess with the couple’s minds, and it worked. The set-up is great, the CGI was TV-okay, and the progressing of the plot/dialogue was intriguing. At the point when you realize that the mother is so desperate to have more time with her lost girl that she’s willing to pretend that this alien creature *is* her, the horror becomes heart-breaking.
But then the whole thing shifts–why? Because the alien, WHO HAD ADMITTED IT WAS SENT TO EARTH TO PACIFY THE POPULACE AND PREPARE FOR AN INVASION, suddenly changes its mind because it experiences the love that the parents had for their daughter. And when the couple and their “doppel-daughter” walk outside, you see that every house on the block has a simliar “happy family” walking outside together. So–hang on… So, you’re telling me that in every one of these houses, these alien drones designed to manipulate emotions to suppress the populace all had the same epiphany? I kept waiting for it to be a trick–the final manipulation, convincing the humans that it was “won over by love” only to trap them with their own belief that love conquers all. But then Peele’s closing narration says the alien was “conquered itself by humanity. It will go on laboring now under a yoke of its own design.” And that’s it. The alien invasion force was fully thwarted by the power of love. Come on, y’all. This was a great premise and a really effective narrative progression that was killed stone dead by an unbearably sentimental conclusion. I’m the kind of guy who enjoys sentimentality, but it’s got to make sense. And in this particular episode of The Twilight Zone, that ending feels like a cop-out.
Episode 2.08 – “A Small Town”
The Premise: A grieving widower discovers that making changes to a scale model of his small town can bring those changes to life in the real world, and he must decide how he wants to wield such power.
The Payoff: On the other hand, here’s an episode where the sentimentality works. While this one isn’t ostensibly a “holiday episode,” it has the vibe of a softer TZ classics like “Night of the Meek.” Some TZ episodes are morality plays that punish characters for their fatal flaws, while others are sweeter and more pleasant in their storytelling. “A Small Town” manages to be a bit of both, with passable results. The main character, Jason, is still grieving the death of his wife, the mayor of a small mountain town, when a local pastor gives Jason a job and a place to live to help him get back on his feet. In the attic of the rectory, Jason discovers a perfect scale model of his town, and then finds that changes he makes in the model are reflected in real life. While his wife’s replacement as mayor (played by David Krumholz as more smarmy than menacing) is dismissive of his constituents’ requests for improved public works, Jason uses the model to make those changes and improve life for his fellow citizens. Once the mayor starts taking credit for the good work being done, Jason uses the model to get even with the opportunistic and egotistical public servant–smashing his car or scaring him with a “giant” tarantula.
The climax of the episode–the antagonist discovers the existence of the “magic gizmo” and monologues about how he will use it for selfish purposes–is almost too cliched to bear, and in the end, the breaking of the table and the resulting chaos in town seemed to be resolved a bit too easily. I was hoping for more meat on the bone (for example, the breaking of the model table could have resulted in catastrophic damage, showing the Jason’s increasingly selfish use of the model was being punished by the Zone’s justice). But I think I was expecting this episode to be a bit more like that first kind of story I mentioned. Instead, the no-good mayor was shown to be a selfish jerk and the town turns him out, and Jason is presumably given credit for the good he did and how he engendered goodwill and community spirit among his neighbors. And that’s fine. This isn’t a story you’d go back to repeatedly, but the premise is a little fun, even if it seems like a missed opportunity.
Episode 2.09 – “Try, Try”
The Premise: Claudia has a chance encounter with a charismatic, romantic stranger named Marc, and as they spend the day together, he always seems to know the perfect thing to say or do. There’s a reason for that…
The Payoff: I saw a description online (I believe) that this episode is like if Bill Murray’s character from “Groundhog Day” were actually a sociopath. I don’t think I can sum it up much better than that. The first act of this story gives us Claudia’s meet-cute with the enigmatic Marc, who seems to know the perfect comment or compliment to pique Claudia’s interest or make her smile. As they spend the day together, Marc starts making little side comments that confuse Claudia but tip the audience off to the fact that he’s not what he seems. Finally, the shoe drops and he admits that he’s lived this day over and over so many times that he’s essentially perfected his “first date” with Claudia (and has frequently ended up in her bed). Claudia is understandably unsettled, but Marc persists, arguing that he knows her better than she knows herself and they’re perfect for each other. (Also, the name “Marc” is a lie to gain her trust. No big deal, right?) He has begun to feel godlike in his omniscience, to the point that he may be able to do whatever he wants to her and it won’t matter because the next day she’ll vanish like a dream.
Oh man, was this episode a creep fest! While it very clearly falls in the same vein as Season 1’s “Not All Men” and to some extent the S2 premiere, “Meet in the Middle,” it more effectively captures the message of those episodes without seeming as preachy (mostly): men who presume upon women can easily become predatory, and that kind of behavior can escalate dangerously. In the climax of the episode, when Marc essentially tells Claudia that he might just assault and/or murder her for his own amusement, since she’s “not real” to him, he embodies a real-world evil and a type of guy that tragically does exist in our culture. And the reason this portrayal is so horrific is because Topher Grace is just stellar in the role. He has a natural boyish charm that is disarming and unthreatening, but he can also turn on the menace in an instant, and that juxtaposition is exactly what makes this character so disturbing.
My only beef with the episode (brace yourselves for a shock) is the resolution. Claudia gets her “yass queen” combat moment (meh), which thankfully was a bit more believable since Grace isn’t physically imposing so the power differential was a bit more balanced. Her promise that she’ll kick his tail in any future iteration of the day (so he’d better not try that again) rings a bit hollow since there’s really nothing stopping him from doing all the things he threatened to do–because he’s still that same wicked guy, just now with more advanced warning. The fact that this momentary comeuppance somehow cows him into never attempting this evil again seems to indicate a shocking naivete about human nature on the writer’s part. The final sequence also demonstrates that Marc’s initial assumption that he was always saving her from being hit by a bus was presumptive (she’s fine, she doesn’t need you, man! *snaps*) and he is now locked in a TZ time loop, doomed to relive the day. That’s his punishment…except it’s not, really. Yes, being stuck in the timeloop is bad, but I don’t know if it’s bad enough. Not for him. Now, a time-loop in which his wickedness results in suffering? That might be interesting, though that may drift a bit too close to the classic episode, “Shadow Play.”
All in all, this was one of the strongest episodes of the season, with knockout performances (no pun intended) by the leads.
Episode 2.10 – “You Might Also Like”
The Premise: Janet Warren is on the waiting list to receive “The Egg,” the amazing device that will make all of her dreams come true and take away her pain. But when she notices inexplicable happenings around her, as well as out-of-character and irrational behavior by her friends and neighbors, she has second thoughts about picking up this life-changing device.
The Payoff: Oh man, where to begin with this one. The visual style, cinematography, and editing were almost too clever–like when film school students are trying really, really hard to evoke the right visual cues and film history references, and you feel as if they’re sitting next to you during the episode, watching you watch it and saying, “did you see that? did you get what I was going for?” The conceits of constant commercial interruptions, fourth-wall lampshading, and extremely mannered acting were jarring, and I sat through the whole episode with a half-smile on my face and my head cocked to one side like Nipper, repeatedly mumbling, “What…is…happening?” It was a similar feeling I had when watching the Season 1 finale, “Blurryman”–but taken to the extreme.
So our story is about Janet Warren, a housewife who is having repeated black-outs, hears unexplained sounds, has dreams she can’t understand, and is hoping that The Egg will solve all of her problems. I nearly called it the “Amazon Egg” just now because the anti-consumerism theme is basically presented in flashing neon during the entire episode. And it’s not like this messaging is anything new, at least from the outset. For most of the episode, you don’t even see the Egg, but it takes on a mythical persona, like the famed Maltese Falcon, “the stuff that dreams are made of.” Once Janet starts questioning if that’s the case, things get real crazy. How crazy?
The Kanamits from “To Serve Man” show up, but in a new and more allegedly-humorous incarnation. (Ooooh, we made a pronouns joke, aren’t we hip!) Technically, as some pointed out online, it must be an alternate timeline version, since they are unknown to humanity at this point. And to be fair, pulling out one of the most iconic alien characters from the classic series is a bold move, Cotton, but I’m just not sure how it plays out for them. Especially when Janet (should she have been named Karen?) essentially asks to speak to the alien hive mind’s manager, and they concede? What?
Janet speaks to the female Kanamit in charge who admits, yes, it’s aliens who are behind The Egg. (Feel free to make an Elon Musk joke to yourself.) They are baffled and distrustful of humanity’s penchant for independent thought. They have studied human television for years, and realized the way to entrap humanity was through its commercialism and desire to buy happiness. And oh, by the way, The Egg is literally that–an alien egg that will hatch a carnivorous Kanamit piranha-baby. (The slow-mo “misting” of Janet’s friend just out of frame is a shocking sequence that effectively horrifies without showing actual violence.) So does Janet decide to stand up against the alien menace and tear the whole thing down? No, because Janet is broken. She had lost her unborn child years before and feels a gaping wound there. She is struggling to cope with this on her own. (Her husband and other child aren’t seen anywhere in the episode other than a framed photo–no explanation given.) So Janet decides to take The Egg home, knowing it will kill her, because she’ll at least get to hold it for a little while. Sorry, again…what? While I recognize the deep heartbreak of miscarriage (we have some experience there in our family), this just doesn’t make sense.
The final shot of this episode is bonkers, with flying saucers hovering over a town descending into madness. I should amend what I said previously: the bold visual style is over-the-top but it WORKS.
This episode…I don’t know. It works, sort of, but the bold leaps it takes only stick the landing sporadically. Ending a season in which I’ve noted that the show’s writing has often played it safe, this one really came out of left field, and that alone should get some credit. It was a daring and exuberant semi-failure, which also makes it a middling success.
So, what did I think of Season 2 as a whole?
In my final comments on Season 1, I talked about how the show struggled with thematic subtlety, and that the “message” episodes were a bit too ham-fisted and surface-level to be enjoyed. At the start of this season, it felt like the showrunners were trying to play it a bit too safe, in terms of themes. I think that’s still the case on the whole for Season 2. However, looking back, I think Season 2 was perhaps just a bit more effective at subtle themes and messages. They were still there to be sure–the recurring “arrogant, selfish, toxic man” trope came up in 4 episodes: “Try, Try,” “The Who of You,” “Meet in the Middle,” and to a small degree (no pun intended) in “A Small Town.” There was also a recurring theme (noted by the showrunners in pre-season press) of misdirection, people and situations not being what they appear at first. That idea is present in every episode of this season, and ties the stories together nicely. On the other hand, the weakness of the season is that too few of the episodes were willing to do something bold and unexpected, the way that “Among the Untrodden” or “You May Also Like” managed to do so.
If the theme from “Blurryman” was that you can still tell good “campfire” stories that contain social messages without lampshading them, Season 2 of The Twilight Zone (2019) has demonstrated that playing it too safe results in a satisfying but average show. Nevertheless, despite some frustrating writing decisions throughout the run (and cheap/easy resolutions), this season was still fun to watch, and I’ll be back for Season 3. There were just a few times when it felt like the potential for great work was within reach, but the show came up a bit short.
Here’s how I’d rank Season 2’s episodes, from my least favorite of the season to my most favorite:
10. “8” 9. “Ovation” 8. “Downtime” 7. “A Small Town” 6. “A Human Face” 5. “You Might Also Like” 4. “Meet in the Middle” 3. “Among the Untrodden” 2. “Try, Try” 1. “The Who of You”
That’s all I’ve got for today. Perhaps sometime before the next season premieres, I’ll pick this blog miniseries up again and give you my recommendations for top-ten classic TZ episodes. Until then, thanks for taking a walk with me through another dimension!
Did you watch any of this season of The Twilight Zone? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!